Dirt is a half-thing. Like thread, or a hangnail, it belongs to that vague category of the fragmented. It is phenomena without the spectacle: a cumulative object, intense, and equally indistinct. Exact, but unfixed.
It has been a long time since I have studied something with my hands.
I want to know how it feels, but dirt underneath the fingernails crowds, it makes my hands feel swollen. Sometimes I think when I clench the dirt in my fist, it’ll push through my skin like clay through a window screen. Then it would be dirt, not blood in my veins, and I would be heavier, anchored to the earth.
4100 Palos Verdes Drive South is the site of an old whaling station, known as the Portuguese Bend. Between the years of 1864 and 1977, grey whales were stalked and hunted for their fats.
These enormous creatures, the color of slate, migrate south each year to mate, or give birth. Each trip takes two to three months of slow, weightless travel. This journey intrigues me: the immense effort of pilgrimage, and then of place.
Like place, dirt is an approximation, a paraphrasing of weather and time, of movements and wind. When I walk, the dirt is dry, kicks up easy, becomes a veil on my feet. It is a gauze, it is tender.
It’s treacherous. About 100,000 years ago a geological event occurred in the Portuguese Bend that is now referred to as The Ancient Landslide. The propensity to plummet makes this area unpredictable though enticing; it’s astonishing how people are inclined towards such thresholds. (Years from now, in 1999, an expansive, elite golf club will be delayed in its opening when the 18th hole collapses into the ocean.)
Dirt has a tendency to dissipate in the ways that, as earth, it will fold, then buckle. When it crumbles, it rolls back down to the sea, becomes a new landscape for whales.
When whales migrate, they sing to each other. Those songs can echo for miles. Our journey out west does not involve singing. The men speak mostly in measurements. I make notes. There is so much talk about land, but their fingernails are clean, translucent.
I position myself in the bleach of light that slips between two shapeless trees. The severity of the cliffs here are a tough thing for the trees to compete with. My own notes indicate that we will suggest two species: eucalyptus trees, for their slight silhouettes, and pepper trees, with their weeping forms, for the diffuse shade they provide. The eucalyptus is a kind of tree that could look natural in any landscape, but the process of bringing it here will be complex, will require breaking down solid, compact earth with the fixed intensity of an orchestra, and then hurrying along nature’s own process of acclimation. There is always so much disturbance and so much shifting so that things might appear undisturbed, unshifted.
Stillness is an uneasy narrative. It relies on subtle arrangements, a bending of focus. At funerals, they never talk about the person digging the grave, whose relationship to dirt is immutable. Landscapes are that way, too.
Most of Palos Verdes is an edge, delicate and crucial. It is an eyelid to the ocean, a jagged crescent: bent and misshapen. I’m trying to reconcile what feels so deliberate about this landscape against the imprecision of its boundaries.
It’s abrupt, where the edges meet water. The horizon is sky condensed into a hairline, sky is so white it might as well be milk above us.
I feel heavier each day. Whatever dust gets picked up by the air sticks to me like iron to a magnet. My skin is a sieve, I think. I think I am filling up with dirt.