Saturday, August 18, 2007

Seeing Red: Rebirth and Dirt in North Carolina

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I've been living in Charlotte, North Carolina for almost two weeks now and something about the place that fascinates me and brings back memories is the red dirt that's all around here. During my childhood visits to Norwood, a small town about 50 minutes from Charlotte, I remember seeing the red dirt and noticed how it seemed to cling to people's shoes and clothes more stubbornly than the brown dirt found in other places.

Since I've been here, I've wondered what makes the dirt red, but can’t seem to find a really good, thorough explanation. I've asked relatives who grew up in North Carolina why the dirt here is so vibrant and lifelike, but they don’t seem to know. From the bit of research that I've done, I've found that North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and a few other places in the United States, including parts of Texas, have red dirt.

A 1986 article in the The Piedmont Naturalist talks a bit about red dirt or clay and farming practices, but it still doesn't really explain why the dirt is red.

Also, a documentary about African-American farmers and land loss called Homecoming: Sometimes I am Haunted by Red Dirt and Clay, pays homage to the vibrant red earth.

The film's creator, Charlene Gilbert, paints a poignant picture of how the red dirt affected her:

When I was five my family left the South. My mother went home to Montezuma to say goodbye. I don't remember anyone telling me we were going or how long we would be, but I do remember playing in the dirt out by the barn. I remember making mud pies with the red dirt and begging my grandmother for a fresh egg, a key ingredient to any good mud pie. When they called me to leave I scooped up all the dirt I could pack and took it with me to the car. I don't think my mother found the dirt until long after we had left. I'm sure she threw it out and never thought twice about it. I, on the other hand, think about that red dirt every time I look down at my feet. –- Charlene Gilbert

I’ve also heard and read about the pottery and face paintings that Native Americans created with red clay. And there are the stories of women who ate (some who still eat) red dirt or clay. Evidently, some mothers have passed down the practice to their daughters. My daughter has come home several days now with the red dirt on her legs, face, and clothes. The remnants of it can be found on her washcloths and in her bathwater.

When I saw the red dirt again after moving to Charlotte and traveling from our apartment to my parents' small rural hometown about 50 minutes away, I've fantasized about why the dirt is red. Could it be the blood of the overworked and abused African-Americans, or the slaughtered Native Americans, whose bodies are buried in the dirt? Could the red dirt be God’s way of telling us that this part of the country is fertile for new growth and magical happenings? Yeah, I think this is so.

If you have any information about why red dirt is so prevalent in the Carolinas, please post a message here and let me know. I would really appreciate the information.


Anonymous said...

Hello dear,
I read your blog today. There are varieties of soil on the earth; we also have the red earth in Jamaica, it is called Bauxite from which comes aluminum. I have not investigated the earth in any great depth to find out why some earth is red and others not, but I would compare the earth to mankind. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject. Talk to you later.

From the dust we came and unto the dust is our return.
Some men are like the dirt where nothing thrives;
Some men are like rich soil which produce great things.
Some men are like dirt which grows plants for a season then die.
Some men are like the dirt where plants grow, then die, then come to life again.
Some men are like the dirt where the sturdiest plants grow; they give life and heal.
Some men are like the dirt which produces the vines that choke and kill.
Some men are like the dirt where weeds like to take root and spread and kill the good grass.
Some men are like the dirt that produces beautiful flowers that give healing to our soul.
Some men are like the dirt that grows a venus fly-trap, eating you alive.
Some men are like the sand; unsteady and shifting, unable to stand.
Some men are like quicksand, attracting but false, only a snare.
Some men are like gravel; rough and crude
And some men are like hard rock: strong and smooth.
The Earth is in us, and we are the Earth.
To become good ground, we must weed.
To produce, we must seed.
To harvest, we must feed.
From the dust we came and unto the dust is our return.

Annette Ansari

Alicia Benjamin said...

My dear friend Annette,
I love what you say about men and dirt in your poem. Your words have made me reflect on my life and those who have touched my life, whether for a lifetime or a season.
I've gained a lot of understanding from your message. You are a true poet sister ... and very wise.

Anonymous said...

The red dirt shade is made by the same element that gives blood the same color - iron.

Alicia Benjamin said...

Thanks for the info. on red dirt. I'll investigate that more.

Anonymous said...


Alicia Benjamin said...

There must be thousands more like you. I hear the red clay was very nutritious. Your grandmother was just lookin' out for her baby.
Thanks for commenting.

Sariah said...

I am from Washington state, a decidedly drab palette when it comes to dirt. When I went to Hawaii to visit my aunt and uncle in 1995, we dyed shirts with the red soil. I have only lived in South Carolina since February of '08, but there are two things that continually amaze me about it: the fireflies, and the memory of Hawaii that washes over me every time I glimpse a bare patch of red dirt. Check it out: I plan to try this with my six-year-old here in Columbia!

Alicia Michele Benjamin said...

Oh, how I would LOVE to go to Hawaii to see that red dirt! Maybe one day, in the not too distant future I'll be able to see that lovely site. Creating dyed shirts out of the red dirt sounds like a fantastic project for me and my 6-year-old daughter. Thanks for the suggestion -- I'll check out that Web site real soon.

Abhor-Adore said...

Correction It's Clay! I Hate when People Call It Dirt! The red bricks on your house were probably made with this beautiful resource!

Alicia Michele Benjamin said...

Hmmm. I hear what you're saying. But I'm reminded of the song, "You say tomatO, I say tomatoE."
Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

This design is steller! You most certainly know how to keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost...HaHa!) Great job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

Alicia Benjamin said...

Why....Thank you!! :-)