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The Dirty Life

We spend a lot of time and money trying to eradicate “dirt” from our homes and lives. Perhaps we have internalized good old John Wesley’s “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” or perhaps we think of dirt as unsanitary and harmful. Maybe we detect the whiff of mortality attached to the grime under our fingernails or in the spadefuls of earth which will one day cover our bodies in death.

Imagine, though, if you were the first created being: your name would be dirt. The etymological connection between Adam (red), and adamah (red clay) has long been assumed by biblical scholars. For those first humans, being called dirt wouldn’t be an insult, but a loving description. But the fact that dirt gets so much attention in such an ancient text is also telling. Whenever my Mamaw wanted to impress upon us how old something was, she described it as “older than dirt”—a sort of reverential reminder that whomever or whatever was nearly as old as creation itself. She was onto something, because dirt, or soil, tells a long and complex story about life on this earth. In fact, scholars and soil scientists still don’t know exactly what dirt is or how it came into existence here. The word “dirt” doesn’t even have a clear etymology, suggesting that its history burrows deeper than we have tools to explore. You see, dirt is all over the universe—distant stars explode and magnetic forces scatter their dusty ashes. Some of that stardust has been linked to Earth’s own soil (and notably, to our own bodies). But nothing fully explains the uniquely rich, deeply stable yet dynamic soil that covers this planet.

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere decidedly deciduous, you might be relishing the revolution of colors ablaze around you right now--but what you might not realize is that an absolute riot of activity is happening underground as the soil neutralizes and buffers the decomposition process of falling leaves. The soil is making room for the influx of acid and helping the trees prepare for the winter. Arborist William Bryant Logan says that “hospitality is the fundamental virtue of soil. It makes room. It shares. It neutralizes poison. It heals [by giving itself] away “ (96). And Hans Jenny, a soil scientist says that soil is not a thing, but rather, a complex web of relationships (63). Too often, we treat creation like “dirt,’ but not in the reverential context which dirt deserves. Too often we look for inspiration in the heavens, when indeed, it is right beneath our feet.

In the perhaps-familiar Genesis 1 text, God calls on the earth to put forth vegetation—and in verse 12, the scripture tells us that the earth brought forth vegetation. Under God’s blessing and command, the earth responds in relationship with God to accomplish God’s will. From the outset, creation shares a relationship and interdependence with God. And in verse 26, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” Like soil and all of creation, God’s very character exists in mutuality. Sometimes this mutuality is described by biblical scholars as “perichoresis,” a word used to describe the nature of the Triune God, Jesus, and the Spirit—three distinct and different persons welcomed into one being. The perichoretic posture describes not just the mutuality of God, but the relationship between God and creation—one that is summed up in the Greek roots of the word meaning “to make room for,” to “contain,” and “to pour out.” Here at the dawn of creation is a God rooted in partnerships and interdependence, the “us” and “our” of creation working together with the earth to make creation good. God does deem all of creation good in its particular moment of creation, but it isn’t until all of creation comes together—as one community of creation—that God deems it very good. For so much of my life, I heard the “very good” applied to the creation of humanity—and yes, we are in there. But the verse doesn’t say, “and God saw humans”—it says, “And God saw everything that God had made, and it was very good.”

This mutuality extends beyond the initial moment of creation, too. In verse 29, God says, “see, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit.” We always think of the seed itself as being the important part of any germination story, but Jesus himself taught us that the soil makes a huge difference. Soils in different parts of the world support different kinds of plants—soils adapt to create the best conditions for their plants. It seems like magic, but it is in reality that complex web of relationships. God pours into our lives and into the life of creation, teaching even the soil to make room and flourish. The interaction between the seed and the soil helps develop the character of the plant to come, meaning that healthy soil makes healthier plants. Strawberries that grow in complex and fertile soil taste sweeter than strawberries grown in soils drenched in pesticide and fertilizer. Their perfume is more fragrant and multifaceted—you might say they are capable of being more fully strawberry with their supportive soils enriching and enhancing them. Perhaps it is unsurprising that soil soaked in death-dealing chemicals would not yield that kind of vibrant life and fruit.

The importance of soil became clearer to me a few years ago. I love all vegetables and greens, and I always look forward to the season of arugula, basils, thyme, and chard. Sometimes that season is extended by our cold frame, but it is usually limited by extreme cold and lack of light by mid-winter. One Christmas, my husband thoughtfully gave me a hydroponic contraption that would grow these beauties all winter with only water. For a while, it was exciting to grow things in this rarified system of just water and light while snow piled up (okay, dusted—but schools still closed) and the sun set at 5:00 each night. But each harvest disappointed: the stems were anemic and flavorless. They were missing their interaction with soil, because soil sustains life in such multifaceted and interrelated ways. Other things can support growth, but the depth of flavor and vibrancy that comes from the soil is seemingly impossible to re-create. Even in our age of unlimited information, soil is a mystery in which processes, elements, and creatures come together in conditions that are somehow mutually flourishing.

But even that mystery is not the most remarkable of soil’s feats. One of soil’s most amazing characteristics is its ability to absorb and transform death. When a plant or animal dies, the soil (along with various other creatures) begins to break it down, incorporating that life into its life—not selfishly devouring it, but rather, as Wendell Berry writes as “possibility” in which “its fertility is always building up out of death into promise” (Berry, 1969, 204). In that way, soil collapses time, connecting us to that very first moment of fecundity or maybe even to exploding stars lightyears away, allowing “the past to enter the future” (Berry 204).

One of my favorite Scott Cairns’ poems comes from his collection titled Recovered Body. In the final stanzas of his poem titled “YHWH’s Image,” Cairns connects this transformative character of the soil to YHWH’s own character:

Then / YHWH lay back, running His hands over the

damp grasses and in deep contemplation

reached into the soil, lifting great handsful of

trembling clay to His lips, which parted to

avail another breath.

