Dirt thou art, and to dirt shalt thou return

Dirt thou art, and to dirt shalt thou return

By: Larry McGehee

A former student of mine recruits college students to sell fire extinguishers during summer breaks. Not many years back, those same students would have been peddling seeds in summer months. From Ferris Seeds to fire extinguishers in a single generation is mind-boggling. The loss it represents can make us feel guilty indeed. Thomas Jefferson’s dream for America was that it would be nation of small farms and independent farmers. Until the days of the dust bowls of the 1920s, we were just that. Today only two percent of us are farmers. Not having a garden is giving me guilty feelings. Both sets of our grandparents had gardens, and usually a couple of pigs and a cow or two as well. On Sundays we could eat what we had seen them growing. Looking back to long-lost gardens provides an more important lesson about ties between Man and Land and about dependency having to be visible to be appreciated. The few daffodils, camellias, azaleas, and tiger lilies we grow didn’t make that lesson for our daughters. We love coffee. We keep a pot on all day long. For a while-until it got too expensive and time-consuming-we bought coffee beans and ground them to supplement the vacuum packed brand we have always bought. Prepackaged and pre-ground coffee in a vacuum bag left us with a vacuum of appreciation for its real origins. Grinding beans ourselves somehow made us aware of ground far away that we have never seen from which it came and of invisible hands that had prepared it, and which we blindly bless when we set down to eat. Our own parents taught us that money doesn’t grow on trees. As far as we can tell, with our lives shut off from the land and from farmers, neither does food. Food today is something that comes in cans and bags and cartons on shelves of supermarkets that apparently pick it from eighteen-wheel trucks. Food is the fundamental necessity in our lives. Because we take it for granted, we take living for granted as well. To get water, we turn on a faucet. To get food, a clerk turns on a cash register. The appreciation of origins, of labor, of processes, and of nature gets lost in the check-out line. We tried various ways to re-establish, for our children and ourselves, lost links between origins and consumption, such as by reading cookbooks, relishing Southern Living color photographs, and eating at country cooking restaurants and truck-stops. But those shortcut methods only revived memories of farms and family and times that no longer exist. And sadly, our daughters don’t even have those memories on which to fall back. Hence, our feelings of guilt. We want very much to believe — but cannot — that microwaves, minute rice, and instant potatoes have liberated us. Logically, they have added years to our lives that the labor of growing and cooking our own food would have taken from us. Logically, too, they have freed us to use daily hours of tilling time and kitchen time for higher ends, for thinking deeper thoughts or reading more books or going more places or serving the needy or building a better world. But in truth, fast foods have provided more time to watch television and more separation from than old agrarian awareness of people and places elsewhere. There is little evidence that we are healthier spiritually and morally and intellectually for being better or more easily fed than ever before. Eating has become a semi-conscious habit; meals produce an unintended coma, and obesity and food additives are a national problem. Something is out of synch. The 4-H, FFA, and FHA clubs of our rural and small-town youth were premature. We need them now, in our urban remoteness, more than we did back then, to show us how to enrich our lives with useful nature. We need them now to train us in how to grow spinach in a windowsill, corn on a rooftop, watermelons on a wrought-iron porch railing, and sweet potatoes in a basement. In these trying times of high gasoline prices driving up food and food transportation costs and of growing unemployment, it may well be that we shall begin soon to see a transformation of manicured lawns into gardens. Economic necessity may force us into a reunion with the land. Jefferson’s vision of a nation of farmers may yet come to past. Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 6.9.08

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