Terra Firma Or Why We Better Start Getting Dirty

When I was a kid I roamed where I liked playing with friends, riding bikes, and building forts in the dirt. Times were different then I guess. We didn’t have soccer practice or band or cell phones nor the near lock up children experience today when it comes to playing outside. Or maybe it was because my family was poor and that’s why I didn’t have soccer practice or band. But I remember I wasn’t the only kid playing outside all over creation until the sun went down. Seems like most of us did back then.

I can understand why parents won’t let their kids play freely today. I get it that they don’t want their kids too far out of sight (or maybe they do and just don’t tell anyone about it). But I’m afraid all of this keeping kids busy doing other things or making sure they don’t stay outside too long and get themselves dirty is having a negative effect on our children’s health. It’s not just me that feels this way. So does science. Jump over the orange dirt pile to follow me along this dusty path.

Kids who grow up on traditional farms are 30% to 50% less likely than other children to develop asthma, a new study shows. But it’s not the fresh country air.It’s the germs.

This is a finding from a New England Journal of Medicine study. Now we know that germs are bad for you right? Isn’t that what we’ve been told by Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and everyone else hucking “anti-bacterial” soaps, wipes, and even children’s toys? Turns out that anti-bacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap and water and may actually be harming you in many ways. Not to mention the fact the increase in antibiotic resistance is believed at least in part due to the overuse of these products. Even the FDA concluded that anti-bacterial soaps are no more effective than soap and water and some thought they would take action to curb advertiser claims. But they didn’t.

The Dirty Truth About Dirt And Health

The advertiser’s push of anti-bacterial products onto the American populace is having a deleterious effect on our health and our relationship to “germs” and “dirt.” The latter issue (our relationship to germs and dirt) is much greater than you might know, which I will cover later, but for now, let’s briefly cover the health side of this negative reaction to germs and dirt.

The alarming increase in rates of asthma and allergies among children in the U.S. has perplexed researchers for some time. The finding that kids raised on farms had lower rates of asthma and allergies strengthens the Hygiene Hypothesis, which put simply, suggests that the more sterile your environment growing up the weaker your immune system is. Population studies, observational studies, and lab studies all seem to strengthen the idea that by keeping our kids indoors and telling them to stay out of the dirt may be harming them in the long run.

One thing is for sure, I’m happier when I get dirty. And I’m not alone and there is a reason I’m not alone. Bring in the doctor please:

When Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at Royal Marsden Hospital in London, was inoculating cancer patients with a strain of M. vaccae (pronounced “emm vah-kay”), she noticed that in addition to fewer cancer symptoms, patients also showed improved emotional health, vitality, and even cognitive function.

Dr. O’Brien is not the only one to notice this positive effect on mood following exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae), which is a microbe in soil (or dirt). And now researchers think they may have discovered a likely pathway between M. vaccae, our brain, and the triggering of happiness from dirt: serotonin.

Some studies have found that treatment with M. vaccae, the inoffensive soil bacterium, eases skin allergies, and other reports—such as the cancer study—show that it can improve mood. Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol in England, had a hunch about how this process might work. “What we think happens is that the bacteria activate immune cells, which release chemicals called cytokines that then act on receptors on the sensory nerves to increase their activity,” he says.

Not only does M. vaccae appear to interact with our brain to elevate our mood, but it is even showing promise in reducing treatment time for tuberculosis and seems to help with skin allergies as well. But don’t you underestimate this dirty little bugger and the potential it shows. It’s not done with us yet and I think it has a mission:

Previous research studies on M. vaccae showed that heat-killed bacteria injected into mice stimulated growth of some neurons in the brain that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety. “Since serotonin plays a role in learning we wondered if live M. vaccae could improve learning in mice,” says Matthews.

And well, it did. The mice exposed to M. vaccae navigated mazes twice as fast as “clean” mice and showed less anxiety behaviors. And here’s the kicker. Even when they stopped the exposure to M. vaccae in the experimental group, the “dirty” mice still solved the mazes faster than the “clean” mice showing that M. vaccae has lasting effects after exposure. Three weeks out the dirty mice were still smarter than the clean mice, but this difference was not statistically significant so the effects are temporary. Which just means it’s time to get dirty again.

Who would have thought? A tiny microbe in the soil affecting us so positively. Starts to make sense once you consider the fact that it’s estimated 90 trillion microbes (aka germs) live in our bodies. And if I start to talk about the amount of microbes in soil…well then the numbers start to get a little crazy. Just know this, soil is ALIVE. Teaming with life. So much life it’s almost impossible to comprehend the magnitude of it. One teaspoon of fertile soil can contain as much as 100 million to over 1 BILLION bacteria in it. One teaspoon. And that’s not all that’s in soil. Fungi, nematodes, spiders, pill bugs, earthtworms, mammals….It’s truly alive and very diverse.

That is, if it is fertile soil. And fertile soil is required to feed ourselves. Without it, we perish. Only about 11% of the earth’s surface remains arable land. A mere 6 inches deep on average worldwide. A truly thin skin of the earth that supports the life on it. But, it is shrinking:

There is little new land that can be brought into production, and existing land is being lost and degraded. Annually, says the UN’s food and agricultural organisation, 75bn tonnes of soil, the equivalent of nearly 10m hectares [almost 2.5 million acres] of arable land, is lost to erosion, waterlogging and salination; another 20m hectares [almost 5 million acres] is abandoned because its soil quality has been degraded.

The implications are terrifying. “The world is facing a serious threat of a major food shortage within the next 30 years. We are trying to grow more food on less land while facing increased costs for fertiliser, fuel and a short supply of water,” says Professor Keith Goulding, head of sustainable soils at Rothamsted research station and president of the British society of soil science.

