Why You Should Get Your Hands Dirty This Summer

The delightfully upbeat Marcie Cuff wants the world to “stir up a partnership with wildness,” and is doing her part to make it happen. Here, the author and illustrator of the get-outside guide This Book Was a Tree—who’s also a biologist, teacher, and blogger—helps move us (and our kids) off the couch and on to greener pastures. 

book-tree-cuff
Photo by amazon.com

You’re a real proponent of getting outside. That’s an uphill battle these days.
It’s tricky to compete with a comfy computer- or TV-filled world. Being inside has become safe and simple. But wonderful things happen when you spend time outside. You sharpen your focus, stretch your imagination, learn new skills, and tune in to your surroundings.

What if you don’t live near nature?
Wild pockets of nature thrive in spots that, at first glance, may seem unnatural. Roadside fields, abandoned lots, sidewalk cracks—no exotic setting or special equipment required. You can transform any simple trip outside with a sense of discovery.

Can you tell us about an easy project that humans of all ages can enjoy?
Making seedbombs. They’re just little fistfuls of compacted clay, compost and native perennial wildflower seeds, rolled up and dried. You can covertly toss them into inaccessible neighborhood spots, and as long as they get rain and sunlight, native plants will eventually spring up.

Your book is full of great ideas for interacting with the natural world. But job one is to get outside. How do you get inside-type kids to leave the house?
Make it easy to go outside. Put bins or baskets near the front door filled with gear: daypacks, helmets, magnifying glasses, binoculars, field guides, compasses, notebooks, pens. Start with short expeditions—a 15-minute jaunt may be a massive accomplishment at the beginning. Once you’re outside, think of more things to do. It can help to involve other people—even the tiniest or most seasoned friend can be included in the mix. Make your activities open-ended. Take your time, and leave room for exploration and discovery.

What can city dwellers do to enjoy the natural world this time of year?
They can make a list of simple activities that can serve as a catalyst for creative outdoor exploration, and keep it by the door. When you want to get out, find something on the list that speaks to you and your posse. Some starter ideas: Follow an ant for 15 minutes, read aloud outside, make bark rubbings, have an outdoor scavenger hunt, explore under rocks, start a leaf collection.

For those who are still resistant, tell us about the science behind actually digging in the dirt—getting our mitts in the soil.
Recent research reveals that a strain of soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae can be good for what ails you. Exposure to this particular bacterium not only lowers depression and anxiety, but also makes folks smarter. Mice fed tiny M. vaccae sandwiches (yum!) are able to navigate tricky mazes twice as fast as mice fed a normal mouse-y diet. And they’re less anxious. It seems that the body’s immune response to M. vaccae triggers the brain to release serotonin.

How do we act on this info?
Expose yourself and your family to the germy world. Go barefoot in the dirt, dig in the garden, eat freshly harvested vegetables, make a mud pie, snuggle with a dirty dog.

You’ve said you want to instill an old-fashioned sense of enthusiasm and curiosity. What are the kinds of questions you help cultivate through your work?
How does a compass work? Do frogs freeze in winter? Why is rain not salty? How is a cork made? Or silk? Or chalk? Often it’s the things we see every day that get overlooked. To get serious for a moment: the fate of the Earth depends on human attitudes and behaviors. To build lasting connections with our environment, we need to participate in real-world experiences that matter. I wrote This Book Was a Tree to help clear the trail for the crusade.

You’re a mom. What’s your mantra about kids and the outdoors?
“Little people live close to the ground. They should be getting dirty.”