The Value of Dirt: A Lesson in Progress

When I go to the grocery store, I can choose from no fewer than fourteen kinds of antibacterial hand soap.  The bottles line the shelves in a rainbow of jewel tones and a variety of scents.  Many suggest they smell like foods: “Cucumber Melon,” “Lemon Verbena,” “Cranberry Lime.”  Others suggest they smell like the outdoors: “Ocean Breeze,” “Spring Rain,” or “Evergreen Forest.”  In reality, they smell nothing like actual food or the real outdoors.  In fact, the whole idea is that these soaps will eliminate any hint that you’ve spent time out in the world.  Not only will they get rid of the dirt I can see, they’ll get rid of the dirt I can’t see while leaving my hands smelling like a perfume shop.  I’d like to see someone develop a soap that actually smells like a forest.  Damp earth, rotting leaves, mossy undergrowth, and sun-warmed pine trees.  Delightful.

In the household cleaning aisle, “antibacterial” seems to be plastered across every bottle.  Dish soap.  Laundry detergent.  Floor polish.  Window cleaner.

Really?  Window cleaner?

America has become an obsessive anti-bacterial culture of cleanliness.  We Americans can’t agree on much—as is evidenced each election cycle—but that we hate bacteria seems to be a point of consensus.  Any yet health care professionals are beginning to wonder if this obsession might be ruining our ability to develop an immune system.  Apparently, if you never have to fight off the bad stuff, your body doesn’t learn how to do it.

Dirt, it turns out, is good for you.  But most folks who live and work close to the earth already knew that.

Dirt (Don Nichols/Getty Images)

Dirt (Photo: Don Nichols)

Dirt can be precious stuff.  Expensive, even.  I recently ordered a truckload of it to fill my backyard garden beds.  The truck backed into my driveway, tipped up its bed, and dumped a molten chocolate-colored heap of topsoil striped with dark ebony compost.  It was a beautiful thing.  Until I had to move it, one wheelbarrow-full at a time.  Just when I was about to crumple up in a heap of exhaustion and curse my little garden for requiring so darned much soil, my husband finished mowing the lawn and joined in the earthmoving task.  He could manage much more efficiently, and without looking like the weight of the wheelbarrow might knock him over.  I stood in the raised beds spreading out the dirt, and decided I might not hate my garden after all.

A farm in Glover, VT

A New England dairy farm (photo: Neapolitan Madonna)

I thought about my own pricey pile of garden dirt a few weeks later while chatting with a fellow guest while visiting Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery in the Vermont mountains.  I happened to be visiting at the same as two very kind older women who both grew up on dairy farms in Connecticut.  The farms are gone now.  One has been taken over by suburban housing and a strip mall.  The other was devastated when the government built Interstate 91 through the middle of it.

interstate image

Connecticut interstates (Photo: Peter Maranus)

“They took 23 acres of my family farm to build 91,” one of the women explained.  “They call it imminent domain.  Progress.  They dug up nine feet of loam, you know, on all 23 acres.  Nine feet.”  She shook her head in dismay.

“I’ll bet the government sold that loam for a lot of money,” the other guest said.  “They took the land and all that went with it.  Some kind of progress.  On our farm, that loam is under asphalt.  I can’t think of it without feeling sad.”

I sat there thinking about dirt as a precious resource.  Good dirt.  Soil, really.  The kind that will nurture plants to feed people and livestock.  The kind that has been tended for generations until it is perfect.  Nine feet of perfection reaching straight down into the earth.  Like so many things, that which takes so much time and work to build is gone in a heartbeat.  And once it’s lost and buried under pavement, it’s lost forever.  Forget thinking about what impact our actions will have on the seventh generation, we’ve forgotten to consider what impact they’ll have on our own.  As the bumper stickers say: No farms, no food.

I’d rather live in a world that values one precious dairy farm in Connecticut over the convenience of a sprawling Interstate Highway system.  I’ll take dirt over that kind of progress any day.

But, perhaps, the real lesson is: valuing the dirt is progress.

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