“The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions, as it is the latest. Mud-pies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.” --Charles Dudley Warner
“To the illumined man or woman, a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.”
--from The Bhagavad Gita
I was sitting in the stylist’s chair getting a haircut the other day when it struck me: “I smell like goat.” Maybe that is why the young woman snipping at my hair seemed to be working unusually quickly, even for this quick-cut establishment. Until immersing myself in the fumey aromas of the hair salon, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider how I might be smelling (or looking), but suddenly I became self-conscious. “Here I am in this sparkly clean, fruit-and-flower-scented establishment smelling like stale goat and looking grimy!” Glancing down at my pants, I realized for the first time that day that the goats had been a bit muddy when they climbed onto my legs during the morning’s bottle feeding. And that some straw had stuck to my shoes as I was leaving the mud room (where we keep our barn boots). No one who knows me well will be surprised to learn that I am a pretty low-maintenance gal when it comes to everyday primping. In fact, I probably spend less time in the bathroom getting ready in the mornings than my husband does. But I do like to be clean and smell decent most of the time. And that just doesn’t seem to be happening these days.
The same goes for my girls. They rarely make it past 7:30 a.m. without having some form of crud on their clothes (they’ve already let out the chickens and bottle fed the goats by then, and have probably made several detours into the pasture on their way to and from the barn). The other night the three of us had to go back out to the barn after the two of them had already had their baths and gotten on their pajamas. Somehow they ended up returning to the house half-an-hour later with smudges of dirt all over their pjs, mud on their feet, and hay in their hair. And, of course, smelling like goat. I believe it was the evening after this incident that my husband proclaimed, “I don’t think I like the way goats smell.” I’m afraid what he really meant was he didn’t like the way his wife and his daughters smell.
Luckily for the three of us, we don’t mind all that much. Maybe not enough!
Perhaps it doesn’t bother me much because I’ve kept in mind all these years what my mom used to tell us kids occasionally: There are two kinds of dirt: dirty dirt and clean dirt. Dirty dirt is the kind of dirt you pick up on city streets; it’s the stuff that makes the snow drifts in New York turn grey in the winter and makes the summer air hazy in L.A. Clean dirt is the kind of dirt you pick up from hiking in the woods, climbing a tree, or tilling a garden. The latter might make you messy, but it doesn’t soil you. It should be washed off at the end of the day, but not fretted over in the meantime.
Running a farm, even one as small as ours, means living dirty. The dirtiness of farm life, though, is not so much an absence of cleanliness as it is a manifestation of intimacy with the animals and plants the farmer raises and with the dusty-muddy-gritty ground that supports and sustains them. A recently published book by Kristin Kimball illustrates this point beautifully. Called The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, it chronicles Kimball’s transformation from New York City journalist to rural farmer. One of the many adaptations she had to make along the way was coming to accept--and eventually embrace--being almost constantly dirty.
If, like Kimball, our family lived way out in the country, it might not matter very much if we sometimes went around flecked with muck and stall bedding. But we live in a college town—a town with museums, a nice library, and a plethora of culturally enriching activities. A town with several sushi bars and trendy cafes but no feed store for miles. It’s a great place to be. But not a great place to be dirty.
So from now on, I'm going to be more diligent about checking the mirror before I head off to town—or to dinner with my husband. But the rest of the time I'll be relishing dirt and the chance to live in it and know it intimately: to feel it, to smell it, and to accept its gift of connection to the earth and all the earth’s creatures.
"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles."--Walt Whitman
A Little Dirt Never Hurt
I don't want Sundaes, they're too Sweet,
And Cheetos are too hard to eat!
I've had my fill of Jello too.
But wait, I've tasted something new!
It's not too sweet upon my face,
It's outdoors in my favorite place,
To try all kinds of dirt-filled treats,
Like soil, sand and bugs to eat.