Dirty Little SecretsJul 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
I’m the first to admit I’m not the housekeeper my mother was, and to also acknowledge that her housekeeping efforts were sometimes hampered by my propensity for getting dirty. I’d come inside after making mud pies or climbing trees or riding a horse, trailing the remains of those activities and channeling Charlie Brown’s pal Pigpen. Pigpen suggested once that his own grubby exterior may actually have been the dust of ancient civilizations, but Mom never fell for that one when it came to me and my grime.
Some things have changed, but I still find it very satisfying to be filthy dirty at the end of a long day of working and playing outside. And somehow that dirt still finds its way inside.
Dirt, soil if you will, is a living mix of minerals, water, air, and organic materials that miraculously combine in myriad ways to become something that supports other living things (us included). It is classified in profiles, series, and phases, with entire sciences devoted to it and its nuances. Soil scientists are pedologists, with pedology (from the Greek, naturally) being the study of soil’s physical and chemical properties. There are lots of other “ologies” involved with soil science—geology, biology, meteorology, morphology, ecology, climatology, to name a few—anything that has to do with the Earth has to do with soil, and vice-versa.
A dirt profile is, the USDA’s Soil Survey explains, the sequence of natural layers extending from the surface down into the “parent” material—that’s the stuff that hasn’t been changed much by leaching or root disturbances. Soils with similar profiles make up a series, and they’re typically named for a town or geographic feature where they’re first observed or mapped. Some of our local soil series names are Pope, Oquaga, Morris, Wellsboro, Lackawanna, Mardin, and Lordstown.
Series are divided into phases based on surface texture, stoniness, or other characteristics that may affect that particular soil’s use. Soils are also characterized by their drainage capabilities. You’d prefer “well drained,” but a lot of us get stuck with “poorly drained” or the dreaded “very poorly drained.” Here in Tioga County we have some good soils—good in the sense that a nice variety of things are inclined to grow in them and there aren’t too many rocks. Think the wide swaths of the Cowanesque Valley and the Route 15 corridor and the fields in Ansonia (unfortunately, those fertile river valley areas are also prone to development because they’re flat and easy to dig). We are also blessed with dirt that is not so good—side hill soils that support grazing but not much in the way of crops, and mountaintops with so little topsoil that you are obliged to marvel at the ability of trees, ferns, huckleberries, blackberries, laurel, and the like to eke out a living there.
Dirt is alive, and soil health is critical for continued existence on the planet—ours and every other living thing. But dirt is also the land, the place, and, in that regard, represents a host of other things. For all of my growing up years, my family made regular treks from our home in western New York to here—here being Tioga County, where all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived. “We’ll go down home Sunday,” my parents would say. It usually was a one-day visit, and for a kid who couldn’t read in the car (motion sickness), the drive, while just under three hours, sometimes seemed interminable. It helped to mark the trip with landmarks—there was Rushford Lake; the allegedly haunted house on the corner in Belfast; Wellsville with its gracious Victorian homes (and sometimes breakfast at the Texas Hot); the border sign in Genesee; Gold; Deer Park; Galeton’s narrow, winding Main Street (and sometimes breakfast at the Ox Yoke). Finally we were in Ansonia (and sometimes breakfast at the Great Valley Restaurant), where Mount Tom’s welcoming visage meant we were almost there!
If we went to Grandma Morrow’s first, we’d turn down into Darling Run. The dirt on this road was—still is—dark, often damp, and the foliage on both sides seemed like a cool, green embrace. The smell was of earthy, growing things.
If we were going to Grandma West’s, we’d pass by Darling Run, turn a little further up the mountain onto the Airport Road, go through Thumptown, and take a right onto what is now called the Kennedyville Road. It seemed always to be dusty, and the dirt was red (maybe Lackawanna soil, which the USDA describes as mixed red and brown sandstone, siltstone, and shale). It was distinctive to me, even as a kid. We didn’t have dirt this color at our home in Holland, New York, so driving up this dusty red hill meant we were at our other home. We were “down home.”
Early on in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Gerald O’Hara is trying to explain the notion of love of the land to Scarlett, his spoiled, broken-hearted, sixteen-year-old daughter.
“To anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them the land they live on is like their mother,” he yells. She’s not convinced at the time. Some years later, after Appomattox and after Ashley Wilkes says thanks but no thanks to her suggestion that the two of them run away together, she realizes her father was right, that “how very dear” is the dirt of her Tara. “I’ve still got this,” she says, clutching a handful of that dirt and preparing herself to do whatever is necessary to keep it.
The love of the land, of a particular land, is not necessarily the love of dirt, but there’s a connection. I loved the dirt of Tioga County as a child, and still do. And the dirt on my floors? I can sweep it up with gratitude, since I do have a drop or two of Irish blood.