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Dirty Beginnings

Consider digging in to some good earth.

| May/June 2019

Group Editor Rebecca Martin. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.

We receive a lot of new books about dirt in the Grit office. They tell us how to improve soil with compost, how to dig out a pond, even how to build an earthen home. But the books I find most compelling have been written by people who believe dirt is good for your health.

There’s a movement afoot to bring dirt back into our lives. After years of being told that sterile environments are critical to our well-being, now we hear that microbes should be embraced. Children should be encouraged to revel in dirt — playing in it, digging in it, even eating it. Some studies have found that children who grow up on farms have lower rates of respiratory diseases and autoimmune disorders. Want to reduce your risk for asthma and allergies? Live on a farm, where daily contact with soil can improve your health and increase your emotional stability.

If all this proves to be true, I’m a very lucky person. Like many of you, I’ve been slathered in microbes for much of my life. On the last day of school each May, my brothers and I would toss our shoes into the back of the closet and run unshod around the farm until September. We ran barefooted everywhere, and through everything, on the farm. We shared the ponds and creek with the cattle, and didn’t bat an eye when they peed in the water upstream from where we were splashing around. The silky feeling of feces-laced creek mud between my toes is a sensation I’ll always remember with pleasure.

Just a few weeks into summer, thorns couldn’t pierce the thick calluses on our heels. One of the worst was goathead, easy to overlook because it grows low to the ground. We’d notice the sharp-spined burs only because something didn’t feel quite right when we ran.

Mom had to deal with our oozing, crusty, itchy sores from impetigo and ringworm all summer long. Were these infections related to our running through dirt barefooted? Very likely, but none of these skin problems ever killed us, nor slowed us down. They were part and parcel of summer’s dirty joys, and we were otherwise healthy as horses. Antimicrobial soap was unheard of in those days, and even if it had been available, I can just imagine my mother snorting, “What? Dirt is good for you.”

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