Doctoral student changing soil's dirty perceptions

MOSCOW, Idaho, posted July 29, 2005: Clean air and clean water are historically championed as prime environmental initiatives. Now Claudia Hemphill, a doctoral student in environmental science at the University of Idaho, is "cleaning up" the environmental philosophy of dirt.

Hemphill, one of the first in the nation to research cultural perception of soil, asserts it’s important to understand the environment scientifically and culturally. She contends that Americans have ingrained negative connotations about dirt, which minimize concerns about what people do to dirt and how they care for it. This careless attitude leads to deterioration of soil quality, as the soil gets overworked and large amounts of chemicals are used to eliminate pests and weeds.

Hemphill believes the Leonardo da Vinci statement, “We know more about the motions of the universe than the soil beneath our feet.”

“Science has a hard time studying soil – it’s extremely complex,” she said. “The millions of species living in it are mainly microscopic, and most of them can’t even be cultured in a laboratory dish. Science has been geared toward studying things that can be isolated in a laboratory and identified – like an animal species or an atomic element.”

“If you take a sample of water from the stream and filter out the leaf bits and twigs, insects and impurities, you’re left with pure water,” said Hemphill. “If you take a handful of soil and remove the rock particles, pollen grains, decomposing wood bits, water and microorganisms, you’re left with nothing. Philosophically, this makes it cognitively unmanageable because it bypasses our tendency to want to sort things out into little piles that are all the same.

Using her extensive background in anthropology and philosophy, she has studied different cultures in-depth and found that soil came to be identified with things that fade and die. As society became richer and more urban, soil was identified with people who were rural and of a lower social-economic class. In the United States, the span of 100 years saw a population composed of mostly farmers become 95 percent urban.

“As public health was increasingly important in these new, densely populated cities, just about everything from swamp gas to house dust was accused of being the evil source of disease,” said Hemphill. “One of the biggest public health campaign slogans around the turn of the century was “Dirt, Disease and Death.”

“So dirt became the major symbol of disease,” said Hemphill. “Anyone who was considered socially inferior – such as immigrants or different ethnic groups – was called dirty. Dirtiness was a huge insult. Housecleaning became an obsession. Even outdoors, dirt is eliminated – backyards are turned into concrete patios or covered up with gravel or bark-mulch. Dirt is so intrinsically bad, we don’t even want to see it outdoors.”

Studies by numerous medical researchers, from Oregon Health Sciences University to the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London, now find that children are more likely to develop asthma and allergies from cleaning chemicals than from household dust and dirt in the yard. In fact, it appears that just being exposed to dirt as a child is essential to developing a healthy immune system. Just as with vaccinations, the minute exposure children get to a wide range of environmental organisms through playing in the dirt triggers the development of their antibody levels.

“From a medical point of view,” said Hemphill, “the dirt that 100 years ago was turned into the popular symbol of all disease turns out to be essential for building resistance to disease. We need to have some dirt in our lives.”

Hemphill is taking a hands-on approach to her philosophy. As a graduate student leader, she is part of campus-wide sustainability initiatives such as Soil Stewards, the organic farming club she helped start.

“It’s about maintaining the soil,” said Hemphill. “We feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants and the plants feed the people. It’s about developing sustainable food systems and teaching others how to become environmentally sustainable.

“One of the ways that people come to change their attitudes toward other people or to the environment is through education. But just learning more about something doesn’t make you care about what happens to it, or change the way you behave. So a large part of changing people’s perceptions toward soil is becoming involved with it.”

She would know. The produce that Soil Stewards has grown over the last two years has been purchased and used by both UI and Washington State University’s dining services. The club continues to grow, bringing together students, faculty and community groups from different disciplines, including environmental sciences, natural resources, engineering, business and communications.

Hemphill’s research, and the national ideas developed from it, could change perceptions of Americans for generations to come. For now, Hemphill is satisfied that the organic mustard grown by Soil Stewards on UI’s research farm had comparable yields last year to the local mustard grown in conventional ways. To her, it means they’re doing something right and is the start of great things to come.

“Soil is where life begins and ends, where natural ecosystems keep going,” she said. “‘Save the environment’ doesn’t just mean air and water – it means saving all of it. Civilization depends on soil, so we need to adjust our relationship with soil and learn how to keep this natural life cycle going.”


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