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Eating Dirt
by Brian Doyle

I have a small daughter and two smaller sons, twins. They are all three in our minuscule garden at the moment, my sons eating dirt as fast as they can get it off the planet and down their gullets. They are two years old, they were seized with dirt-fever an instant ago, and as admirably direct and forceful young men, quick to act, true sons of the West, they are going to eat some dirt, boy, and you'd better step aside.

My daughter and I step aside.

The boys are eating so much dirt so fast that much of it is missing their maws and sliding down their chicken chests. It is thick moist dirt, slightly more solid than liquid. I watch a handful as it travels toward the sun. It's rich brown stuff, almost black, crumbly. There are a couple of tiny pebbles, the thin lacy bones of a former leaf (hawthorn?), the end of a worm, the tiny green elbows of bean sprouts. I watch with interest as Son Two inserts the dirt, chews meditatively, emits the wriggling worm, stares at it--and eats it again.

"Dad, they're eating the garden," says my daughter.

So they are. I'll stop them soon, but for this rare minute in life we are all absorbed by dirt, our faces to the ground, and I feel that there's something simple and true going on here, some lesson they should absorb, and so I let them absorb it. In spades.

Eventually my sons, filled with fill, turn their attentions to the other vigorous denizens of the garden: bamboo, beetles, blackberry, carrots, dockweed, cedars, camellias, dandelions, garlic, hawthorn, jays, moles, shrews, slugs, snails, spiders, squirrels--all made of dirt, directly or indirectly. As are mugs, vases, clothes, houses, books, magazines. We breathe dirt suspended in the air, we crunch it between our teeth on spinach leaves and fresh carrots, we wear it in the lines of our hands and the folds of our faces, we catch it in the linings of our noses and eyes and ears. We swim in an ocean of dirt, yet we hardly ever consider it closely, except to plumb it for its treasures, or furrow it for seed, or banish it from our persons, clothes, houses.

I am hardly handy about the house and garden, and spend my hours on other matters, but enough of me feels responsible for the dirt that surrounds my home that I have often regretted the general abandonment of my garden, and felt a certain guilt that it is not productive, that the land lays fallow. But now, cradling my daughter, grinning at the mud monkeys, I see that the garden is itself hard at work, hatching honey ants and potato bugs, propelling bamboo and beans into the air, serving as a grocery store for shrews. I imagine it in one of those sped-up film clips, madly roiling with animals and plants, the sun and rain baking and hammering it at a terrific pace, the banks of clouds sliding over like vast battleships.

Such busy dirt.

The children tire, the sun retreats, in we go to baths and beds. I wash the garden off my sons. It swirls down the bath-drain, into the river, eventually to the ocean. So some of my garden ends up as silt, some sinks to the ocean floor, some becomes kelp and sea otters, some is drawn up again into rain; and maybe some returns to the garden, after an unimaginable vacation.

My daughter and I discuss dirt journeys.

And when the rain begins that evening, the first of the rains that define fall and winter here, she and I draw a map for our dirt, so that it will know how to come home, and we leave the map on the back porch for the dirt to read.

"Maybe there are dirt fairies," says my daughter. "Or maybe the dirt can read. Who knows?"

Maybe my daughter is right about this. Maybe the dirt can read. Certainly, in a real sense, the dirt can write: Consider, for example, this essay, made by dirt worked in wondrous ways into bone, blood, protein, water, and a heartbeat. So grizzled dirt leans against a fence with lovely dirt in his lap, and watches dirt demons devour dirt, and the world spins in its miraculous mysterious circles, dust unto dust.

Such busy dirt, such a blizzard of blessings.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He and his father Jim Doyle are the authors of Two Voices, a collection of their essays.

This essay was originally published in the Spring 1998 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at

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