WHEN I SEE DIRT in my dreams, I know I’m going to have a wild sleep. All night long, stories rise up from vast expanses of gritty soil, landscapes that read like hieroglyphics, like love notes, like survival tales, like novels. When I look down at my feet, the earth becomes a pop-up book surrounding me with animals I know well and others I’ve never met but whose stories I read like the tales I loved as a kid, the ones where people walked with wild beasts—rabbits, deer, foxes, mountain lions—and we all shared a language, because we do. It’s the language of dirt.
Every life leaves an imprint. Imagine the earth, then, like a fist that holds your actions and the actions of every living thing. When you learn to read dirt, you walk into the forest or across a city (yes, there are imprints there too), and the fisted world opens up like two palms holding a book of the best story ever told, because it is every story ever told—if you know how to read dirt.
Even the story of flight imprints in dirt. Where a magpie lands and touches the tips of its wings to the soil, where an owl swoops down and leaves five parallel arcs that embrace a sharp divot, the mark of talons extended and clenched. Sometimes the talons lead to the imprint of small feet that darted out of the night-hunter’s grasp. The escape looks like commas on a page, like rainfall gone sideways on the earth. Sometimes you can see only a large almost-circle, like a period inside the parentheses of the owl’s wings. That’s the end of the sentence for the prey, no dashes telling of escape.
Sentences become paragraphs become novels written in dirt.
When I wake from a dream of dirt, I know I need to slow down, to look more carefully, as I do when I’m tracking. That’s the lesson of dirt. There are lives you step over daily. When you walk in a wild place, you are never alone. Hiking in Colorado’s Front Range, you’re watched by mountain lions or foxes; or you’re studied by coyotes, those tricksters who disappear like smoke that sinks into the earth rather than rising into the heavens. You cross paths with animals that walk side by side with you like some kind of post-Edenic apparitions, reminding you that the only original sin is the one of not paying attention, of not listening to the dirt beneath your feet, the signs all around you, the names of the animals fresh on your tongue, their stories waiting to be spoken alongside your own.
When you walk, you know we are all woven together in a texture of earth that transcends the boundaries of language. If I walk where my parents walked, they, too, appear again, not in their own tracks but in visible signs: the two Canada geese they called “The Couple,” one with his distinctive limp (unnoticeable until you look at his tracks), and the other with the dot on the right side of her bill; the small pond Mom and Dad walked around daily (hand in hand at seventy-five), and the tracks—and springtime eggs—of the western painted turtle they saved from a busy road and brought here, where it has thrived long after their deaths. It’s dirt that holds my parents now, dirt that will hold the ones we have loved and their imprints forever: fossilized bones, mummified shapes caught in the act of living and dying. It’s dirt that will hold you and me.
Dirt is everywhere and records everything, retelling your story, perhaps even eons after your death, in sediments pressed into history, pressed into time. There is nothing you do that escapes record. There is nothing that the earth will not record and read back to you and others. Listen: It’s ever-present. Our lives left in dust, where our stories, always, remain.