In February we took a much needed family break to go skiing. It was a quick, short trip. The kids had never skied and it had been almost a decade since Ryan and I skied. Carmella, our 14 year old- "the teen"- did not want to go. She wouldn't be good. The type-A- perfectionist-cliché-first born child said before she even tried. Worse, was unsaid but understood, she would have to be alone with her family. But most pointedly, she would have to be alone with her family away from her friends. Beau, the 11 year old, was very excited to go. He pretty much likes everything that doesn't involve handwriting, solving math problems or sitting still. And, he still likes us. However, he too, is teetering on that teen angst edge. It is only a matter of time before he steps over the line to impatience, embarrassment and eye rolling at the fact that he? Has parents. The way I see it I have at most another year and then half the people I share a house with will loathe me.
During the car ride we reached an area where technology didn't work. The radio wouldn't pick up a signal and the car went silent. I am uncomfortable with silence when other people are around. Even those that came out of my body. I don't really know why but possibly, irrationally, I worry I might be able to hear their thoughts. In the case of my 14 year old daughter I am fairly certain I might hear something I don't want to hear. So in an attempt at mind control, I tried to make conservation to break up the awkward silence. Carmella was quiet, seemingly un-engaged in the backseat and while I couldn't see her, I was certain she was rolling her eyes at everything that I said.
We drove towards snow and the further north we navigated the amount of snow on the ground increased until the landscape was enveloped in the folds of a goose down blanket. I commented that it was a visual tragedy how in some spots the Georgia red clay wasn't entirely covered. It looked like the snow was trying to hide a slaughter. It was ugly. It injured my eyeballs. I wanted a bucolic scene that with my face pressed against the cold car window would make my heart swell and burst as I and my family drove towards the mountains for a lovely weekend ski trip. And damn it, that ugly red Georgia clay was ruining it.
Carmella snarkily said, "Of course, the struggle of dirt."
Everyone laughed and the tension that had radiated from the teen in the backseat dissipated. And just like that, everyone seemed to like everyone again and I felt comfortable enough that the silence became okay and I was free to let my mind contemplate the dirt and the people and my bones and all the stuff that buries me.
I work in an industry where the money grows on the trees but the dirt, I have learned, is the real asset. In the beginning I thought it was all about the trees but I figured out it really is the dirt that matters. You have got to own the dirt to really own the trees.
I sit in meetings and take minutes about stuff happening in the dirt, to the dirt. They talk about all potential opportunities a piece of dirt offers and whether we should buy, sell, trade, or just hold onto to that dirt for a little bit longer. The dirt is assigned value by people outside our organization and those appraisals can change the value of the dirt for a whole multitude of reasons. The dirt is modeled in Monte Carlo simulations to predict its future best case scenarios. There are graphs, spreadsheets and maps about the dirt. People show up at our office doors or call on the phone wanting to talk about a piece of dirt. We have lengthy discourses on the components of the dirt, best management practices of the dirt; its minerals, its water features, its trees--even the wind above the dirt is not above scrutiny. My favorite though, and I hear it almost daily, is when they argue about the "the bare land value" of the dirt. It makes me smile to think about the price of pure, unadulterated dirt.
Dirt has a pretty complex existence. Dirt is mysterious. It holds clues and tells stories and has a history longer than any of us can truly fathom. All of human existence is born out of dirt. We live out our days on the dirt; moving from piece of dirt to piece of dirt, seeking out new dirt to own, explore, trade or sleep on. We float across oceans and sail above the dirt in boats and airplanes. We wildly inconvenience ourselves just so we can stand on different dirt, if only for a little while. And all the while believing that this piece of dirt is vastly different than that other piece of dirt we had lingered on just a few days before.
Our food comes from the dirt. We build homes, churches, monuments and entire civilizations on and from the dirt. We play in the dirt. We bury our dead in the dirt.
I guess, maybe, only the sky is older than the dirt. But even the sky's existence is contingent on what is going on with the dirt. The sky holds onto nothing for very long; always dying and regenerating. I think the sky must be freer: its struggle is less because you can't really own the sky. But people do try to own the sky; sometimes insisting on retaining the wind rights to the pieces of dirt they sell. I didn't know that the wind too was assigned value. Because really? I want to know how do you measure the wind? Where do you draw the lines?
In the dirt below is the answer.
Dirt has all the power.
Whatever touches, tries to move freely above or below, next to, over, under, beyond or beside the dirt is, nevertheless, defined by the dirt. Everything is a preposition to dirt.
When I was younger we lived in a house that had a creek running through the middle of the front yard. Ours was the last house built in the neighborhood and most likely because a creek in the front yard was not an ideal feature in Stepfordesque East Cobb. The creek was a gash in an otherwise pretty face. It was the first piece of dirt my parents had ever bought together. And I loved that piece of dirt. I don't think my parents ever did but I was wildly passionate about it.
The front part of the lot was very un-level, situated at the start of what grew into a very steep hill. I can personally attest to the hill's steepness. On my first time down that hill on my bike I lost control of my handle bars, not understanding that you needed to use your brakes to have control, and slid on my face; crashing into our mailbox. It wasn't so terrible though. My band-aided face, elbow and knee abrasions earned me sympathy the next day from Mr. Woods, the cankerous PE teacher at Eastside Elementary. He reversed the alphabet that day and I, Natalie Wolfe back then, got to be first at everything.
The strip of grass that fronted our lot to the street was a presentable rectangle patch of grass, probably 8 feet wide. It was fairly flat there but angled up alongside the rise of that big hill. But the slant wasn't too bad. I could still do handsprings, both frontwards and backwards there. Really though, the best place for gymnastic tricks was on the other side of the street, three houses down on the Allen's flat stretch of Bermuda that ran all the way down the length of the black iron fencing fronting the neighborhood pool. That grass, always so manicured and green and soft was a stage; us kids the performers, and the audience was all the neighbors coming and going in and out of the neighborhood.
Our front lawn vastly differed from the golf course pristine of the Allen's. Not only was it a ragged mix of crab, rye and fescue grasses, it was not level and dropped off steeply into what was essentially a giant sinkhole. It was a sloping mess of ground cover and exposed dirt that bottomed to a ledge with 2 oak trees, underbrush and more exposed dirt. The ledge was an island atop a cliff that dropped steeply into a sometimes rushing sometimes meandering creek depending on the recent rainfall. You couldn't climb this cliff. It was slippery and crumbly. The face of the cliff, about 15 feet tall, exposed layers of Georgia: red and orange clay mixed with sediment that had folded and faulted from lines long ago decided by time. The clay mixed with chalky yellow stuff, speckled feldspar and mica deposits. It was covered by big roots and vines before dropping into the creek. I just remember all the reds and oranges of the creek and its rocks and minerally diverse dirt. It was so fantastic with infinite possibilities. As a child it was my favorite place to play. My best friend Catherine and I spent endless hours playing fabulous games on that ledge. We managed complete control of the universe from that ledge; creating drama and civilizations, building structures out of discarded materials we had collected and drug across the neighboring lawns.
I don't think Carmella really knew what she meant when she made her "struggle of dirt" comment. I know the intention was make fun of her mother but she was right on the mark. I do struggle with the dirt every single day. I am like J. Alfred Prufrock measuring it out with coffee spoons. I spend my days in an office contemplating the dirt all the while struggling with if the dirt is what I really need to be contemplating. I spend the other parts of my day worrying that the dirt my husband and I own(only a few miles from that fantastic piece of dirt I grew up on) is good enough for my children. There are times I wonder if living on another piece of dirt would really make all the difference. But most times, especially late at night when I cannot sleep, I worry I am simply wasting my time on the dirt.
Of course, the struggle of dirt indeed.