File image from 2012 of the entrance to a vegetable garden that author David L. Culp decided to create to resemble a garden similar to one grown by his ancestors. Saturday, May 5, 2018 is World Naked Gardening Day, an annual event designed to celebrate a "healthy sense of both body acceptance and our relation to the natural environment." Credit: Michael S. Wirtz | MCT

Think of it: a sunny day, a soft breeze, the feel of the garden’s rich soil under your (bare) feet. As we approach World Naked Gardening Day, coming up on Saturday, May 5, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that gardening naked might be good for the soul.

Could it also be good for your body? Science seems to indicate that yes, it could. Though generations of parents have exhorted their children not to get dirty while they are playing outside, new research says the opposite. Exposure to dirt — and all the bacteria, germs and other microscopic life within it — actually can be beneficial to humans, according to a University of Maine soil scientist.

“The human immune system is stronger when it gets exposed to different critters,” Sue Erich, the director of the Maine Soil Testing Service on campus, said this week. “We’re learning more and more about the microbial life that’s living within us. Our digestive tract has a whole suite of microorganisms. They’re really an important part of human health. We’re just starting to learn about that.”

Humans evolved in close proximity to animals and to dirt, and so our more modern approach to cleanliness — complete with antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and a fixation with sanitation and sterilization — may actually be harmful to people’s health. “Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System,” a 2017 book written by microbiome scientists, makes the argument that exposure to dirt is beneficial and can reduce the incidence of things like asthma and food allergies. Erich concurs.

“We have more allergy problems, more asthma problems in our children, possibly because we’re too clean,” she said. “The idea is that there’s a lot of microbial life in the soil, that we evolved in pretty close contact with it and don’t necessarily have to obliterate that life. It’s great to play in the soil.”

And that’s where World Naked Gardening Day comes in. The annual event celebrated on the first Saturday of May is not organized by any particular group, and does not have a political agenda, according to its website.

“Naked individuals and groups are encouraged to adopt the day for themselves,” the website states. “Why garden naked? First of all, it’s fun! Second only to swimming, gardening is at the top of the list of family-friendly activities people are most ready to consider doing nude. Moreover, our culture needs to move toward a healthy sense of both body acceptance and our relation to the natural environment. Gardening naked is not only a simple joy, it reminds us — even if only for those few sunkissed minutes — that we can be honest with who we are as humans and as part of this planet.”

But before you jettison your clothes and grab a trowel, hoe or spade, there are a few common-sense tips to keep in mind. First of all, it’s a good idea to don some sunscreen while exposing tender parts to the fresh air. Hats are recommended, for both sun protection and, perhaps, a little bit of modesty. Al so, double and triple check for ticks after the day is done. And actually, it is wise to do a little homework to make sure your particularly patch of dirt is safe to get naked in, Erich said.

“There are some situations where soil can have some toxins in it,” she said. “Lead paint comes to mind … if there’s lead in there, you want to know it.”

Every time a home gardener sends in a soil sample to the Analytical Lab and Maine Soil Testing Service, it is screened for the presence of lead, Erich said. Another good idea is to get a tetanus shot so that if you happen to come into contact with the bacteria known as Clostridium tetani, you will not go home with tetanus, a rare disease that sometimes is called lockjaw.

“Make sure the soil you’re naked in isn’t contaminated with lead or anything else,” Erich said. “And then have a great time.”

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