Trading Dirt


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.

tending - trading dirt

tending - trading dirt

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.

tending - trading dirt
[The Boss indicating his level of knowledge…]

tending - trading dirt
[“Cut Here” – good luck Rachel!!]

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.

tending - trading dirt
[…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!

tending - trading dirt

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:

9 thoughts on “Trading Dirt

  1. brilliant boss! (see reader, despite what Lucas say, he’s the real boss).
    Love your account of ‘dirt day’, maybe just need a link to freecycle ( as is the most amazing network of good citizen, reusing and preventing tons of the most disparate things from filling land fills, read here about it:

    Then, i had some clear ideas on what to do with the bougainvillea, as my past in garden centres (amongst other things) allowed me to accumulate plenty of knowledge on this and other common gardening features.

    So rest assured Rachel, the advise still stand as valid.

  2. I’m loving the way this is project is growing. It is causing social and political creativity as well as imaginative ‘moves’ that can best be described as ‘aesthetic’ and ‘horticultural’.

    I’m loving it so much that I’ve told one of my other cultural communities about it … over at the project known as ‘Cultural Asset Mapping for Regional Australia’. [ ]

    This CAMRA project studies how and why people designate certain aspects of lives in their regions to be ‘cultural assets’. Why do the people care about these ‘things’ (these ‘things’ might be places, customs, people, characteristics of climate) that keep their community nourished and always evolving? Why do they care ABOUT them, and how does this effect the ways they care FOR their places and neighbours?

    TENDING is potentially the very start of a cultural asset. We have a great opportunity to gather understanding right from the beginning, to watch a cultural forcefield grow as the garden grows.

  3. The good-hearted opportunism of dirt-trading is related somehow to scrumping.

    If you’ve ever spent time in the West Country of England you might dimly remember drinking ‘scrumpy’ — the vividly tasty and incandescently potent cider made from apples and pears found on the ground beneath wild fruit trees scattered across the public ramble-ways and along roadsides. When you go out with your backpack to collect the cider-ready fruit, you are going out ‘scrumping’.

    There are Sydney scrumpers. See:

    Lo and behold and blimey! One Diego Bonetto is mentioned in the article!

  4. Very excited to come across the garden after my class today, very much looking forward to seeing it grow. . . .

  5. hah! thanks boss.

    ever since this free dirt business i’ve been obsessively visiting freecycle to get random garden stuff.

    I just missed out on some sprouting avocado seeds from glebe yesterday.

    the offerer could not guarantee they would bear fruit, but she agreed they would make a good experiment.

    alas someone else beat me to it!

    hi jai, great to see you last week, catch up with ya soon!

  6. speaking of freecycle. every now and again a real corker comes up. this is my favourite recently:

    offer – Rooster in Turrella
    Tue Aug 31, 2010 2:55 am (PDT)

    Hi there,
    we have rooster, he is small and not too loud but we don’t want him. We think he has been abandoned as he just appeared in our backyard last week and has joined our flock of chooks…who also appeared one day at the beginning of the year, but that is a whole other story!

    Anyway, the chooks are fine but the rooster has to go. he is turning all the chooks broody and we dont want babies!
    if anyone wants hi for dinner or pet pleae come and grab him.
    you will have to bring yoru own box to transport him.
    We are in Turrella, 2205.

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