Toddlers in Nature IV: Germs are our Friends

Boobaby kissed a worm yesterday.

She had been grabbing up handfuls of soil when she came across the little wriggler. After she exhausted her supply of friends to whom to show the critter, I told her to put it back in the dirt.

“Bai-bai, wumm!” she cooed at her new friend, then kissed it and chucked it against a tree with bone-crushing force — if worms had bones, that is. (Boo’s expressions of love need a little refinement.)

Boo and I get dirty a lot. In forest, shore, and stream, Boo and I stick our fingers and noses in lots of places that would have horrified my grandmother, and not just her: I’ve gotten odd looks on our outdoor adventures even from parents my own age. You may remember one even telling her daughter not to go where Boo and I were playing in the dirt: “You’ll get sick!” she said, pointing at me.

I was reminded of that today reading a New York Times review of a book called Good Germs, Bad Germs. There’s a lot of what most of us already know: overuse of antibiotics in people and livestock is breeding supergerms that can’t be killed by ordinary medicine. It came as a surprise to me, though, that our hygiene compulsion is also fueling allergies and asthma. When we kill off “bad” bacteria, we also kill some of the harmless fellow-traveler germs, and in the absence of these good or neutral microbes, our immune systems go nuts. From the article:

“Without routine early exposure to a wide array of microbes, the immune system may become jumpy and frightened, overreacting violently to harmless substances like pollen, peanuts or even the body’s own cells.”

Wow. That totally makes sense to me. I get hay fever and asthma from time to time, but it’s always when I’ve spent too much time inside. Get me out on the trail — even the dusty, pollen-laden trail — and I breathe easy. Love that! By exploring the dirt with Boo, I’m actually keeping her healthy, no matter what the playground marms say.

When she wakes up from her nap we may just go find some more worms to kiss.

Once again, here’s a link to the New York Times article.