"Wildflower" by Myron Wood, May 1972. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 002-1447.

The Middle Distance 3.16.12: Dirty Bird

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

Two Sundays ago, I walked into my friendly neighborhood garden center and demanded mulch. The Closed sign hung out front and there were no cars in the parking lot, but the door was unlocked and I was desperate; the day was warm and I had to get out in the garden after what felt like a never-ending winter.

The owner crawled out of his office and looked at me curiously. “This is our last Sunday to be closed,” he said. “I’m just doing some paper work here.”

“Are you really going to send me to Home Depot?” I demanded, so he kindly led me outside to the stacked columns of mulch bags, still encased in strips of plastic wrap, and pulled out his pocket-knife to release a few bags. Western red cedar, finely shredded. The smell of the forest floor. I loaded as many bags as would fit in my little red Subaru and headed home.

Is there any occasion more hopeful than returning to the garden after a long winter? Out here in Colorado, it’s not much to look at — the trees are still bare and ragged, lawns haven’t greened, and prudent flower gardeners have left a thick winter’s coat of dried leaves on the beds to ward off the bitter cold. A few wedges of waxy green from emerging tulips and daffodils provide the only spots of color. The mountain West gardener in early spring operates largely on faith, clearing off the dead remnants of last year’s growth in search of a sliver of green down below.

I spent that afternoon and have spent part of nearly every one since excavating my small urban garden in search of living things. When friends or family ask me what I’ve been doing, I say I’ve been playing in the dirt. Beneath limbs and sticks and trampled leaves, I unearth a tiny whorl of gray-green leaves, the catmint returning for another season. Buried deep inside tough bunches of tall grasses gone crunchy and pale, the slightest sprigs of tender green. It’s like the obstetrician, searching for a faint heartbeat, the first sign of life. The task is to clear off the debris, expose the living thing to light and air, then carefully mulch around it to protect from what we hope will materialize, one more spring snowstorm, and to hold in precious moisture.

My mind stops chattering when my nose gets close to the ground and sniffs the clean smell of dirt. Most days, before I go anywhere, I have to stop and remember to pull out the stiff hand brush and scrub the mud out from under my nails.

One day this week I forgot to wash my hands before leaving the house. I had been tussling with the wiry remains of last year’s rosemary and thyme, breaking off the spindly dead stems and brushing off the springy leaves that still thrived in the center. An hour later, sitting in a downtown office, I inhaled springtime on my fingertips, astringent rosemary, floral thyme, a secret encounter.

There is something about this experience, no matter how stiff in the back and knees I’ve grown since my younger gardening days, no matter how slowly I lift and bend out here in the middle distance, that takes me straight back to a singular childhood joy. Granted, gardeners can be counted among the most obsessive workaholics. Some of us are prissy perfectionists and there is something of the addict in most of us. Still, I believe in the power of playing in the dirt, of putting our noses to the ground, of returning to that elemental state.

My father, who died over a decade ago, used to tell a story about what he claimed were my first spoken words. I don’t actually remember being there, but after hearing him tell it so many times, I re-member the event from the fertile fields of storytelling, as if it really might have happened.

I am very small, toddling around our driveway dressed in just a diaper. My father, just home from work, stands and keeps lookout. It is near dusk, and I venture away from the house, safe under his watchful eye, into a ditch that borders our street.

I discover dirt for probably the first time, and when I waddle back to him, I am covered in it from head to toe.

“You’re a dirty bird,” my daddy says.

“I’m a dirty bird,” I repeat. His clean hand captures my muddy one, and together we take the long walk up the driveway, back to the house.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


7 Responses to The Middle Distance, 3/16/12: Dirty Bird

  1. anne lennox says:

    Hi, Kathryn,
    Last week you inspired me to start washing windows.
    This week I’ll start looking for new life in my garden.
    A sister in the dirt,

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    Thanks for reminding me that it isn’t all aching back & shoulders.

  3. Paula says:

    My, my,,, and here I thought you were a pretty bird ;p

  4. D. Moriarty says:

    Dear Kathryn,
    So many memorable phrases here – I especially liked ‘my mind stops chattering when my nose gets close to the ground’ for the reason that yesterday I was in a coffee shop with friends talking about Noses. Not the actual fleshy protuberance on a face, but the title given to a ‘Super-Sniffer’ such as is employed by perfumiers.
    Most of us, said my knowedgable friend, can identify six varieties then suffer olfactory overload. A ‘Nose’ can go on to upwards of a hundred and fifty!
    What a cocktail of wonderful earthy smells you evoked when you told us the effect of sniffing that winter-liberated soil – literally shutting down your mind so that all that remained of you was the ‘Nose’. Wonderful!

  5. Liz says:

    I can’t wait to be a dirty bird in my soon-to-be garden! I’d love your help! Love you!

  6. Jan says:

    You (and Laura) inspire me. Just finished two hours in the rock garden, clearing out last year’s brown, and yes, delighting in the hidden treasures of tender green with one lone flower peaking out of the warm rocks.

  7. Carmen says:

    Dirty Birds unite and smell the earth.


November 29, 2015 | NPR · The FBI alerted the university that a threat of gun violence — at a specific time and location — had been made online, the school said in a statement. All events on the main campus are canceled.

Getty Images
November 29, 2015 | NPR · This year’s Capitol Christmas Tree is the first tree to travel by boat, braving 50-foot waves and journeying more than 3,400 miles from Alaska to Washington, D.C. The tree will be lit on Dec. 2.

November 29, 2015 | NPR · As the 60th anniversary of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott approaches, author Jeanne Theoharis says it’s time to let go of the image of Rosa Parks as an unassuming accidental activist.

Arts & Life

November 29, 2015 | NPR · As the 60th anniversary of the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott approaches, author Jeanne Theoharis says it’s time to let go of the image of Rosa Parks as an unassuming accidental activist.

November 29, 2015 | NPR · For decades, astronomers believed there was another planet in our solar system, tucked just out of sight. Then Albert Einstein figured out it wasn’t there. Author Thomas Levenson explains.

Courtesy of EA
November 29, 2015 | NPR · In the video game Star Wars: Battlefront, players can customize characters according to gender, race and age. Producer Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir says inclusivity was a priority “from the get-go.”


Getty Images
November 29, 2015 | NPR · Michel Martin speaks with documentary filmmaker Amy Berg about her new film, Janis: Little Girl Blue, which chronicles the life and early death of the 1960s counterculture icon.

Getty Images
November 29, 2015 | NPR · The composer and arranger spent the bulk of his career in service to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He wrote some of the most popular songs of the 20th century — without ever hiding who he was.

Library of Congress
November 29, 2015 | WFIU · Though overshadowed during his own lifetime by his employer, Duke Ellington, the composer-arranger wrote more than 1,000 pieces. Here are takes on his most famous tunes.

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac