News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

April 30, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s time for us to get the real lowdown on dirt…

I have had my hands in the soil as of late. Two Fridays ago, I planted a viburnum bush, three chrysanthemums and a yellow poplar, not because it happened to be Earth Day, but because it was sunny and warm, and I had the whole afternoon to myself. The dirt I scraped out of and back into the shallow holes I dug near a backyard picket fence smelled good, and when dampened with a few sprinkles of water, it soon found its way into the deep wrinkles of my knuckles and under my fingernails. For the most part, I have nothing but good things to say about dirt.

There is a distinction between the two words — soil and dirt — even though we use them interchangeably. Soil, it is said, lies under our feet, while dirt is the stuff that accumulates on unwashed hands and gets swept under rugs. For variety’s sake, I will use both terms here.

The farmers have been hard at it lately, so dirt is very much on the minds of country people like us. I have seen silty clouds of it off in the distance as it is kicked up by the chisel plows and discs, and even though its scent is one I don’t get as often as I used to now that so many farmers have gone to no-till planting, I caught a whiff of it in the air a time or two last week. It may sound Whitmanesque of me, but I breathed in those moments, and it kind of made me glad to be alive.

The soil around my place is mostly hard clay, although I strike a vein of good loam every so often. Rather than dig in it, I have come to know much of my dirt a chip or clod at a time.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment I had to make when I left my childhood home to live with a wife and a mortgage and an even smaller bathroom than the one we had as kids, was coming to terms with our soil. I grew up with earth so sandy and fine, and apparently rich, that transplanting a tree or hoeing a furrow for green beans or sweet corn rarely raised a sweat. I remember digging holes in our yard for my mom’s rose bushes and working in my Grandpa Roy’s garden, and always the soil there had a sweetness to it, a musky, pleasantness that sat in my nostrils like childhood memories now do in my head. I could have scooped a hole in that dirt with just my hands, but here at home, digging means jumping on a shovel as if it were a pogo stick. I often bank unkind words for any digging project I have to tackle.

Ironically, one of the first big jobs I had when I moved here was to replace the drains in the house. In our first winter, every elbow and trap — every inch of our drainpipes — froze as solid as stone, so I made sure when the springtime thaw came, I started at our sinks and washer and went east with new lines. Since I was keenly aware of my own poverty, I didn’t hire any of the digging done, but rather grabbed an old tile spade and a shovel and a pickaxe and eagerly attacked my back yard; I think my brother-in-law, Bob, came to help me, too. I soon learned the suffering that the Chinese and Irish immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad must have endured.

We had three large, old maples behind our house, and they all must have despised me, for their roots grew through every inch of the route that led me away from the house and across a fence into a pasture. To complicate matters, the house’s previous owners had horses who had packed the yellow clay into something resembling a tarmac. I labored mighty and hard, and I felt that had my grandfather been alive, I would have been able to commiserate with his ditch-digging days in the WPA. Why, even moles came away with bruised snouts when they dared to dig in that area.

“I dug every inch for those drains by hand,” I plan to tell my grandchildren someday as we survey the property and as I describe to them my miseries and sacrifices…

I spoke of no-till farming a moment ago. It has become necessary because topsoil — that stuff we carry in the treads of our boots and the crevices of our work gloves — is only about a foot or so deep, and it tends to wash and blow away. Topsoil is where most of the growing action takes place on this planet, where plants and animals co-exist, growing and dying and replenishing. Discovery Education tells me there are more living things in a shovelful of decent soil than there are people living on the planet.

After that top layer, we find sub-soil, the stratum of dirt that contains most of the earth’s minerals and water; plants point their roots downward for a reason, you know. After that comes a layer of weathered or decomposed rock, and after that, a layer of bedrock that reaches nearly to the earth’s core. It was to that depth that my brother, John, and I must have been trying to reach when we were kids. Behind our house, and under a huge red oak, we had an eroded hillside that came to be known as “The Sand Pile.” It was there that we dug trenches for our plastic soldiers, foxholes from which we dealt with slimy Nazis, and roads for the old metal semi-trucks we borrowed from our cousins. We eventually constructed a dugout that featured a rusting tin roof, a manhole-type door, and secret observation windows to keep a lookout for anyone daring to come our way. It is truly a wonder neither of us died in a cave-in, or struck water, whichever came first.

These days, it is called “work” when I dig in the soil, but it is now, most often, a job that I enjoy, for instead of being tied to a desk in dress shirt and shoes, I am in my jeans and boots, and I am planting something that in all probability will outlive me. This weekend, it will be an ash tree that I stumbled across in my woods last fall.    

It has been said that science knows less about what goes on in the dirt under our own feet than we do about the far reaches of deep space. I guess that’s true because we’ve always been taught to keep our heads up, rather than down. It’s not a bad thing to get our hands dirty every once in a while, though.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at for information about book signings and speaking opportunities.

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