by Stephanie Shaffir
Children, especially young children, experience the world by fully engaging their five senses. It is entirely raw, pure, unbridled—shameless even. How many times have you seen a child swallow a Lego piece or get a bead stuck up their nose? As adults, we don’t embrace these senses to the fullest extent because we develop, through trial and error, a set of expectations (“knowledge”) about our surroundings. Our senses, once so needed and beloved, often become neglected as we get older.
To indulge my senses and relive poignant memories, I developed a dirt diary. As an eleven-year-old, I came up with the concept for a dirt diary while watching an episode of 60 Minutes featuring a forensic geologist. Upon further research, I learned that samples of dirt from famous locations, especially crime scenes, could be sold for a handsome amount of money. Even the smallest test tube could sell for $300 because it allegedly came from John Wayne Gacy's crawl space. Perhaps then I could become a forensic geologist and use soil to mark moments and places of great personal importance.
John Wayne Gacy's crawlspace
In the process of helping my parents move, I stumbled upon treasure—a diary full of dirt from my past…literally. I open the journal and turn to the first page with a tiny Ziploc of dirt attached via staple. I examine the bag. After many years, the dirt is still moist. It is almost orange in color with small fragments of woodchips mixed in. The label reads: “Central Park Swing Set, 59th Street Entrance, August 18th, 2006.” As I run my fingers over the plastic bag, I remember that it had rained that morning and the park smelled of earth. I was relieved. Having just moved to New York, I was worried that I had said goodbye to the sweet smell of petrichor. That day, sitting on the swing set, I confessed to my older brother that I was nervous about starting a new school. He promised he would eat lunch with me everyday if we had the same lunch period. (We did not, but I still appreciate the offer). This playground was a spot I would return to over and over again throughout my teenage years—my first kiss, my first heart break (yes, same person), and countless nights drinking with friends and tactically dodging park security into the early hours of the morning.
I turn to a page with a label that reads: “Rocks, Central Park, 88th Street Entrance. November 9th 2006.” The sample of dirt was light brown with a dusty, almost powdery, texture. This was the day I learned the dark truth about those miniature Ziplocs I had been discovering throughout the park and repurposing for my dirt collection.
After school, the group of girls I had befriended would make a beeline to their lockers to grab picnic blankets and then head straight to “The Rocks” (the “cool kid” hangout spot)—stopping only for iced coffees along the way. As the clock struck 4:00 pm, more kids would trickle in, including the “hot” guys and a few upper classmen. I would watch them sip iced coffees and vigorously type on their BlackBerries and RazR phones, wondering how I made the cut. After all, I did not drink caffeine, nor did I have my own cell phone. On one of these occasions, feeling nostalgic about The Rocks and my new New York friend group, I decided to take a dirt sample. I tracked down a tiny, neon yellow Ziploc between two boulders and promptly hopped to the bottom of the rocks to retrieve it. I began to fill the baggie with dirt, but was rudely interrupted by a shrill female voice;
“That’s like… really, really gross!” shrieked Lydia.
“It’s JUST dirt…” I replied.
“Not the dirt dipshit! The drug baggie! You shouldn’t touch those; you can catch stuff from the drug addict who left it behind!”
“Not if it had weed in it,” Alex interjected.
I tuned out their argument, but innocently wondered to myself why I had never before questioned the origins of the Ziplocs…I proceeded with caution.
I find a page with a dirt Converse shoe imprint. But not just any Converse— my Grateful Dead dancing bear low tops. I wore them everywhere with everything my entire sophomore year of high school. Two years later I dug the shoes out of the deepest depths of my closet because I needed a pair of shoes that I could wear in the mud. A pair of shoes I could throw away at the end of a rainy field day. But, once they were back on my feet, a feeling of nostalgia took over and I no longer had the heart to destroy them. I gingerly put them back in my closet only to break them out a week later when I skipped school to watch Green Day play in Central Park for Good Morning America. It had rained the night before and the humidity of the morning had Rumsey Playfield smelling of damp soil. Today, I do not know where the shoes are, but I do know where to find the fossilized print preserved in my dirt diary.
Once upon a time, I diligently chronicled memories in a dirt diary, but somehow, as I entered adulthood, we became estranged. Now, when I open my dirt diary, I am transported back to those places in time through touch and smell. The fresh cut grass at the start of the school year hanging heavy in the air like exhaust in the afternoon heat. The air becoming thin and crisp and the smell of earth fading as fall turns to winter.
There are moments in time we want to preserve—personal landmarks. Moments we are told to enjoy and savor—birthdays, graduations, weddings. However, quiet moments in life can be just as special. They can be hard to spot, especially as we grow older. We must remember to stop and smell the roses. Or better yet… the dirt. ♦