99 tips for a better world (18 of 99): go play in the dirt
A couple of months ago I decided to go travelling for a while. Two weeks ago I took leave of gainful employment, packed up my lovely little apartment and sketched out an itinerary.
In between clearing out my office and getting on a plane, I have a few weeks of hanging out back in my small hometown in regional Victoria.
It’s quiet here. Really quiet. I spend my days reading and cooking and gardening.
My favourite part is the gardening. I’ve been doing a lot of digging. It’s a great restorative activity that slows me down. It has helped transport me from my former daily reality of sitting at a desk in front of a computer in an office on the seventh floor of a building in the middle of a university campus in the middle of a city. It’s been a wonderful way to transition from my professional life to my wandering-the-world life.
The restorative power of nature has never been lost on me. Even though as a kid I was more into books than netball, I spent plenty of time outside, turning gutters into mud villages after it rained and turning large piles of grass clippings into grass castles. Once, I used the hose to turn the sand pit into a mud bath (before the drought, of course) and swam around in it for hours.
I loved getting dirty. Not city dirty – smog and sweat and exhaust and café food spilled on my shirt dirty. I mean country dirty – with dirt. My strong connection to dirt and grass and trees is a pretty special and unique thing…if by ‘special and unique’ I mean ‘like every other living being on the planet’. I challenge you, dear reader, to find one person who doesn’t at least appreciate the sensation of running their hands through well-dug soil.
Because I’ve only spent a few days in the garden, I’m still over-reliant on the internet to help me think my thoughts (I’m sure another week in the garden will change this). So I looked to the interwebs for an explanation of why dirt is proving so good for my soul.
I found a wonderful post on a blog called Simple Mom that looked into why kids should get dirty. The author found a study by researchers at the University of Bristol and University College London that shows there are types of bacteria in soil which activate the neurons that produce serotonin. That’s right, dirt can make you happy!
The same blog post pointed me to the work of journalist and author Richard Louv. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Louv coins the term Nature-Deficit Disorder, which he describes as the outcome of a cultural transformation in which children are directed to avoid contact with nature instead of searching for it. He argues Nature-Deficit Disorder can be linked to attention disorders and depression in children.
I don’t really need to read this to know that playing in the dirt is good for me. But knowing something is good for me doesn’t necessarily mean I will make time to do it. There are many ways I could have introduced more dirt into my inner-city life. I had a balcony garden, which was great, but mostly just required watering a few succulents.
I could have invested more into creating and tending to a real vegetable garden and gotten more dirt under my fingernails on a regular basis.
I could have offered my gardening services to friends with backyards. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been hard to find some weeds and trees to prune.
I could have spent more of my weekends in nature. Not just the inner city gardens, which are great but still quite clean as far as gardens go.
I could have gone hiking in bushland, visited the beach, gone for a walk along the creek and taken some time out to sit on the bank. Instead of sitting in cafes talking to friends about life, the universe and everything, imagine how the conversation might have changed if we were sitting by the creek running our hands through soil, playing with twigs and watching insects go about their business.
When I started writing this uneducated homage to dirt, an interview with soil scientist Dr Elizabeth Stockdale came on the radio. You won’t be surprised to know that I took this as a sign from the Universe and looked Dr Stockdale up. It didn’t take long to find her cover story for the 100th issue of Organic Farming magazine and this beautiful quote I will leave you with:
‘It is the heart – the powerhouse, the common centre of the cycles of water, nutrients, carbon and life itself. Without it, nothing else works. The soil is all of this and much more. It is not just a superficial covering for the earth: it is its life.’