As global quarantines drag on, the combination of boredom and spare time has propelled mobs of restless persons to ransack home improvement stores for the likes of paint, patio furniture and plants, underpaid and unprotected workers be damned. While these seemingly untroubled shoppers sashay through cavernous, but congested aisles, many wind up in the gardening center, where, among the planters and pots, a curious pattern of human behavior has emerged: Men and women alike are slapping bags of soil as if they were consenting pairs of ass cheeks, pleading for commanding, open-handed whacks.
Accordingly, a deluge of new memes is now attempting to cement our apparent attraction to slapping bags of soil as part of the human psyche. The memes come in all shapes and sizes, but their argument is unified and clear: Slapping soil is inherently human, an act that any person, if presented with the opportunity, would gladly engage in.
My latest odyssey to a home improvement store was several months ago, but as I scrolled past an assortment of these memes, I felt completely seen. I have fond memories of gallivanting around Home Depot, blissfully slapping bags of soil and desperately imploring my mom for Venus flytraps long, long ago. My lust for packs of soil eventually developed into something of an obsession: Catch me in the garden center nowadays, and not a single bag of soil will go unslapped. But no longer am I alone with my compulsion. The memes have spoken, and apparently, soil slapping is universal.
While reassuring in some ways, this epiphany also foments a whole new series of questions: What about sacks of soil makes them so slappable? Are we subconsciously grasping for nature, asphyxiated by a society that refuses to award our environment the respect it deserves? Are we so sexually stifled that anything with even a slight curve and satisfying spring provokes an urge to fondle?
I needed to know, so I departed on a quest for answers.
I began by emailing a publicist who works with agricultural experts. “Sorry for the delay in my reply,” she responded, one day later. “I was way too busy this morning trying to clean up the coffee that I spit all over my desk and computer after reading your email. Seriously, it came out of my nose.”
Then I messaged a neurologist. “Your question about slapping bags of soil is fascinating,” he replied. “Is it about the people who do this, or about the soil? Do some people just slap big things? Is it really about the soil? I have no useful insight.”
Finally, I contacted Hank Davis, a Canadian professor of psychology and the author of Caveman Logic. He immediately conceded to having caressed bags upon bags of soil and mulch, so I knew he’d have some answers. Before I delve any further, though, I should emphasize that, as Davis says, his thoughts on the matter are far from “carved in stone.” In fact, responding to me under stay-at-home orders, he notes, “My thinking might be fueled by cabin fever.” Nonetheless, we persevered and came up with a probable reason behind our seemingly inherent compulsion to slap soil.
First, Davis pointed me toward the so-called Bobo doll experiments, a series of exercises performed in the 1960s to investigate whether social behaviors can be learned through observation and imitation. The experiments essentially involved having children play with toys, including a human-like “Bobo” doll, after watching adult models interact with said toys, either aggressively or not, to see if the children would learn aggressive behavior from watching the adults. Results aside, Davis notes, “They did not have to train the kids to get physically involved with these dolls,” suggesting that humans have a fundamental urge to touch and interact with other human-like objects.
Next, Davis says, “This has a lot more to do with Darwin than it does with Freud.” Darwin had much to say about sexuality and what drives us to reproduce, all of which he explored in his seminal book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. One of his findings was that those who have greater reproductive success tend to be, well, more attractive (I know, this is very complex and surprising, try to keep up). Time and again, evolutionary science has suggested that humans are hardwired to desire contours and curves, which is to say anyone (and possibly, anything) with the right contours and curves would succeed under what Darwin defines as reproductive selection, and would incite the urge to touch from others.
“It doesn’t take much to want physical contact with something that simulates the texture and shape of another human,” Davis explains, especially a well-endowed human. He goes on to categorize bags of soil as zaftig, a Yiddish word for having a full, shapely figure, or Ruben-esque, suggestive of the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who frequently painted plump, rounded characters. “That’s what these bags of potting soil look like,” he says. “They don’t have human features painted on them in the way a sexual blow-up doll does, but they come close enough.”
In fact, Davis suggests that when you consider the popularity of sex dolls and our willingness to displace sexual, sometimes aggressive feelings onto them, our urge to slap voluptuous bags of soil makes much more sense. We all crave human touch — we hunger for something that we can dig our fingers into and feel the pressure spring back, warm against our palms. And through a plump, curvaceous, sunbathed bag of soil, we can achieve that feeling, at least to some degree.
In times like these, when human touch is increasingly scarce, I guess it makes sense that bags of soil are receiving so much attention.