Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

Dirt: A Love Story

Today I finished a wonderful book, called "Dirt: A Love Story." It is a compilation of short stories, essays, and poems written by a variety of subject matter experts from farmers to archaeologists to professors. I think the best way to summarize is by listing my favorite quotes.

"... those who get dirty with some regularity and a lot of enthusiasm are more likely to be healthy that those who don't." - Pam Houston

"Without clothing he felt more physically a part of the interwoven ecosystem, and he felt more deeply the diminutiveness of the human time scale." - Jana Richman

"I still don't understand why the bare foot is so repulsive to many, why it's okay to track dirt into a store or restaurant on Vibram soles but it's not okay on the sole of the human foot." - Jana Richman

"In a culture where only young women are allowed to express themselves as sexual beings, dirt on the body allows old women to say: fuck that. You don't determine my sexuality, I do. The earth does." - Jana Richman

"But I wonder whether our abandonment of "dirt to something lowly, dead, or detrimental points to the disregard for nature that drives our larger environmental problems. If we reclaim dirt as living, maybe we'll quit pumping it full of toxins and waste." - Kayann Short

"If our relationship with soil rests only on agriculture, our concern is too often about what we can get out of it, what's in it for us. That's not a very good foundation for a relationship." - Deborah Koons Garcia

"If soil is dead to begin with, human action cannot destroy its life, it can only 'improve' the soil with chemical fertilizers. And if we are masters and conquerors of the soil, we determine the fate of the soil; soil cannot determine our fate. History, however gives witness to the fact that the fate of societies and civilizations is intimately connected to how we treat the soil..." - Vandana Shiva

"Biology and life have been replaced with chemistry." - Vandana Shiva

"As I began growing food, I felt my palate changing. Gone were the strong cravings for salt and sugar. It began with my first bite into a homegrown tomato. Prior to that, I hated tomatoes, stuffed in a plastic carton at the grocery store and tasting like cardboard. So when I took that first bite into the tomato, that I grew, with my hands, plastered with dirt, I felt the juiciness of sunshine tingling throughout my body as warm juices ran down my chin and arm. Making sure not one drop reached the ground, I liked my arms and hands covered with dirt to continue to enjoy the essence of sunshine - it seemed the natural thing to do." - Karen Washington

"Still it kept me exploring and trying out new vegetables as my palate longed for nuances of tastes such as bitter, sour, tart, aromatic, peppery, hot, and dirt." - Karen Washington

Further some interesting concepts were explored in this book including dirt as record keeper, dirt in our diet / over cleanliness, evolution of land to its current state, quantification systems for dirt, the debate and dichotomy of soil vs. dirt, the question of "what is natural", and the various roles involved (farmers, ranchers, etc.).


Additionally, many of the authors of these essays have their own books/media. I'm excited to add to my reading/watching list the following:

Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley

Symphony of the Soil (2013) by Deborah Koons

Economics and the Environment by Eban Goodstein

Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich

Anything of Linda Hogan's

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston

The Genius of Place by Justin Martin

Adirondack: Life and Wildlife in the Wild, Wild East by Edward Kanze

Theft by BK Loren

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery

Make Peace with the Earth by Vandana Shiva

Biopiracy by Vandana Shiva

Gaia's Body by Tyler Volk

The Myth of Progress by Tom Wessels

Forest Forensics by Tom Wessels


In general I greatly appreciated this book for the diversity of lenses and the fearlessness of content. I am very interested in exploring the ties to personal health and sexuality as well as the potential for fostering a more multifaceted, balanced relationship with the soil. The subtopics listed above, the further literature, as well as the subject matter experts establish this book as a rich resource for my thesis.


Jenna Witzleben