The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?—Wendell Barry, The Man Born to Farming
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.—Matthew 13:31
It was one of those covered dish church lunches that have a big bowl of salad at one end (Ranch dressing for Christians and Italian for the unsaved) and two long tables of dessert at the other. In between was macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, rice flavored with onion soup mix (Lipton’s, I suspect), green bean casserole smothered with fried onions (French’s, I’m sure), mashed potatoes, corn bread cut into large yellow squares, and of course, crispy fried chicken.
I sat down across from a lovely older woman, regal in her purple blouse and silk flower-bedecked hat. She was clearly the Grand Dame of this tiny, African American congregation. A beautiful child brought her paper plate, with a little bit of everything (except salad) piled high. She nodded her approval.
“How long have you been a part of St. Barnabas’ Church?” I asked, gulping macaroni and cheese like a man just released from prison.
Her eyes twinkled. “Well, let’s see. My daddy passed when I was three. He was a Methodist minister and he traveled all over. So momma knew we needed a church, and this one was three miles up the road. So we’d come up through the fields every Sunday. I’m 75 years of age, now.”
I know better to talk about woman’s age, but she gave me an opening. “Wow. 72 years. So your momma was a young widow. How did she care for you?”
“There was six of us.”
“Six!” My God, I thought. It was rural South Carolina in the mid-1940’s. “How did she do it with six kids and no husband?” I could have added “in Jim Crow South Carolina,” but that would have been redundant.
“She did what we always done. She farmed. And we all pitched in. It was harder on the others because they were older than me, but we all had to work that dirt. We had chickens and a cow sometimes and grew vegetables and fruit. Some cotton too, but mostly food.”
I grew up in the rural South, but I was a child of privilege, and white privilege, too. So the closest I got to farming was hanging around my Future Farmers of America friends, with their cool blue corduroy jackets. Mostly we drank beer, and smoked Swisher Sweets behind the barn.
“These young‘uns today ain’t got an idea how food comes. We had to make it, working God’s own dirt, or we was going to be hungry. They all go to the Wal-Mart to buy their food.”
There was something sad in her voice. Nobody worked God’s own dirt anymore. Nobody knew the links between soil, sun, rain, manure and corn or peas. Nobody had dirt ground so deeply into their palms that no amount of Lava-bar scrubbing could remove the dark stains. Nobody knew where food came from any more. They thought it came from Wal-Mart.
The people these days, her own children, me, my children, and probably you, have a very different relationship with dirt than she had. We think dirt is something to get rid of, to wash off, and to be honest, to be a little ashamed of having on our hands. We call this place we live “Earth,” with not a trace of irony. But we forget what earth is. It’s just dirt. God’s own dirt. And we don’t work it at all.
We talked a long time, until we were nearly the last two sitting in the old church fellowship hall. There was still dessert left: heavy chocolate muffins and sweet potato pie.
I stood. “Miss Margaret, may I get you some sweet potato pie?”
She shook her head. “No, I got a sweet potato pie in my ice box. I will have some later.”
“Did you grow those sweet potatoes?”
She looked at me as if I was crazy. “Honey, I bought it at the Wal-Mart.”