Feeling low? Here’s a solution: get lower. Like on your hands and knees in a garden. Don’t have a garden? Go take a hike in some woods, or a park, or a greenhouse at a garden store. Or buy a houseplant and then transplant it in rich black potting soil from time to time, so you can breathe in that powerful scent of dirt, for its intoxicating effects and health benefits.
Health benefits in soil? We’ve known this for quite some time now. In the early ‘00s, an oncologist in England, Mary O’Brien, created a serum from Mycobacterium vaccae, bacteria that lives naturally in soil. Her intent was to boost immune systems in lung cancer patients and what she discovered was that the patients who received the treatment perked up, felt happier and experienced less pain than those who didn’t. Dr. Chris Lowry studied O’Brien’s findings further, injecting mice with M. vaccae, then observing their positive physiological and behavioural changes. “He found that cytokine levels rose – cytokines are part of a chain reaction, the end result of which is the release of serotonin,” says Naomi Sachs in her gardening blog. Meaning? Getting down and dirty with the earth can be as beneficial as taking Prozac, and without any nasty side effects. Well, except that your credit card balance might grow along with your plants if you get addicted to gardening.
But what a wonderful addiction, gardening. And I joke about the credit card balance; once your flower beds are established, it needn’t grow in relation to your plants. Speaking with an expert – I used to use my first mother-in-law, but since she passed I’ve consulted with neighbours, blogs and/or garden stores – you quickly learn what to trim, how to trim it, what can be divided and transplanted. And gardening in springtime? When the earth is warming, softening, releasing its first colour in blooms of daffodil, hyacinthe, periwinkle, and tulips? You scratch around, gathering up the dead stuff – doing the “shake and break” my daughter Jetanne called it as I puttered with her daughters, my little helpers, Simone and Naomi Lou, the other day – and lo and behold, like a miracle, there they are. The first green tips of hosta, the first red tips of peony. Remarkable isn’t it? That in those tiny, tightly wound points there is so much plant poised to burst forth.
“Just being in nature is therapeutic,” says Sachs, in her blog, “but actively connecting with nature through gardening is value-added. And why is that? All sorts of reasons have been posited: it’s a meditative practice; it’s gentle exercise; it’s fun; it allows us to be nurturing and to connect with life on a fundamental level.”
My husband B gets positive things from cooking – meditation, an opportunity for creativity, the sensory impressions of the ingredients he works with. Then there is the result to enjoy, both for himself, but mostly, he says, for others. I guess gardening does all of those things for me. A couple of hours in the garden provides immediate visual results and, from previous experience, I know that in the coming weeks empty spaces will fill in with leaves and colour, attracting birds and bees and butterflies with their scents.
And what of that distinct odour emanating from freshly disturbed earth, or soil that has just been rained upon? Says Pagan Kennedy in The Atlantic, “Scientists call it ‘geosmin’, this dirt smell that lends the earthy taste to beets and carrots. It’s the flavour of life.”
And when those beets and carrots make it into the kitchen to be prepared for a meal, the chef may refer to it as “terroir”, from the French, meaning ‘from the land’. “The regional microbes, in the soil and air, impart their particular notes,” says Kennedy, and you can taste it – in wine, cheeses, chocolates, breads – when enjoying food and drink from various locales.
So, get outside. Get dirty. And let your kids (or grandkids) get dirty too. Says Dr. Larry Dossey in the Huffpost, “When children are exposed to the stew of microbes in dirt, their immune systems become stronger. The immune system also learns to ignore substances like pollen or the dandruff of pets, which can trigger asthma and allergies.”
Planting a flower bed, or a vegetable garden, or transplanting those wilted Easter lilies can make you feel high for many reasons. And even if you’re not inclined to scratch in the dirt, when you’re walking around this spring, inhale, deeply. Get some geosmin into your system. Afterward, sit back, swirl your red wine in its glass, then enjoy the smell and taste of the distinct terroir that contributes to its unique scent and flavour.