When I was a very young child my mother used to say, ‘You’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ I didn’t then know what she meant, nor picked up the context in which she said it, so I imagined a final ritual that involved the picking up and consumption of a small amount of soil. Being of a precociously logical disposition it also occurred to me that if avoided ingesting soil I might live forever.
We lived in the country, and there was dirt aplenty in the garden. Soft, gritty, not unpalatable. The ‘pecking’ aspect confused me, though. We kept hens and I understood what it meant to peck. Hens pecked at dirt continuously, even appeared to be eating it, courting, I supposed, an early demise. But in the absence of beaks, I couldn’t see how how we might do it.
I came to understand the meaning eventually, and agree wholeheartedly with both its metaphorical and its literal intent. Indeed sometimes I feel we don’t eat enough dirt. People are absurdly squeamish about cleanliness. If I drop food on the kitchen floor, I’ll happily pick it up and eat it. I don’t scour and swab my kitchen surfaces obsessively with industrial-grade disinfectants, in fear of bacteria. I’ll happily live with domestic animals without worrying about fur and hair. I wash my hands only when I should (see below). And I don’t mind dogs in restaurants or feeding them from the table.
I’ve no idea whether it’s true that overly zealous cleaning renders us vulnerable to bacteria and allergies, but people often say it. It may be one of those dubious factoids. But it makes a kind of sense, though has disturbing reverberations of homeopathic theory (dirt cures dirt). But whatever the truth of this, why waste so much time with dishcloth, bucket, mop, scrubbing brush, bleach, scouring powder and detergent? There are better things to do.
Some employers see it as their duty to enjoin hygienic behaviour on their employees. This notice, sent to me by my brother, and posted in the lavatories of the bank he works for, gives us remarkably detailed instructions on how we should wash our hands. Banks are, after all, often in the business of laundry.
Paradoxically, soil might be our saviour. Or at least it’s sometimes mentioned as such, with great fanfare. I was thinking of this when I read, yet again, in last week’s British papers the usual story about the ‘end of antibiotics.’ The tabloids reach for this alarmist notion every three or four months. Bacteria, we are told, are fighting back. The fittest of them have survived the onslaught of antibiotics, developing resistance as a result of our foolish overuse use of them, or incorrect use (YOU MUST FINISH THE COURSE). I have no doubt it is true.
But, as I recall, the papers also regularly publish another contrasting ‘good news’ story, that researchers have found whole classes of new antibiotics by delving into dirt, where antibiotics of miraculous capability lurk in the microbes that inhabit soil.
What to believe?
Look at this story, for example, from January:
I am an optimist. A peck of soil will be our saviour. Be grateful to dirt.