Our Dichotomous Relationship with Dirt

‘Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness’, said Methodist founder John Wesley, in a sermon to his London parish in 1778, drawing upon the concept of purity already well established in Babylonian and Hebrew scriptures. Although not a biblical phrase, Wesley’s sentiment has swept through the centuries as the seminal statement on dirt; linking the concept of sanitariness to high morality.

Since Wesley’s time, the word dirt has attracted more connotations and definitions. Dirt in the simplest sense, of course, refers to soil, earth. Dirt can also be a derogatory term akin to the word scum. To discover dirt on somebody is to find out about their sordid dealings in order to incriminate them. To be ‘dirty’ is both to be unclean and/or sexually expressive. A brief analysis of our modern lexicon reveals our rather dichotomous perception of dirt, and as such, much about our complex relationship with the elemental substance.

Even before Wesley’s legendary sermon, many societies have long associated cleanliness as a symptom of purity; being dirt-free a state of salubrity. Conversely, we also give the same virtuous association to being close to dirt; the image of a farmer’s rough, large hand caressing his rich soil invokes notions of naturalness and nourishment, of a pure, salt of the earth existence. Stock photos of farmers are rife with this depiction of hands-in-soil, caressing the dark substance with gentleness and gratitude.

There is a myriad of examples of this dichotomy, evidenced by oddities such as the fact that we embrace a dirt-covered egg as being fresher and more naturally cultivated that a clean one, but may scoff if we shook the hand of someone with visible dirt underneath their fingernails. The reason may lie in our fondness for the conventions of context – visible dirt at a food producing farm is expected; in urban environments, less acceptable.”

One could argue that we, as a city-dwelling species, are both at war with dirt and in desperate need to return to a simpler state of living for environmental reasons, an element of which relies on re-establishing our pre-industrial connection to the soil that provides our food.”

Satish Kumar, the Indian activist and writer, philosophised in The Guardian: ‘We are all part of this healthy web of life maintained by soil. The Latin word humus means soil. The words human, humility and humus all come from the same root. When humans lose contact with soil, they are no longer humans.’

"Health hints for warm climates", artwork for RAF booklet, 1943. Image source Wellcome Library via Wikipedia Commons.

The phrase ‘at war with dirt’ sounds like a terrible overstatement, but since the discovery of germs, those nasty critters we cannot see yet will do just about anything to eradicate, human beings have been preoccupied with hygiene. One can hardly blame us. Prior to Hungarian obstetrician, Ignar Semmelweis’, pioneering of the concept of the transference of germs in the late 1840’s, surgeons would operate on patients without washing their hands first. Alarmingly to today’s standards, doctors would routinely examine a corpse before conducting a surgery or assisting with a childbirth. Infection was rife; and the mortality rate enormous. Sadly, Semmelweis was sent to an asylum for coming up with such a preposterous notion, and is rumoured to have been beaten to death by guards before his revelation became one of humanity’s saving graces.

Arguably in modern times we have taken Semmelweis’ vital medical discovery too far, borrowing it from the hospital context and inserting it into the domestic. Today, hand sanitiser and antibacterial cleaning products are a major weapon in the war against bacteria, the same bacteria which, rather ironically, protects our kids from a whole host of allergies, skin issues and even some cancers and Alzheimer’s later on in life, according to accepted research. Scientists now understand that children need exposure to germs to develop healthy immune systems. They need to play in the dirt; with animals; and to interact with other snotty-nosed children. There even exists a very real modern-life issue coined as Nature Deficit Disorder that manifests in kids and grown-ups alike, the symptoms of which are poor concentration, depression, and poor stress management.

In an interview with National Geographic earlier this year, American author Paul Bogard raised some alarming points about our modern relationship with dirt. Inspired to research the interrelation between human and soil health after learning the statistics, (that we typically spend 90-95% of our time indoors, and that American kids spend less time outside than the average prisoner; yikes!), Bogard learnt that the ground that we rapidly and recklessly pave over is dying. When not exposed to air and water, the soil we cover in asphalt and concrete depletes, arguably to the point of no return. Bogard asked himself the questions we all should perhaps ask: What is the effect of killing much of the earth’s soil, of walking only on paved, unexposed earth? Of not allowing our kids sufficient exposure to the immune boosting properties of dirt? Of underestimating the importance of a natural, daily interaction with the earth? These questions will take more years of research to properly answer, but we know one thing: that the vitality of the soil has a direct correlation with the vitality of our very selves.

Despite alarming statistics, there are many reasons to hope; many examples of a return to and renewed understanding of nature’s foundation.

One of Australia’s most symbolic acts remains the day then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured sand into the hands of Vincent Lingiari in 1975, the brave Aboriginal rights activist who led the fight to take back ownership of the Gurindji lands. In this historic moment, a humble handful of dirt represented an entire people’s struggle for custodianship, the plight of which inspired Paul Kelly’s iconic song, From Little Things Big Things Grow. The dirt given from Whitlam to Lingiari was indeed symbolic; the effect of the gesture however, was not.

This moment is etched into the nation’s consciousness; the transference of soil from white man to rightful owner waking us up to the true meaning of the ground we walk upon; to the potential potency of memories and life embedded in the dirt.”

More recently, there are some encouraging examples of human reconnection to the ground. Arguably a rather naff word but nonetheless intriguing concept, ‘earthing’ (whose most recognisable Aussie proponent happens to be the rather controversial figure, Pete ‘activated almonds’ Evans) encourages human beings to reconnect with the earth by walking barefoot over the ground, sand, and grass. Proponents say that connecting our bare feet to the ground can reset our bioelectrical circuitry. While earthing has been lampooned by critics of Gwyneth Paltrow (who is also a fan) and Evans, there is conceivably something intrinsic to human health in the notion of reconnection to the earth that critics of these celebrity health gurus may be missing. Some preliminary research does indeed back up the principles of earthing – results have seen people experience reduced inflammation; easier blood flow; improvements in sleep, joint pain and stress levels, among other benefits.

Paul Kelly’s wisdom told us over twenty years ago not to underestimate the little things, like these glimmers of humanity’s recognition of the essentiality of untainted soil. Arguably, there has never been a more important time in human history to get our hands (and feet) dirty, and rejoice, rather than recoil, at the occasional sight of dirt under our nails.

All images use to accompany this essay were sourced from Wikipedia Commons. Links to original files below:

Mud bath at Woodstock  / Health Hints for Warm Climates / Sunlight Soap Advertisement

Advertisement for Sunlight Soap. Source: Wellcome Library via Wikipedia Commons