DIRT: A Love Story (ForeEdge, 2015), edited by Barbara Richardson, is a compilation of stories and experiences from 36 different authors from all walks of life, talking about something they all love: dirt. From birth to death, we all end up dirty throughout our lives. These authors explain why that is something to be celebrated.
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I was born dirty and I’ll die dirty. Upon my delivery, slimy and blood-streaked from an amniotic sac into a hospital room, a doctor pronounced me alive, a nurse wiped and swaddled me, and my mother began to supply the milk of maternal kindness. If I die in a hospital or at home, I expect to be zipped into a giant plastic bag, as I saw done with Pop, my ninety-year-old father’s father, and whisked off to a mortuary. There someone else will clean and swaddle me one last time.
Between the coming and the going, we live, work, and play in a dirty world. There’s no getting away from dirt. Who would want to? Dirt is us, even though it sounds ungrammatical to say so.
As a child, pretty early on I learned there was a direct connection between dirt and fun. If I played indoors at a friend’s house or outdoors on a ball field, I tended to return home pleased. But if by the time I parked my bike in the garage or stomped through the front door I was stained by dirt from hair to sneakers, words such as “euphoric” and “transcendent” measured my exaltation. The connection became clear. To live life full bore, you have to get really, really dirty.
Life’s great pleasures — running around in woods, romping in fields, making love, raising children, traveling to enthralling places, helping those in need, immersing hands and spirit in sun-warmed garden soil — bring us into intimate contact with dirt of one kind or another. I have no doubt that dirt, as long as we keep it out of puncture wounds, is good for us. In recent years epidemiological studies have shown that exposure to a reasonable amount of good, old-fashioned dirt is a key to preventing the development of allergies. Cleanliness is not next to godliness. After a point, it’s foolishness. As my kids would put it, being clean all the time is stupid. Bring on the dirt.
It turns out that the dirtiest of dirt, that which comes from our bowels, can be the magic bullet that shoots down someone else’s gastrointestinal complaints. Where once we obsessed over hygiene around toilets, now we talk of the miraculous efficacy of fecal transplants in curing chronic ailments. Who could have imagined it?
I could have. Call me a dirt-o-phile. I’m drawn to dirt and always have been. I write this sentence on my fifty-seventh birthday. If there’s one thing life has taught me so far, it’s this: where lies dirt lies fun and adventure.
The only time in my life where I was offered a chance to get really, truly grubby and turned away came in Big Bend National Park, in the Chisos Mountains of far western Texas. I was feeling blue. My worries were the usual ones for writers. Where would I earn money to pay for the next bag of groceries? Was I inching far out on a professional limb, one that might break rather than grow? We were camping. My wife was shampooing her hair in the bushes. Wandering off, I heard soft grunts around me. I realized that without meaning to, I’d fallen in with a herd of wild, pig-like animals called javelina. There were fifteen of them, maybe more.
For what turned out to be a spirit-lifting hour, I roamed with the animals, talking to them and taking appreciative note of their banter. If I got a little too close, I’d see fur spike up on their backs. So I’d retreat. The javelina seemed to forget about me after a while. Eventually they picked their way down a rocky hillside to the shadowy bottom of an arroyo. Here there was a mud hole a little smaller than the average bathtub.
One by one, the javelina took brief, contented rolls in the mud. When my turn came I was tempted to follow. Indeed I would have had I not seen animal after animal spray urine in the wallow. Perhaps that’s what kept it moist. Suddenly I thought of better things to do.
Geophagy, the eating of dirt, is usually considered a serious psychological disorder. Yet there is some evidence that a little dirt, if it’s not tainted by toxins, human fecal matter, or parasites, may be good for us. Just as a lack of exposure to the world’s marvelous diversity of dirt contributes to developing allergies, so an excess of cleanliness in our diet may have something to do with the gi tract complaints that are rampant in modern industrial society.
Shortly after I graduated from college, I took a position as a naturalist in a privately operated nature preserve. Among the items on my job description was caring for injured and orphaned animals. I soon found myself raising a brood of robins fresh out of the egg. Someone in the know told me to feed the baby birds cat food. This I did. The ugly little things gorged. Yet something was amiss. The birds developed chronic diarrhea. I consulted with a veteran naturalist named Kaye Anderson. Kaye told me to feed the robins dirt. “The cat food’s ok,” she said. “But also give them worms, dirty ones. To develop healthy digestive systems, the birds need microorganisms that occur in dirt. If they don’t get them, they won’t be healthy.” I did, and the robins flourished. For them, dirt proved just what the doctor ordered.
