Monday, 6 April 2015

Dirt and Dog Daisies

Photo: Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Health Campaign

I once went to a workshop led by the American writer and activist, Starhawk and she taught us a chant that I have never forgotten. It began...

Humble yourself in the arms of the wild, you gotta lay down low, and humble yourself in the arms of the wild, you gotta ask her what she knows...”

We are taught that what is low is worth less, that somehow we should aspire to more than to be, or connect with, what is low. We live in a hierarchical, dualistic world and we are not much used to looking down. We are taught to look for our 'higher' selves, to aim high, to value the highs and ignore the lows. The word 'humble' is defined as, 'having a low or modest appreciation of one's importance', 'of low social, administrative, or political rank', and 'causing someone to feel less important or proud'. Synonyms for humble are meek, deferential, submissive, unassertive, lowly, working class, plebian, proletarian, poor, mean, ignoble. Its roots are in the Old French h(umble), from the Latin humilis, meaning 'low', or 'on the ground', and in the word humus, 'of the earth/ground'. The root is also linked to the words 'human' and 'humane'; we are so deeply of the earth and our kindness and gentleness of being is linked to this connection ~ to our being 'humble'/of the 'humus'. To be truly human we must be brought down low and, rather than being the place of denigration and humiliation that we have been taught, it is a place of tiny wonder and wild energy.

The earth that we walk on (and best barefoot) is called the 'pedosphere', or what William Bryant Logan in his book, 'Dirt' calls 'the ecstatic skin of the earth'. This is the outermost layer of our planet, creating the surface of the Earth, along with the rock-bones of the lithosphere. We tend to the think of the soil as something that is 'just there', occasionally in the autumn aware of the fallen leaves that create further layers, and yet the soil is a living, breathing organism in constant movement. Bryant Logan prefers the word 'dirt', because in using that word we are really moving into the depth of things, away from 'soil', which feels cleaner and more hygienic somehow, into the processes that we don't really want to think about; into the realm of filth, grime, and shit. There is always somewhere lower to go! Soil is something that we might use, dirt is something that we would rather avoid. For Bryant Logan “'Dirt' is a good word. It goes straight back to the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Like 'love', 'fuck', 'house', 'hearth', 'earth', 'wrath', and 'word', it is short and strong. It leaves a taste in the mouth.” My mum, to my constant disgust, used to call margarine, 'fat'. I think that she would have liked the word dirt. I was squeamish back then. I know better now.

Bryant Williams points out that we don't really know very much about dirt. If you look up humus it will usually be defined as, 'deeply altered, black organic matter, an integral part of soil organic matter' and yet it is also acknowledged that humus is in reality extremely difficult to define. Even the soil scientist, Hans Jenny said that, “humus is imperfectly understood' and Dr James Rice has said that, “It is very possible that no two humus molecules are or have ever been alike”. We are used to thinking about pristine and pure snowflakes in this way but not dirt. When we talk about soil we are not discussing a 'thing', but rather huge and constant processes of growth, decay, feeding, digestion, excretion, and communication. Lierre Keith, in her book 'The Vegetarian Myth: food, justice, and sustainability', explains that...

“One tablespoon of soil contains more than one million living organisms and, yes, every one of them is eating...a square metre of topsoil can contain a thousand different species of animals. These might include 120 million nematodes, 100,000 mites, 45,000 springtails, 20,000 enchytraeid worms, and 10,000 molluscs.
All those tiny creatures live in and around humus, which is a combination of humic acid and polysaccharides. “No one knows how humic acid forms, but once formed it acts like a living creature” writes Stephen Harold Buhner”.

And she reflects that, “Animals like me were just consumers, hitching along for the ride. I couldn't photosynthesise – turn sun into mass – nor could I turn that mass back into carbon and minerals. They could and they did and, because of them, life was possible. I was made humble.”

The soil is a million creatures who have organised themselves into a mutually dependent and supporting system over millions of years and they are the basis of terrestrial life on this planet. William Bryant Logan writes that, “radical disorder is the key to the function of humus. At the molecular level, it may indeed be the most disordered material on Earth...neither humus nor humans are humble at all. We are audacious, like nature herself. We are wet, fecund, protean, dangerous. When we start to comprehend this we know something worth knowing...”

Or perhaps we just need to redefine the meaning of the word humble for, in our connection to the earth, in our humanness, we become a wonder. When Francis Bacon, the 17th Century philosopher and scientist during the 'Age of Reason', said "[nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets” he had clearly not counted on the unruliness of the very earth beneath his feet, nor on the innate rebelliousness of her people.

In discussing dirt I hope that I have begun to reveal the importance of language in our connection to ourselves, to our own power, our sense of wonder, and to our connection to the world around us. Often our understanding of a word will cause us to discount the thing that word has come to describe, and so it is with 'dog'. One of my favourite wildflowers, which is sometimes brought low by being described as a 'weed', is the dog daisy. The term 'weed' has no botanical significance and merely denotes a plant that is considered undesirable in a particular situation, or which has grown in the 'wrong' place. However, I would suggest that we have a greater ability to withstand some plants in the wrong place than others. The value that we put on nature is insidious, causing us to tolerate some living, growing beings and to attempt to control or obliterate others. How we make these judgements is subtle and often language is a large part of that, hence those who wish to kill foxes labelling them as 'vermin' even though they are not legally classified as such.


The dog daisy, also known as ox-eye daisy, common daisy, moon daisy, and white-weed. is a widespread flowering plant native to Europe. It is a flower of meadows and scrublands, and often of 'disturbed' areas such as wasteland. It is our largest native member of the daisy family and brings stunning beauty to forgotten places; abandoned land, roadside verges, railway banks, and wasteground. It's Latin genus name vulgare means 'common', as does its English name 'dog'. It is loved by butterflies, particularly the meadow brown, and by bees and hoverflies. Medicinally, has been used to treat whooping cough, asthma, and 'nervous excitability' and to heal external wounds, bruises and ulcers. The dog daisy is also sometimes known as the 'Maudlin daisy', having been associated with Mary Magdalene, that most denigrated of women. Other flowers linked to 'dog' and its implication of worthlessness, are the dog rose, and the common dog violet which, having no scent, was considered 'only suitable for dogs'. Always those things which grow wild and in their own way, or which have no obvious use to humans, are considered by some to be 'lesser' and that mindset often transfers to the 'people of the commons' too.

It is time for us to reclaim what it means to be low, and connect to the power of what it is to be truly the people of the earth. With the wonder of dirt and humus in mind, we need to reclaim our 'mother tongue' and find new synonyms for the word humble; wild, radical, unruly, connected, alive, applying those words to ourselves and to all beings, green and otherwise, who have been dragged down by judgemental and controlling language. And, for inspiration, all we need to do is look down.

Humble yourself in the arms of the wild, you gotta lay down low, and humble yourself in the arms of the wild, you gotta ask her what she knows...”

Further reading:

'Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth', William Bryant Logan, 1995.

'The Vegetarian Myth: food, justice, and sustainability', Lierre Keith, 2009.

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