I used to think that my father was crazy. Every night, he would come home completely and utterly dirty–proof of his exhausting work tending to the Earth. His hands were the color of a cloudless night, the stars being bits of perlite–the sparkly white mineral used in the greenhouse potting mix–stuck here and there in the creases of his palm and fingers. Brown stains remained even after he had washed up for dinner. I thought he was crazy because, covered in sweat and mud and dirt, he was the happiest man on Earth.
I didn’t always think he was crazy. When I was little, I used to throw dirt into the air to feel it rain down on me, run around with bare feet just to feel the soft ground below me, and make black gloves out of mud and show them off to my brothers. Then I started to go to school. It was a shock to know that now, dirt was a bad thing. No one wanted to get dirty for fear of germs. Gradually, I began to stop touching the Earth with my hands unless it was absolutely necessary. After a long harvest at the farm, I would try to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, afraid of what would get said at school. Yet I can truly say that those were the most depressing years of my life.
After years of not being happy but not quite knowing why, I had an epiphany. Naturally, this occurred while I was pulling stubborn weeds out of the ground with only my thoughts to listen to one scalding, humid day. Such revelations often happened when I was weeding. So far I had figured out how I could help struggling people in Africa, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and now . . . the secret to happiness. Right then, feeling the cool, moist soil underneath my hot, sweaty hands, I felt some of the happiness from my toddler years come rushing back. And I knew that dirt is the secret to happiness.
There is a liberating, freeing feeling when you bury your hands in dirt. It is difficult to explain, but the musky, fruity smell of the soil combined with the unique texture of the Earth makes you feel connected to Nature. When you close your eyes and feel the dirt teeming with life, it makes you feel alive too.
But not all dirt is created equal. The fertile, black soil of my father’s Central Illinois farm is one that not many people have experienced. I believe that dirt that has been repeatedly damaged by poisonous chemicals or has been compacted and over-farmed will not give one the same exhilarating happiness.
Now, I am truly content. Some days I come to school with dirt under my fingernails, proud to display my closeness to the Earth. Some people send weird glances at my hands, probably thinking that I am crazy. Just like I used to think my father was crazy. I do not know why, but this thought makes me laugh.