Dirt! The Movie: Gail’s Answers to Questions for Reflection

Yesterday, Oregon State University (OSU) kicked off their 41st annual Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration event. For the fourth consecutive year, the OSU Extension Master Gardener program hosted a commemoration event. A total of 174 people, from Oregon to Brooklyn, NYC attended a screening of Dirt! The Movie. For the second year in a row, the College of Agricultural Sciences Dean, Dr. Staci Simonich, attended the event.

In advance of the movie, we shared three questions that we asked attendees to reflect upon during the movie. In an effort to spur discussion, I wanted to share my answers to these three questions. I invite you to share your answers, in the comments section of this blog post.

Question #1: Dirt! The Movie demonstrates some of the unjust systems surrounding agriculture and how our most impoverished communities are most greatly impacted. How is this seen in your region of Oregon? Who are some of these communities being impacted?

Gail’s Answer to Question #1: In the movie, we saw the stories of farmers who moved from regenerative agricultural practices to a resource-extractive approach to agriculture. The switch left soils depleted, and in extreme cases resulted in desertification, or the degradation of soil properties such that they can no longer sustain life. With soils depleted, farming families moved to urban areas in search of work. However, a lack of jobs and opportunities often resulted in many families from this urban to rural migration ending up in slums.

In truth, I had a hard time connecting this aspect of the movie to what I have seen in Oregon. I could connect it to events of the past, such as the Dust Bowl, which was catalyzed by a decade long drought in the 1930s, farming submarginal lands, and economic conditions that caused farmers to abandon soil conservation practices to reduce costs. The loss of livelihoods, caused millions of people to migrate west in search of work. The hopelessness of the situation was deftly and artfully captured by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

But then I started thinking about the prolonged drought across vast regions of the west. There’s also drought and an increased frequency of dust storms in the Midwest, which have caused some to suggest that we need to brace for Dust Bowl 2.0. Impoverished communities are known to be at highest risk when extreme weather or natural disaster strikes, which we have seen again and again.

In truth, I think of access to greenspace as a fundamental human right. In the Biophilia hypothesis, E. O. Wilson argues that humans have an innate connection to nature. This idea was expanded upon by Richard Louv, when coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, and warned us of the harm that can come when children lose a connection to nature.

The idea that we all benefit from contact with soil and the natural world was touched upon in the movie. Whether it was the ‘GreenTeam’ planting trees in New York City, or gardeners growing vegetables in correctional facilities, many of those interviewed described the healing they felt through gardening.

So I have two major thoughts to this first question. First, we know that plants in the ground can help moderate climate change and extreme weather events. As vegetation mapping is possible, at finer spatial scales, we’re learning that greenery in even the most urbanized of cities can be a powerful tool for moderating carbon emissions. In addition, we know that gardens are powerful tools for moderating stormwater surges, in even the most urbanized of cities. Urban planning for sustainable futures must prioritize green infrastructure.

Second, if access to greenspace is a fundamental human right, as I believe it is, we must continually challenge ourselves within the Extension Master Gardener Program to answer these questions:

  • Where are we working?
  • Who benefits from our work?
  • Who may not have easy access to land, where they can garden?
  • How can we expand or re-envision our work, so that everyone can get their hands in the dirt?

Question #2: The King Center’s 2023 observance is titled “It starts with me.” Master Gardener volunteers are community educators: what responsibility do we have, as individuals and as a collective, to ensure our work strives to remove the inequities of Oregon’s different communities.

Gail’s Answer to Question #2: Many of the folks who attended last night’s movie screening typed ‘I want to be a hummingbird’ (or something similar) into the chat. If you missed last night’s screening, you can view the excerpt where Wangari Maathi tells the story of the hummingbird and the fire, below.

Over the past three years, in particular, I’ve tried to advance equity in the Extension Master Gardener program and equity in the communities that we serve. Perhaps my biggest regret, now that I know that I will be leaving the program, is that I will not be able to do this work as I had previously envisioned. But I’m also eager to do this work in ways I might not have ever imagined, in the past. I’m active on our College’s Culture, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee. I’m co-leading the first Strategic Action Plan for Inclusive Excellence for our College. Through these committees, I’ve learned a lot about the hardships that college students face today. I am eager to continue to grow my knowledge and skills as a teacher, in ways that promote successful and fun learning environments for all.

Question #3: The relationship between dirt and conflict is centered in the movie. Martin Luther King Jr. used the power of words and acts of nonviolent resistance to achieve seemingly-impossible goals. What can gardeners be inspired by knowing this?

Gail’s Answer to Question #3: As an introverted scientist, I long discounted the power of words and imagery to make a difference. Afterall, shouldn’t the outcomes of my statistical tests be all that you need to see? (Joking.)

