Block of the Week: Dirt

My sediments exactly

Under the grassy topsoil of the Minecraft world, but before you get down into the stone below, you'll find a layer of dirt. Most people just blaze through it in a blur of shovel action, excited about what lies beneath. But today it's time to turn our attention to dirt, which just happens to be our Block of the Week.

As you can probably imagine, dirt is one of the oldest blocks in the game. It was added just six days after development began on what at the time was called "Cave Game", at the same time as stone and wood planks. Originally the world was made up of cobblestone and grass blocks, but dirt was added so that grass wouldn't grow underground.

Over time, dirt has found its way into more and more parts of the game. In the Infdev phase of Minecraft's development, both dirt and gravel began to be generated in pockets underground, and from Beta 1.8 onwards it was found in villages too. Since version 1.11 - the exploration update - it can now even be found in Woodland Mansions.

But I don't really need to tell you where to find dirt, because you'll generally acquire stacks and stacks of it during the course of normal play. To stop it filling up your chests, consider using it to fill in terrain, rather than dig it out, when you want to flatten an area. Or make a farm out of it - growing anything from saplings to beetroot. Or just use it to convert the dirt shack you built to protect you from zombies on the first night into an enormous dirt palace with all mod cons.

When illuminated, grass will spread to any dirt block that it's placed next to - as we discussed when grass was our block of the week. But dirt has a ruder, less friendly cousin called "coarse dirt" that won't grow grass under any circumstances. You can make it by combining dirt with gravel in a 2x2 crafting grid, or hunt some down in the Mega Taiga, Mesa Plateau or Savanna Plateau biomes.

Image credit: Mussklprozz // CC BY-SA 3.0

Outside of Minecraft, dirt is usually called "soil" and is formed from a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and zillions of teeny-tiny, live plants and animals. It's a slow process - generating three centimetres of soil takes about 1,000 years.

Minecraft only has one kind of dirt (two if you count coarse dirt), but real-world soil varies enormously around the world. Different soils can have different texture, structure, density, porosity, consistency, temperature, colour and even electrical conductivity, depending on what it formed from.

Soil is more important than you probably realise. An ancient Chinese philosopher once wrote that humankind's continued existence is "completely dependent upon six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains". Without soil and rain, we'd have no food, and with no food there'd be no humans. We also get many medicines from soil, it can be a building material (it's a great natural insulator), and in some places it's even used as a fuel.

But there's a problem - we're actually running out of soil, and surprisingly quickly. Intensive, mechanised farming around the world loosens soil, and so more and more of it is being washed down rivers and into the sea. At current rates of soil loss - about 30 soccer pitches every minute - we only have about 60 years of farming left.

Getting everyone to switch to organic farming is the most obvious solution to this, but it might be a good idea to keep your chests filled with stacks of dirt, just in case.

Written by
Duncan Geere

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