Tucked into a corner of my deepest mind is the image of two tiny feet poking up over a wall of dirt.
Bars of sunlight stretch between the sagging limbs of an ancient pine. My weight is supported by a narrow butt and two small hands sunk deep into a thick blanket of loamy earth. Beside me, the plastic blue blade of a child’s shovel is plunged into a mound of needles and leaves like Excalibur into the stone.
The image is all that remains. Where I happened to be or how old I was or why I had decided to dig a hole simply to sit down in it and gaze out over all creation are questions lost to me. All I can say is that it happened. And if the flavor of that memory is as true as my memory of it, I can also say I enjoyed sitting there a great deal.
It is strange how that image remains so fresh in my mind. So far in my life I have accumulated nearly forty-five years worth of memories, many of which are lost all together and will never be reclaimed. Important events, moments that shaped the person I’ve become, are now nothing more than great gaps of noise to my thinking. And yet the picture of my two feet dangling over the lip of that hole has stuck like a burr in my brain. The fact that it has not budged in all these years leads me to attach some sort of importance to it, as though it means something profound that I am not smart enough or wise enough to understand.
But maybe it’s something much simpler. Maybe that memory remains because I have always been one to crawl around in the dirt and mud.
My people are farmers and mountain folk who would rather be outside than in because outside there is room enough to move and breathe. Here we are raised to believe the ground upon which we tread is the very ground from which we were long ago made, a bit of mud gifted with the touch of the Holy Divine, leaving us to walk upon this earth half fallen and half raised. The caution given me by my parents and grandparents was to never set aside either half of that whole. Lose sight of the holy spark within you, and you’ll become little more than a dumb animal. Forget that you are connected deeply with the wind and rain and mountains, and you’ll live as though all of creation is yours to own rather than borrow for a short time.
That sort of thinking has stuck over the years. Even now, I like my fingers to be stained by earth. I like to dig and plant and find the lonely places. I prefer the feel of grass beneath me to any chair. I would rather lie upon a pallet of boughs than a bed of feathers.
I’ve read that scientists have discovered microbes in soil that serve as an antidepressant on par with drugs such as Prozac.
Natural medicine which enters the body through the nose and the skin. Proof positive that playing outside is good for you.
But it’s more than that. For me, anyway. Getting out in the dirt doesn’t only serve as a reminder that we’re all made of dust and stars. It isn’t merely a link to that long line of kin behind me who made their meager lives by the sweat of their brows and the aches in their backs. What I’m doing in the yard or the garden or the flower beds is acknowledging a part of my own existence that in times past I wanted so desperately to deny, and it is this:
Down in the dirt is where life happens,
right there amongst the mud and muck, and we will never find the means to keep ourselves unsoiled for long. We can try. We can aim to build our lives such that nothing terrible can get through, that we are insulated with stout walls and sturdy roofs that allow no pain to whistle through and no cold to grip us, but in the end this world will always win because it is so big and we are so little.
Best, I think, is to meet this life on its own terms. To get out there and get dirty. Feel the soil on your skin and under your nails and the sweat gathering at your brow. To work and tire and grow sore in your labors knowing all the while that the weeds will return and the grass will grow yet again and it will rain too much or too little but none of it matters in the end, or all of it matters very little.