Having the immense good fortune of working with LeAnn Locher for the past 2 and a half years changed my mind on this matter. Words matter. Over the past few years, we have worked to grow our comfort in conversation around difficult issues. We have embedded equity and inclusion in our programmatic vision and values. We have prioritized cultural connection as an important are of work in the garden. [You can read more about our mission, vision, values, and priorities, here.]

But even the most moving of words are meaningless, without effective follow through. And this is where I challenge you, dear gardeners. Think about what dirt means to you. Think about how you can grow a love for gardening, wildlife, soils, and the natural world in others ~ not by heavy-handed instruction, but by actively listening and meeting people where they are. From the garden-curious, to those ready to hit the ground running but without easy access to a garden plot or materials, to those who have gardened for many years and in many places ~ the biggest and greatest calling of Extension Master Gardener Programs (in my opinion) is to make this world a better place by growing more gardeners.

If access to greenspace is a fundamental human right . . . everyone who has the desire to do so should be able to access and grow a garden.

If you’ve made it this far in the post, I would love to hear your thoughts on the three questions that were posed, or on the movie screening. Please feel free to leave a comment on this post. Note that we moderate comments, to keep spam posts off of this blog. Once we have a chance to review a comment and ensure it is not spam (even if it is a negative comment!) we approve posting.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

11 Replies to “Dirt! The Movie: Gail’s Answers to Questions for Reflection”

  1. Insightful. Relevant even after 13 years. Has awareness improved? Since childhood I have felt a connection to the “dirt.” Growing gardeners who are prepared to share the importance of saving and improving the “dirt” seems imperative.

  2. If anyone missed Dirt! The Movie, you can watch the entire movie for free if you have a streaming device such as a Roku or a smart tv that supports the tubi app. I did have to watch a few commercials.

  3. Access to a place to garden and to information on creating gardens is, I think, the key. Unfortunately, community gardens are often full and sometimes the fees can also be a problem. Even access to tools can be a challenge. The will is there, but basic resources can be a real challenge. Also, there is no template of the “correct” garden, so to know how to help someone often requires the one extra step of not just the question asked us, but being able to interact with that person from where they are: financially, culturally etc. Learning to listen is a difficult task as we all have our own psychological starting point. There are no easy
    answers. We need to concentrate on our own “backyard” and just start.

  4. Access to a place to garden and to information on creating gardens is, I think, the key. Unfortunately, community gardens are often full and sometimes the fees can also be a problem. Even access to tools can be a challenge. Also, there is no template of the “correct” garden, so to know how to help someone often requires the one extra step of not just the question asked us, but being able to interact with that person from where they are: financially, culturally etc. Learning to listen is a difficult task as we all have our own psychological starting point. We need to concentrate on our own “backyard” and just start.

  5. I give up. I have tried 3 times to comment and always get this response.
    Duplicate comment. You seem to have already said that.

  6. Gail, I really appreciated your thoughtful comments on many aspects of Dirt! The Movie. It resonated with me in so many ways, both in my long-held beliefs and gut feelings, and that there was much synchronicity with things I have read and taken to heart. For myself, I have been considering ways I can support the dissemination of this important information and world-view in order to bring about the much-needed changes to bring health to our soils and biomes, and to our human communities.

    These are some related readings that have been meaningful and helpful to me. Hope others find them useful.

    A quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer in her phenomenal book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, that kind of sums up where I am at in my life these days is, “The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world.” Another quote I love from this book is, “I taught my daughters to garden so that they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.”

    Here’s a quote from an article in the Winter 2014 issue of Yes! Magazine by Daphne Miller, MD, “How Dirt Heals Us: A Doctor Discovers Exposure to Healthy Farm Soil Holds Keys to Healthy Bodies”: “Thinking of a healthy body as an extension of a healthy farm, and vice versa, is a paradigm shift for many of us. But when we consider that all of our cells get their building blocks from plants and soil, then suddenly, it all makes sense. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say: ‘We are soil’.”

    I think most of us Master Gardeners can attest to how getting our hands in the dirt helps our mental health. As MG’s we can promote this knowledge and work towards securing this opportunity for everyone. One example is that our local Community Garden has tools, seeds, soil amendments, etc. available to garden members to use for free, and offers plot fee waivers for those who request them, in an effort to make gardening more accessible to those who may not be able to afford the fees.

    I, and many others, so often get discouraged and overwhelmed by the immensity of the multitude of problems in our world. But if we can feel part of a community of caring people who each contributes some to the solutions, it helps spread a little hope and increases our ability to persevere.

