by Jana Richman
Featured in Dirt
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.
I dream about digging in dirt. In my fertile imagination dirt begins at sensuality, climbs the trellis of eroticism, and drops into the hole of debauchery where it romps lasciviously before climaxing in rebellious abandon.
Gorgeous, sexy people dig in dirt. People who age well. People who collect beauty in the creases of crow’s-feet. People with sturdy hands and good minds. In the evenings, dirt diggers dine at friend-encircled tables, where laughter and wine pour forth in equal measure, where confident, unjeweled fingers twirl glasses, where dirt persists under nails and in cuticles. The diggers taste their food with more intensity, more essence than the non-diggers. The word luscious comes to mind.
I’ve been digging in dirt all day, they say, and then, I love digging in dirt. The words enter the atmosphere with such lustiness you quiver with images of black, loose dirt fondling your own fingers. And the dirt . . . oh, the dirt! So perfectly textured, like silk drawn over erect nipples. The dirt collects heat from the sun and offers it to you. But then, as you reach for it, the dirt playfully tugs you into its cool recesses. You’re surprised when a barely audible moan spills from your lips.
Dirt fantasies, like sexual fantasies, vibrate with tension between imagination and reality. Both are genuine, and one plays off the other, gently correcting and merging the romance with the banal, the wild with the tame, the unconscious connection to dirt with the conscious experience of dirt.
The dirt surrounding my desert home is not perfectly textured. It is not rich and dark and moist and soft and cool to the touch. It does not gently stroke my arthritic fingers. It is not being aerated by slow-moving, benign worms. My dirt is dry, hot, hard-packed clay occupied by copious members of the family Formicidae—the industrious ant—which explore the giant in their midst by biting, ascertaining, I assume, my suitability as a food source and the possibility of carrying me away crumb by crumb. I try to cultivate a gentle attitude toward ants because I’m a fan of E. O. Wilson. I know ants are busy cultivating my clay-like earth where worms fear to tread, but instead of dropping to my knees, lowering my face to the ground, and offering thanks, I swear and stomp at them. “Stop biting me, you little bastards!” I scream.
Ants are dirt fantasy killers. Earwigs too. Flies also. Along with whatever gopher-type animal leaves loose dirt mounds—an impressive feat—on the surface of my small plot of solid earth. All these busy creatures share my dirt and outnumber me by maybe a million to one. They also share the products of my dirt, which is, I suppose, only fair. The legal authority proclaiming the dirt mine doesn’t hold much sway with them.
Although my dirt is not the dirt of my dreams, it has taught me this: dirt does not need to achieve my idea of perfection to produce. Out of my broken clods of clay sprout tomatoes, squash, corn, peppers, and whatever else I manage to shove into the ground. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches, apricots, and plums drop onto concrete-like earth in my backyard year after year. Greenery breaks through also—a few blades of grass but mostly weeds that we mow and call “green space.” I’ve been told I need to bring in “good soil” and work it into my dirt. That would certainly feed my fantasy, but there’s something about the toughness of my dirt, and its ability to create new life in its current state, that keeps me from doing so. It seems a betrayal, like the 60-year-old husband replacing his 60-year-old wife with a younger woman, one smoother to the touch.
My vision of myself as a dirt digger is akin to that of the “avid hiker” with the never-worn, expensive, Italian hiking boots in a dark corner of the closet. Gardening is not my strong suit. I cram vegetable plants into my dirt—invariably too close to one another—and let them fend for themselves among the weeds. And they do. They hold strong. My garden is not suitable for the pages of a glossy magazine—it is an entangled mess that requires bravery and a machete to harvest tomatoes—but it is hardy.
Still, my dirt fantasies remain intact. They are not frivolous. They are not based solely in romanticism, but I’ve come to realize that I’m not so much a dirt digger as I am a dirt wallower. Wet or dry, I love dirt on my skin.
My first recognition of this came in the summer of 1962 before I started first grade. A friend and I were playing, as was our custom, along the ditch banks behind my house. The dirt of my current reality was also the dirt of my youth, so the ditch banks were made of soaked clay-like earth. We had never heard of women going to spas for mud treatments—we had never heard of spas—but covering ourselves in cool, gloppy mud seemed an irresistible idea. It was also an idea that would land us in a heap of trouble, and we knew it. So we compromised. Next door, a younger boy had set up a classroom of stuffed animals and was in the process of dressing down a giant giraffe that had apparently spoken out of turn. Because the boy swiftly determined we were having more fun than he was, we made quick work of convincing him to sacrifice the giraffe to our cause. We would slop mud on the long-necked beast and cool ourselves in the process. The brilliant idea generated hours of reckless, muddy fun. Why we thought this would lead to less trouble than slapping the mud directly on our own skin is no longer part of my memory. As we would find out from the boy’s red-faced, furious mother, giant stuffed giraffes don’t grow on trees, are non-washable, and are meant to live indoors. Even though the giraffe was outdoors before its spa treatment began, that technicality didn’t save us.
In his book, Magical Child, Joseph Chilton Pearce identifies the living earth as the second bonding matrix—after the mother—in a child’s intellectual development. A child has no capacity for abstract explanations—the kind parents love to impart—of the world; her development is 100 percent experiential: mud feels good, doesn’t taste good. Lesson learned. What else offers unqualified practicality but the natural world? If a child is unable to process the natural world through the body, writes Pearce—rolling in sand and grass, eating dirt, chewing on sticks, sniffing flowers and dung, hearing the buzz of insects and birdsong— the patterns for practical sensory organization never form in that child’s brain, and the creative logic of that child is forever thwarted.
