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Cracker Barrel - Gettin' dirty

Admit it. We humans, along with all other life forms, are creatures of the earth. We take our sustenance from the soil, either directly from plants once rooted in the dirt or from animals that have earlier eaten such plants.

Without dirt, we cease to exist. Of the many gifts we tend to take for granted, none ranks higher than the lowly ground beneath our feet.

Sadly, our culture fails to help us understand this central fact. From infancy on we are taught that anything "dirty" or "dirty cheap" or "soiled" has little value, when in fact the opposite is true.

As a nation we treat our topsoil with contempt. Scientists who have studied the soil tell us it takes nature several hundred years to create a single inch of good dirt. They also point out that, in the two and a half centuries we Americans have farmed our land, we've seen an estimated 60 percent of its topsoil disappear, primarily through erosion.

That's a pretty dismal record.

The good news is that millions of citizens are waking to the fact that health is in large measure rooted in the food we eat, which in turn is rooted in the earth itself.

The word "health" derives from "wholth," indicating wholeness or soundness of body, mind and spirit.

As might be expected, such wholeness is more apt to derive from foods that themselves are whole, as compared to those that have been tampered with or processed.

Sir Albert Howard, one of the early students of healthy farming techniques and author of the seminal book "An Agricultural Testament," put it this way: "The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible." He advocated studying the forest in order to farm like the forest, relying on composts and mulches to temper the soil and add to its nutritional richness, rather than depend on manmade additives.

"Artificial manures," he wrote, "lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women."

Whether you agree with Howard's statement or not, the fact is that some foods are demonstrably healthier than others. It's no accident that mothers the world around exhort their children to "eat your fruits and vegetables." No foods bring us needed nutrition as quickly and directly as they do.

And no other foods are as simple to produce. As Douglas Jerrold once observed, "Earth is so kind. Just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest."

While growing your own healthy veggies may not prove quite that easy, it is still a thing that most of us can do. You just need to get down and dirty. And come to think of it, that's what most life processes require.

From the building of muscles to the birthing of children to the cooking of a tasty meal to the creation of a work of art, there are no shortcuts or substitutes for honest effort and a degree of pain.

If you want to enjoy the benefits of garden produce, you must be willing to get your hands dirty and endure a bit of bending. But the rewards of growing natural, unadulterated foods far exceed the discomfort encountered.

It's not too late to get involved with growing some of your own food. Whether out in a garden or in a few containers on your deck or back porch, you can regain your rightful place as a producer of healthy things to eat.

In doing so, you make connection with all other forms of life. Viewed clearly, all of nature is a conjugation of the verb "to eat," in both the active and the passive mode.

Growing and then eating wholesome food is one of the most fundamental acts in which we can participate; and one capable of bringing us a profound satisfaction.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at