Dirt: The Four Lettered Word of Environmental Science


A few moments of the short time that we have had class has been devoted to addressing the fact that the earth beneath our feet should never be referred to as “dirt.” It is traditional for instructors to go over expectations of their students for the semester but the normal list includes such no-no’s as “don’t put your feet on the desks” or “if you sleep in my class I’ll scream in your ear with a megaphone.” Instead, along with the absence policy, we were warned of using the dreaded “D” word.

I had been warned before by environmental scientists that dirt was a derogatory statement. The word would logically be an insult. Dirt is what you wash off your dog. Dirt is what you vacuum off the floor with appropriately named Dirt Devils. Your mother yelled at you when you were a kid for getting dirt on your nice outfits (well, let’s be honest, she still yells at you for that). Dirt is that juicy gossip exchanged in classrooms or Facebook.

That rich earth beneath our feet may be spotted in places indoors it’s not supposed to be, but it is vital to our survival and prosperity. Why refer to this resource with the same word to describe a nasty stain on our jeans? Additionally, why is it that no other of our resources has such a term?

Sunlight, air and water have been heavily credited to processes in previous classes I have had. Shouldn’t soil receive the same distinction? The nutrients that we need must climb through the food chain to reach us, starting with the crops, grown in our soil (unless you want to just eat the soil, your choice). So many animals find habitat within the soil as well as build their habitat with the soil. We have built so much from dirt; we have made useful clay tools as well as wonderful art pieces. The soil also provides for us a water storage space and works to filter out impurities.

Even though soil has given us so much, we have taken from it. Nutrients have been extracted to the point where the land cannot be used for agriculture. Our waste is now stored in landfills. Toxic chemicals have been released into the soil to the point that it becomes hazardous.

So while the “d-word” will be continued to be used in settings of gossip and to mean the trail of mud your shoes have just trampled on the kitchen floor, a better word can be used in reference to the environmental aspect that so heavily sustains our lives.


(As a digression, I can think of one instance of good dirt: Dirt cake. Has anyone ever had it?? Its chocolate pudding layered with crumbled graham crackers and Oreos with gummy worms on top! YUM!!)


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2 Responses to Dirt: The Four Lettered Word of Environmental Science

  1. cdw526 says:

    First of all, I LOVE dirt dessert! Delicious! But also, I agree that society unfairly looks down at soil (both literally and figuratively) as a mess and uncleanly nuisance. I admit that until this class, I never took the time to ponder the tremendous value of soil and its necessity to our earthly survival.

  2. emilyhartman says:

    I know Dr. Pillar mentioned in class that he has made dirt cake before, and that we may be making it in our class. Though, I remember he made this cake for the Environmental Science major informational meeting earlier in the school year and he actually called it soil cake then. I just thought of it after reading your comment about dirt cake earlier this week, and was going to make this comment anyway, but Dr. Pillar beat me to it when he talked about it in class.

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