A New Exhibition Gets All The Dirt on Soil

I don’t know how dirt got its bad reputation. The word is a catch-all for every vile behavior humankind can muster…

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I don't know how dirt got its bad reputation. The word is a catch-all for every vile behavior humankind can muster. If you're corrupt, you play "dirty pool." A nasty politician, is a "dirt bag." A malicious gossip "gets all the dirt." There's dirt cheap, dirty old men and dirt poor. And please, don't air your dirty laundry.

Now, for anyone who has ever tracked dirt in on the carpet and suffered the consequences, comes a Smithsonian exhibition to restore credibility to the word. Dirt, explains curator Patrick Megonigal, is soil that has been displaced. Meaning, I suppose, that a stiff wind in a corn field stirred up some dust.

In a new show, "Dig It! The Secrets of Soil" that opened recently at the National Museum of Natural History, the dirt about soil is this: The next global crisis could stem from a lack of appreciation for just how important the world's dirt really is. After all, who knew that it takes 500 years to create just one inch of topsoil, or that a handful of soil contains more organisms than there are people on this Earth, or that scientists know even less about soil than they do about the world's oceans (and curators working on Natural History's new Sant Ocean Hall, opening September 27, will say that there's a mighty lack of knowledge there also). And yes, it's true soils are renewable, as every backyard composter knows, but only with a huge amount of effort. So the take home message is: soil, where we grow most all of what we eat, is akin to pure gold.

As a gardener, I'm perhaps a little more ahead of the curve on soil appreciation. I love to stick my hands in it, smell it, pour water on it, dig in it and nurture it with rich, homemade compost. But I was stunned to learn from the exhibition that the soil in my Maryland garden has an official name. It's "Sassafras."

Sassafras, so named in 1901, is a Benchmark and Hall of Fame soil. It's one of the oldest. It's well drained, moderately permeable and among the most productive soils for agriculture and forestry. You can build on it and it won't sink. It's great stuff. My garden grows well out of it.

In fact each of the 50 states and four territories have named soils. Illinois' Drummer is a black, silty clay. Hawaii's Hilo is a dark reddish brown. There's Threebear in Idaho, Cecil in North Carolina, Texas has Houston Black; Wisconsin, Antigo; Michigan, Kalkaska; Montana, Scobey and a sample of each—54 in all—are on view in the new exhibition. Each displays a different shade, color and texture, some are graced with minerals that sparkle, some are dull, together the display is amazingly diverse. So who knew that soils had such range of personality?

You got any dirt to share about dirt? Tell us in the comments section below.

(Images: Courtesy of L. Clarke/Corbis and John Steiner/Joseph Talman)