By Elizabeth Day
GFA School Counselor
The following text was taken from Ms. Day's speech as the selected 2018 Von Kohorn Speaker. To see a video of her speech, click here:
Today I’m sharing my lifelong story of how dirt makes me happy — giving you the “dirt on me” so to speak. I have my parents to thank for instilling a love of nature in me. Certainly, this was the best gift they could have possibly given.
I grew up in Southern California, in a suburb of Los Angeles. My home was nestled at the base of the Santa Susanna Mountains. My park was often the location set for many TV westerns, with playground equipment fashioned after the old Conestoga wagons that pioneers came west in. My summer camp was alleged to be the very spot where John Sutter pulled up a wild onion, only to discover gold dust on its roots, which later started the California gold rush in 1848.
Given the fact that the wild, wild west was my backyard, it’s no wonder I was a kid who lived outside from sunup to sundown. We took family vacations to the see the Giant Sequoia trees, and the spectacular landscapes of the southwest: Taos, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon. I remember going to see the Sequoia Redwood trees that were so big you could drive a car through them. On that trip we went to a lecture about protecting ourselves from bears. Ironically, by the time we got back to our cabin, the bears had destroyed our cooler and eaten up all our food. This was both scary and exciting for me! Shades of things to come…
When asked to present, I immediately thought of an article in Discovery magazine written back in 2007 titled, “Is Dirt the New Prozac?” by Josie Glausiusz. I now shamelessly steal this as the title of my presentation however, I’ve removed the author’s question mark. I’m ready to declare, “Yes! Dirt is the New Prozac!” This proclamation seems so fitting as it ties together my role as School Counselor with my core belief in the importance of nature. I could be the poster child for this research on dirt as an antidepressant. Weeding, gardening, planting camping under the stars, and awakening to the smell of a pine forest. This is my idea of heaven!
The Discovery article sites research done by Dr. Chris Lowry, of Bristol University, who was following up on seminal work by oncologist Mary O’Brien of Royal Marsden Hospital. O’Brien noticed that her lung cancer patients got better after being inoculated with a strain of mycobacterium vaccae, a bacteria found in soil. These researchers found that the soil bacteria had several positive effects including: a decrease in some of the negative symptoms of cancer, reduction in stress, an increase in overall vitality and cognitive functioning, and even the potential to relieve depression. Wow!
So what’s the magic of dirt? It turns out that bacteria in dirt trigger immune cells, which in turn activate the release of serotonin from neurons in the brain. Serotonin is one of the primary neurotransmitters responsible for experiencing pleasure and happy moods. Very simply put, dirt acts on the brain just like Prozac, a medicine frequently used for treating depression. There is now a plethora of research articles documenting the benefits of nature on mental health and I encourage you to check these out. The upshot of this research suggests that human beings are made to be exposed to dirt — not protected from it. I am ever grateful that my parents did expose me to dirt — both in our own backyard and through excursions to so many gorgeous national parks.
As I moved into adulthood, I exposed myself to dirt even more, and discovered the side effect of happiness and well-being. Hiking grounded me! (Pun intended.) Certainly, dirt has not been my only ticket to happiness; many things make me happy. Rollerblading, quilting, dancing to Van Morrison, hanging out with family and friends, and chocolate, of course, are all part of my wholistic medicine cabinet. Whatever my parents communicated to me about nature, however, has become a part of my DNA. Indeed, dirt, more than anything else, has made me the happiest my whole life.
As I extol the virtues of dirt, let me lay a little groundwork first. I’m going to be giving more personal testament to this notion that dirt itself is therapeutic. Further, I’ll be referring to dirt in broader terms, including the social, emotional, even spiritual benefits of adventures in the natural world. The take-away lessons of these experiences are so rich that they have not gotten lost, even across the span of my lifetime. Now let me share with you three of my favorite sources for really good dirt.
The first source is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, affectionately known as the BWCA, where the dirt is richly brown. This dirt supports 900,000 acres of diverse pine forests, growing there undisturbed for eons in a wilderness-protected area located between Minnesota and Canada.
When I was 18, I went on a two-week canoe trip with a youth group comprised of complete strangers. Though I had plenty of camping experience growing up, I had never canoed, and certainly never been to a wilderness area.
