My Best Memory
Of Dirt Class
Sterling College, Vermont

Dateline: 18 March 2017

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...

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