What Exactly Is ‘Dirty Wellness’?
Our writer spent a weekend at a holistic farm to find out.
I’m sticking my tongue out in the middle of a field, next to a creek, wearing borrowed galoshes and socks over stretch pants and a tank top.
I’ve booked a “mindfulness saunter” at Wishing Star Farm & Wellness, located on 6 bucolic acres north of Baltimore in Glen Arm, Maryland. My guide is Phil Hosmer, a former corporate banker who quit his job in 2019 to become a nature therapist (his company is called NatureWorx). He is also sticking his tongue out.
“What does the air taste like?” he asks.
To me, it tastes like milk.
Then, with our eyes closed, he asks, “What do you hear? There are three sounds in this world that people have sought out since the beginning of time.”
I think about it. “Birds, the water…and I can hear the grass. Is that right?”
“That’s the wind,” he says. Birds, water and wind—the trifecta.
Next, he proposes “creek sitting,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I ask if he wants me to actually sit in the water, and he tells me that, yes, he actually does.
Ditching the galoshes, I get on my knees in the creek and kind of splash around a bit because I have no idea what else to do. Hosmer splashes the water on his face, so I follow suit. I feel like a child, but it feels good.
Like so many of us in pandemic times, I’ve been knotted with anxiety and a general sense of malaise. The mindfulness saunter is part of a weekend getaway during which I’ve resolved to keep an open mind and try some holistic therapies that once I might have derided as New Age bunk.
This explains how I found myself, the night before, lying on a table in Wishing Star’s carriage house barn trying reiki—a Japanese energy healing technique that promotes relaxation and reduces stress through gentle touch. To get me grounded, Janet Baird, a master reiki practitioner and certified “sound healer,” starts by placing her hands on my ankles, then my shoulders and then pausing above my face. I feel a rush of blood to my cheeks and the sensation of prickly heat.
The private, hourlong session also includes sound immersion therapy with an assortment of instruments—drums, bone rattles, rain sticks, bells, a Native American flute and intermittent chanting. I’m skeptical going into it, but when it’s over, I am suddenly overcome with emotion. I run to my car and start to cry.
Later on, I ask Baird about the crying. “The beauty of reiki is that it helps a person get to a deep state of relaxation and allows them to heal themselves from the inside out,” she explains, whether the pain is physical, emotional or both. “[Pain is the result of] stuck energy—wherever energy is not flowing—that’s disease, so the whole purpose of energy work in general is to get energy to move properly and flow easily.”
My cathartic tears, it seems, were a manifestation of negative energy that had finally been dislodged.
When I first heard about “dirty wellness,” a philosophy that espouses leaving our sanitized, hermetically sealed existence behind and reconnecting with good old-fashioned bacteria-laden dirt, I wanted to try it without really knowing what it entailed. It sounded fanciful and fun.
The idea is to show up at a farm and engage in some light physical activity in nature—like gardening or, yes, creek sitting—that puts you in direct contact with the soil microbiome. Studies suggest that playing in the dirt may actually help to improve our gut health and immune response, with the added benefit of a serotonin mood boost. (The Earth Microbiome Project, a massive collaboration of more than 500 researchers worldwide, is one group at the forefront of this new frontier in scientific research.)
In addition to dirty wellness, Wishing Star Farm offers other holistic practices designed to help visitors unwind, from yoga and reflexology to acupuncture and herbal remedies. The combination is supposed to result in a realignment of physical, mental and spiritual health. I just didn’t think it would be as hard as it was.
When I meet up with the farm’s co-owner, Missy Teague, on Day Two of my visit, she’s wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a standard work shirt. She assures me that my post-reiki sobbing episode the night before was totally normal—it happens all the time.
Teague, a certified life coach and corporate trainer who works in commercial real estate, opened Wishing Star Farm in 2019 with her husband, Don, a car painter and handyman.
At first, it seemed like the pandemic might derail their fledgling venture, but the opposite happened. During quarantine, they started staging wellness demonstrations and handing out literature about sound immersion, reiki and other therapeutic practices at roadside produce sales organized with local growers and farmers. Like-minded people interested in wellness started showing up and asking about classes. Things took off from there. Teague calls it “divine timing.”
“People are drawn to this place,” she says with an unironic air of mysticism. “Sometimes people just show up and knock on the door of my house. They say they are drawn to how spiritual the land feels.”
Today, Wishing Star offers a range of group and individual wellness workshops led by local practitioners. Private sessions are $15 to $40; multiday retreats start at $200; and six-month programs can cost up to $2,500.
It’s become a destination for people seeking greater meaning, purpose and clarity in their lives, Teague says, noting that visitors have come from as far away as Texas and Florida. Attendance at the farm’s twilight sound immersion sessions has been growing over the past two years, from the handful of customers she first met at the produce stand to a few dozen regulars and private clients.
