Fear of Soil


Haven’t you watched people arm themselves to the teeth just to stick a few pansies in the ground? Or avoid the great outdoors entirely, with a wrinkled nose, because it’s muddy? Certainly, avoidance of dirt is the central obsession in approximately 100 million American kitchens, and the supermarket shelves are groaning with products designed not just to clean our persons and houses, but to well-nigh sterilize them.

There are costs to being too clean.  Not only are you unlikely to garden, one of the theories behind the rise in allergic diseases like asthma is the "hygiene" theory: our houses are so sanitary that our immune systems are never properly primed in childhood by real germs and instead wind up over-reacting to harmless allergens.

So why are we so obsessed with cleanliness?   My favorite explanation comes from Adrian Forty’s terrific book Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750.  We dislike dirt in part because advertising agencies sold us on the idea that we should dislike it.  It was their job in the early years of the 20th century to market the first electric appliances, which were a lot more expensive than elbow grease and not a whole lot more efficient.  So, some marketing geniuses hit upon this idea: emphasize the superiority of the cleaning job they do.  Scare houseswives by telling them their houses are "haunted" by germs that can only be gotten rid of by purchasing an electric vacuum and a jug of Lysol.  Convince them to replace their comfy, woody Edwardian kitchens and baths with gleaming white tiles, not because the tiles are easier to keep clean–the opposite in fact–but because they show the dirt and encourage one to scrub.

So, here we are, "haunted" people who can’t tell the difference between loam and disease and who don’t recognize that good health resides in working the soil.  And that fear of the soil makes us both sick and silly.


  1. All true, Michele. Most people even think you should vacuum and deoderize your car after using it to haul leafmold but I say – it’ll only get dirty and smelly again so why bother? And compost HAPPENS.

  2. Interesting post and commentary on America’s ‘dirty little secret’ about dirt. Who doesn’t love a mud pie when they are a child…and those of us who garden, as an adult! Spreading compost builds biceps in addition to great soil!

  3. Antibacterial soap is a scary thing. Why do we need to surgically sterilize everything? And what happens when that antibacterial soap goes down the drain? It goes into the sewer, or worse, our drainpipes, and then stimulates the development of drug resistant microorganisms. This is accelerated by the dilution of the stuff in the drains and the collection in the u-bend beneath the sink. It’s very easy fo the superbugs to crawl out of the drain e.g. via splattering of the garbage disposal, and infect us. Then we think we are getting rid of these guys with “antibacterial” soap. What does that mean for our children? Well, some people predict that we only have 20-30 years of effective antibiotic use left, before we run out of safe, effective antibiotics due to resistance.

  4. Michele, you are right on the money. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the entire post.

    Susan, I just traded in my car for a new one. The salesperson was amazed at its pristine condition. Good thing he didn’t look in the trunk. Compost happened!

  5. Good thought provoking post, but i am going to comment coming from another direction

    I think I am qualified to do this because I started in a Nursery at 14 and except for a few yrs of College and traveling, and 3 yrs working on the Great Lakes this is all I’ve ever done . . . people comment to me about this subject all the time . . . like the past 27 years.

    We dig in the dirt, it is hard work, and we like it, we really like it . . . it is who we(for me anyway)are, and the average American just can’t handle that.

    The enjoyment of physical labor. Working in the elements, and turning around at the end of the day and whispering to yourself “I did that”.

    Given the way the average American feels about physical labor we do not fall in the “norm(s)”, so we are not normal.

    To that I can only say. “Why in the hell would I want to be normal?!?”.

  6. As someone whose car, designated areas in the house, and garden-prep areas are in a constant state of disorder, untidiness, and quite often, downright filthiness, I feel quite enabled by this.

  7. Ooooh, I think Rick has hit on something. Especially following that recent comment from Karl Rove (despicable man!) about how he wouldn’t want his son “to have to pick tomatoes.” Maybe this is really just a class issue, and gardening is considered not normal because people think it is a low-class endeavor. Too bad. So many children of the upper class don’t know how to do anything more useful than picking their noses. Picking tomatoes would be an improvement.

  8. I come from a long line of avid abnormal people, which may make me hyper-abnormal. They have lived long and healthy lives, dirty until the very end.

    I have encouraged my parents to hire a gardener to help them with their Florida garden, but no one does it the right way in their eyes, so at 78 and 79 they still do pretty much all of it themselves. That may be a bit of a perfectionist control type issue, yea I got that too, but they certainly are not afraid of yard dirt or work.

    Rick has touched on another aspect of this, many Americans disdain for physical labor. Now they pay money to exercise at gyms that advertise how sterile and clean they are.