I quickly learned that the fundamental challenge in a wilderness area is that you must be 100% self-reliant. Everything that you need to survive, you must carry on your back. There are no cars, no planes overhead, no refrigerators, no Starbucks, no Mickey-D’s, no Ubers to take you home when you’ve had enough. Even motorboats are not allowed — only canoes! Just take a moment to let that sink in.
Sigurd Olson, a nature writer from Minnesota captures the Boundary Waters’ experience best: “There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions.” I discovered when all evidence of the modern world was stripped away, the things that really mattered came into focus. Work and play food and friendship, and a reverence for Mother Nature.
We paddled from lake to lake to lake, portaging our canoes and all our gear on our backs over the same trails traversed by fur traders and Ojibwe Indians more than 400 years ago. Our journey took us past a few prehistoric petroglyphs on cliff walls. There was something so moving about walking these very same paths and witnessing the art of indigenous peoples created thousands of years ago. My lasting memories of the Boundary Waters are listening to the beautiful, eerie call of loons, watching the Northern Lights dance magically across the sky, and eating the best pancakes in the
universe, filled with freshly picked blueberries. Most memorable was stopping for some homemade root beer from Dorothy Molton, who lived alone year-round on Knife Lake for more than 52 years. I imagine Dorothy, better known as the “Root Beer Lady,” could tell us a thing or two about dirt and happiness! I ended up making a few return trips to the Boundary Waters with dear friends from college, finding this pristine terrain kept calling me back for more.
The rich, brown dirt, and the crystal-clear lakes of the Boundary Waters, gave me the realization that I, too, can be self-reliant — albeit not as fiercely independent as Dorothy. Literally and metaphorically, I can forge into the unknown, with courage and confidence, and find my way out safe and sound. But I can’t really do that alone. I must rely upon the skills and support of others, and I must reciprocate the same. This life lesson transferred onto other wilderness territories in my life college, which was just around the corner — job searches, relationships, encounters with loss basically all that life serves up on one’s plate. As an 18-year-old, the dirt of the Boundary Waters gave me roots to anchor me for decades.
My next important source for dirt comes from the absolute bowels of the earth: caves. Here the dirt is actually a wet, grey clay. Quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with caving otherwise known as “spelunking.” Boy, was I surprised to discover that the entrance to the cave was a crevice in the ground only about as big as the girth of my body. Once inside, I crawled through the “Corkscrew,” named for its spiraling path into the belly of the cave. Then came a tunnel aptly called the “Meat Grinder.” Going through this section was much like the journey of a sausage as it gets squeezed into its casing. I literally crawled on my belly with so little room that if I raised my head, my helmet would hit the roof of the cave. Next, the “Lunch Room” offered welcomed relief because we could actually sit up. The big thrill in the “Lunch Room” was for all the cavers to put a peppermint in their mouths, and then to turn off their headlights. Blackness! Sheer blackness like you can’t even imagine. Then on a count of three, we all crunched our peppermints, setting off tiny little crackling sparks, giving proof that our friends had not disappeared into the void.
The next section was called the “Birth Canal.” Yes, another tight squeeze. We wound our way back, retracing all our steps. Eventually the light peeking through the cave’s entrance beckoned us on, assuring us that we had not been swallowed up by the earth after all.
You’re probably wondering what I could possibly love about this experience? The answer is everything! I found myself going back again and again, even hiring the guide to take a group of friends years later — even caving in the middle of winter. Only when my body changed and I no longer had the nimbleness to navigate the corkscrew, or the strength to climb out of the birth canal did I quit caving. Still, I remember my spelunking experiences quite vividly. In the cave, time is suspended. Little did I know that more than three hours had lapsed since I entered the cave. I focused keenly on the present with my immediate task to remain calm and to put fear at bay. I was mindful of the chill of the cave, the complete and utter blackness, the emotional rush of being deep below the surface of the ground, and my ability to banish the “e-word” from my consciousness: earthquake.
Here are the lasting therapeutic benefits of the grey dirt of spelunking: One has no choice but to keep going, for there’s no turning around in the “Meat Grinder.” However scary things may initially seem, fear can be transformed into mastery, and mastery into thrill. I realized I need adventures in my life which push me to the edge, which make me tremble, only to be followed by an indescribable exhilaration. I also realized how good it felt to be absolutely filthy covered from head to toe with cave dirt. As an adult, I get those opportunities far too seldom. My caving experiences must have resonated with that little girl from California who played for hours on end in the out-of-doors. Whatever our age, we need to cultivate that same reverie of play we had in childhood, for play, too, is medicine unto itself. The trick is to figure out how to have that reverie in a way that is both exhilarating and safe.
