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Let's hear it for dirt -- muddy old, black, wonderful dirt


AS A CHILD, I loved dirt, in mudpies and creeks and puddles. I was forever ruining my shoes in creek beds. One Sunday afternoon I lost two at once when I fell in the water. I loved the sound of the mud as it sucked at my feet and squished between my toes.

I spent many days exploring an old deserted farm where raspberry canes, bearing juicy, ripe fruit by the pailful, grew from thick, black, wet Iowa soil. I shared my lunch with a neighbor's mutt and scaled the banks of a gully whose stream trickled in the hot summer sun.

I walked through the weeds where grasshoppers flew in all directions like just-popping popcorn. At night, after the three-mile return trip on my bike, I was happy to lie in bed and let the crickets lull me to sleep.

The first time my son tracked dirt across my newly washed kitchen floor, I think I became more like my mother. Mother preferred bleach and starch to all that mud. Like her, I'd get angry when my children trudged home, caked with mud or covered with the sand left over from their newly constructed castles. I suppose I should have been more understanding. I had a new Maytag sitting in the basement. My mother had to struggle with her wringer every time she washed my socks.

It's hard to find an adult who likes dirt. These days we don't stop at temporary dirt, the stuff that's easy to remove from our shoes and clothes. We prevent dirt. Most of us live in urban areas where the dirt paths of yesterday have given way to concrete streets and sidewalks. We live in houses to protect us from the elements. We have powerful vacuum cleaners to suck up any dust that sneaks in. We buy food at the grocery store to avoid getting our hands dirty growing tomatoes. We watch nature specials on TV rather than hike through the woods, gathering swarms of burrs and great clumps of mud on our shoes.

Besides, dirt isn't cute, like the whales or baby harp seals or whistling swans. It doesn't move on its own. It just sits there, sometimes blowing into dust clouds when the air is hot and dry enough, sometimes coating the weeds along the road. It's the background to our lives, like the sky and the trees and the ocean. We take it for granted.

After I had lived in Baltimore a few years, I took my first trip back to Iowa. To my amazement, I felt tears when I saw the rich Iowa topsoil from the air. I hadn't realized, until then, just how much I had missed it. Here in the East, where the soil is red and generally worn out, plants grow less well even though they're fertilized and composted. I've been frustrated trying to grow roses and vegetables. They seem sickly, as though they're too tired to give me the harvest I could count on before. When I returned to Baltimore, I wanted to bring a whole gardenful of soil with me.

Sometimes I wonder why adults hate dirt so much. It almost seems as though the fancier the machine for removing dirt -- the latest vacuum cleaner, washer, dishwasher -- the more we feel a need to remove every last bit of soil. Even our language carries these nasty overtones: If cleanliness is next to godliness, then dirt must be the devil's work. And God forbid we should soil our clothes. It's as though we feel particularly sanctimonious when we can sanitize the world around us.

I remember when sanitizing was introduced as a process for disinfecting toilets. Taken from the Latin, the verb means "to make healthy, hygienic." The same Latin root also leads to the word "sanity," a word for the mental counterpart of physical cleanliness. But we may be going too far in our campaign to eradicate dirt and germs -- we may be losing our sanity as we "sanitize."

We may increasingly lose touch with the very soil that sustains us. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Evan Eisenberg warned that centuries of agriculture have destroyed one of our most precious resources, topsoil -- "dirt" to most of us. The danger, of course, is that we and our children and our grandchildren will not be able to care enough about this "dirt" to continue to protect the Earth which provides most of our food.

As we limit our children's freedom to explore the natural world, to get dirty as they discover the joys of an anthill or fish for the denizens of a creek, we limit them in other ways: We limit their ability to respect and care for their natural environment. We teach them about frogs in hygienic classrooms out of clean books rather than letting them take an old pan from the kitchen for catching tadpoles -- and then watching them develop.

In our rush to schedule their every waking hour with lessons and schoolwork and TV, we protect them from the dangers of the outdoors.

But are we able to protect the outdoors from them? And why should we? After all, it's just dirt.

Judith M. Dobler teaches writing at Loyola College.

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