Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Transforming Dirt

Transforming Dirt

“You heard that there’s a for sale sign on the farm across the road?”
Sunday morning light slides in through glass, pools in my pot. Phone cradled to my ear, I stir porridge.

“You’ve got your offer in, I hope.”

How could Dad say anything but that? The sign went up two days ago.

I smile, shake a bit of salt into boiling oats, a handful of ground flax, and stir.

“Oh, we’d like to. 200 acres, 150 workable. But there’s no way. In these kinds of markets, we simply don’t have the money to buy another farm.”

“It’s land, Ann.”

What else is there to say?

I look out the corner kitchen window. Autumn weds countryside. Maples down the lane blush, silently disrobe. Fields roll east, the land gold. Our field of corn witnesses.

“How often in your lifetime will the farm right next to yours come up for sale? Not more than once or twice.”

I can see him shaking his head, him sitting there eating breakfast, looking out on his own fields of corn, land he raised me on.

“It’s an investment for your children . . . in your children. The banks will lend it to you. It’s land!”

Like he can shake sense into me with those two words.

Sun lays out long on the farm across the road, across its honeyed wheat stubble, and this feeling barbs, burns.

It’s land.

Coming home from wheat fields one afternoon, just before lightning had forked across the western sky, my daughter Hope said the same. One hand on the steering wheel, I turned and caught the tilt of her head, the tone of her words. She had brushed the tangled hair out of her face, smudged her cheek with dirt from the back of her hand. She’d glanced at her tired, grimy brothers pressed in around her, looked up at the mirror, and then turned toward me.

After combining wheat with Dad, we’ll need to go home for baths, won’t we? We are all like . . . dust.

I couldn’t speak. My fingers fumbled to slip through Hope’s dirty hand. Dirt met; we squeezed tight. Heavy raindrops pelted the windshield. We drove home from fields, dust in a rainstorm. That dirt is what I sweep off floors, wash from jeans, scrub off hands; the same dirt that frames up the soul; the same dirt that grows our food to sustain our limbs, that nourishes our bodies.

When asked what we do for a living I always hesitate; there’s no grand title and I can read their eyes. Farming requires no specialized degree, no impressive wage for menial labor, the primitive work of any civilization. We’re farmers. We just grow food. We just raise pigs. It doesn’t get more rudimentary.

The children read it aloud once from their history text, how the most denigrated class of people in ancient Egypt was the swine herders. They’d looked at each other, at their dad and I, we pig farmers.

I had held the book in my hand, smoothed the page out flat, and the words had come slowly, like bent backs rising, but they had come and we all stood taller because of them.

How can growing nourishment for temples wherein Christ dwells be dirty, base work? If it isn’t fish at the end of a fork, it ultimately came from dirt, from the bowed back of a farmer. And this dirt-tilling, isn’t it engaging in Genesis work, stewarding and cultivating his creation?

Some say that there are only two kinds of people who brush very God. The priest in the sacraments. The farmer in the soil.

We’ve known it, standing at the end of a field, the wagons filling with yield: working earth touches God. Working humus feeds humanity. We are dust farming dust, preparing food for men planting food, living this circular dance: from dirt, through dirt, until the return to the dirt; for from him and through him and to him, all things. Need we be ashamed?

The children had all nodded.

It’s land. The land, she’s kin. I want her. She’s of my lineage, kin I know. I want to walk her dirt, open her up, spend the seasons with her.

The wind rustles corn; the field whispers.

The back door closes softly and I can hear the water running. Farmer Husband always washes his hands in the mudroom sink, washing away the smell of his stock and his work. I glance at the clock. He and our six kids have made good time this morning. Six hundred and fifty sows fed and watered, afterbirth from newborn litters collected and laid back out on the land, nearly a thousand piglets carefully tended to, the mothers’ milk-full udders checked, the heavy sows prepared for the birthing—all while the moon still lingered. Now the sun begins her arc across the lid. They’re in for breakfast, to wash up for church.

“Dad thinks we should put an offer in.” I ladle bowls.

Farmer Husband, with hands that grew a couple hundred acres of wheat this year, cuts bread. I ground those kernels yesterday. Weeks ago, those kernels waved in the wind. I am cooking sausage from our own pigs. We are not eating commodities for breakfast, packaged food yanked from its context and source.

We know the paths of this food: we picked stones off the land in May, the rain came in June, hail pelted the wheat in late July. We speak of the frost that browned the squash vines, the corn we raised in the field then fed to the pigs in our barn. We tend the hens in the coop that puts meat and eggs on our plates. Six children sit at the table and a son grins at the food, the colors, the tastes.

We eat of the earth and chew summer’s sun and swallow down the late August rain. We live and know the circle intimately, from death and a seed, to earth and a bed, to stalk and a yield, to table and a meal. 

“An offer?” Farmer Husband nods, lays the bread in for toasting. “You think we should take out a loan and buy another two hundred acres?” 

I carefully count out eight spoons, eight cups, set them slow around the table while I think. Isn't it always a question of numbers, a question of sustainability? That though we own the hundred acres we live and raise these pigs on, and rent my mother’s four hundred acres and the hundred acres that backs our farm, working six hundred acres is a pittance in an era of industrial farms. How many times do we sit down to eat the food we’ve grown and ask: do we buy more land, fall deeper into debt? Do we invest in bigger equipment, more hired help? Do we grow genetically modified seeds?

How many times have we laid in bed and talked late, the vast black night hushed low over fields? And we've wrestled hard: do we apply fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides? Do we plant the conventional rotation of corn, wheat, soybeans? Or do we plow a new path, grow kidney beans, flax, strawberries, and cucumbers?

The Farmer and I, we've laced the fingers together in the night and made prayerful, considered decisions for our farm individually, but there is only so much that farmers, less than three percent of the North American population, can do to effect real change in the way food is produced, the way agriculture and the land shapes itself.

“Oh. I didn’t say I wanted another loan.” I pour milk. Children and chatter stream in from the barn. A million dollars for two hundred acres of crop dirt? A lifetime of toiling under sun, of praying to heavens to favorably wield skies? And we’d never see the end of the payments. These kids, piling in for breakfast, they’d inherit the dirt and the debt—and in their lifetime, after a lifetime of our work, they might tear up the mortgage. But does this matter? What if working the land is a calling?

Farmer Husband carries toast to the table. Our four boys, two girls, they talk, stir their bowls while they wait for us to pray. He and I butter toast. We say nothing. We’re thinking of the value of land. I think of Thoreau who said:

“You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell more than the sweet crust of any bread or cake . . . . You must have so good an appetite for this, else you will live in vain.”

Transforming Dirt
Isn't that what discipleship is about?
Isn't that what Christian growth is about?
Isn't that what holiness is about?


Humanity is the soil God created with purpose.
Isn't it time we quit devaluing the dirt
and started cultivating, working,
and transforming this precious
soil of humanity, the gift of
 God the day of our birth?

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