140 / 365 – Dirt

MIKE ENGELS

Last of the seeds and vegetables are in the ground. I can tell I’m getting older. I feel this in my knees more than I used to. And my fingers. You see those old farmers, the guys that are in their eighties now, the ones who farmed with simpler machines or the ones who grew up using horses, and their hands are often all twisted and knotted up from arthritis and they have a hard time doing simple things with them. I get it. I can feel it coming eventually.

It’s been a dry spring. A lot of people are glad of that, after the wet spring we had last year. Some farms barely got anything in the ground because the ground never dried out enough. It was going to rot seeds. I’ve heard people in the cafe say, “Well, at least this year it’s dry.” But dry makes them worry, too. Every body has a guess of how the season will go. Will we have enough rain or not. As if any of us had any idea. The old guys, they read signs — what the birds are doing, the direction of the wind. One guy told me he gets an idea from what kind of wildflowers he has in his pasture. I said, “Doesn’t that just tell you how much rain you just had? As opposed to what’s coming?” But he insisted it did. Some people have been stretched pretty bad by the weather last year, and how bad the prices have been. So they’re really hoping this is a good year. They need it. My dad always said there were some farmers who were confident no matter how bleak the weather looked, and others worried no matter how good it looked. I’m hearing more of the worried ones the last few days.

You wish some of these guys got closer to their dirt. Being down on my knees the last few weeks, every night until dart, turning the dirt in the yard over fresh. It looks crusted on the top, dried-out with the tramped and dried leavings of last season’s grass. But you get a spade into it and turn it and it’s something else. We have great soil right around town here, rich black loam. Lots of worms and lives stuff in it. You can smell it, that sweet and sour smell of living stuff. We’ve turned a lot of compost into it over the past eight or nine years. Our neighbors hate the compost pile — it does smell pretty bad. But when you turn this earth and feel how alive it is you forget. The whole ground is alive under us, alive and moist and rich. It will keep us this year, as it always has.

For me, no matter how worried I am about the season when we start, by the time we’re done planting I feel sure about everything in the world. Usually in April I’m worrying about late frosts. Now I just feel full. I feel God’s generosity as I scoop the seedlings into the soft earth. You feel Grace, someone said at church, correcting me. That too, I guess. I feel like I’m in my place, my very safe place.

Guys with big farms should plant big gardens and spend some of their time in them. Nowadays you sit in the cab of one of those things, looking at the computer that tells you what to do. You’re not watching the field, except for which way to steer. You’re not really looking at the ground rolling by way beneath your big wheels. The machine does that for you. I don’t know what kind of numbers and readings those things give you, but I don’t think they can give you that rich smell that tells you that life is persisting, as it always has. Persisting and flourishing. And leaving its marks on your hands, your boots, your clothing. On you. As it does.

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