I used to laugh at people who collect dirt, but that was the old me. I used to laugh at a lot of things I don’t laugh at anymore. I no longer laugh at three-legged dogs, old people, sinkholes, a guy who forgets to zip his fly, two-legged dogs, people who don’t like mustard, neckties, coconuts, whistlers, tap dancers, high heels, Lawrence Welk. OK, I still laugh at Lawrence Welk but not at any of those other things, at least not as much. Especially people who collect dirt. I don’t laugh at them at all.
You may not be familiar with dirt collectors. These people take a small amount of dirt from the yard of the place where they live, put it in a box, and take it with them to the next place when they move. Usually these people put the dirt in a shoe box because people in general have a lot of empty shoe boxes with no purpose, so they fill them with dirt, or sometimes with old love letters. It doesn’t have to be a shoe box, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it is.
Dirt collectors remove the dirt with a garden spade, put it in the shoe box, and mark the box with the address: 123 Main Street. Then they store it in a shed or a closet, and when, many years later, they move — even if it’s just down the road to 456 Main Street — they do it again. Depending on how many times they move, they may have as many as 10 boxes of dirt.
Why did I laugh at dirt collectors? Because they collect dirt, and for a long time — ah, my callow youth! — I saw no value in dirt, especially old dirt one keeps in a shoe box. But now I do.
Because it’s not really about dirt, is it? It’s about place. This is the South, after all, and a hallmark of the South is its attachment to space, its devotion to memory, its veneration of the past and where it happened — what William Faulkner called your “postage stamp of native soil.” Faulkner wrote about 20 novels about his postage stamp of soil.
Note: Soil is just another word for dirt. It’s a better word, in some cases, especially this one, because it wouldn’t have sounded right for him to say “postage stamp of native dirt.” Faulkner was a great writer; I use the word “dirt” because I’m only pretty good. I’ve yet to achieve that heralded status that allows me to use the word “soil” without getting on that laughable list. Believe me, if I wrote the word “soil,” I’d never stop hearing about it: Who does he think he is, Faulkner? Ha ha ha ha!
Dirt functions as a repository of memory. You can’t touch a memory, but you can touch dirt. Memory fades; dirt is dirt forever. And it’s in dirt that you remember that starter home on Green Street in Charlotte, where your first child was born; and the next house in Statesville, where you were transferred when you got that promotion; and that lousy apartment on U.S. Highway 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro.
Imagine how lucky is the person who has dirt from his childhood. If I had a box of dirt from every house I ever lived in, I would have a lot of dirt. I would have approximately 15 boxes of dirt. The first box would read 1906 Mayfair Drive, Homewood, Alabama, and the last — the last place I no longer live — 315 Granville Road, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That Alabama dirt would be black, and the Chapel Hill dirt, at least from that side of Chapel Hill, would be pure clay, really not dirt at all. But it would do.
So put some old dirt in a shoe box. It’s never too late. Run your fingers through it. Feel how it’s warm on top, cool at the bottom. And that stuff beneath your fingernails? That’s who you used to be.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.