Dirt is Not Soil

Joshua West Smith

I live in a strange part of the country that provides countless example of how the planet manufactures dirt with water and wind, how it exists as a thing in our language that is easily dismissed. But dirt here manifests as more, as an acknowledgment of scale. Dirt here lives out in the open, it occupies broad swaths of land, maybe all the land.

Dirt is not soil. Soil is the temporal blip when complex organic matter takes up residence in dirt and provides the metaphoric agar for other life to thrive. Soil, because it is dear to us, is named lush and fertile. Soil is fleeting. Dirt is a marker of scale in geologic time. Its simple baseness, its lowness and its fundamental nature are the intrinsic qualities that make it universal, a metronomic indicator, and fascinating as an object of inquiry.

If you lie down here on the ground in the dirt and soften your gaze, the micro vista reveals itself to be a tiny clone of the aerial view from above some place in the western American vastness. The reality that the tiny pebble is the same as the rotund rocks, jumbled, one upon another, to form hills and mountains should act to give us pause.

Dirt is part of a cycle that is both scalar and prismatic. It presents as an acknowledgment of its fineness (scale) but is vibrant (prismatic) for its latent potential to be reabsorbed by the earth, become magma, and be reborn to the earth’s surface somewhere else in some other time. Dirt unmasks the earth’s strange potential to be Chimera, to be Ouroboros, to shift and slither and jump away from our desire for concrete knowing. That which seems ground down, that which seems used up, is happily on its way without pause, but it moves in a different cadence than our lives permit us to see.

To look out and separate the dirt in its granules from the small pebbles, and the pebbles from the rocks, and the rocks from the boulders, and the boulders from the hills is an exercise in choosing, it is an exercise in naming, and a beautiful example of how a directed focus can allow a mundane thing that has one name (dirt) to blossom under a curious gaze.

Dirt is other becoming, necessarily and momentarily captured by our naming. But it is in the untangling of the thing from its name that time is allowed to more freely flow. When dirt loses its name I am no longer looking at filth but at the earth, at a mutable thing that has been in orbit around the sun since the planet formed. I can close my eyes and imagine the birth, erosion, consumption and rebirth of the earth’s crust. And I can know that I am experiencing a unique moment, but one that is nothing in comparison to the whole.

What is it in the name that dismisses the regal status of dirt? Is it that the word carries with it a thousand implications and associations, all unclean or unuseful? I think it may be in the naming and its dismissiveness that a power structure can be seen. Dirt, and dirty, and undesirable being linked or synonymous causes us to privilege that which turns its back on the earth. It is this rejection of dirt that drove much of the western world to pursue different forms of modernist fascism in the last century. In this simple naming lays class war, groundless rationalization for colonialism, and a vicious rejection of all of our shared history and its beautiful diversity.

Words have the power of an incantation, the power to bind our minds. I understand the need for naming; it allows us to cut down on sensory overload, to diminish complexity, to be more efficient, and to survive. But I also understand the need to acknowledge complexity, to reject the efficient, and to revel in our capacity to embellish and to poeticize.

It is in that way that I draw the comparison between art making and the simple act of digging a hole in the dirt. Much of the work I see being produced feels like the externalization of deep beliefs, and the semi-subconscious execution of aesthetic predispositions. So in that way I feel an artistic practice can mirror the process of digging a hole into the ground and spreading the contents out to be inspected. Depth is converted into surface. The wholeness of the earth disrupted to inspect its contents. Wholeness and meaning are always lost in communication. But the more that is made, the larger the hole that is dug, the greater the capacity to give a more complete understanding to an engaged and empathetic viewer. That conversion, the labor of digging the hole, exposes and surprises both the laborer and the viewer.

In this way, the cycle is the same. The unique moment, the handful of dirt inspected, the poetics of grappling with the proportions of time, the artistic gesture, the stilled body, the moment of contemplation. These are all fleeting, but they are the nows that matter. In his 1991 book The Inhuman Jean-Francois Lyotard called humans “a supplement of complexity in the universe.” This is no small charge. It is a call to us. It is a call to remember the importance of curiosity and action. It is a call to resist being devoured by the spectacle. It is a call to make some waves and to have experiences. It is a call to live. Because like the mountains we are born, we rise, and we fall. But unlike the mountains, I do not know if we get to go around again.

To hold a handful of dirt, is to hold the heart of mountains, washed through the ages. Dirt is a tangible example of what the earth is. It is the physical embodiment of what it is to be and what it is to know a kind of hopeful entropy. So now as I look out at the crumbling stony hills to the east, covered with radiant green grasses, I see what was hidden. I see the earth sliding toward the sea, waiting to slumber in the heat of the deep, and be born again under the same sun long, long, long, after I am gone.

But for now, I must walk with care, look closely at that which I tread upon, and choose my words knowing they are fleeting. Also, I ask you, dear reader, to look beyond the words and the naming and see the vibrant strangeness that is. I believe we came from the dirt, which is of the earth, which is of the stars. We are experiencing unique moments, but they are nothing in comparison to the whole, which we are after all a unique part of.

Dirt is, while it is becoming.

Joshua West Smith is an artist, curator, and furniture maker who lives and works in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Smith received his MFA in Visual Art from the University of California Riverside and a BFA from the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Smith is one half of the curatorial team TILT Export:, an independent art initiative with no fixed location, which works in partnership with a variety of venues for its exhibitions.