Dirty Feet

Richard Speer

Feet are a good place for dirt. In the rural American South where I spent my first six years, the signs on store doors warning “No shoes, no shirt, no service” weren’t for show. They were there to stop people from traipsing inside bare-chested and barefoot, tracking in that odious harbinger of physical and metaphysical desecration: dirt. The South’s ambivalence toward feet and dirt is more pronounced than in the North, with its cold falls and winters, and the West, with its arid, cactus-dotted, decidedly feet-unfriendly deserts. In the South, you savor the sensation of mud squishing between your toes as you amble over to the fishing hole; the sandy beaches of the Florida Keys caress your soles and balm your mood into pure Margaritaville bliss; and by the time you saunter sunburned and gregarious into the honkeytonk at the end of the dock, it might not occur to you that you left your sneakers at home. I remember as a child muggy summer afternoons in the swamplands of south-central Florida, “Crocodile Rock” on the 8-track of my mother’s VW Bug as we sped down straight flat roads past cattle farms and orange groves. Inevitably in front of us would be somebody’s banged-up pickup truck, in whose passenger seat a pretty girl always seemed to be slumping, one or both legs hanging languorously out the window, dirty feet dangling like lavalieres in hot onrushing air. They would dangle there for miles on end: fixed focal points in front of you, unwashed extremities flaunted without shame, hypnotic, insouciant, louche.

My mother, who wasn’t native to the South and was uninitiated in its traditions, fretted over my prancing about barefoot outside. I might get hookworms, after all. Lots of barefoot boys and girls get hookworms in the South. The little devils crawl into you through your feet, parasitize your intestines, mate, and lay thousands of larvae inside you, which cheerfully hatch into brand-new hookworms. They’re not a mother’s best friend. Notably, we know today that children who frolic in the grass sans shoes develop stronger immune systems [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/health/27brod.html?mcubz=0] than children who don’t. Through exposure to worms, feces, and the sundry loamy vermin of the earth, they auto-immunize against the microscopic creepy crawlies that wriggle and writhe in realms beneath us. While that’s a significant finding for the medical and public-health communities, it’s also, I submit, a deeply poetical conceit that speaks to our connection to the ground we trod. There is a straight line radiating from the center of the earth up into all of us through our feet, legs, and spines that connects us elementally to the seething soil from which we came and to which we’ll return. Animal, vegetable, mineral, everything germinates, compounds, decays, and reshuffles in a gigantic circuit from magma to ionosphere. There is no cycle of life without an earth to sprout from and wilt back into.

And yet how we demonize the horrors of terroir... The narrator of Andrew Marvel’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd To His Coy Mistress” admonishes his would-be paramour to cede him her virginity, lest “worms shall try that long-preservèd virginity/and all thy charms turn to dust/and into ashes all my lust.” The indelible image of a worm slithering through soil, infiltrating a rotted casket, and sliming its way through the desiccated hymen of a spinster’s corpse, elicits at the least a sympathetic response, if not full-blown body-horror revulsion. The fear of incursion by the creatures of the mire cuts to our primal equation of dirt with death. The kingdom of moles, maggots, and excrement, dirt forms the boundary between the topographic and the subterranean, which is to say: between the world and the underworld.

Isn’t this why it excites us so? Dirt is where lust lies: in the hidden, the buried and repressed, the fetid hothouse trenches where things stink in ways that excite us—in “that intoxicating brown smell” that lures Nabokov’s Humbert like a pheromonal siren-song. If our heads stretch closest to the ether, our feet are the cloven hooves that anchor us in the muck of our basest selves; if the mind conceives of the celestial and composes the music of the spheres, the earth-rooted foot binds us to the bestial Freudian id, which we are forever endeavoring to disown. In the hermetic, antiseptic, anal-retentive postmodernity that has become our condition, dirt is the “damned spot” we’re hell-bent on cleansing with our armada of soft-soaps, detergents, deodorants, Wet-naps, hand sanitizers, perfumes, body sprays, talcum powders, and douches. Like latter-day Lady Macbeths, we surely strive to cleanse ourselves of something more despoiling than mere dirt. Whether the besmirchment of Original Sin in the Christian tradition or our species’ plague-fearing sociobiological aversion to human waste, vast swaths of our diverse societies, especially in the West, seek in cleanliness a kind of existential enema to purge the stain inside our souls and the dirt we hold within our bowels. A boon to the personal-hygiene industry, the urge toward prelapsarian purity is nonetheless a losing battle. “We have an evolutionary revulsion from slime, our site of biologic origins,” Camille Paglia posits in Sexual Personae. Attempt though we might to rise above “the filth that transcendental religion must wash from man,” our efforts are doomed. “Alas, with every turn from sex we run right back into Mother Nature’s dark embrace”—into the Dionysian sewer, farther and farther away from the Apollonian machinations by which we would control and contain it. It is an epic human futility.

There may be a better path, which would demand neither that we scour ourselves raw nor abandon all vestiges of sanitation and public health. In an iconic passage of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the author’s alter ego, Birkin, runs naked and exultant through a forest glen, beating himself with fir-boughs and throwing himself upon the ground in a fit of pagan nature-worship. “To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath... Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood.” Birkin rapturous communion with the elements that undergird him is a metaphoric celebration of nature not as immaculate Rousseauian paradise but as a Manichean duel between heaven and earth. What if we could internalize such a worldview without needing literally to fling ourselves into the mud and wallow in wildflowers? Pagan rites don’t factor into most of our daily schedules, yet still we might do well within the sanctums of our psychologies to clear room for more acceptance of the organic; to set a place at the table for the hookworm, as it were; to flaunt the unwashed appendage out the car window in humid whooshing air, that we might jettison our conspicuous obsession with sterility and revere equally the dirt and the stars, the feet and the head and all the guts and gristle in between.


Richard Speer is an art critic, curator, essayist, and author based in Portland, Oregon. His writings have appeared in ARTNews, Visual Art Source, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, Salon, Newsweek, and Opera News.