Dirt: A Love Story
edited by Barbara Richardson

University Press of New England, 2015. ISBN 978-1-611-68766-8.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 10/29/2015

Anthologies/Collections; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Science

As a botanist by training and a plant-lover by birth, it's not hard to sell me on an anthology of writers, artists, and scientists writing about dirt. Dirt—or what scientists call "soil" when we're being snooty—is the underground ecosystem that plant roots know as well as leaves and stems know sunlight. It's an under-appreciated world critical to all life on earth.

Dirt: A Love Story hooked me with the opening lines of novelist Pam Houston's Foreword:

I live on 120 acres of dirt in a high mountain meadow in the Eastern San Juan Mountains in south central Colorado, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. A woman named Dona Blair sold me these acres for 7 percent down and a signed copy of my first book, Cowboys are My Weakness, because, she said, she liked the idea of me, and 7 percent down was all I had. I didn't have a job, either, or three pages of a new book to hold together. But my father was a hustler and he taught me to be a hustler and so for the next twenty years, I accepted every writing assignment and every teaching assignment that I was offered, and several more that I wasn't offered but had to go out and rustle up. I didn't sleep much in those two decades, but I love what I do for a living, and I am not sure our thirties and forties are supposed to be for sleeping anyhow.

Pam Houston knows how to tell a story, as do most of the contributors to Dirt: A Love Story, from Barbara Richardson's Preface, "The God of Dirt"—"You can't fool dirt. Nor can you escape it... Dirt anchors us all in reality"—to Atina Diffley's triumphant final piece, "Soil Versus Oil—Kale Versus Koch," which tells how she and her Minnesota community defeated Koch Industries' proposal to bulldoze a crude oil pipeline right through the rich soil of her family's organic farm.

Other standouts include CSA farmer and author Kayann Short's thoughtful essay, "Soil Versus Dirt"; memoirist and farmer's daughter Julene Bair's quietly sensuous "Dirt Princess"; novelist BK Loren's visionary "Dreaming in Dirt"; "Born Again" by author Donald G. Schueler, among the most wryly funny of Southern writers; filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia's "Seeing Dirt"; novelist Laura Pritchett's self-deprecating and redemptive "Hostile Takeovers'; and "City Dirt," with its gospel-style call-and-response by urban farmer Karen Washington.

Dirt is divided into thematic sections: "Land Centered" from writers whose lives are rooted in dirt, "Kid Stuff" about childhood dirt experiences' "Dirt Worship" on taking dirt love into adulthood; the science of dirt in "Dirt Facts"; and "Native Soil," on loving and defending the ground beneath our feet. It's a natural scheme with only one relatively minor drawback: most of the science voices fall in one section, slowing the melodic pace of the anthology. Scientists often don't learn how to communicate compellingly, and that's tragic, because their work is crucial to our lives and our understanding of this astonishingly complex and animate planet.

Overall, Dirt showcases an outstanding chorus of voices, allowing them to intertwine, resonate and amplify each other and build to a kind of lyrical crescendo that will leave readers eager to get out and get down in their own dirt, the lively soil that lives beneath all our feet.

Barbara Richardson has written two novels, Guest House and Tributary, both of which reflect her ardor for life in the West. Tributary won the Utah Book Award and was a WILLA Historical Fiction Finalist. Barbara co-edited the 2015 anthology I Am with You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients. She writes and edits from the Wasatch Back in Kamas, Utah. Visit her website and the book website.

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