W. W. Norton & Co., 1995
ISBN 978-0-39332-947-6

Reviewed by Joan Angus


I enjoyed this delightful collection of studies, anecdotes and observations, using the subject as a vehicle for musing on the facts of life. Logan converts that which seems ordinary into something mystical, taking us with the stardust created in the ‘big bang’, through the ages, to join the other components of earth, dirt, soil, muck, loam, humus, compost, or whatever you choose to call the skin of the Earth.

We travel with him through wind and rain, up mountains and plunging deep into the oceans around the globe, through millennia from the time the earth was formed, picking up samples on the way, and analysing their chemical constituents. Not a speck of dust is missed. He brings the dirt alive with its inhabitants and its fertility; the humus dances in mineral exchanges with plants and their roots. There is a surprise round every corner, the Earth becomes a many faceted diamond, and pieces of information pop up like jewels: Did you know, for instance, that rodents grow enamel on the front of their teeth only, thus maintaining a sharp edge as they wear it down by gnawing?

This book is very readable, and has something for most people, but will be especially interesting to gardeners, farmers and gravediggers. There are references from the work of a divers company of scientists, philosophers, writers and poets, including Cato, Virgil, Dante and Ghandi, Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton, Walt Whitman and John Wesley, Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas, Darwin and William Cobbett, as well as myths and legends to illustrate his point. This man is certainly well read. He discusses the relationship between the human race and the Earth, often leaving a thought provoking statement or question at the end of his meditations: ‘We spend our lives hurrying away from the real, as though it were deadly to us. “It must be somewhere up there on the horizon,” we think. And all the time it is in the soil, right beneath our feet.’ (p. 97)

William Bryant Logan is an American living in New York. He is an arborist and writer, having won the ‘Quill and Trowel’ award! He did much of his research in his homeland, and most of the scientific data is American in origin. The farming practises of the two first American Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are discussed, and the work of George Perkins Marsh, who founded American Ecology in 1864, is mentioned frequently. We also meet his friend and guru Hans Jenny, ‘one of the greatest soil scientists of this era.’ It was while reading the last section, and Logan’s tribute to the work of Hans Jenny, that I was struck with an overwhelming sense of the vastness and power of the evolving ecosystems of the Earth, over millennia, and the comparative tickling on the surface: the interference of the human species. How can we have the arrogance to imagine that our activities will have the slightest effect on the processes of Gaia? As part of the evolutionary process we are undoubtedly capable of destroying ourselves, but the Life of the Earth will proceed well beyond the human era. Logan doesn’t leave us hanging there. He neatly rounds off his message by reminding us that we are, after all, made of stardust, and who knows where, in the cosmos, may the dust travel next?