My mother’s purpose for sending me outdoors to play had little to do with her desire to create a magical child and more to do with her desire for silence, but in spite of her intentions, I found my place along the ditch banks and in the mud sloughs of the world. The urge to cover my skin in dirt has never left me. Desert quicksand after a monsoon provides a fleeting fix, but one can’t typically get more than shin deep in it. A few years ago, after hearing about a natural hot spring/mud bath in a meadow near a small California town, my husband, Steve, and I drove six hours to sink ourselves into silky, black, sulfur-stinking mud. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting the experience, but when I tell friends about it, they crinkle their noses and seldom ask for directions.
On my fiftieth birthday, Steve and I hiked to Boucher Creek at the west end of the Grand Canyon. The trail was harsh, the packs were heavy with extra water, and the temperature hovered around 110 degrees even though we had set out at 4 a.m. In the ranger’s office the day before, we had been appraised under doubtful eyebrows, received a reluctant nod of approval, and were told we were on our own. Boucher Creek was difficult to reach, no other campers would be there, and no rangers would be coming to check on us. In other words, perfect conditions. The ranger warned us to be off the Tonto Plateau—referred to as “the death zone”—before 10 a.m., and we took his advice seriously. At 10:15, we dropped into Boucher Creek hot, dehydrated, and exhausted, stripped our bodies of packs and clothing, and lay on our backs on a flat rock in the creek, the tops of our heads acting as a sort of stoplog to divert water around us.
For the next few days, we lived as close to the earth as modern humans from an unnatural civilization can live. We wore only a pair of sandals, sprawled in dirt, rinsed under waterfalls, swam in pools, and dried out on rocks. Unless submerged in water, we were never without dirt on our skin. We pressed our bodies together often, finding pleasure in the grit and heat between us. Four days later, when it came time to hike out, we reclothed ourselves in the items we had worn in. Nylon shorts and lightweight, sweat-wicking shirts felt heavy and restrictive—even somewhat silly. We spoke little on the hike out, silenced by the sanctity of the experience and the sadness of its rarity. I felt as if I came out of Boucher Creek in a stronger body, but it had nothing to do with physical strength. A more accurate description: I came out of Boucher Creek more strongly embodied.
Since that trip, we have sought such encounters. Sometimes for days, sometimes for only an afternoon, we shed our so-called protective layer and put body and earth together. A spiritual retreat within a natural retreat center. The longer the exposure to dirt, the more firmly embodied one becomes.
It is not unusual for humans to feel an impulse to shed clothing in the desert. It might be one of the most common surges of animal instinct remaining in us. In his book, The Man Who Walked Through Time, Colin Fletcher writes about experiencing a heightened awareness upon removing his clothing, a more intimate consciousness of the interconnected web of life in the Grand Canyon. Without clothing he felt more physically a part of the interwoven ecosystem, and he felt more deeply the diminutiveness of the human time scale. I’m never surprised when I come upon naked people in the desert; I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more frequently.
Without having conscious awareness of it, which is as it should be according to Pearce, I came out of childhood with a profound bond to dirt and carried that relationship into my adolescence. There, I found the charcoal-gray dirt of the Oquirrh Mountains near my childhood home—hard-packed with an inch or two of loosely floating topsoil that produced puffs of smoky dust when walked on. The barefoot hippie symbol of freedom reached my small town in the late 60s, a fad I enthusiastically embraced, partly because it mortified my mother and angered my father, but mostly because the human foot seemed then—and still seems now—a well-suited instrument for walking on the earth, especially those parts of earth not covered by pavement and concrete. In short, it felt good. I still don’t understand why the bare foot is repulsive to so many, why it’s okay to track dirt into a store or restaurant on Vibram soles but not on the sole of the human foot.
A vision of my feet covered in the silt of the Oquirrhs is one of the most vivid memories I carry, and that memory is solidly attached to me. By that, I mean, there has always been a small place in me that yearns for my own life—the life I want to live versus the life I’m supposed to live. The supposed-to life fits neatly into the expectations of family and society; the want-to life departs drastically from that picture. The two can never fully merge because the want-to life includes a small house and the supposed-to life demands that I pay for it. But my interior place of craving remains, and it is solidly connected to the earth’s surface. Somehow, putting the human body in direct contact with the earth infuses it with unrestrained imagination. I’ve carried this knowledge with me since childhood, albeit mostly at an unconscious level. Once I moved it into consciousness, I’ve stayed close to dirt and moved steadily toward the want-to life, disappointing many along the way, but pleasing the wistful girl sitting on a creek bank staring at her dirt-covered feet.
The older I get, the more essential dirt wallowing becomes. It reminds me that I can age, my stomach can lose its tautness, my skin can loosen, my joints can stiffen, and my body can begin to wear out as it is designed to do, but until it drops, it is still my body. It is the same body that forty years ago enjoyed a pair of Levi 501s drooping on its bare hips below its flat belly; the same body that has forever objected to the idea of being strapped into women’s wear; the same body that soaked up too much sun, turned scarlet, and shed its outer layer; and the same body that kicked up puffs of gray dust around bulging tree roots in the Oquirrh Mountains.
It is the dirt on the body that reminds it of its sensuality, that allows it to claim its carnal appetite at any age. In a culture where only young women are allowed to express themselves as sexual beings, dirt on the body allows the old woman to say: Fuck that. You don’t determine my sexuality. I do. The earth does.