The soil in North Carolina makes me think of the dust kicked up by the school bus that sped down the dirt road behind my parents’ house after it dropped me off on those cool, fall days.
I watched the bus go down the road, trailing an orange smoke screen, and I stuck to the ditch until the dirt cloud settled and I could walk on the road again. I breathed through my nose, but I still managed to taste the dry powder of dirt, of iron-rich Piedmont soil in my mouth, bitter and metallic.
The soil in North Carolina makes me think of tube baseball socks, mostly white but streaked with an impenetrable stain of red clay. It makes me think of the dirt clods in the Randolph County fields after a tractor has run through, and it makes me think of caked mud striping the sides of the Ford trucks and Camaros in the parking lot of my high school, the result of driving too fast down a dirt-covered country road, windows down and an arm crooked out the side holding on to the roof.
The soil in North Carolina makes me remember my grandmother’s fingernails after she dug in her flower garden and how her canvas shoes were always spattered with dirt. She was careful to brush off her pants leg before she came inside, but if I leaned toward her and inhaled, I could smell fresh grass and wood ashes.
The soil in North Carolina is so potent that, in 1900, scientist Milton Whitney, conducting the state’s first soil survey, claimed to be able to identify what type of soil tobacco was grown in just by smelling its smoke.
The soil in North Carolina is a repository. It holds smells and tastes and memories. And more. It holds our agriculture — our potatoes and cotton, our tobacco and corn, our peanuts and soybeans; it holds our earthworms for fishing, our blueberry bushes and strawberry patches, our peach trees and muscadine vines. It holds our gold and our silver and our platinum in ancient alluvial deposits.
When I was a child, I sat at the edge of the stream in our woods and panned for gold with an old aluminum pie tin, dipping it into the muddy water and tilting out the sediment the way I learned to do during a field trip to Reed Gold Mine.
I swished the soil around, and sometimes I caught sight of something sparkling. But I could never grab hold of whatever it was.
When I got tired of doing that, I jabbed at the earth with a stick, dislodging shards of quartz. I spent hours uprooting the earth.
Why, I wonder, do we have such an urge to dig, to excavate, to unearth what is beneath us, to exhume whatever lies under the surface? Why do we attach ourselves so strongly to the ground, to our soil, to our muck and peat, our swamp and marsh, our silt loam, our red clay?
Farmers know the answer. They plow and till and dig and turn over the soil each season, driven to extract from the land those things that sustain our lives. Small wonder, then, that we want to get our hands in it.
And so we keep on. We farm. We garden. We shovel sand at the beach and dig for crabs at sunset. We dig for fossils, for prehistoric sharks’ teeth, for Indian arrowheads. We plant a seed half an inch in the soil, and in return, we get something back.