One of my favourite works by Allan Kaprow was called Trading Dirt.
Begun in 1983, it was one of Kaprow’s later pieces which, rather than being large-scale Happenings, were more likely to comprise of ‘small interactions between consenting individuals’. In Trading Dirt, Kaprow did just that – swapped a bucket of soil from his garden with someone else who he might have bumped into by chance.
He would then carry that dirt around with him, again swapping it whenever the chance arose. Stories accumulated around this rather base exchange: mythologies about what the dirt carried, what nutrients (psychological and social rather than mineralogical) it contained, what “vibes” it might have absorbed from its location or from the lives of those around it. (You can watch a nice video of Kaprow describing the project (rather slowly) over here.)
Every time I gleefully “import” soil (without paying money for it) to my garden at home, I think of Kaprow’s dirtwork. For me too, there’s always a story, and it nearly always creates some sort of bond between the trading partners. The ladies across the road from my house, who needed to rip out a whole swathe of grass to put in paving – they gave me their dirt, which I lugged on a sack-truck up the pathway. I used that dirt to hill up around my potatoes last year. The Petersham Bowling Club, who after many years of procrastinating, renewed their greens, leaving an enormous mound of soil in their driveway, which Lisa del Nord and I shoveled into bags for our own gardens.
There have been many more such occasions. I’m kinda greedy for dirt. Dirt I’ve imported: I can remember where it’s gone in my garden. When I harvest vegies from it, I always gladly think of where it came from before it arrived.
And now, Rachel in Lewisham has Traded Dirt with us for our new garden.
I found Rachel through Freecycle. On Thursday, Diego and I showed up with a ute and got to work digging out more than a tonne of rich good, wormy soil from her side-yard. We speculated that an old Italian couple must have grown vegies here for years. Perhaps it worked as a garden bed in the past, but now Rachel needs the space back to create room for a playspace for her kids.
For me and Diego (aka “The Boss”) it was a joy to shovel this dirt. Crumbly and loose, we were well-pleased to have this “free soil”. Rachel, who I’d told about the Tending project in advance, immediately treated us like garden experts – which is kinda funny, since we’re totally not – asking advice on how to trim back a Bougainvillea, and what trees to plant in her front yard. So in exchange for our dirt, we did what we could.
While he might sometimes lack for pure scientific knowledge, The Boss makes up for it in confidence, so he got stuck into drawing hypothetical cut marks on the tree, indicating where Rachel should cut.
For a couple of bloggers usually chained to our desks, it was great to spend a day just shoveling. When we were done, we eased the ute down the street, but only a hundred metres from Rachel’s place we heard a funny scraping noise. We’d overloaded it. The dirt was too heavy, and the rear wheels were scraping on the ute tray. We had to unload half a dozen bags and dump them on the side of the road. Later we came back for them, but by then (after a detour to inspect some rental properties – don’t ask, long story) it was dark and rainy.
[…a ‘mole cricket‘ – a friendly hitchhiker which came to light in our load of dirt…]
Over at the garden site, we invited Betty from the cafeteria to come and visit. She’s really keen to get involved. Betty was pretty excited about my kaffir lime tree, and immediately harvested some leaves for her curry. I have a strong feeling you’re going to hear a lot more from Betty before this project is through!
Next week we will plant something! Not sure what, but something for sure. And we’ll start our compost heap too. If anyone would like to join us, get in touch: