This is the current state of our Halloween pumpkins:
For 8 years now, we’ve let 10 or so jacks decompose in this garden bed in which nothing but worms grow because we’re constantly digging in it. It’s one of my most cherished school traditions. I love the thought that every one of the hundreds of kids I’ve taught have learned this basic lesson about nature through this experience.
We’ve been noticing how some of the pumpkin is already indistinguishable from the pre-existing dirt, aided by our own chopping and digging, as well as the rainy weather. We’ve observed the tiny fruit flies that swarm the bed, especially on warmer days. On Thursday, we unearthed the largest worm any of us have ever seen. It must have been 9 inches long and as thick as my pinky – that’s one well-fed worm. We’ve studied the piles of seed shells that are evidence of the crows and squirrels that have been helping in the composting process.
On Friday as we were carrying chunks of ice to the garden to see what would happen if we mixed them with the rotting pumpkins, Charlie M. came up to me and said, “This place is full of rats.” His mother Liz and a few other parents confirmed his assertion. They had indeed seen a rat flee the scene when they first entered the garden. At the end of day, as I was closing things down, I too spotted a small rodent that high-tailed it when it saw me looming nearby.
Now, Seattle is notorious for its rat population. I’ve had to hire exterminators for every home I’ve ever owned (although I give my two dogs credit for my current state of rat-free living). This week I spotted two large rats in the parking lot of my neighborhood grocery store and they barely moved as I tried to park in the spot they occupied. I have no doubt that rats have visited our prior pumpkin rots, and given the number of Seattle-ites with backyard compost operations, I’m sure most of our backyards, if not our actual homes, are visited by the varmints on a regular basis.
Still, we spotted one in the garden and that makes it different. It was a very small one, and only one, but now I’m facing the prospect of taking a shovel to school on Monday morning and clearing out the bed. I really don’t want to. I don’t want our tradition to be broken, but at the same time we know that rats can carry disease (although I suspect crows and squirrels do too). Then again, rats are everywhere in Seattle. It would be naïve to think they aren’t feasting on all those apple cores, gold fish crackers, and orange peels that get left behind in playgrounds across the city.
After I post this, I’m going to send emails to the health and safety officers of both of the Woodland Park schools. There will be some discussion about it, but I suspect we’ll decide to remove the rotting pumpkins, and that might be the right decision. Without the easy access to food, I’m sure the little guy will go elsewhere taking our risk of disease with him.
And even though I accept the reasons to do it, I also know that it won’t really make our children all that much safer. I understand why we don’t want children digging where we’ve actually seen a rat, but at the same time we know that rats have been pretty much everywhere in this city. We can’t prevent our children from digging in dirt, can we? That would be no childhood at all.
In fact, many researchers are actually touting the health benefits of children eating dirt. From a thought-provoking article earlier this year in the New York Times:
“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”
One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology a Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”
He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”
“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”
I’m still not arguing that we shouldn’t get rid of the rotting pumpkins as a method for eliminating our garden rat, but it does make you think.
And speaking of making you think (and laugh) here’s the famous George Carlin rant on germs. If you’re reading this along with the kids, you might want send them outside to eat dirt before hitting the play button because . . . well, he’s George Carlin: