‘Dirt! The Movie’ warns us to not become dirt poor

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By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Oil is running out. Clean water sources are dwindling. Next thing you know the very ground beneath our feet will be in jeopardy.

Get ready to worry. It is.

Dirt! The Movie warns us to tread more lightly
Dirt! The Movie warns us to tread more lightly

Dirt! The Movie,  being released on DVD today,  tells a story that might seem remote to many who live their lives inside cities, walking on concrete, occupying buildings and eating food that appears in restaurants. It might even seem remote to the suburbanite, that cultivator of chemically sustained sod. But this movie will dust away any notion that dirt lacks value. Indeed, our survival depends not just on Earth’s water and atmosphere, but the soil that covers the planet – even in cities where we can’t always see it.

That’s the simple, devastating truth: We need dirt to grow the food that keeps us alive.

Journey with narrator Jamie Lee Curtis, and a host of experts from California, India, Kenya and Argentina, in this documentary from Docurama Films, and you will marvel at the bounties dirt provides. You’ll also get the story on we humans have abused this vital natural resource. (With occasional comic relief from cartoon characters representing the micro-life within the soil.)

Just as modern civilizations have taken what they want from forests, rivers and oceans, only recently pausing to consider replenishing these sources, they have degraded the soil, the Earth’s living skin. Dirt!, inspired by William Bryant Logan’s acclaimed book “Dirt! The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth” shows us the many ways this destruction occurs – through deforestation that allows rains

Bill Logan, author of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth
Bill Logan, author of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

to wash away the dirt, overbuilding that creates freshwater runoff, farming with poisonous pesticides and vast monoculture crops bleed off the soil’s nutrients.

The end is always the same —  rich, productive land is stripped away, and in its place is left a barren desert that cannot sustain life.

Dirt! bears witness to this disaster, this desertification, that’s unfolding continuously, almost everywhere on the globe. The destruction seems inexorable, a train wreck that we’re powerless to affect.

We see scenes of massive commercial agricultural operations, where even the most basic rules of sustainability, like rotating crops to preserve the soil, are ignored in favor of chemical solutions that make the dirt perform, until it’s spent. We see dried and cracked farmland in India, already lost to ill-conceived farming practices and now climate change. And we see mountaintops sheared off by gigantic machines, their timber and rich soil discarded.

By the time we get to Los Angeles, where directors Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow show us how runoff from concrete environments wastes freshwater, we want to yell, STOP! And this is probably exactly where the filmmakers wanted to corner their audience, driving home the grim situation before letting us in on some hopeful developments, like the movement toward organic gardening. (Gardners’ alert: You’ll love this movie with its defense of natural growing techniques, profiles of organic CSA owners and words of wisdom from traditional farming experts.)

But you don’t have to be a gardener to appreciate Dirt! If you like to eat, or just live, you’ll appreciate that someone is digging into the situation with dirt.

Dirt!, which has played at several film festivals and was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival, does drench us with bad news about our soil. But it also sows seeds of hope.

Did you know, for instance that, LA could get half of the water it needs from rainfall, if it managed that rainfall correctly? Currently, most of the city’s natural water is lost to run off down streets and walled stream beds, forcing LA to buy water from distant places. That makes no sense right? And the implication is clear: With greener spaces, permeable concrete and more thoughtful water management, and even  down to enlisting residents to collect rainwater, there could be hope for LA’s water situation.

You probably also didn’t realize that Ethiopia, properly cultivated, could feed all of Africa. Now that’s mind expanding: Africa feeding itself. We don’t even think this is possible, and yet, the soil and farming experts in Dirt!, explain that we can get that sort of sustenance from the ground, if we treat it with respect and help it to regenerate as nature intended.

The land, the soil, just like our water reserves and the air we breathe, must be tended and protected, say the many experts who appear in this film, from sustainable agriculture guru Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas to Vandana Shiva, physicist and acclaimed eco-activist of India, whose group Navdanya advocates for a return to traditional farming.

Conservationist Wangari Maathai
Conservationist Wangari Maathai

Our dirt, these experts say, must be rescued from those who would use and discard it, like Big Ag, without planning for its future. And it must be managed as a recognizable resource, not a byproduct or ancillary feature of the landscape, because it holds the roots of life.

Speaking about companies that clear cut forests, harming soil as well as trees, African conservationist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai laments:

“They see timber. They see money. But they do not see the diversity of life.”

Now you must see Dirt!

(Dirt! The Movie is being sold online at the movie’s website, where you can also get information on community screenings.)

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