Fire has flash, wind has romance, and water is beautiful, but in the end, dirt is the strongest of all the elements. For God uses fire to anoint Her elect, wind to posses Her spirit, and water to destroy, but dirt He gives to man. “From dirt you are created, and to dirt you shall return,” says the God, as He spits into it to make super-dirt, or mud. With this He heals the blind.
Go to the moon, and you will find lots of dirt, but no wind, fire, or water. There you will also find the footprint of man, never to be swept or washed away. The image will last forever, as it does when a creature dies and becomes a fossil. Then its flesh melts away and is replaced with super-dirt, which hardens into rock, which is stronger than fire. Then the creature’s image lives forever.
I never thought much about dirt, except to sweep it away as an unwanted thing. Then I went to a softball game with two girls from France. I watched the game through their eyes, as a foreigner would, and I really saw dirt for the first time. Then it appeared to me like a beautiful and ancient goddess.
Softball players love the dirt that covers their infields. It is red and a little moist, enough to stick to the ball, but still dry enough to fly into the air in little clouds of celebration, when the action demands it, like a swarm of red fireflies might fly up from the ground when their nest is disturbed.
Players want to be in the dirt. They throw themselves into it, even if they need not do so, in order to get the dirt onto them. They stand up dusty, their tee shirts powdered reddish brown from the dirt with which they have anointed themselves. It is like a baptism, but without water. They brush some of the dirt from them, but not too enthusiastically, for they really want it to stay. It is the baptism of dirt.
Professional baseball players, I am told, import a special red mud, or super-dirt, from a sacred riverbed in the southern United States, which they use to baptize their baseballs. It makes the balls sticky, they say. But I know better. That special red river dirt is magic.
But at my softball game, we have no such imported dirt. We use the local stuff, which has its own magical properties. It sticks to the ball, which goes flying this way and that, but never quite where the batter intended. Then he shakes his head ever so slightly. One would only notice if watching closely. Are the French girls watching? No. They are looking for an American boy they like. When he comes up to bat, they cheer, and he slams the ball for a double. They cheer again. In French. I am watching the ball, for it carries the dirt of home plate with it, like a dandelion spore is carried on the breeze to a new home.
The pitcher kicks the dirt, and then grumbles to the umpire. I cannot hear the pitcher, but I know what he says, for the umpire then dusts the dirt from home plate with the side of his shoe. A new batter comes up. The pitch, a mighty swing, and the ball is nicked. It careens out of bounds, yawling like a wayward space rocket whose gyroscopes have betrayed it and is destined to be destroyed. In that moment, I remember, as an old man now, how we swing so hard, hoping for a good hit, and how life often gets off course. We are at once both batter and ball, the one who hopes to score, but is also carried by awesome and unpredictable forces to a strange place, outside the fences, no longer in play, or even on the field. But one thing stays true. The dirt. It is on the ball.
Why do we love dirt? Why does it call to us? Why do we like to wallow in it, especially if we are men or little boys? Perhaps dirt is the talisman by which we recall an archetypal memory, camouflaged in the tall, brown grasses of our ancient brains, of hot days on the plains of the Serengeti, dry and dusty. There we share territory with the saber tooth lion and the wooly mammoth. We are hunters. We are warriors. We swing with all our strength, hoping for a good outcome, as clouds of dirt billow with the power of our effort. A bee stings us, and we spit into the dirt, to make medicine. The dirt is always with us. It carries our bones into both the past and the future at the same time.
The game is slow and my mind wanders. The cat has killed a vole and dragged its corpse onto the patio. The dead vole is holding onto a long green stem, at the top of which is a tiny pink wildflower. I imagine the vole fighting for its life against a terrible predator, the domestic descendant of the saber tooth. He clutches the flower in a last desperate effort to find life and escape into the dirt, but the cat wins. The flower does not save, but now, rather, decorates the dead. And so it goes. The things we think might save us so often become an ornament in our passage into a different place, a strange place, outside the fences. The dead vole lays on his back, his little arms outstretched, holding onto the pink flower. It is kind of beautiful.
The game is over, and the French girls want to go drinking with their young man. They giggle and talk rapidly amongst themselves in a tongue I don’t understand, but then, I do. I walk them back to the car, looking at the trees. They are majestic, for they are brilliantly lit by stadium lights, as one might imagine the full moon lights a tree on the Serengeti, where the night is as black as tar. The evening is cool. The breeze carries a whisper of fragrance ~ the perfume of the sweet honeysuckle bloom. I hear a rustling sound, and a soft tapping. The saber tooth tiger?
It is my friend, knocking the dirt from his shoes.