How Mud Can Save Us



The dog looks like a baby rhinoceros, every black curl caked with mud, his eyes bright slivers beneath a brown spiked fringe. How did seven pristine inches of snow turn into this diarrhetic substance? After enthusiastic greetings from Figgy and Lucy and Buddy and Dukie at the dog park, I am almost as muddy as Willie, and as soon as we glop into the car, I call to warn my husband to have a bucket ready.

One dipped paw, and the water in that bucket is as drab as the Mississippi River. Three paws later, sediment is drifting to the bottom. Where does all this stuff come from?

The first clues are piles of fossilized fish in Bolivia—they choked on muddy sand about 460 million years ago, probably after a big storm washed river sediment into the ocean with a giant whoosh. There were no plants holding the banks in place back then. The Earth was not earth but barren rock, and the seas swirled with smothered fish.

Even the first soft, bright mosses made a difference. Mud—smoothed bits of smashed rock that stick together when wet—clung to the greenery instead of washing away. That stickiness glued the continents’ edges and altered the rivers’ course. More plants grew, clumping into borders, and then tall trees grew, and slowed the wind. All this verdant softscape sped up the breakdown of rock, creating more mud, and worms learned to wriggle through it, sometimes gulping sediment and extruding it in finer particles.

So what I just scraped off my sneakers was worm feces?

That would not have grossed us out when we were kids. We would have sat, contented, patting our mudpies into foil tins, then squelched through the mud in bright galoshes to serve them. Mud is fun until you grow older and begin to fear it. Suddenly dirt is a slur and muckrakers can tarnish your business and your opponent in a debate just muddies the waters. Mud is something that can be thrown at you in accusation—throwing mud is far worse than throwing shade—or your good name can be dragged through it, and no bucket of water will wash away the result.

How did we become so averse, when mud was the stuff of creation? God scooped it up to sculpt himself a little Adam. In Jewish folklore, a golem is made the same way. A goddess made Gilgamesh a companion out of clay. The Egyptian god Khnum made children of the same stuff, then tucked them into their mother’s womb. Prometheus molded men of water and earth. Chinese, Babylonian, Hindu, Korean, Laotian, Māori, and Yoruba mythology all use the same recipe. Even Wonder Woman was sculpted from clay by her mom.

You could dismiss this as inevitable, I guess; there were not many building materials ready to hand back then. But would it not have been more accurate to say we were stirred up from water, given that water makes up at least sixty percent of our body? Or that we are creatures of light, a poetic way to sum up the electricity that courses through our nervous system?

Nope. We are made of mud. And mud, like us, is a jumble of sharp contrasts—T.S. Eliot’s “garlic and sapphires in the mud”—and humble comfort. “I was always attached to mud,” wrote Emily Dickinson, who could see the spirit in anything.

Seamus Heaney, who also had the gift of transcendence, wrote about a great wheel of spinning, airborne mud. The vision had come to him after the English artist Richard Long made a giant flower out of muddy handprints, working, like the various Creators we have imagined, with the raw materials of place.

There is no need to separate earth and sky, flesh and spirit. We unite them—or, more often, move hastily from the one to the other. As Ivan Turgenev put it, “We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars.” Appalled by our mucky bodies, we yearn for what is clean, airy, metaphysical.

Yet mud is what can heal us.

To paraphrase an old Woody Allen joke, we need the microbes.

In the United States, we spend, on average, ninety-three percent of our lives inside hard-surfaced buildings or cars. That indoor lifestyle has not played out well in a pandemic. In a study of more than 7,300 cases of COVID-19 in China, only two people contracted the virus outdoors. But bars, banquet halls, choir lofts, federal office buildings? Rife with germs. Why? Because we sealed up our buildings and forgot the virtues of fresh air. And why are our immune systems not stronger? Because we avoid the soft earth that teems with beneficial microbes, helping our immune systems fight infection.

Ever since the neurotic Fifties, when a chunk of the economy rested on housewives fear-buying chemicals, we have overcleaned, dousing surfaces with industrial-strength formulas when a little vinegar or soap would do. We are terrified of filth, Puritans quaking at the prospect of a little mud tracked onto the kitchen floor. Even I, indifferent to housekeeping, can be hypnotized by those late-night commercials that show magic cleansers erasing vivid stains with a smooth swipe. There is a feel of fantasy about a pure white room, sunlight streaming in and catching not a single dust mote.

What are we really trying to scrub away, I wonder. Our messy human nature, with its spills and wastes? Our sins?

The compulsion is only making us sicker.

A series of studies compared the wealthier, sleeker, more sterile Finnish side of the Finland-Russia border with the rural Russian neighborhood where people grow their own vegetables and keep animals. Allergies and other inflammatory disorders were three to ten times more prevalent on the Finnish side.

Now a group in Finland is adding forest soil to city doormats so residents can do just what those Fifties housewives screamed at their families not to do: Drag in the outside. The hope is that forest soil can improve young children’s immune systems. In case the effects are too subtle, another group is smearing a soil mixture directly on infants’ skin.

Which reminds me of our mudbath. I should have been grateful for it.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.