As my hands are looking more and more like prunes with the repetitive washing and sanitizing, I remind myself that there is also some good dirt out there.
For those who can access a garden or a bit of soil in a back yard, I’m always amazed at the positive feelings we can get from just pottering about with soil and plants. We are definitely meant to be connected to the earth, whether we want it or not.
Many studies highlight the health benefits of being in nature and gardening. More specific research done in Uganda shows that bacteria living in the soil can affect hormones and chemicals in our body. This is the case of Mycobacterium vaccae, first identified in cow dung - hence the name ‘vaccae’ which means cow in latin. In 2007, Professor Christopher Lowry identified the role of this bacteria for activating the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter usually associated with emotional well being and happiness (https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2007/11797584419.html). His latest research published in 2019 in Psychopharmacology (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-019-05253-9) shows how the bacteria works and highlights its “anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory and stress resilience properties”. Long words which pretty much indicate that a walk in a forest smelling of well rotted humus or some work in the garden will put us in a good mood and may also boost our immune system.
Other research from Finland has also shown that children regularly exposed to bacteria from farm animals were less prone to develop asthma than city kids (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2206654-microbes-from-farms-may-protect-children-from-asthma-even-in-cities/). The good news for urban urchins is that being in contact with soil or animals can give them the same benefits as their rural counterparts. This is why initiatives aiming to get kids involved in scrabbling in the mud are essential. Friend and Manchester Forest School practitioner, Ali Holden, can forever extoll the virtues of education in a woodland setting, and is witness to how children’s behaviour is transformed through their close involvement with nature. A soil rich in organic matter, like the woods with their leaf covered grounds, is ideal breeding terrain for Mycobacterium vaccae!
For myself, as I grew up on a dairy farm, I can’t help but hope that like Obelisk the Gaul, by falling in it when I was small, I might still be reaping some benefit from it to this day. And for good measure, having recently laid 3 tonnes of mushroom compost on my borders, I might now roll in this good dirt.
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