Since the beginning of time, of all the planets in all the galaxies in the known universe, only one has a living, breathing skin called dirt. — Dirt! The Movie
We wash it off our hands, our clothes, our cars, our bodies. We walk on it, drive on it, dig in it, build on it. We bury our loved ones in it. And in it we grow the plants that feed us. But how much do we really know about the dirt beneath our feet?
Unless you are a farmer or an active gardener, you may never have given much thought to our planet’s skin. Although I love to garden and have, at times, raised a good share of my family’s produce, it turns out there’s an awful lot I don’t know about dirt. Maybe that’s true for you, too.
Recently, I received an advance copy of Dirt! The Movie, a documentary that opened my mind to the wonders of soil. I’ve watched a lot of great videos in the past year: Food Inc., A River of Waste, Blue Gold: World Water Wars, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai and more. Each one has been fascinating — sometimes disturbing. And each has huge value in educating regular folk like me about both the potential and the problems facing our planet.
But Dirt!, directed and produced by Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow, stands out for me, probably because the content is so surprising and enlightening. Let’s face it, few of us talk very deeply about dirt in our daily conversations. We may complain about the health of the local rivers and waterways. We may talk about the horrible chemicals added to processed foods, the pesticides and herbicides that coat our foods. But it’s not often that we discuss worms and microbes and the exchange of nutrients in the soil. (Well, maybe you do.)
When I say the film was “surprising,” I may be admitting my ignorance. Did you know that dirt’s alive? I didn’t. I never really thought of dirt as much more than a medium in which to grow things. Yet there are millions of living, working microbes in a single handful of dirt. These microbes are an essential part of life on Planet Earth. Without them, our soil would not support the bigger varieties of life – the plants and animals, including us humans. Living dirt. What a concept!
When I write a review of a film or book, I like to include quotes that illustrate the topic and entice people to view or read the subject of my post. But I encountered a problem while watching Dirt! — I found myself wanting to quote nearly every line in the film.
There are probably a couple dozen experts interviewed in Dirt!, covering a wide variety of disciplines and viewpoints. Each contributes valuable insights to the discussion. We hear from diverse sources around the globe, such as the following:
- Vandana Shiva, physicist, farmer, and activist in India
- Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Laureate and founder of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement
- Gary Vaynerchuk, wine expert and host of Wine Library TV
- Janine Benyus, biologist and writer, the Biomimicry Project
- Peter Girguis, assistant professor of biology, Harvard University
- Miguel Altieri, entomologist at UC Berkeley
- Sebastiao and Lélia Salgado, photographers and co-founders of Instituto Terra
- James Jiler, director of the Greenhouse Project at Riker’s Island prison facility
- Andy Lipkis, founder and president of Tree People
We also hear from less public figures, like the young couple who use dirt mixed with horse manure as a building material in California; prisoners and ex-prisoners regaining their dignity and their lives through the Riker’s Island Greenhouse Project or by participating in the Green Team after-release program founded on the same principles. We learn how digging one’s hands in dirt to nurture a living plant can redeem a human life.
Here’s a sampling of the comments I found so intriguing:
We think that diamonds are very important, gold is very important — all these minerals are very important. We call them “precious” minerals, but they are all forms of the soil. But that part of this mineral that is on top, like it is the skin of the earth, that is the most precious…. — Wangari Maathai
Our wealth is imaginary. It comes from soil. — Janine Benyus
If we don’t take care of the soil, which is just the first five centimeters of life that is on the earth, our future is totally condemned. — Miguel Altieri
We take the soil for granted because it’s there, it’s everywhere, except when all of it is taken by the wind or by the running water. And then you are left with bare rock, and you realize you can’t do much with bare rock. — Wangari Maathai
The process that turns garbage into a garden is central to our survival. We depend on dirt to purify and heal the systems that sustain us. — Peter Girguis
But the film isn’t just about inspiring a new respect for dirt. It talks frankly about the practices of business that are causing horrendous environmental harm. For example, professor David Orr, Oberlin College, says of dirt, “This is a fabric of life being torn apart that can never be put back together again….
The practice of coal mining that’s called mountain top removal — it’s strip mining with a vengeance with equipment the scale of which is difficult to conceive. Mountains are literally cut off and leveled, and they’re being destroyed in the name of cheap of electricity. It isn’t cheap at all. It’s unbelievably expensive. The attitude toward nature that says, “Nature is only resources to be used, and not for the benefit of everyone but for the benefit of a very, very small number of people at a very, very thin slice of time in this human journey.
So the coal companies can come in and blast and remove one layer of what they call “overburden.” The overburden is a boulder field, which will have no water table. That will support no vegetation. And the mountaintops, with all the things that are in mountains, the heavy metals, cadmium and selenium, all of that now is free to get out into the watershed. — David Orr
Our cities, too, disrespect the land beneath us. In file footage from 1990, Andy Lipkis, founder of Tree People, says,
“We took the rivers and encased them in concrete. We paved literally two-thirds of Los Angeles so that now, when it does rain, instead of being absorbed by the soil, the water runs off. And it’s billions and billions of gallons.
The City of Los Angeles itself spends close to a billion dollars a year to bring in water from as far away as Wyoming and Utah…. They don’t need to. We have half the water falling here now, but because we’ve sealed the dirt and sent the water away, 20% of our electricity is to bring water here. So when you turn on the tap, it’s a climate change event.”
Monoculture Threatens the Soil
The narrator, Jamie Lee Curtis, tells us in a voice over, “Throughout history, we’ve seen civilizations rise and fall based on how they treated dirt.” This is illustrated in the documentary with video from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s, resulting from monoculture farming practices that killed the soil and left it to erode in the wind.
Vandana Shiva warns, “Monocultures don’t produce more, they produce less. Monocultures produce nothing for the soil. The idea that we are increasing soil fertility and productivity through industrial monocultures is one of the biggest lies.… What this system produces is food empty of nutrients but loaded with toxics. We weren’t designed to eat that kind of diet.”
Describing another problem associated with monoculture farming, Janine Benyus says, “We have this one species planted for miles, and it’s a all-you-can–eat restaurant for pests. So once a pest learns to unlock the key and get into one kind of plant, and you’ve got that plant planted for miles around, it can open every single plant. … [T]hat’s how pest epidemics get going, so then we add pesticides.”
Of course, the heavy application of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers brings with it problems, too, from compromising the health of the workers who apply it and the residents who live nearby to serious water pollution.
Maathai tells us, “When we pump those nitrogen fertilizers into the soil, we’re not just killing the life of the soil. This is mobile nitrogen.”
Berkeley’s Altieri adds, “Only about 20% [of the nitrogen] is taken up by the plant. Some of it goes into water tables and the rest goes into rivers.” And, as many of us are aware, in the central part of the United States this leads to the massive dead zone that continues to expand in the Gulf of Mexico. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that this mobile nitrogen doesn’t just pollute the water. Curtis goes on to say, “Mobile nitrogen combines with oxygen to make nitrous oxide that floats up to the atmosphere” as a greenhouse gas.
Here’s another tidbit I found scary and frustrating. “Each year 100 million trees are turned into 20 billion mail order catalogs.” How many of those catalogs are actually used by the recipients? Think about your own home. Do you toss catalogs as soon as you get them? Are they worth the expense to the company publishing and mailing them? And more important, are they worth the cost to the environment in killed trees that could be serving as oxygen producers and carbon sinks? Not to me, at least.
Degradation and Reclamation
There’s so much information packed into this film that I can only touch on a small part of it. If you watch this film, you’ll learn about the catastrophic effects of genetically modified organisms on small-scale, international agriculture. You’ll discover why the narrator says, “In India over the last decade an estimated 200,000 farmers have killed themselves, many by drinking the pesticide they can no longer afford.”
You’ll clearly see what photographer Sebastiao Salgado means when he says, “You start to see that there is a very strong correlation between human degradation and environmental degradation.”
But you’ll also rejoice that soil can be reclaimed, forests can be replanted, and lives can be rebuilt through a healthy relationship with dirt.
You’ll be amazed by microbial fuel cells, which can light a room using the living energy of the microbes in soil.
You’ll learn about people who have turned desert land into arable soil. You may well find yourself inspired to plant something, even if only a potted plant on your desk or a small backyard garden.
And at the end of the film, don’t be surprised if you find yourself agreeing with Wangari Maathai, when she says, “Even though what you are doing may be very small, may be very insignificant as far as you’re concerned, collectively, if so many of us … are doing the same thing, we would accomplish a lot.”
A Film Worth Sharing
Watching Dirt! The Movie is an experience worth sharing. Packed with information that is alternately troubling and inspiring — but mostly inspiring — it’s a totally accessible film about a fascinating subject. I guarantee you’ll come away from this film with a new respect for the soil that keeps us all alive on this planet.
Dirt! The Movie, from Common Ground Media, will be released by docuramafilms on April 6, 2010. Dirt! has been honored as an Official Selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, is the Winner in the Green Documentary category at the Maui Film Festival, the Winner of Best Film for Our Future at the Mendocino Film Festival, and Winner of Best Documentary at Visions Voices Environmental Film Festival.
You can watch the broadcast premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens on April 20th at 10 p.m. nationwide. (Check your local listings to verify the time.) Better yet, purchase your own copy of the film on the Dirt! The Movie website. It’s a film you’ll likely want to watch more than once — and, chances are, you’ll learn something new each time.
DISCLOSURE: Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of Dirt! The Movie in order to review it for this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.
Blue Planet Green Living has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com. If you purchase this film or any other products through Amazon by clicking on our affiliate link, Blue Planet Green Living will receive a small financial compensation from Amazon, which we use to sustain this website.
Blue Planet Green Living’s review policy is to only review those films we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a film, we do not review it. We are not influenced by complimentary copies and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)