With this clay He began to coat His shins,

cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this

layering, and when He had been wholly

interred, He parted the clay at His side, and

retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself

to wander in what remained of that early

morning mist.

God reaches into the soil, which, in its trembling, seems to anticipate YHWH’s exhalation and subsequent inspiration. But the final stanza collapses time in the body of the soil. In Cairns’ imagination, God climbs into human skin willingly and intentionally--millennia before sending Jesus to Earth. Do not miss the line break at “wholly” either. The line reads: “layering and when he had been wholly,” meaning fully or completely. But we can hear the sacred quality of “holiness,” embedded in, forecast even, in the completion of “wholly”. That holiness and completion is important because the next word is “interred,” another word for buried. The earth doesn’t cover YHWH in spadefuls like it will a human body, but still, YHWH chooses to cover his body with earth, and that soil, that dirt absorbs some of YHWH’s holy intent, that transformative power. Because after YHWH is buried, he slides out of that potential grave and fills it with holy, life-giving breath: re-covered and recovered. All the echoes and pre-echoes of death conjured by “interred” are raised in the animated gift of life and relationship. God’s own relationship with soil neutralizes death, building up always and ever into promise.

One of the most amazing iterations of this transformational power of dirt happens in compost. As one composter says—there is no “waste” until we waste it. Animal manure, food scraps, leaf litter, egg shells all come together and with time, heat, and air, become nutrient-rich soil. And once again, we see this timeless quality of soil, where the past enriches the present and the future. When some avid gardeners look at table scraps, they see straight into what Janet from The Good Place might call “Jeremy Beremy” (watch it and thank me). That is, the scraps are evidence of soil past, food now, and soil future—the connections and cycles visible and invisible, a sort of earthy Gospel now and not yet. In the Genesis 1 account of creation, God is already attuned to the possibilities of time. In verse 28, God’s blessing to creation also comes with a call to “Be fruitful and multiply,” to “fill the earth” with abundance. Abundance does not happen immediately or in isolation—and so even before proclaiming “very good,” God peers into creation’s not yet by blessing the now.

The soil we find anywhere on the planet today was centuries, maybe eons in the making. How we treat it today has ramifications far beyond our timeline and far beyond just us. Mary Oliver, writes in her poem “One or Two Things” that the “god of dirt” came up to her “many times and said many wise and delectable things, in his dog voice, his crow voice, in his frog voice; now, he said, and now, and never once mentioned forever”. Oliver knows that forever is comprised of millions of tiny "nows". Interdependence demands responsibility, intentionality, and attention to those creatures and spaces with whom we share the planet. These lives are bound up in our lives and ours in them.

That interdependence means that we must reconsider the often-interpreted "subdue" of the next verse. Too many have read “subdue” as an invitation to use keep forever in our sights without regard to consequences. How often have I heard from fellow Christians, "this earth is not my home" and thought, "except, it is." Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis writes thoughtfully about the problems of reading this verse as a top-down “domain over”. Yet, she concedes that the relationship between humans and the rest of creation often requires responsible management, as any gardener knows. She offers instead the more nuanced reading of the text as “mastery among,” because “over” contradicts God's own character in creation. When we treat dirt like just dirt, we ignore the potential and possibility of all these complex relationships. We look at day 6 of creation and see only ourselves, conveniently skipping over verses 24 and 25 where the earth brings forth all living creatures (particularly cattle, which are so important as to be named twice!). I love the word “among” because it puts us right in the middle—not as the center but as partners and it more accurately reflects God’s own mutuality in this passage.

Maybe God isn’t exactly dirt, but God’s relationship with dirt is undeniable. We would do well to attend to the lessons of interdependence, relationship, and transformation, to the life of God revealed in something so humble and mysterious as dirt. What would it mean to consider the teeming life of dirt something worthy of emulation? It might look a lot like hospitality—like making room. Sometimes that means reaching out and welcoming others in; sometimes that means knowing people so well that you can anticipate their needs—like the soil does for the trees in the winter. Sometimes that means neutralizing the poison of racism, sexism, homophobia, or injustice of any kind to make room for others to thrive. That might mean refusing to engage in the casual racism of a joke in poor taste or a slur that seems harmless in the moment. It might mean active intervention or protest of unjust policies or practices in your institution or community. It might be as simple as listening and learning when someone who has been hurt by that injustice shares their story instead of weighing in. And certainly, it would mean championing our differences as strengths, because what God’s life in the soil teaches us is that transformation requires the participation of many different systems and processes and creatures. Little things matter because they can either shore up or undermine the ecosystem. We make thousands of choices every day—which ones neutralize poison to shore up the ecosystem and which ones drain vitality from the soil? Mutuality might be dynamic or humble or fascinating or healing, or maybe even disgusting or gross. But whatever it looks like, it cannot happen outside of a whole ecosystem of relationships.

A soil-drenched life might look like generative, creative, transformative work sometimes blooming where everyone can see it or sometimes in the dark and unseen. A dirty life would mean reaching into the heart of death with the promise of life. That means that we can and should approach the news of the day with hope even when we want to despair. It means we don’t react in a posture of “fighting evil” but of “healing” for victims and perpetrators if possible. And it would always mean a vibrant life of communion with the past and future, an understanding that our now is more than us and that what we pour into it matters.

Certainly it would look like bowing in recognition to our God whose body is all around us, animating and sustaining every living thing even as that God carries and supports us—the very ground beneath our feet. And perhaps, it would look like the carefully-crafted image of a gleeful YHWH wandering around in what is left of the morning mist, emulating the character of a God who revels in a relationship with dirt.

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