Being One with the Dirt

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

Last winter Sachi and I were invited to a small house party to celebrate Chinese New Year. We knew the hosts, Nik and Natalie, but few other people. Eventually, I made my way into the kitchen and met a friendly guy named Mike who had an interesting story, like so many who end up on Orcas. He is a professional potter who trained in China’s porcelain capital. 

Our conversation soon moved to the adjustments we all make in moving and how Orcas differs from other places. Along the way, he mentioned someone he knew who moved up from Seattle and was trying to adapt to island life. 

We talked about transitioning to a more rural, small-town environment and how things are generally slower, farther away, and less convenient. Compared to the city, anonymity isn’t as possible and the scuttlebutt travels quickly. These are common observations. But Mike said something that I’d never heard before and it stuck with me. His friend was having a hard time with the dirtiness of island life. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about that observation. Is it dirtier? What does that mean?

I remember experiencing this feeling before meeting Mike. Just after we moved, we were eating dinner at a cafe with farm-to-table food and cocktails. I asked the server for recommendations and she pointed to the menu with a fingernail stained with dirt. For a moment I was aghast. That doesn’t happen in Seattle. But on Orcas, it’s nothing. The cafe prides itself on growing their own food and it seemed like she came directly from the garden to our table. The food was delicious and dirt-free. 

In discussions about the dirtiness of things, context matters. Dirt, in whatever manifestation, is relative and I saw examples of that in Seattle.

Like many places, Seattle is surrounded by rural farmland. When there are events in the city like concerts or festivals, people arrive from all over. As a city-dweller, it was always easy to tell who had arrived from the small farming towns. They arrived in big trucks and were dressed in a more country fashion, with jeans and work boots. But it wasn’t simply their clothes. Compared to city people, there was a dustiness to their appearance. 

I remember noticing how they stuck out against the shiny urbanites and wondering if it was intentional or not. While I was perhaps smug at the time, I now see the contrast from a different perspective. 

Orcas Island has nicely paved roads, but most people use dirt or gravel roads on a regular basis. Most houses are surrounded by natural surfaces like rocks, grass, ground cover, etc. This is true for us now and will be true for the new house. By simply stepping outside and driving off the property, you can’t help but collect some pine needles or dirt. In the summer, the gravel roads ensure a fine dust coats everything. In the winter, the consistent rain keeps everything muddy or at least splashy. 

The reality of the surface became very real two weeks ago when we visited the construction site. I stepped out of the car and my phone dropped to the ground. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as most surfaces are flat and a rubbery case protects the back and edges of the phone. But in this case, a rock was perfectly positioned to crack my phone’s screen on impact. Over a decade of having iPhones and this was the first cracked screen, thanks to living around gravel. 

The dirtier experience of Orcas has also had a slow, but obvious impact on how I dress. The first time I noticed it was looking for new shoes. I realized that I may never own another pair of shoes with white soles. They are impossible to keep clean on Orcas. The same is true for pants and shirts. My recent selections tend toward the earthy tones. This is mostly a practical consideration because I can live with dirt as long as it’s not so visible.

The same is true for vehicles. In the summer, the dust is so thick on our back window that we have to use the wiper blade to see. It’s an inescapable element of living on a gravel road and we’ve grown used to it. In fact, we’ve come to see it as a strange badge of honor that differentiates us from the tourists who arrive in pristine cars. If you want to find a tourist in the summer, look for a shiny car. 

This observation also works the other way around. 

At the end of last summer, Sachi and I rode the ferry to the mainland and made some stops at places like Costco. When we returned to the car, I noticed that it stuck out like a powdered doughnut among a dozen glazed. Dust covered every inch of its exterior. Then, I looked down. My shoes were dusty and dirty. My fingernails weren’t clean. I realized I was now the person arriving in the city from a rural location and making a subtle statement. My former self might have wondered: Why is he so dirty looking?  

This made me think back to the country guys in Seattle. They were arriving from an environment I didn’t fully understand. They were wearing what they wear every day and it’s the most practical choice for them. They didn’t need to put on new clothes (or airs) for the city people. The thought may not have even occurred to them. 

When I broach the subject of dirtiness among friends, the discussion usually turns to the definition of “dirty” and “clean” and I think it leads to the right perspective. Orcas Island and other rural places have fewer paved surfaces than cities. More people work with their hands than with computers. There are very different expectations about clothes and general cleanliness. But is it really dirty?

Visibly, the answer is almost certainly yes. But that’s not the whole story. In Seattle, we could walk the dogs for miles and miles and never step off a paved surface. We’d come home wet, but not visibly dirty. Clothes stayed clean more easily and white shoes worked. Yet, the city, like any city, has its problems with cleanliness. There might not be dust and gravel roads, but there is pollution, litter, and detritus. In the winter, the wet muck from traffic is far dirtier, oilier, muckier than you’re likely to find on Orcas. There is pollution in the air from millions of vehicles that drip all sorts of things into the water, eventually. And I can’t help but think of the noise. Planes, sirens, cars, industry, people. It’s another kind of pollution, but not dirt. It’s a city, after all. 

I’ve started to see that Seattle is dirty on a more invisible or microscopic level that’s easy to ignore. It is there, however, and now I am seeing an incontrovertible truth: everything is dirty all the time, everywhere. Sometimes it’s harmful and easy to ignore. Sometimes it’s harmless but visible. But we all live in a dirtier environment than we like to believe. 

So, I think Mike’s friend has a point. Orcas can appear to be a dirtier place compared to the city. But the dirt is different. It’s more visible and washes away after a long day of work. It returns to the ground just as it was before. Being one with the dirt is part of the transition and how you become part of the island itself.

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