My Best Memory
Of Dirt Class
Sterling College, Vermont

Dateline: 18 March 2017

Tar in '76

After writing yesterday's blog post about Teaming With Microbes, it occurred to me that I actually attended a college-level course in soil science back in the fall of 1976. I was a student at what is now called Sterling College. But back then, Sterling was far from the legitimate college it now is. The former prep school was trying to transition to something more economically viable. So they developed a one-year program called The Grassroots Project in Vermont. It was a 70s thing.

I've blogged about various aspects of my year at Sterling numerous times over the past 12 years, but I've never blogged about Dirt Class.

That was actually the name of the class. And our teacher's name was Tar. If the guy had any more of a name than that, we never knew it. He told us to call him Tar. That's Tar in the picture at the top of this post.

Now, 1976 was a long time ago, but I know with absolute certainty that the class was called Dirt Class, and the teacher was Tar. And I also know that in that picture up there Tar is holding a tetrahedron in his hands. I know these things for sure because I wrote them on the back of the old picture in my 1976 handwriting...

[As I understand it, kids these days don't learn to write in cursive anymore. Can someone please verify if that is true or not?]

Tar was actually a teacher at the University of Vermont in Burlington. He would drive to Sterling maybe once a week to teach a late afternoon Dirt class to us 70-or-so students.

Judging from the tetrahedron in his hands, the class really was about dirt, which, if you have read my most recent posts here, you know to be a lifeless medium. 

In review... dirt is a mixture of sand, silt, clay and organic matter. It should never be confused with soil, which is a mixture of sand, silt, clay, organic matter, and an enormous number of living micro-species. Like, for example, Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and micro-arthropods (as Elaine Ingam frequently chimes in her talks).

There are good-guy soil microorganisms and there are bad-guy soil microorganisms. The good-guy biology can be found in well-structured, well-aerated (aerobic), soils that have been minimally tilled and have not been poisoned or fertilized with synthesized chemicals. Plants naturally thrive in such soils.

On the other hand, in poisoned soils without air, the bad-guy biology dominates. It's a tough environment for plants; they have a hard time living up to their highest potential.

Had Tar conveyed to our class something about the incredible web of dynamic microlife in soils, I would have remembered (even if I didn't write it on the back of the picture). But, alas, he did not. And Tar can't be blamed for that. Tar just didn't know.

The simple fact is that the depth of understanding about soil life in 1976 was pretty minuscule compared to now. And, it won't surprise me if the depth of soil knowledge today seems small compared to what will be learned in the next 41 years. 

By-the-bye, I will be celebrating my 100th birthday in 41 years (and you're all invited).

I remember that Tar was a decent guy who did a decent job of trying to jazz up the lifeless subject of dirt. I also remember that we never had any written tests in the class. It was just lecture. 

But the thing I remember most about Dirt Class at Sterling was one very special autumn afternoon. We were in Simpson hall listening with rapt attention to Tar wax poetic about tetrahedrons, when we realized that the sun coming through the west windows of the room was particularly bright and golden. Everyone turned to look out the window.

Tar no longer held our attention. He realized it and stopped talking. Some students got up to go look out the window. The sunset over the common was spectacular. And then Tar exclaimed, "All right, lets all go look at the sunset!"

We streamed out of Simpson Hall, across the road and onto the common. We stood there for some time, basking in the beauty of that place, and that moment. 

It was special.


If you would like to see an aerial view of the beautiful Craftsbury Common, Vermont, in the fall, check out this YouTube clip...


  1. Cursive is taught but not enforced unless you are paying squillions for a very fancy school. The art of penmanship is now quickly fading into actual oblivion....our generation will be the last.

  2. Around these parts, sadly, cursive has been dropped completely in the public school system, along with all geography, home economics, metals shop, woodworking, and most other useful skills. Apparently they need the extra time to teach their feel good spelling and fuzzy math. However, in our little one room homeschool out on this western prairie, all of the above are happily taught and cheerfully learned. And now thanks to you, we've ordered Teaming with Microbes, and will be adding that to our Living Science booklist -- thank you for your review!

  3. My kids learn cursive but they are in a Christian school. I do believe they stopped teaching it in public schools in my area. I'm 41 and stopped using it myself around the forth grade, by choice. I remember my dad (who I lost at the age of 10) didn't write in cursive and I simply decided I liked his handwriting and writing the way he did seemed much simpler. Maybe due to my own experience, but I don't have strong feelings on the cursive issue. I think it should be taught and recognized but I'm not sure I see much value in using it, beyond one's desire. I do have strong feelings about other aspects of writing related to grammar and the general ability to communicate, logical, reasoned thoughts, in writing. Sadly, many of the skills that were once considered fundamental, appear to be going the way of cursive.

    I have been reading all your posts and am intently watching your minibeds experiment but I have to say I'm not convinced on all the merits. Though I do use it for certain things, I just can't come to accept plastic as an integral part of "Growing Food God's Way," to borrow from your new series on Back to Eden.

    I'm somewhat overwhelmed with interest in the various things you've been discussing here. The only reason I haven't commented is because you got me spending all of my free time watching Elaine Ingham videos on YouTube :). If you haven't seen the "Living Web Farms -" YouTube channel, they have some amazing content. I'm currently engulfed in the biochar workshop. Without going into detail, my current persuasion is that there is a "sweet spot" in the intersection/combination of mineral balance, soil "life" (including proper compost), covering/mulch, proper management (e.g. cover cropping and no tillage), and biochar (which I believe is more of a component of "natural" systems than most realize).

  4. Years ago I met a retired couple, Bob & Joanne Skeele, who had once lived in Vermont. Bob was the Dean of a small country college. They purchased a bit of land and a Chalet styled home for $1, but they had to move it. Total cost for the land & home project was about 16 thousand dollars back then. Apparently the owners of the Chalet home has sold off most of it's fine trimmings over the years and they started reacquiring them at garage sales. One story was they found all the exterior shutters with the original paint and hardware for about $20 dollars. When they held them up even the hardware holes were all in the proper places. It broke their hearts to eventually retire and return to the west coast to finish out their years being close to family. Joanne always talked of the beauty of all the trees in fall color and the countryside. Stunning country.