Sunday, October 26, 2014

So long as we are dirty, we are pure

"All of earth is crammed with heaven
And every bush aflame with God
But only those who see take off their shoes."

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My daughter's birth marked a landfall after nine long months of a watery existence. Little bit by bit, each additional day she was in the womb, she became a little less fish and a little more mammal.

Sometimes, even four years later, it seems as though she's still trying to make up for her sloshing fetal isolation from terra firma. When she gleefully kicks up the dust beneath her feet, I imagine an ocean-weary mariner whose feet unexpectedly hit dry ground after so many days at sea.

She wants nothing more than to wriggle her toes in it; to savor its taste in her mouth; to pour it over her own head in a perverse mockery of acceptable cleansing rituals. But when I watch her enthusiastic, gritty exploration of the world around her, it strikes me that there is something cleansing in shucking protective barriers and getting dirty. Despite my declared love of nature, despite our move to a rural mountain town, I still spend far too much time with a window between me and the world. My four-year-old is doing her best to cure me of that problem.

*          *          *

At our local public library, there's a song that the kids sing during story time. It goes,

Each of us is a flower,
growing in life's garden.
Each of us is a flower,
we need the sun and rain.

Sun, shine your warmth on me.
Moon, cool me with your night.
Wind, bring the gentle rain.
Earth, take my roots down deep.

It's one of those cutesy songs that I don't want to admit enjoying. I'd be okay if most nursery rhymes and children's songs faded into obscurity. Yet I can't deny there is not much that is better than watching a bunch of three or four-year-olds perform a choreographed dance while crooning "each of us is a flower . . ."

*          *          *

There are treasures down there beneath the dirt. Bottlecaps, old nails, crumbling pieces of brick and ancient tile work and pottery. Worn pennies and forgotten plastic bracelets. Little rocks that could be hidden gems and big rocks that could be prehistoric fossils.

"Getting buried," her new favorite activity
As an adult, I too rarely stoop to break the surface of the ground I walk. But now, excavating a moat and castle, I relive my own childhood archaeological adventures. It feels good to sweat through my shirt, to imagine what's under the next layer of earth, to see our mountain grow taller.

And it feels good to have my daughter by my side. She digs with her own pink shovel, inadvertently throwing dirt back into the hole I'm laboring over. She bends to pluck curious objects before they're lost to the settling soil. She scoops handfuls of dirt and rubs them over her skin like some luxurious moisturizer. And when we're done, she's the very best buried treasure a scurvy pirate dad could find.

*          *          *

Our neighbor, a spry eighty-year-old in a boonie hat and gardening gloves, watches from the back fence.
"What's that yer working on?" he says.
My daughter and I survey our territory, the moat and the castle mound that is currently a temporary home to assorted trucks, dolls, and transplanted flowering weeds.
"We're just digging!" shouts my daughter, waving her shovel triumphantly. 
"Are you gonna plant something?" he asks uncertainly. "Tomatoes?" 
"Not yet," I say, slowly looking around. "Just digging. For fun." 
"Yeah! For fun!" shouts my daughter, emptying a cup of dirt over her head. 
"Huh," he says, and turns away, shaking his head. 
Alan, our neighbor, is a gardening fiend. He can't wait until we stop foolin' about and start growing things. Which we fully intend. It's on our to-do list. Definitely in our 10-year plan. Living an hour from a reasonably-sized grocery store, it starts to make a lot of sense to grow things ourselves.

But for a little while, we're pretty okay with digging for the sake of digging. With examining roly-poly bugs and watching neat lines of ants trooping along the bottom of our trench. With laying on a pile of dirt and watching the clouds go by. With carving canyons with shovels and kitchen implements and with building tiny civilizations on the cliff edges. With getting so dirty that a shake of our clothes leaves a cloud of dust wafting through the air, and perpetually having dirt under our fingernails, a keepsake and reminder to get outside again soon.

The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions . . . mud pies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.
-Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, 1870