Elemental Author

Interview with William Bryant Logan, writer behind Dirt: The Movie

Whether you’re a weekend gardener or you simply care about the environment, mark your calendar for the Saturday, June 26, screening of Dirt! The Movie at 4:30 p.m. The film is based on the book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan. I spoke with Logan last week while he was in town for a Thacher School reunion.

William Bryant Logan
Sam O. Logan

Logan, now a New Yorker, spent four years at Thacher. He later became an award-winning translator of Spanish poetry and a writer-in-residence at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as well a well-known author. At first glance, Logan looks as if he would be more at home working the fields than living in a Brooklyn apartment. I soon learned that he is also a certified arborist, trimming New York’s trees to supplement his income.

A former New York Times columnist, Logan has just finished Oak: The Frame of Civilization, which Publisher’s Weekly has called a “sprawling biography of a tree,” and is researching his next book, Air.

“I found the most wonderful quote for Air,” Logan told me. “’The clouds pass, the rain does its work, and all beings come into their forms.’”

Of the three topics of Logan’s books—dirt, oak, and air—the author said, “My wife, who is a landscape painter, pointed out that these are the three planes of landscape painting: the earth, the trees, and the sky. They all work together.”

I asked him what started it all.

“Dirt was one of the things that just came out,” said Logan. “It had to be written. I was living in New York, and people didn’t believe in it dirt. Nobody believed in it. They were doing the stupidest things, not out of ill will, but out of complete ignorance. What everybody knew a hundred years ago, we had forgotten.”

Logan wanted to write the book to put his readers back into a child’s world, filled with the wonders of dirt, and thus give dirt its due. “That’s why I used the word ‘dirt’ in the title instead of soil. I wanted to say, ‘Start again! Start again and we can have a relationship with this thing which is our mother.’”

Logan’s book looks at human history and the human relationship to the land. For example, it looks at Presidents Adams and Jefferson and their very different approaches to the soil, viewing Adams as the more traditional and Jefferson the more experimental. “Both were great agrarians,” he said, adding that, by using both approaches, “we can really change something.”

And change is what William Logan and the film are after. The writer doesn’t want people to go back to all the old methods, but wants them “to reach way back and take whatever we need to go forward.”

We talked about the open space movement, community-supported agriculture, and the approaches that organizations like the Ojai Valley Green Coalition are taking.

“It was striking to see this town look so much more like it did forty years ago than I expected,” said Logan. He remarked on the local greenbelts, saying, “You’re blessed to be on the edge of the National Forest.”

Logan also spoke about his experiences back east. “In New York, there are a lot of community gardens. There is actually a great Italian pizzeria, Roberta’s in Bushwick, I think, that is now growing all the herbs for their pizza on their rooftop. I think this year they’ll also be growing all their own tomatoes.”

He brought up his sister-in-law’s restaurant in Brunswick, Maine, where they use entirely local food. “The hope is that this kind of model can spread,” Logan said. “It won’t solve the world’s food problem, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

Logan believes that the main thing that needs reawakening in our time is not grand ideas but “the sense of neighbors.” Paraphrasing one of his favorite French philosophers, Gabriel Marcel, he added, “All changes come about because a few people of good will get together for a common purpose. I believe we can’t resolve all the problems of the world but we can resolve to solve the problems directly in front of us.”

And that can’t fail to inspire others.

Come be inspired by seeing Dirt! The Movie at the Ojai Theatre, sponsored by the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and local organic recycler and soil-amendment purveyor Agromin, and with a special appearance by Andy Lipkis, founder of L.A.’s TreePeople.

–Interview by Linda Harmon


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