Dirt

Love it, love it, love it.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY RUSSELL THORNTON

“In the Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
—Margaret Atwood

I have to confess I like the smell of dirt. As a gardener and especially during the Winter months, I find myself longing not so much for the calming scent of lavender or a heavenly sniff of my English roses, but more for the earthy smell of dirt warmed by the Spring sun. I want to dig my fingers into the crumbly, chocolate cakelike soil in my garden, made rich by years of leaf compost, and imagine all the lovely plants it will soon host. Yes, we gardeners love our soil for what it can bring us, but for me it goes deeper than that. A lot deeper.

Mother was horrified. I was banned from dirt-related play for quite a while.

As a child, I was a hole-digger. I mean immense cause-your-mother-to-break-a-leg holes. I dug them in the most inconvenient places possible. I had no real purpose. I wasn’t digging for treasure or to bury my brother’s toy soldiers (though I do remember tossing a few of them into one hole). No, I just loved digging in the soil. After she fell into one of my more impressive holes, my mother ordered me to find a more productive outlet. “Go find something else to do in the garden,” she said. “This yard is starting to look like a landmine field!”

I gave it all the thought a seven year old is capable of and came up with a doozy. I loved frogs and dragonflies, so I decided I would build a pond that our whole family could enjoy. I set to work with my shovel and a load of determination. But the ground was hard as a rock. After about two days of digging, I had a scruffy-looking hole about three feet wide and only a few inches deep. I kept at it, envisioning a lovely pool full of clear water, frogs, and fish (which I somehow believed would magically appear as soon as I put water into it).

By the third day, I was pretty exhausted. The hole did not look all that promising, but I decided it would do. I dragged the garden hose over and filled it to the rim (which did not take long since it was so shallow) and then sat beaming at it until the sun went down and my mother made me come inside. All night long, I kept waking up and imagining I was hearing the croaking of frogs. At first light the next morning, I ran out to see my new pond.

It wasn’t there anymore. All that was left was a hole filled with what looked like chocolate pudding. Really gooey chocolate pudding. It was a setback, for sure. But not for long.

As I stood gazing at my puddle of mud, I was struck with another idea. I had all this lovely mud, why not…make mudpies! I set to work. I collected nearly all the broad leaves I could reach (denuding most of my mother’s flowering shrubs) and laid them out on the only surface I had to work on: the seats of my swing set. I began layering the lovely mud into multiple creations.

I didn’t just make mudpies, I made mud cakes, mud souffles, even mud sculptures. I grabbed bunches of geranium petals—and a lot of other flowers—and sprinkled them on top for color and appeal. At the end of the day, I had maybe 30 mud creations spread over the seats of the swings, the tops of the brick planter, and the cement around the swimming pool. The yard looked like a bomb had gone off. I was proud.

Mother was horrified. Needless to say, I was banned from dirt-related play for quite a while.

Fast forward a few years to my teenage self. I was petite and big-eyed, with long brown hair, and looked every inch a girly-girl. Like my friends, I often spent time at the local drugstore dabbing Shalimar or Estée Lauder on my wrists in search of what we were calling our “signature scent.”

I hadn’t found anything that satisfied me, though, until one day standing at the perfume counter, I caught a whiff of something familiar. Something evocative. Something that spoke to that long-ago little girl. I picked up the bottle and sure enough, the label said “Dirt.” Really.

“Ewww…” whined my friend as I sprayed it on my neck. “Interesting,” my current boyfriend murmured cautiously that evening.

“Really, why am I not surprised you picked that one?” my mother sighed. I didn’t care. I had found my “signature scent”—at least for the next year or so.

Eventually that cologne became unavailable where I lived. That was OK with me. I was a bit distracted by then—and for years—by boys, college, and career. It wasn’t until I was married that I discovered the joys of gardening and was able to get back to my first true love.

I believe they still sell Dirt cologne somewhere. I don’t need it. I spend so much time in my garden planting and weeding and deadheading and picking and thinning and transplanting and…that I smell like dirt all on my own, thanks.

Good, clean, sweet-smelling dirt.

This article was published originally in 2019, in GreenPrints Issue #118.


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