Next, I will take you to discover the red dirt of Arizona. If you’ve ever been to Northern Arizona, then you know that red dirt is a thing! My family is completely smitten with both the gorgeous red rock formations of Sedona and the utter majesty of the Grand Canyon. We feel compelled to revisit these two places, never feeling as though we’ve had our fill of this vast, awe-inspiring land. We
also feel driven to do more than just gaze at the grandeur of Mother Nature; we have to be a part of it: touch it, crawl on it, crawl into it, join it. In short, a day is not complete unless we return from the trail covered in red dirt. Perhaps a seed was planted by my parents when they brought me to the Grand Canyon as a 5-year-old. When I returned to the Canyon as a young adult, I knew I could not be satisfied with just viewing the beauty of the canyon from the rim. I had to experience the canyon by being inside it; I had to hike to the bottom. I did just that with a group of friends when I was about 25. (Seniors: I highly recommend this adventure as a road trip during a college break.)
I still felt the need to hike deep into the Grand Canyon with my own family, resulting in four more trips. A memory I will treasure forever is my hike to the bottom with my daughter Zia back in 2015. We started out around 9 a.m. and made it to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom about 3 p.m. Though minimizing weight in our packs was a big factor, I took great delight in bringing along a plastic snake to sneak inside Zia’s sleeping bag. Something told me, this joke would not be too well-received given the very real possibility that a rattlesnake could end up in our tent. About half way through our trek, I ended up telling Zia about the snake in my pack, which was just as good if not better than actually having carried out my prank. “Mom,” she screamed! “How could you?” Humor, I have to say, is another wholistic medicine to keep on hand. (Just ask Ms. Fellows who is the master of practical jokes.)
At the bottom of the canyon, some 9.3 miles and nearly 4,400 feet below the rim, I had what can only be called a surreal experience. For the bulk of the trip, we could turn around and measure our progress by seeing the canyon rim get further and further away. But at a certain point, the inner canyon walls began to block the view of the top. By the time we got to Phantom Ranch at the bottom, this was even more true. Our campsite was nestled into a tiny strip of land with wooded hills on all sides. We were oblivious to sounds of the raging Colorado River just over the hillside. It was lush, not desert-like; it was intimate, not vast like the expanses of the Arizona landscape. Our immediate setting belied the fact that we were actually cradled at the very bottom of this magnificent canyon. We might just as well have been camping in a gentle forest in Connecticut. It made me wonder if I had actually just made this long descent. Could it be that this huge endeavor was actually so do-able, that it was just like being at home? Looking at this little valley, I could no longer tell where I was. Then again, I knew exactly where I was.
What is the lesson of the red dirt in the Grand Canyon? What seems enormous — what is enormous — is broken down into one step at a time, with many gorgeous rest stops along the way. Truthfully, in the weeks approaching our trip, I so feared this journey that I almost talked myself out of going. My family knows my favorite expression to be: “Thought creates reality.” In this instance, I wasn’t taking a dose of my own medicine, and I almost robbed myself of realizing an incredible dream. Now I am anxious to plan a rim-to-rim hike, going from the South Rim down to the bottom, and up to the North Rim. Shall I bring along the plastic snake this time? Shhhhhh don’t tell.
I don’t want to leave you thinking that the only dirt that has made me happy is dirt from a distant place filled with grandeur. Let me assure you, the dirt closer to home has been plenty therapeutic. I love hiking on the Appalachian Trail, which is only 30 minutes away, or at Great Hollow, a preserve just 15 minutes from home. Finally, the dirt in my back yard is very potent medicine, just because it’s my back yard. I open up my door, and there it is, waiting for me to cultivate, to play, to heal. I’m one of those people who actually touches and talks to my plants my lilacs, honeysuckles, coneflowers, Ginkgos, and Hemlocks, all of which I planted. I garden when it’s sunny, when it’s steamy, when it’s rainy, even by moonlight. Truly, digging in the dirt is my dose of prevention for whatever ails me. Dirt under my fingernails not only makes me happy, it makes me sane, it makes me connected to the earth, and to the peoples who came before me.
So what’s the magic of dirt? Adventure! Courage! Play! Thrill! Serenity being grounded! The treatment outcome? Joie de Vivre!
Here’s my prescription for you: Expose yourself to dirt at least once daily for a long, satisfying, happy life.