One day, several years ago, a bumper sticker on the car in front of me caught my attention. Its sentiment was really simple, something like, “IF IT’S NOT GROWN, IT’S MINED.” At the time, I lived in an area that, like the Tooele Valley, had both significant agricultural and mining activity. I began thinking about the bumper-sticker statement and began running a list of products through my head.
Yep, everything had its genesis from some type of growing/harvesting or mining/processing activity. Even using resources from the ocean is a form of farming or mining, as well as pulling resources from the atmosphere as in the case of industrial and medical gases. The same can be said as well for fossil, solar, wind, and geothermal energy. It’s all harvested in some form or another.
Many of those substances end up being made into materials and subsequent products that our forebears could not have hoped for or even imagined during their time in history. The cycle of product invention and improvements continues with each generation, including mine, taking much for granted.
Even relatively simple products that are almost invisible to us today, at one time did not exist and life was a lot more inconvenient before these products arrived on the scene.
Indoor water for culinary and sanitary purposes is a pretty recent invention in the grand scheme of things, but we pretty much assume it’ll be there. The same for things like water heaters, furnaces, air conditioning, automobiles and utility vehicles, telephones, radios and TVs.
Don’t even get me started on the digital devices that are becoming quite commonplace. I have young grandchildren who have no idea that walking around watching movies, playing games or having video calls is just, so, “meh” as the younger people in my life say.
There’s a product that cat lovers that have indoor cats usually take for granted — kitty litter. But, it too, hasn’t been around “forever.” It’s a pretty recent invention, dating to 1947. And, it’s not truly an invention in its own right, rather a repurposing of another product — namely fuller’s earth. While there are several variations now for cat litter (scented, unscented, clumping, odor-absorbing crystals and so forth), they all came initially from a relatively common product that up to that time, no one had apparently thought of a new use for.
Back to fuller’s earth. What the heck is it? Fuller’s earth, as a product, has been around for a long time and is found in clay deposits that are of volcanic origin. Clays that have been created as a result of glacial action don’t form this type of material. Fuller’s earth typically consists of bentonite. Bentonite is a type of clay that is used in many industries and has actually been in use for centuries.
The process of fulling is one of the stages in woolen cloth-making. Wool is inherently oily or greasy due to the lanolin that sheep produce. Lanolin is a type of wax that protects the animal’s skin and provides water repellency to the wool. Bentonite has the property of being able to cleanse off the lanolin, lift dirt and lighten the color of the wool. Fulling also makes the woolen cloth have more loft, creating increased thickness. So, it’s easy to see why a common name for this special type of clay became “fuller’s earth.”
However, its usefulness doesn’t stop there. Fuller’s earth also has the ability to absorb a large amount of liquid oil or water, and to draw out moisture and capture odor from waste products. It’s this set of properties that were put to a new use by Edward Lowe in 1947. At that time, most people kept their cats outdoors. The felines that did enjoy an indoor life used sand, dirt or ashes to contain waste. As you can imagine, it was messy, was easily tracked throughout a home and was quickly fouled.
Mr. Lowe’s idea for this new use of fuller’s earth was sparked when his neighbor asked him for some sand for her indoor cat after her pile of sand was frozen outside. Instead of giving her sand, he gave her some of the bentonite he had on hand to use to clean up oil drips from his car. While oil cleanup is still one of the clay’s common uses today, Edward’s neighbor found that it also worked better than sand or ashes for cat litter.
Edward starting bagging the material for sale but had problems at first getting stores to stock it as sand was so cheap. Mr. Lowe’s solution? He convinced store owners to give away bags of the new product until people became fans — and they did. Ed Lowe eventually sold his business for millions.
These are only two of the most well-known uses of fuller’s earth. In reality, there are dozens of uses, including oil and water well drilling, cosmetics, cinematic special effects, fertilizer and pesticide production, hazardous waste and biological agent decontamination, and for cleaning and polishing of marble.
I remember back in 2001 having Zimmerman Well Service drill our well. We were still shuttling back and forth from Arizona to here, getting business wrapped up before heading to our new home here. I met Mike a short time after in person. Those of you that know me know that I ask a lot of questions about how things are done — sometimes my natural curiosity is a curse.
Mike took it all in stride and told me quite a bit about how wells are drilled and capped. He told me bentonite was used during the drilling process. It acts both as a lubricant during the drilling, and works as a sealant around the well casing to avoid having the surrounding soil and materials from getting into the well. Its sealing properties are so effective that it is also used to seal the bottom of landfills to assure that groundwater is not spoiled by contaminated water making its way down to the aquifer.
Some really interesting applications are found in the film industry. It can be used quite effectively to make “larger than life” explosions and clouds of dust. Fuller’s earth dissipates better than actual soil, but looks very convincing. Its smaller and uniform particle size also provide a higher level of safety for actors in the proximity of the blast! These same properties allow it to serve well in making clothing appear soiled, actor faces to be smudgy or grime-smeared, and furniture to be dusty.
In large quantities, it can be put over paving to make dirt roads or to create a dust cloud behind moving vehicles — horse-drawn or otherwise. Fuller’s earth is easier to clean up than actual dirt whether it’s from fabric or surfaces, so it’s highly valued when it comes to a set or wardrobe change. Who knew that even dirt is faked in the movies?
The U.S. is the top producer of bentonite in the world, accounting for about a third of production. The highest-grade materials are extracted ranging from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Montana. The nation of Turkey is also another important source.
As far as the bumper sticker philosopher quoted earlier, Fuller’s earth is a common product that is quite literally mined. Familiarity doesn’t diminish its contribution or importance though. Even though I listed several uses, there are many more that I didn’t have room for. Nonetheless, I bet you’ll have a more complete appreciation of the product the next time you pick up a bag of oil absorbent or kitty litter!
If you’ve not yet completed the Master Gardener class, now is the time to register! To do so, contact Andrea DuClos at (435) 277-2409 or email her at email@example.com. She’ll process your registration and collect your payment.
The cost is moderate as well for this quality of learning experience. A single tuition is $150 or $180 for a couple. Your registration includes 14 two-hour live instruction sessions, all class materials and hand-outs, as well as a one-year membership to the Tooele County Master Gardeners Association (TCMGA).
Now, that’s a good deal! I hope to see you there — I’ll be sitting in on many of the classes. I can always use a strong dose of gardening reminders and hearing from other participants in the class of what their gardening aspirations are.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.