  9. Christopher C. was right in that garden bloggers and others that read about gardening are not “normal”. This is true of anyone who is an enthusiast. This is where I disagree with the garden center advice I hear about marketing to the trends. Trends are followed by the masses. Trends most often start with the enthusiasts. Organic gardening in the last 50 years was embraced by “not normal” people. Look how long it’s taken for the masses to start to come around. This is the beauty of blogs in that it brings enthusiasts from all over the world together. Once you might have been the only enthusiast in your area but now you can see there are other “not normal” people out there. The connections are being made here that are going to transform what we think of as gardening. I don’t know how but it’s quite exciting!

  10. All I can say is that I loved the post, but I love the comments even more. I wish everyone were “not normal”. 🙂 We’re just lucky we can blog, and go on and on about how great it is to get dirty and tired, and any other garden blogger out there will “get it.” I love that.

  11. “Gardening is not cultish or fetishistic at all. … ”

    I guess that’s where I disagree — at least for most readers of this blog. We’re at least pretty far out on the tail end of the bell curve. We’re passionate, and just like anyone who is passionate about what they do, we’re viewed as odd. Which makes me odd also because I view with suspicion anyone who isn’t passionate about something.

    “… It is one of the essential human experiences.” I agree with you there, though it is certainly becoming less and less essential these days.

    One of the very highest administrators where I work told a friend of mine that horticulture should be like music.

    We don’t all have to be virtuosos. But we should understand it enough to appreciate those who are, recognize the genius of the simplist folks song, and be able to tune a radio, if not a guitar.

    I think the jury is out on the dirt part. I’m sure it’s an issue for some. But judging from pick-up truck commercials, popularity of motocross and off-road bicycling, it’s OK for guys to get dirty doing some things. Maybe they have to involve conquests of some sort. I’ll let someone else weigh in on the other side of that one.

  12. Sadly, I think it runs deeper than fear of dirt or physical labor. People are actually afraid of their natural environment and avoid it as much as possible(unless viewing it from the safety of indoors or their paved and roofed “outdoor room.”) This disconnection may eventually lead to the extinction of our species – or we’ll all have to fly to the moon and start over! Doesn’t look like a great gardening environment there!

  13. Bev, you may be right.The Mr’s mother will not let anything but very short grass grow near her home because”It will bring snakes”.
    She sprayed her garage for spiders and worries about ticks and mosquitoes. The list gets longer.
    Kill or trap any small creature that comes through they do damage,bees and wasp might sting.
    Nature is the enemy…

  14. I too come from a long line of abnormal people. When we moved into our house 22 years ago and I planted a garden the neighborhood busybody came along and looked at the row of tomatoes and inquired whether I didn’t know that you could buy tomatos in the store! He has never been gifted with heirloom tomatos and probably would not know the difference anyway. HE has a yard that has nothing but chemically treated, weed free, lawn. Not one flower or bush even mars the one note symphony of grass. I couldn’t live there. I rejoice when the dandelions come up as they are “free wild greens”. I even think the thistle blooms are a lovely shade of purple. I guess I am weird, but I prefer to be referred to as interesting.

  15. I have to say that I think I enjoy gardening for many of the same reasons I enjoy cooking, working with pastels and running. People do look at you funny when you’re covered in dirt or flour or sweat or anything that might indicate that you were actually just engaged in some physical activity. Think of all the products we’re sold to help us mask the various bodily odors that are otherwise indicative of a good health. It’s unfortunate that there is such a disconnect between our animal selves and the rest of nature. Dust to dust, after all.

  16. My personal love of gardening is layered like sediment! I was fortunate to be raised by very practical people who understood the important role that dirt/earth plays in life. I feel sad for people who are scared of dirt, bugs, animals, etc.. They are missing out on some of the best things in life! If that makes me abnormal…hooray!

  17. I think I have it. “I often notice a mystified expression on their faces if they happen to pass by as I attack my front yard with a shovel.” Attack? Goodness knows their expressions when you’re wielding clippers, shears, or a saw.

    On the other hand, it is Saratoga Springs. Would you really expect anything else?

  18. First, we need to differentaite between cleanliness and neatness – two totally different impulses. Many homes are orderly in appearance but far from clean or germ free.
    Second, I’m surprised no one has mentioned allergies as a barrier to gardening. Here is the humid ozone-red DC summers many folks are stuck inside due to ashma and other conditions.
    Third, bugs! Can you imagine the horror of getting touched by one!?! Seriously I have neighbors who tell me to NOT plant flowers near the sidewalk cause they attract bees. My reaction is, “So? If you aren’t deathly allergic to a bee sting what does it matter?” They look at me like I’m crazy to not see that bees are intrinsicly evil. Whatever.
    Back on topic, getting dirty is just the first barrier to gardening.

  19. Better to be considered “abnormal” than to miss the joys of the garden! Aunti Mame had it right when she declared that gardening (sorry, Mame, to misquote you!) is a feast and most poor suckers are starving!

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