Never have hands been more dirty than when I used to go fishing with my mother’s father. No prissy dry flies for Grampy. He was a hook and worm man. Every summer he’d take me fishing for a week or two. We’d set off with a car and trailer (later with a school bus he converted into a motor home) with an ice chest filled with fresh moss. In the moss wriggled hundreds of live night crawlers Grampy had purchased for a few cents apiece from local kids. The kids plucked them from their yards at night, and Grampy took pleasure in giving these entrepreneurs spending money.
If you’ve ever fished with worms all day without access to warm water and soap, you’ve experienced grunge at its most supreme. Night crawlers exude slime as much as they crank out fecal matter, which, of course, is just dirt in the making. The slime serves as the glue that fixes the excrement to your hands. Because you’re sticky, you also pick up every speck of filth you touch. By lunchtime you’re caked with the stuff. Without a good hard hand washing, there’s no getting most of it off. You eat anyhow, supplementing your intestinal flora just like the robins.
I learned many things from my grandfather. One was to take dirt in stride. He concerned himself with the important things in life — family, friends, outdoor adventure, treating everyone with respect and forbearance — and let soil, slime, and fecal matter fall where they may.
You know what? Those days on lakes and rivers, wetting lines, catching fish, getting caked in dirt and worm shit, were among the happiest of my life. It was the kind of happiness that didn’t bubble to the surface and make a show erupting. Rather it pooled in a secret place in the heart. No one could see it, at least not directly. Yet it was there. Forty years and more later, the joy remains, a reservoir I tap during the hard times.
Thank heaven for dirt — literally. What is it, after all, but stardust? Some of it sifted just last night out of the cold, black intergalactic void. The rest fell from the cosmos last week, last century, last millennium, or a billion years ago. Vintage dirt has covered ground. Organisms of one kind or another gathered and ingested it and built the useful elements they gleaned from it into living tissue. Then came death, but the dirt played on. Liberated once more, these fragments of asteroid, comet, and supernova circulated anew and were drawn into new lives, again and again, on and on and on, from the beginnings of biological time until the present day. From here to eternity, or at least the biological equivalent of eternity, the dirt will rock on, continuing to bring grace to those who borrow it awhile.
It stretches the mind to think where dirt comes from and where it goes and how it moves around. In moving and distributing dirt, wind plays a major role. The famously fertile loess soils of the Mississippi River watershed, China, the Ukraine, and elsewhere consist of fine particles of sand, silt, and clay that were carried into the air largely during interglacial periods and then heaped up in locations where farming thrives today. The word “loess” comes from the same root as “loose.” I was taught to pronounce it “lerse” by a favorite college geography professor. Truth is, there are almost as many ways to pronounce “loess” as there are different kinds of the rich, granular stuff.
Dirt moves in water, too. Hence the nickname “Big Muddy” for the sediment-rich Mississippi. Sometimes dirt moves as a viscous fluid, inspiring scientists to invent marvelous words such as “solifluction” to describe its thick and oozy flow. Glaciers move dirt, too, scraping the stuff from one place and heaping it in another. Glacial deposits called moraines include dirt along with a mixed assortment of grit, pebbles, and boulders. Truth is, dirt does not stay put for long.
No matter where dirt comes from and where it goes, and no matter what you call it, this humble material is more valuable in the final analysis than diamonds or gold. You can’t eat precious stones or rare metals, but you can eat dirt, either directly as a geophage does or indirectly in the form of ingested organisms that are essentially animated, self-replicating forms of soil. We are what we eat, as the saying goes, and what we eat, in a roundabout way for the most part, is soil.
What a pity, then, that in our overly tidy culture dirt has taken on pejorative meanings. We talk of “dishing the dirt” in censorious tones, and of sexually charged movies and stories as “dirty” or “filthy.” We pester children to clean their rooms, clean their bodies, and clean their minds.
Keeping clean isn’t a bad thing, embraced in moderation. Still, it’s a dirty world. To enjoy it, to engage with it and our fellows in enterprises worth the doing, we need to wear our dirt like a badge of honor and not be cowed by the obsessively, self-righteously clean. I love getting dirty. Just as Grampy did. There’s plenty of time to be clean after we’re dead.