I contemplate it.
It means soil. That’s a good thing.
It means filth. That’s a bad thing.
It is gossip. It is pornography. It is a pejorative when used as an adjective: dirt cheap, dirt farmer, dirt poor, dirty, dirty-minded.
Poor, dear, sweet dirt. It is as important as water and air to our very existence but if you were to say that sad word most people would think of it as something vile.
I think of all this as I look at my little pile of…dirt.
This past month or so I have been thinking about dirt because I am coming closer than I’ve ever been to accepting dirt as, at its best, a miraculous thing and at its worse, something I am learning to live with.
I think about the differences between city dirt and country dirt.
City dirt is filthy. It is not comprised of soil. Instead it is a greasy substance. It’s black and clings to door knobs and turns windows gray. It is comprised of toxins like oil and smoke and chemicals.
I remember my first experience of living in New York City and coming home from work and wiping my nose and seeing that my snot had turned black. I saw black under my fingernails, saw a long black smudge on the inside of my collar where it rubbed against my neck.
Country dirt is not filthy. It is soil which is the product of busy worms and microbes breaking down dead plants through happy and busy digestions. That natural process turns the corpses of plants into the sweet sustenance of the world. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade! Nice job, kids.
Your snot doesn’t change color when you breathe air in the country. Your fingernails get dirty only when you dig in the dirt. Your collar, your shirt, your shoes, your pants, everything you wear, will become the color of the dirt around you because it is everywhere, so you wear it like a garment. Actually, it IS a garment. The dirt becomes incorporated into the fabric.
I think about why we think of dirt as bad.
I remember a “Teachers’ Breakfast” the parents of my school had for us one morning in the auditorium. There were plenty of donuts and coffee and delicious treats. I was standing and talking to the principal about something or other when the donut I was eating somehow fell out of my hand and onto the floor. With no hesitation at all, I bent down and picked it up and continued eating it.
“Donna!” my principal gasped. I just smiled and said, “A little dirt never hurt anyone.”
I remember being at the check out stand at the grocery store. My cloth bags were in a pile at the end of the conveyor belt in front of a frail, very old, woman whose job it was to bag my groceries. She had severe osteoporosis, it looked like, and she was hunched over my bags and said, “I hate these bags. I don’t like to touch them. They make my hands feel dirty. The plastic is much cleaner.”
I replied, “A little dirt never hurt anyone.”
I remember, time after time, going to teacher professional development meetings at grand hotels and going up to the coffee and pastries displayed on large tables in the hallways outside the meeting rooms. There would be stacks of china cups and saucers and stacks of styrofoam cups. I would get my pen out and write, “No Styrofoam!” on a styrofoam cup and leave it next to the stack. (I have given myself the job of Styrofoam Cop as my little gift to the world.)
One time, after I had made my little guerilla art statement on one of those vile things earlier in the morning, I stood behind a nicely dressed, pretty teacher in line at the coffee table and watched her make a face at my “No Styrofoam” cup and pick one up anyway. I said, “Did you know it takes 500,000 years for a styrofoam cup to break down?” She was astounded at my rudeness. But, being the composed person she is, who is almost always is in control and thinks most people are beneath her, looked at me and told me it was none of my business. I told her that it was my business because it was hurting our planet. We exchanged a couple of intense comments and then she rolled her eyes, put the cup back, and took a china cup and saucer.
And stomped away.
I suspect that the reason she (and many others, I might add) choose the styrofoam over the china, is that it has never been touched by human hands.
That means it’s clean.
I think of a science fiction story I read a million years ago. In the story, people had become so germophobic that they no longer touched each other and were completely alone in their hermetically sealed homes and only interacted with each other through holograms.
Imagine a world without touch.
I look at the dog hair in the pile. And remember:
My son came home from junior high one day and told me that his science teacher had them do an experiment to see where most germs were in the classroom. It turned out to be their hair. I guess it traps a lot of stuff because hair has such a large surface area.
Then, some years after that, I read that the first thing students notice about a new teacher is his/her hair. Light, bouncy, shiny hair must subconsciously mean to the observer that the hair is free of germs, microbes, DIRT. And that means it’s safe to touch and smell.
I look at the dog hair again and realize that the worst toxins that could exist on it might be some poison ivy that they may have brushed up against outside in the woods.
I look at the bits of grass in the pile and see the potential for soil.
My little pile of dirt that I had been hating has become something less lethal, more friendly.
I realize that most of my feelings about dirt being a bad thing are from my society. A dirty face on a child usually means the mother isn’t taking good care of their kid. Dirty clothes means the same thing. If a mother was a good mother, that child would be clean, clean, clean!
Then I think of my mother, seeing us kids coming through the back door in the kitchen, covered in dirt. She always was glad to see us dirty. She would say, “Oh, you’re dirty! You must have had a good time!” And then she’d laugh out loud.
I think of my students in the heart of the Inner City, almost all of them in clean, ironed clothes. Even their sneakers are spotless. And I remember how some of them would sob if they got those perfect clothes dirty. Their mothers would be furious, they’d tell me. They would be getting a whuppin’.
I think of how I’ve struggled out here at Chigger Lake, trying to get my house clean. I think of the concrete floor that, no matter how long or how hard or with what I scrub it, doesn’t relinquish the orange-red smudges of dog and cat footprints, smears, and sprays from the dogs of muddy water after their trek through the pond.
I think of the glass in the eight sliding glass doors that have never been washed. I think of the thin layer of dust that falls on everything in the house in a matter of minutes after I’ve dusted. I think of why it’s so important to me to clean the dirt off everything and realize it’s because of what people will think of me.
That’s all it is. It’s fear of being thought of as a dirty, lazy person.
I think of bleach. I think of how I’ve used it for years so my whites would be white and people would think of me as a clean person, which makes me think of Paul teaching me that yellowy-grayish whites can be a badge of honor.
I think of the detergents I used to use, with their chemical poisons, being emptied out of my washer into my land, killing the microbes that make the sweet crust of life on our planet.
I think of the rust (the fungus kind) that’s developed out on all my cottonwood trees. Their leaves are now covered with an orange powder which leads to brown spots which leads to brown leaves which leads to bare branches. I think of how I was tempted to spray them with poison to kill that menace and how I stopped in mid-thought to think in other terms of dealing with it. (Milk, Dear Reader, kills rust on plants.)
I think of how human beings in our culture fear insects, which are considered dirty and scary. The only good insect is a dead insect, most people think. I think of insect bombs and sprays and chemicals. I think of it being on my skin, in my nose, in my lungs, in my blood.
In my hair.
I think of an aquaintance who set off an insect bomb in her baby daughters’ bedroom while she slept, not realizing that it was poisonous to her child and only found out later how dangerous that had been. I think of my apple trees, still struggling in the north yard, but with brand new, bright green leaves, popping up here and there on the thin, long branches. It is the very first time they’ve looked like they’re happy.
It’s because of dirt.
Manure and my special fertilizer, my own urine in a 20 to 1 ratio with water, the recipe from Mother Earth News, to be exact. I’ve put it on the clay around the base of their trunks. Within days, leaves began to pop out on the branches.
Insects are eating the edges of their new leaves. I sprayed a mixture of canola oil and water on the leaves to make them distasteful to insects and as I bent one of the supple branches down to look more closely at the leaves and there, there! I saw nestled in the the green, green leaves, was the most adorable teddy bear of a spider. He looked at me curiously and stayed put. I laughed out loud.