    I recently read a column by Alisa Gravitz, “Crystallizing Solutions”, in the Winter 2022 issue of Green America that is similar to the metaphor of the Hummingbird shared in the film. She told of her elementary teacher who showed them how to form salt crystals in water. She had each of the children in the class, in turn, add a pinch of salt to a beaker of water with a U-shaped string in it. After many bits of salt, “…it seemed like it took forever”, but eventually one of the boys “shouted, ‘I see them! They’re beautiful.’ … Excited and hopeful that we could grow the crystals, we added more salt–and sure enough, big crystals formed! … ‘You all made the magic’, she said. ‘The first bit of salt was as important in forming the crystals as that last drop of salt that made the crystals visible.’ And so it is with all solutions… It takes all of us. It takes a long time. … With that greater visibility, hope builds, more people join in the work.” How wonderful that her teacher was able to share this concept with her young ones. I think if we can share more examples of beauty and progress we will help ourselves and our colleagues find hope and perseverance.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, hopeful, and important film!

    1. Oh, Donna. This touched me so deeply.

      “I taught my daughters to garden so that they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.”

      I am done. Literally sobbing, reading this quote.

      Hope and perseverance are powerful, indeed. And your post gave me the will to find both of these things.

      1. Oh, Gail! And now your comment has given me the chills and brings me near to tears, too. So glad you’ve been touched by it. I felt this way through so much of reading Braiding Sweetgrass. To me, and others who have read it, it is one of the most important books for our times. Her stories and metaphors are beautiful and powerful, and need to be heeded.

  7. Hi Gail,
    Again, I want to thank you for all you have done for Master Gardeners. I fully embrace the equity work you are doing and will continue to do. It has been apparent to most alert people that environmental degradation impacts the poor and disenfranchised all over the world, in both first world and third world countries. I would refer you to The Poor People’s Campaign, headed by Reverend William Barbar II. This organization address social, economic and environmental justice and inequity. Reminiscent of MLK.

    I love the story of the hummingbird, and have been putting something similar in my presentations. It is a quote from Helen Keller: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

  8. Comments and Feedback to Dirt: The Movie

    Eddie Rosen

    My comments fall into two categories:

    What we can do locally as individuals; and,

    The Inequities, Conflicts and Struggles spoken of in “Dirt: The Movie” compel us to view what’s happening Globally that affects all of us locally (and indeed, unfairly, and for many, more than others).

    Locally, we must have the mindset that you cannot kill Dirt/Soil locally without having a global impact. (Or, as Thoreau put it: “As if you could kill Time without injuring Eternity.”) It is too valuable a resource. Conversely, you can save it locally and actually have a global impact. As I stated in the intro to last summers’ Gardening With Wildlife attendees: “The unregulated, expressive, dynamic, creative, life-supporting and neighborhood-beautifying islands of habitat that you create ultimately link up overall to help maintain greater habitats and support all Life. GO FOR IT on whatever scale you can!”

    We should stress this as MG’s, and perhaps encourage people not only to try to create something at home, but to also consider volunteering with local wildlife associations, Friends of Recognized Nature Areas and Parks, Wildlife Refuges, etc.

    Give the wildlife and plants in your environment (especially The Soil) what it needs to thrive, and you’ll find a balance asserts itself … maybe with a few small, short-term problems here and there … but generally in balance. As MG’s we must encourage all whom we encounter to bring balance to what has been taken out of balance locally, when and as we get the chance to.

    As individuals we should go out of our way to share what we have, at our homes, in projects, at demo gardens, etc. Invite people in and be inclusive, and let them not only have an experience, but make decisions and be part of something. Share. Give away plants. Grow seedlings for others. I used to do this at my large, former veg garden where I lived for 27 years. Pretty soon word gets out, and parents show up with buggies and ask questions, or ask if there are extra plants to be had. Children want to help (play in the dirt). People can compare a well-grown and tasty veg with what they buy at the store. Your pruning job on a tree becomes a teachable moment. Community! Thinking community and being willing to share. If it’s a positive experience people will be inspired to try something at home (or even at work!)

    Speaking more broadly, the situations shown in the movie speak directly to Politics and Policy. It is becoming impossible to avoid global issues that affect us locally: Politics, Concentration of Wealth, Globalization, Warfare, Taxation, Regulation, Subsidies, Class Struggles, Development (both speculative and due to Population growth), Resource Extraction, Waste Disposal, etc. Policy at the local, regional and federal levels sets the rules, favors some to the detriment of others, spends here and not there, controls and manipulates the playing field, and so on. We know what regenerative agriculture can do for soils, nutrition, farming methods and food sovereignty. But is it the policy model?

    We also know that smoking is bad, lead in gasoline is bad, continuing to burn fossil fuels is bad, not having seat belts in cars is bad, monoculture is bad, etc. Each time we set out to correct these ills (and not all of them are corrected), it requires decades of effort, millions of dollars, armies of lawyers, endless marches and protests by tens of thousands, etc. We are always outspent by Industry and Monied Interests. But there are many more of us than them.

    Our science is good. Our Policies are not. Policy makes the budgets and determines how money is spent and made. This is a political issue as well as a local educational challenge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *