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Hand Book of a Hidden Man, Part 2: The Plasticity of Dirt

07-10-2021 | By Dan Zimmerman | Issue 116

As I said before, besides being conscious that I was a separate entity, I learned that I was also a mobile unit. I could walk around, touching many interesting things.

My fingers were amazing appendages. They were instruments of discovery. I was continually surprised by all the wonderful things I could do with my hands, like push my toys around. I could move them across the floor, and even imagine what they were up to.

But a certain cold reality began to reveal itself. Playing with toys was a limited activity. I couldn’t physically change them into anything other than what they were already. Their forms were fixed. If I was holding a toy in my hands, I soon found that I could only go so far with it. Toys resisted.

Then one day I was taken outside to play. My mother put me down next to a wall of dirt behind the house, and said I could play there. Mom grew up hoeing beets on a farm in Colorado. I think she knew that dirt was different from my other, hard toys. She showed me how I could dig into it and shape it.

Dirt was plastic. It could be fashioned into something, instead of only letting me scoot it across a hardwood floor like a dumb toy soldier. It didn’t just tolerate me. This material responded to the energy flowing down my arm into my fingers. It yielded itself.

I discovered that the fresh earth could be pressed down and shaped into a road. That road could then become an intricate system of roads. Possibilities opened up in my head. I made straightaways, curves and switchbacks winding up a wonderful mountain, supported by carefully tamped embankments. It proceeded up from the valley floor and wound all the way to the top ridge. Of course, after the construction was complete, my delightfully engineered highway was glad to accommodate hard little cars and trucks.

The plasticity of dirt, 2021

Drawing by Dan Zimmerman