Dirty Nature

shwarma pan 2The best things in life are dirty; the worst thing in life is wakin’ up clean, without a bean…

“Best Things” from Paint Your Wagon

“Wash your hands,” my mother said when I came in from the garden, “They’re dirty.”

Soil was caked on my skin and embedded under my nails. I had to wash my hands before I could eat, because the dirt was, well, dirty. I spent much of my childhood outdoors, and washing up was a routine and often irritating chore.

I set similar requirements for my son. But I’m puzzled that we consider nature to be pristine, but work so hard to scrub it out of our lives.

At a bird banding activity recently, observers who were allowed to hold one of the captured birds before releasing it were told to use the antibacterial disinfectant lotion before they left. Concerns about bird flu, I think.

On the other hand, nature is supposed to be the ultimate in clean. When advertisers talk about clean, they show pictures of undisturbed nature: Rocky Mountain spring water, verdant forests, seas of waving grasses; that’s what clean means, “Fresh as all outdoors!”

It’s Puzzling.

Rocky Mountain spring water (and the water I drink) comes from a watershed with historic mining districts, storm water runoff and treated sewage from upstream towns and mountain subdivisions. The verdant forests I’ve traveled were cut over in the 1800’s, leaving ancient stumps visible among the second and third growth forests. The prairies around here were grazed and farmed. The most “pristine” local prairies are associated with the large tracts of federally-restricted lands adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Activists opposed a uranium mill on the basis that it would mar a pristine valley. But the uranium is natural and exists throughout the area. Of course, the existing adjacent open pit uranium mine was ignored, and the installation of a solar farm wasn’t considered a detriment to the pristine-ness.

When I lived in Alaska, I was warned not to drink water directly from the streams. It’s hard to believe there could be any naturally cleaner places than the vast undisturbed (at the time) Alaskan forests and mountains. But, I was warned, there are cysts in wolf and bear feces that survive in the water, and if ingested can propagate in your intestine. One of them was supposed to cause violent spasms and diarrhea, but would pass (no humor intended). The other would incubate for some number of years, then erupt and kill you (no known cure). While the veracity of the stories may be questionable, at the time it had the ring of “truthiness”.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold.

Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon

Nature is supposed to be pure and untainted, but humans bring filth and germs. Why then are we so afraid of dirt? In Colorado and large parts of the West, metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, uranium and selenium are common in the surface soils and waters. Healthy soil is alive with all kinds of little creatures and bacteria that make it productive by breaking down the detritus into plant food and changing the soil chemistry. Good dirt is full of worms and worm poop; clean water is full of fish and fish poop. It might even be good for us.

Speaking of poop, I started my career as a sanitary engineer, and I worked in sewage treatment plants. I did some research back then and found that sewage workers tended to have frequent low grade illness but rarely had any serious illnesses. I’ve sat in the sewage plant office and eaten glazed donuts with the operators as we viewed the workings through a plate glass window. I’ve handled and been soaked with raw sewage, and lived to tell the tale. Sometimes our obsession with cleanliness seems pretty silly to me. (I will note that working with sewage was what got me to quit biting my fingernails).

Much current media attention is focused on the widespread use of antibacterial soaps and lotions, and the concurrent rise in allergies. If we humans are a part of nature, then maybe we need a more physical relationship with the natural world. Do we need to kill every germ? Filter out every particle or mineral in our water? Eat only organic food and eliminate every chemical from our lives?

A recent article noted that researchers had found swiss cheese made from pasteurized and ultra pure milk didn’t have any holes and tasted differently. It turns out that the holes are associated with grain dust particles in the milk that we’re now filtering out unnecessarily. Foods like beer, wine, bread, cheese, yogurt and anything fermented rely on natural yeasts. “Live” yogurt is preferred over pasteurized yogurt because it is pro-biotic and better for your digestion. Un-pasteurized milk and cheese is finding a new consumer niche. Aged beef uses the natural bacteria in the meat to make it more tender.

Organic is supposed to be better for us than what — inorganic? A dry cleaner near my house advertised they only used “organic” chemicals. Petroleum is an organic chemical, as is a lot of the nasty stuff we call hazardous waste, like volatile organic chemicals (VOC’s used for dry cleaning). We need a little more precision about the terms; “organic” in chemistry means it contains carbon, but in health food it means something like no pesticides, herbicides or additives.

Crude oil and natural gas are natural organic materials. They are created in nature and exist there. Metals like arsenic and uranium are primordial, have existed since before the earth was formed, and occur throughout the environment. What could be more natural? As a species, we’ve lived in the presence of these materials forever. As you can see by reading the ingredients label on your vitamins, we actually need some of these materials to thrive.

In the natural world, the excrement of one creature is used by others. It’s part of the symbiotic web of life, where nothing is truly wasted, but has a use somewhere. I was warned by a ranger once not to pick up shed antlers or animal bones, since they were chewed by rodents for the calcium. Domestic sewage sludge makes for great fertilizer, once the harmful bacteria are eliminated.

What is clean and what is natural? We need to recognize that nature is diverse, and is both good and bad for us humans. It seems that humans are also both good and bad for nature, so what we need to do is figure out how to avoid the bad things and take advantage of the good stuff. We need to know more about the world we share and not assume we can just wash it out.

It makes sense to wash our hands before eating, to not sneeze on people, and to stay away from toxic wastes. But it also makes sense to get out there and get your hands dirty every once in a while. Smell the roses, but try not to step in the dog poop. It’s only natural.

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