By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Love-hate relationship with dirt

Dirt is getting a dirty deal.

As a kid, it sometimes seemed to me that dirt was as undesirable as the plague. The worst thing in the world was dirt.

As a 9-year-old, I’d come in from play to be greeted by my mother with, “My goodness, child, you have the dirtiest face I’ve ever seen.”

She didn’t plan to look at that dirty face for long — and that was bad news for me.

For Mother, a dirty face called for immediate action. Dirt was not tolerated. Had my face remained dirty, I gathered that I might have suffered ill effects forever after.

With washcloth in hand, Mother made sure that didn’t happen. She didn’t just deal with that dirt, she “attacked” it. The cold, soppy washcloth, could be tolerated in the summer, but in winter, with the drippings running down my neck, it seemed like maltreatment. For Mother, dirt was a Goliath of a foe; my face was the battleground.

At suppertime, when I erred and came to the table without washing enemy dirt from my hands, I often feared as retribution that I would be sent to bed hungry. My punishment never turned out to be that extreme, but Mother’s scolding about the dreadful germs I would ingest if I ate with hands like that was such harsh warning, I feared I would not live until morning if I did not immediately remove all those perils of dirt.

As a kid, I categorized dirt with the bogeyman. Both were bad, bad. And although dirty hands brought forth that bogeyman specter, it was an even more felonious offense for a 9-year-old to have a dirty neck. Dirty ears were equally bad. I worried as to the consequences if I went to bed in that susceptible state.

But I was not a quick learner. Despite my fears as to the effects of enemy dirt, day after day I collected a goodly quantity of that dangerous foe. Yet, all the time I wondered if my becoming too friendly with dirt would mean that sleeping with dirty ears would result in hearing loss by morning. Would going to bed with a dirty neck cause curvature of the spine by the following day?

Dirty clothing, also, was on the enemy list. When I interrupted my outside play to come inside for a drink of water and Mother chanced to look up from rolling out pie crust, she’d exclaim, “My goodness, child, that is the dirtiest blouse I’ve ever seen.”

With regard to the half socks that I wore, despite being, in part, out of sight in my shoes, her keen olfactory senses enabled her to judge almost the exact number of days I’d been wearing them.

When I went barefoot — a habit of which Mother disapproved — her sense of smell didn’t have to come into play. Dirty feet were plainly evident.

It was unfortunate that I apparently had been born an inclined-to-be dirty child. It helped somewhat that my little brother was even more disposed than I to become involved in Mother’s crusade against dirt.

And indeed, dirt was a problem everywhere one looked. My sister and I traded turns washing and wiping dishes. When it was my time to wash and the slightest little portion of fried egg remained on a breakfast plate, Mother seemed to spot it, with the accompanying reminder, “No one wants to eat from a dirty plate.”

That’s not to say I interpreted Mother’s war against dirt as evidence of her being an uncaring parent. Rather, all this was indicative of her protecting my welfare. Mine were loving parents — and much beloved back, by me. I didn’t consider myself to be a bad kid. It wasn’t my fault that I was naturally disposed to dirt. The simple fact, as I assessed it, was that dirt was Public Enemy No. l, and for a lifetime one would need to watch for and guard against it.

And yet, despite all this, dirt was one of my good playmates. When I made mud pies, dirt was a primary ingredient. I had many “outside playhouses” around the ranch, and in my playhouse kitchen, I created my pies with mud as the principal ingredient. The only other necessary ingredient was water which I got from the watering trough because I feared a trip to the kitchen might prompt another face-the-dirt interlude. I produced my mud pies in quantities to pride any baker, and I much enjoyed making those pies. It was creativity — dependent on dirt.

And, without dirt, where would I — or you, or any of us — be?

Our ranch house, overlooking Monument, was built on dirt — and Mother reminded me of this when I tracked it inside — yet dirt was our lifeblood, and every rancher or farmer’s lifeblood.

Our family microcosm hinged on dirt. Our cattle grazed on summer pasture provided by dirt. Hay fed to the cattle in the winter was grown in the soil. Dirt provided “scratching” ground for the chickens. The venison that we often ate instead of our cash-crop cattle, lived on what it browsed, which was provided by our soil.

On trips to California when we stopped among the redwoods, those giants were so tall we scarcely could see their tops, but their roots were in the soil. Even the majestic Pacific Ocean, somewhere down in its depths, has a dirt floor.

All over the world, mankind trods on dirt, the soil, the good earth.

But that good dirt is getting a dirty deal. Will kids, growing up regarding dirt as the bad guy, even realize that our existence depends on dirt?

Would it not be apropos, when a child comes in from playing outside and is begrimed from head to toe, if Mom then exclaimed in praise, “My, you are indeed a beautiful child.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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