Dirt. Soil. These terms seem synonymous, but as a 2008 exhibit at the Smithsonian attests, they are far from the same thing. In fact, some would say (and I am one of them) that the vocabulary we use to describe the growing medium, the material beneath our feet, expresses our orientation to it. To call that thing “dirt” is to denigrate it, at least implicitly, as illustrated by the way we so often respond when a piece of food falls on the ground–“It’s dirty,” we say, unfit for consumption, and then we discard it. To call that thing “soil” gives it a purpose, assigns it value in the general context of using it–to grow food and other plants–which also values that particular relationship between humans and nonhumans.
And so, in the context of thinking about how vocabulary matters, I come to a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book with an eye toward soil. Or rather, “earth.” It is “A good Receypte to make metheglin,” about a third of the way through the book. In it, the person preparing the drink, “gather[s] around Michelmas or Lammas” an assortment of herbs: fumitory, fennel, rosemary, hyssop, chamomile, thyme, marigolds, ribwort, parsley, selfheal, and others. And then we get the following instruction: “When you haue gathered thes hearbs and roots, make them very cleane that no earth be lefte vpon them” (f.28r). To use the term “earth” begs a different way of thinking about the relationship between human and nonhuman things here. This recipe expresses an intimacy between the woman who gathers, slices, boils the plants–articulated, for instance, in the reminder to “haue care to slitt the ffenell roots and take out the harts stringe which groweth in the middest”–in water, over fire whose temperature she aims to regulate during the process. But what does it mean that she would remove the earth from the herbs, clean them so that “no earth be left vpon them”? Is this a disavowal of the unity of plant and earth, between the material growing and material grown? Or does the touching of earth by water and human hands, even if to remove it, simply express a different aspect of this intimacy?
This recipe, like so many others, articulates points of contact between human and nonhuman that are key to thinking about sustainability. If we understand this contact only insofar as it allows for separation–the slicing to sever leaf from stem of herb, the cleaning to remove earth–then perhaps we are simply reproducing the same distinction of dirt and soil with which I began this post. That is, to see dirt as that thing that is necessarily not part of “us,” of that which is separate from the human world; it would presume that nonhuman things are inherently not “human.” Removing earth from plant might seem to evoke this to be sure. But to have “no earth left vpon them” is only possible by way of the tactile contact between human and nonhuman; and perhaps it suggests that “earth” is not gone but rather just part of another (or multiple) thing/s and that it is intrinsically linked with the human? If the cleaning process uses water, then the “earth” is mingled with water; or if the cleaning amounts to brushing the earth from plant with the hand, then hand and earth mix, earth falls perhaps back to, well, earth. What if, that is, the process of cleaning and removing earth, as described here, details not a distancing of human and nonhuman thing but rather an ever-intimate reciprocal relationship that is bound by circular comings and goings and not teleological notions of here and gone? After all, that same earth will be the medium from which the woman harvests new herbs in the future, the surface upon which she walks to locate the herbs and do said gathering, as she repeats this and other recipes in the course of her domestic labor. And so, to understand “earth” in this recipe as we do “dirt” today seems at odds with the task the early modern woman would have undertaken. Rather, it seems that this recipe, its evocation of “earth,” suggests instead a process of something more akin to what we would think of as a sustainable and perpetual return of material to material, of intimate connections between human and nonhuman, whether that nonhuman thing is plant, element (fire, water), or “earth.”
Note: Transcription credit for this recipe goes to Kailan Sindelar.