Before my second sound immersion (this time in a group of about 15 participants), I speak with Bridgette Jester, the certified yoga, reiki and vibrational sound instructor who leads the farm’s nightly sound workshops.
She explains how she uses Himalayan copper bowls of different sizes to create an immersive auditory experience, hitting the bowls with a small mallet so that the sound waves multiply and overlap, filling the space in a crescendo. The effect is a bit like running a finger around the rim of a wineglass. I ask her how it works therapeutically.
“Overlapping tones and frequencies resonate out [to create a] vibration that runs through your body,” she says. “The sound waves take your brain into the theta brain wave state—our rest and restore space. This is similar to a REM sleep state, where you work through trauma and process the events that happen during the day.”
For me, the theta state feels like heavy lucid dreaming.
Later that night, during Jester’s class, I’m lying on the barn floor under a knotty, white blanket, my knees drawn into my chest. The air fills with the meditative tones of the copper bowls. I close my eyes and stick out my tongue.
It tastes like fresh, green grass—a bit like dirt and a bit like life.
If You Go
Where to Stay
Anchoring a 45-acre organic produce farm in Stevenson, Maryland, Gramercy Mansion was built in 1902 by Alexander J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and brother of the American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Today, the 11-room Tudor estate is a bed-and-breakfast filled with curious oddities (porcelain dolls, bronze figurines, china cabinets packed with vintage tools) courtesy of owner Anne Pomykala. The Camelot suite is a mauve fantasy of marble tile, chintz and fringe swags, with cherubs over the tub. If you’re a fan of cottagecore, this is the place for you. Rates start at $150.
Where to Eat & Drink
Known for its superior dry-aged beef (it supplies many of the DMV’s finest restaurants), the 350-acre Roseda Black Angus Farm in Monkton is worth a stop on Fridays and Saturdays, when a barbecue stand serves up pit beef, steak burgers and hot dogs fresh from the smoker. If time allows, take a walk through the farm’s rolling fields, cow pastures and streams—which are preserved in perpetuity.
Part of the Foreman Wolf restaurant group, The Milton Inn, a British-style tavern in Sparks Glencoe, is a worthy spot for a decadent lunch or dinner. Tucked into a historic fieldstone house with white plaster walls and dark wood interiors, it also has a covered outdoor patio, where I happily feasted on buttery-salty beef tartare, foie gras with cornichons, and squab with white beans and spinach. Salads, quiche and fish dishes round out the menu.
Just down the road from Wishing Star Farm in the town of Hydes, Boordy Vineyards offers vineyard tours and tasting flights of its award-winning wines—from cabernet francs to albariños—plus live music in spring and summer.
At McFaul’s IronHorse Tavern in Parkville, you can knock back a beer and watch oysters shucked to order behind the wood bar. Or, do as the locals do and go for a bowl of Tilghman Island oyster stew or Maryland crab soup.
Where to Explore History
Take a 17-minute drive from Wishing Star Farm to Historic Jerusalem Mill Village in Kingsville. The Quaker settlement dating to 1772 still includes the original grist mill, miller’s house, a blacksmith forge, tenant house, general store, smokehouse/dairy and other preserved structures in the National Register of Historic Places. It’s free to visit, though donations are welcome to aid in the site’s ongoing preservation. The Jericho Covered Bridge is located adjacent to the village, which now has a history museum and shops.
More Wellness Retreats
Need to reset and recharge? Wishing Star Farm is one of a growing number of wellness destinations focused on healing and personal growth. Here are a few others:
Located on 65 acres of farmland, the Haley Farm Inn & Retreat Center in Oakland, Maryland, offers yoga, guided meditation, nutrition counseling and exercise classes, plus add-ons like massage, horseback riding, belly dancing instruction and rock climbing. Build a custom itinerary for yourself, your friends or a bridal party.
Visit the Blueberry Gardens Healing Center in Ashton, Maryland, to practice yoga, tai chi or qigong in a 990-square-foot octagonal studio with a clerestory ceiling. The center also provides acupuncture, massage, reiki and nutrition counseling in five private treatment rooms, plus a 3-acre garden filled with blueberries, vegetables and native plants.
For a yoga retreat with wine on the menu, book a stay at the Farmhouse at Veritas in Afton, Virginia, where beautifully appointed rooms look out on mountains and vineyards. Retreats can be customized to include reiki, massage, journaling, tarot card reading and chef-prepared vegetarian meals with wine tastings.
Centering on Ayurvedic healing in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the picturesque Eupepsia Wellness Resort in Bland, Virginia, has a broad menu of wellness offerings, from yoga, meditation and health screenings to detox packages, cleanses, spa treatments and light and salt therapy.
Meredith Lindemon is a freelance journalist who writes about wellness, real estate, travel, interiors and lifestyle trends.