A recent assignments in my writing course was a discussion of the writer/editor relationship. We were given information on the writer Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, the editor who made him famous. Carver was known for his short stories (none of which I’ve read) but when I dug a little deeper — meaning, checked his Wiki entry — I discovered he was part of the “dirty realism” movement in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. He wrote about the dispossessed, about people who lived “on the edge.” Now, how the adjective “dirty” applies to this subgroup is beyond me; maybe it simply reflects the difficulty in keeping old stuff looking spanking-clean, or maybe more.
I was curious about dirty, and its origin — spoiler alert! — isn’t pretty. This word arose from an Old English and Proto-Germanic root, dritan, that means “to void excrement.” Yes, it’s all about poop. Imagine that. All these years, and I never knew. Now you might be closing your browser now, deciding this is something you don’t want to dive into (sorry!), but it really does make sense, doesn’t it?
Think of all the concepts we apply to the word “dirty.” We speak of dirty tricks, dirty money, and people doing someone else’s dirty work. We teach our children about dirty words, tell them not to give out dirty looks, and warn about dirty old men. Dirty has some very horrific connotations.
But in some ways, it’s also gotten an undeserved bad rap. I’m an allergist, and have a lot of respect for the theory that keeping little kids too clean may promote the development of allergic conditions like hay fever, eczema, and asthma. With this in mind — and knowing their father already had two in this trifecta — I took my children’s cleanliness with a healthy grain of salt. They bathed and had clean clothes, sure, but they also ate food that fell on the floor, ran around barefoot, and never used hand sanitizer. So far, they’ve escaped their father’s curse (at least, in terms of allergies).
Here’s another thing about poop: we exaggerate its ugliness; we apply deleterious properties to it, and then proceed to amplify them. The result? It scares the s&#* out of approaching it rationally. It’s a normal part of being alive. We — regarding ourselves as the most highly developed species on the planet — have succeeded in making dirty a national disgrace. It might serve us to swing the pendulum back again. Let us not forget that animal waste serves us all by performing the thankless task of fertilization. When added to soil, it renders it more productive. It’s more about creation than transformation: poop uses its castoff, useless status to make something entirely new.
Speaking about soil, I’m reminded of the fertile, rich soil in my home state of Pennsylvania and how generous it was in providing food, shade, and beauty for our family. In 1941, Hans Jenny, a pedologist (soil scientist), published his seminal book, “Factors of Soil Formation.” He described five elements responsible for the soils we have today: parent material; organisms; climate; relief (landscape position); and time. Perhaps we could use this framework to address the “dirty” in our lives today.
The importance of good parenting is a no-brainer. But parents today face daunting challenges; things like income inequality, inadequate health care access, gun control, the rapid pace of technology, and climate change can make raising a child more difficult than ever. Next, Jenny defines soil organisms as “a complete biological community.” What kind of communities exist for children today? When teachers are underpaid, and recess is an anachronism, or when there’s a cop in every school despite what seems like a bullying epidemic, how fertile will this soil be?
Regarding climate, he notes its importance on “both large and small scales.” When compassion, respect, generosity, and other human virtues are missing from the largest and most powerful institutions in the land, what can we expect? Moving on to relief (landscape position), Jenny speaks of profound differences produced by only a few feet of elevation, and the importance of the fact that water runs downhill. Children, by definition, look up to learn from us. What do we teach them when the lowest among us ends up with all the s&#* that flowed down from higher ups in the workplace, or the bureaucracies that govern them? How does it serve our future to treat our daughters like sex object beginning in kindergarten, or to assume they can’t excel in science or math?
His last element, time, is the one we perhaps take least seriously. We make instant decisions, we seek immediate gratification. We forget we need time to properly shape our future and invest in succeeding generations, time to deliberate, and to heal from our wounds, so many of which seem self-inflicted these days. Paradoxically, it feels as if we’re running out of time, which makes our search for solutions all the more frantic.
I abhor harmful, dirty behavior as much as anybody else, but at the same time, I try to visualize the seeds of hope and change that can flourish in its troubling wake should we choose to plant them.