The ground and the dirt nourishes us in so many ways.
Most of us are familiar with studies that show how important it is for kids to get dirty. Early exposure to microbes in dirt and even pet dander help children develop robust immune systems. Since kids spend significantly more time indoors now than in ages past, parents have to be intentional about incorporating dirt into playtime. But what about adults? What price are we paying for this brave new world of indoor living? That’s the question that inspired Paul Bogard to write his new book, The Ground Beneath Us.
It began with this statistic: that those of us in the Western world now spend about 90-95 percent of our time inside, in our houses, work places, in our cars. We’re living our lives separated from the natural world. When we walk outside, many of us walk on pavement. There’s this literal separation from the natural ground, from the soil, the dirt. It made me think, what are the costs of this separation? And it struck me as symbolic of our separation of these many different kinds of grounds that sustain us. Our food, water, energy, even our spirits come from these different grounds.
My birthday was last week, and I was having a bummer of a day. I had a nasty cold and spent most of the morning sitting on the couch, sniffling miserably and staring longingly out the windows at the bright sunshine. After lunch, my husband took the kids outside while I folded laundry and felt sorry for myself.
An hour later he came back in, announcing that he had fixed my bike and the girls were airing up the tires so we could take a bike ride. I cheered up immediately — cold or no cold, a bike ride sounded wonderful.
And it was wonderful. An hour of sunlight, fresh air, and exercise lifted my spirits immeasurably, and taking a break to walk across the grass in bare feet was the best part. Physically, I still felt rotten, but it was bearable because I felt so mentally and emotionally refreshed.
The ground gives us life in so many ways. It isn’t just a clinical kind of nourishment, either; sure, we need microbes in the soil and Vitamin D from the sunlight to feed our bodies, but we also need the beauty of nature to nourish our souls.
Wendell Barry once said, “the soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.” Did you know that paving over the soil kills it? Bogard talks about the horror he felt when he learned that pavement cuts soil off from light and air, and the ground beneath the pavement is unlikely to ever recover.
Civil war battlefields are being paved over with parking lots. Ox Hill has been transformed from sprawling hills to streets, condominiums, and shopping malls. It isn’t just the soil that’s being razed –it’s the roots of the American people, our history, the ground where we fought bitterly to become a good nation rather than a merely great one.
That’s a sort of ontological connection to the soil, more removed than the primal connection of life-giving vitamins and microbes. But that doesn’t make it any less true. I can’t help but wonder what other essential truths we are missing, what connections we are losing as we increasingly retreat from the world around us.