Part of the problem is destructive farming practices. One need look no further than the dustbowl right here in our nation’s history to see what I’m talking about. The same practices that created the dustbowl continue today. Just drive down I-5 in the Central Valley of California in the dry season and you’ll see it firsthand. Plumes of dust cast off into the wind as huge farm machinery race across thousands of acres of class I soil. But now think of this on a global scale. The desertification of arable land around the globe poses an existential crisis for the human species and yet, you wouldn’t know it. For the most part our world leaders aren’t talking about it. Not a peep during the presidential election, but then, neither was climate change or water issues.

So why start off this diary by highlighting the benefits of one little soil microbe to our health and well being?

Because we should know by now that our bodies are teaming with microbes, our air, water, and our soil are all teaming with tiny microbes, both good and bad. But as advertisers have convinced us that “germs” are bad we’ve developed an unhealthy (literally) relationship with dirt (i.e. soil). And it is time we put an end to this madness and thought of and treated soil as the precious, life giving natural resource that it is. I don’t think I’ve heard a single politician talk about how soil is a precious natural resource worth protection. We protect water. We protect air. But what about fertile soil? Is it not as equally valuable to our existence as these other natural resources?

Think about it like this: What if someone were deliberately, conspicuously, with government approval, dumping 13 MILLION tons of ammonium nitrate into our drinking water each year? Do you think that would grab someone’s attention? Well that’s what’s happening to our soil. And this isn’t even taking into account the millions of tons of chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides dumped each year into our soil (5.1 BILLION pounds of pesticides alone according to the EPA).

Isn’t fertile soil as precious as clean drinking water to our existence? Shouldn’t we be thinking about soil in a different way than we currently do?

Soil microbes like M. vaccae have something to tell us. And we better listen. One way we can begin to do something about it is to call for less chemical dousing of our fertile farmland. The agricultural research is VERY clear on this one point: Organic farms maintain and build soil fertility over time while chemical farms (i.e. “conventional” farms) reduce soil fertility over time. Most chemical farms’ soil is virtually dead. This is one reason they require fertilizer inputs in the form of industrialized synthetic elements (ammonium nitrate as nitrogen for example). Ammonium nitrate became popular as a nitrogen input on farms following World War II because leftover munitions from the war piled up and well, chemical companies needed something to do with themselves now that the war was over. In 2008 over 13 MILLION tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer were spread over America’s farmland alone. Dead soil requires a lot of help and the chemical companies are more than happy to oblige.

But we don’t have to help them.

Some promising methods in farming are on the rise which is encouraging. The increase in no-till/low till methods, thanks in part to the USDA’s efforts, even on chemical farms, is one example. The World Bank and the UN Food Program have changed their minds and are now recommending that developing countries go back to their traditional methods of farming instead of taking up industrialized chemical farming. Reforestation efforts in Africa and China are also encouraging. But lobbying our policy makers, politicians, and agricultural agencies to do more to preserve our fertile soil right here in America is desperately needed. We need to think of soil in a new light and we better do it fast.

Not only should we urge policy makers to protect fertile soil, but we can on an individual level make our voices heard through supporting sustainable farming practices. We can do this by buying organic, going to farmers markets, joining CSAs, becoming active in Land Trusts, getting involved in the local food movement, the urban farm movement, and farm land preservation societies.

Mostly though I would like you to just go get dirty. Go play in the soil. Dig a garden, weed, plant flowers, just get dirty. We need to return to a sense that it’s okay if we and our kids get dirty, to an attitude that says, hey kid, go ahead and play in the dirt. They want to do it naturally. When kids are very young it is hard to keep them clean because even they know that getting dirty is just too much fun. And by letting them act on their instincts they are helping their mental well being and their physical well being. They’re boosting their immune system and connecting to the earth in a very fundamental way that honors their birthright as a human being to just play in the dirt and be happy.

We need to re-establish our connection to the soil, which we’ve lost in our modern world. We are connected to it in profound ways and I think it’s time we recognize this relationship. So go out there and play in the dirt. It’s okay. You’ll be fine and in fact you’ll probably end up healthier and happier for it.

And while you’re out there playing in the dirt, say hello to M. vaccae and thank it for bringing a smile to your face (Do this when no one is looking). Make a commitment to it that you will do your part to protect its world so that it can help protect yours. Honoring our fertile soil in this way, making this connection to the thin skin of the earth that supports life, may just be the beginning to finally protecting this precious, powerful, and living resource.

*note: My soils professor admonished us dirty students to refer to dirt as “soil.” On no uncertain terms were we to utter the word “dirt” when referring to soil. She told us, “Dirt is what you get on your pants, all the rest is soil.” This I believe was to instill in us a sense that dirt is not alive, soil is. Soil is complex. Soil is diverse. It requires respect. So I apologize to you my instructor and to you honorable soil for soiling your reputation in such a dirty way. I promise I’ll try to not do it again.


J. Jason Graff




About J. Jason Graff

J. Jason Graff received an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and a Masters degree in Education from the University of Washington and began a career in teaching shortly after. He has several short stories published and his poem “On Knowing the Temple Bell” was published in Insight Journal in 2007. After teaching in the public school system for five years Jason shifted into sustainable agriculture and received organic farmer training leading to his working with undergraduate and graduate students at the University of California—Davis in organic farming and sustainable farming practices. Jason currently lives as an artist and writer in the Sierra Mountains with his wife and dog enjoying and observing the ever-shifting conditions of the mountain environment.
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