Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Dust to Dust: Celebrating the dirt underneath us

Man has a deep and surreal attachment to earth and dirt.

Dirt is the substance without which life would be impossible. The oft-repeated saying “dust to dust” has validity. After all, we all end up in a pile of dirt after death and become part of the elements. And metaphorically speaking, Mother Earth gives us birth and sustains us.

Strangely, it is pottery, ancient as well as not-so-ancient, that speaks to us about civilizations past. On any natural mound, one can usually find pottery shards scattered on the surface that lead us to the cumulative compressed layers of culture and history underneath. Through that window, we can peer at a remote past, just as an astronomer would peer through a telescope to find tell-tale signs of a primitive universe. It is all there for us to unearth and discover.

In history many societies celebrated earth in their cultural and religious rituals. Perhaps the most descriptive expression of attachment with dirt is found in Aborigines' spirituality. It is like picking up a piece of dirt and saying, according to Aborigines' traditions, “This is where I started and this is where I will go. The land is our food, our culture, our spirit, and our identity.”

This close identity with the dirt of one's birthplace continues even today. In a short poem titled Anchors, Daud Kamal, an internationally acclaimed English-language poet from Pakistan, wrote of that abiding attachment:

Anchor your dreams,

Neither in stars, nor in the sea.

But in earth,

Where ancestral dust sharpens

The taste of ultimate sleep.

And then there is that innate desire to return to one's roots. Some of us daydream about the land we left behind and remember exaggerated and bigger-than-life images of the places where we lived. A dilapidated homestead appears more beautiful than it ever was. But perhaps it is not the physical appearance as such but what it really meant to us, and how it shaped us. Our conscious mind adds color and texture to vague memories in our subconscious.

I have heard the story of an Indian family of actors whose elders had migrated to Mumbai from Peshawar some 90 years ago. Prithvi Raj, (the patriarch and father of the Kapoor brothers), inculcated the love of a land and a city his children had never seen. For the longest time, and perhaps in the present as well, whenever the family builds a new home, they pour a bag of Peshawar dirt in its foundation.

Whether we worship at the altars of organized religions, hard sciences, or no religion at all, we all have a spiritual bond with the earth and dirt. We carry the fragrance of that dirt with us no matter where we go. Whether it is the Aboriginal philosophy, the poetry of Daud Kamal, or the endearing ritual of the Prithvi Raj and Raj Kapoor family, we celebrate the earth and dirt. A collective memory of our past keeps us in good stead.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

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