THE EARTH: Dirt by Diana Butler Bass

Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution

Dirt by Diana Butler Bass

From Grounded 

We must abandon the external height images in which the theistic God has historically been perceived and replace them with internal depth images of a deity who is not apart from us, but who is the very core and ground of all that is. (Paul Tillich)

Rowan eats dirt.  And he digs holes.  He would probably tunnel back to his native Ireland if we let him.  When he is not eating dirt, he lies on it.  Full belly on the ground, legs stretched out in front and to the back with every inch of his body pressing into the soil.  Although he appears to be relaxed, he is on alert – fully aware of every sound, every movement around him.  The dirt seems to make him more attentive, ready to chase the first squirrel that dares trespass into the yard.  He is a Glen of Imaal Terrier, a solid dog with short legs; scruffy and tough, he is what is known as an “earth dog.”  Indeed, the word “terrier” is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning “earth.”  As if to underscore the point, Rowan was born in mid-April, just two days before Earth Day.  For him, Earth itself is his natal saint, the dirt his dwelling place.

He is the second terrier I have owned, and I cannot help but wonder why I like earth dogs so much.  Perhaps it is some sort of recompense for my own distance from the land.  I was a city kid, born of two city people, from several generations of city dwellers.  I never really liked dirt.  It was, well, so dirty.  Unfamiliar, really.  Full of bugs and worms.  The world of my childhood was paved over, save some small grass patches and a garden or two.  When I was a little girl, I meticulously avoided all sorts of soil, howling in horror if I muddled a dress.  Until my mother planted some vegetables in a tiny square of dirt in our side yard – between two cement slabs – I thought that tomatoes grew in cellophane packages at the A&P.  It never occurred to me that what we ate came from dirt.  After I learned this fact, I refused to eat vegetables for about a year.

Like other city people in mid-twentieth-century America, we considered ourselves superior to country people.  The country was a place one came from to make a success of life.  Country people were poor and uneducated, with rough hands and dark half-circles under their fingernails.  My step-grandmother came from the country to the city.  Most of her relatives stayed behind.  “They are farmers,” she explained.  I was not sure that was a good thing.  She seemed glad to have moved, to have a nicer house in a good neighborhood, and to be married to a businessman.   But she once told me, “I miss the sweet smell of the dirt.”  I did not know what she was talking about.

Some Sundays, we drove out to the country just for a ride, the way people used to take Sunday drives in those days.  Dirt did not smell sweet.  It smelled of something else – cow poop.  Not very appealing.  And then there were my misadventures on Girl Scout hikes and campouts.  I was a terrible klutz with nature.  I constantly stumbled on rocks and slipped in mud, thus proving, to my own mind at least, that the Earth was a threatening and inhospitable place.  I found critters in my sleeping bag after a cold night on hard ground.  I cried so much that, the next night, one of the troop leaders took me to a local motel until my mother came to rescue me from the hell of outdoors.

Because of all this, I was grateful for church, a safe haven from the untamed world of nature.  God apparently preferred the indoors, too.  His sacred abode was the Methodist church in our neighborhood: four white walls, wooden pews, and colored glass windows.  There, a benevolent deity sheltered his followers from every storm, and from the wicked wilderness as well.  It never occurred to me that someone might seek God in the woods or on a mountain or at a beach, because God was so readily available in the building up the road.  Church, unlike nature, was safe.  When it came to it, I preferred singing hymns to digging in the dirt.

In 1969, in the wake of the chaos caused by race riots, my parents left the city for the country.  This rural migration seemed a strange reversal of things, as we left everything familiar for a new house built in the woods.  Who left the city?  At first, moving to the country proved much of my childhood prejudice against dirt true – especially when a wall of mud slid down a neighboring hill where a house was under construction and wound up in our basement and swimming pool.  Or when I was forced to share a gym locker with a girl who came to school having just helped feed her family’s goat herd.  Her clothes – and mine – smelled of goat.

But something else happened too.  There were acres and acres of undeveloped land around our neighborhood.  Day after day, season after season, my brother, sister, and I explored the forests and farms that made up our new world.  There were ponds and streams, dense stands of old trees, small deserted graveyards, and ruins of abandoned houses.  There was a huge reservoir surrounded by woodlands.  Beyond the trees were farms, where we learned the pleasures of biking to the edge of a cornfield and playing hide-and-seek amid the summer stalks.

We quit going to church.  It was just too far from our new hour to return to the family congregation.  Despite our former faithful attendance, we found we did not miss it.  Although I had always believed God lived in that building, I unexpectedly discovered that God was also present in the woods as I followed streams through the forest.  Sitting by the lake, skating on a frozen pond, riding my bike on dirt roads – it was as if I could hear God whispering to me.  At the Methodist church, I learned how to follow the rules, how to be an obedient Christian girl.  But the country – the place of dirt that I had previously feared – became a school of wonder.  Those woods and farms were a sanctuary of the sacred, a place where the Bible actually spoke.  There were sheep and goats in pastures, fields ripe to harvest, and vines and trees bearing fruit.

Freed from memorizing Bible verses in the church basement, I sank into the world charged with the Word of God.  There I not only heard about God, but I met God while watching tadpoles in the spring and listening to the wind-rustled golden trees in the autumn.  And I would sit on the ground, by the stream or under a leafy canopy, feeling the dirt’s moist chill, where I sensed the lift of soil.  I learned to love being outside.  I left my brother and sister behind, wandering solitary through the countryside, an adolescent girl accidentally embodying the spirit of Thoreau, finding Heaven under my feet as much as over my head.

One day when I was twelve or so, I walked in the back door after such an adventure.  My shoes were muddied, my pants dirty.

“Look at you!  Take those clothes off right away and put them in the washer!” my mother cried.  “I thought you hated dirt.”

I slipped into the laundry room, talking to myself.  “I thought I hated it too.”

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