When I was a boy I was convinced that when God decided to make the world He started with Arkansas. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers were merely nicknames for the Ouachita and the Mighty Mississippi that hemmed in our corner of the Delta. And the first man, Adam, likely lived somewhere between West Memphis and the Louisiana line.
After all, the Good Book was quite emphatic, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The preacher man at our local Missionary Baptist Church often waxed eloquent on the subject as his forehead gleamed and small tufts of foam grew in the edges of his mouth like the bright white cotton bulbs in the fields around the meeting house.
“Adam was God’s first field hand,” he once said. “The Lord made him out of deep red delta clay and then set him to work tending the garden. Before anything else, God made a farmer. He brought man alive out of the dirt and then He taught that man how to get life out of the ground for himself.”
Later I would realize, poetic license notwithstanding, that Brother Preacher was right. The Almighty ennobled both field and farmer in the act of creation. Man was begotten of the dirt, is sustained by the fruit of the ground, and one day finds himself resting from his labors beneath the cool sod. This is probably why I have always felt so at home when digging around in my own native soil. As though getting dirty was a way of making peace with the totality of history this side of the Resurrection.
Just as God planted a Garden eastward in Eden, Grandmother planted her own piece of Paradise around an ancient live oak tree in the front yard. Grandaddy hauled in four railway ties and sanded them down smooth so as to rid them of creosote and splinters. These fit snugly around the base of the proud oak tree like one of those wooden shoes the Dutch are so partial to.
Then there was Grandmother on her knees in the dirt, her head bowed as she turned the black earth with her small hand shovel. Like she was praying that heaven would let her borrow a bit of beauty for her forgotten corner of the world. And it was if heaven answered through a wink of sunshine and the arms of the massive oak stretched forth in benediction. Then one morning she woke up to find a retinue of Bird’s Foot Violets, Black-eyed Susans, Blue Larkspurs, and sprigs of Butterfly Weed congregating around the tree like so many acolytes all dressed up for an Easter sunrise service.
But I am Adam’s natural heir. Our relationship with gardens is complicated. As soon as she turned me loose, I set upon Grandmother’s flower bed with a wide spoon, two Tonka dump trucks, and half a dozen or so small race cars. At first I dug ditches around the flowers, but the bees became a nuisance. So I began felling Black-eyed Susans like pulp wood and stacking them by the cord on the backs of the small yellow trucks.
I dug past topsoil and thick clay. I tunneled under the now-naked roots of the elderly oak. I pushed my way through worms and other squiggly critters as I searched for the bottom of the world. I was half-way to Shanghai when I heard my Grandmother gasp, then holler, then plop down on her backside on the door steps in a fit of laughter. It hadn’t dawned on me that she might be mad. I loved dirt. And dirt was for digging. I beamed brighter than the Butterfly Weed and I think that was enough.
Though she never planted flowers there again, she always had a garden. Not a garden to look at; a garden to live on. Now, there’s a certain kind of person who finds in this some romantic notion, but that kind of person has never had palms full of blisters from hours spent with a hoe in their hand. Whatever word you may use to describe squaring off with a copperhead who has become territorial over your butter beans, idyllic isn’t it. And there’s nothing particularly picturesque about being sent out in the dark of the night to pee in a rusty Folger’s can so as to keep the deer from eating up the turnip greens.
But it is fair to say that I have spent a large part of my life in the dirt. Digging. Learning. Living. And just this morning I went out to pray over the spot that will soon be seeded with summer squash and English peas and greens and okra and peppers. It will taste better than “store bought” too. It always does. Planted by your own hand. Watered by your own sweat. Gathered from your own dirt. It is better.
Whenever I am in the garden I always think first about Grandmother’s flower bed. Then I think about following her down rows of peas and beans, plucking bushes and filling baskets. I think of the deep magic involved in turning dirt and dead seeds into lunch and supper and life. I think, too, of those whom I have loved who have been planted in a quiet place until the last Spring comes and they shall burst forth, blossoming as a rose. I feel the dirt between my fingers and I think of Paradise Lost, and Paradise Found, and Paradise yet to come. But mostly, I think about Grandmother sitting on those steps laughing and shaking her head as I dug around in her beautiful flowers. And I half-suspect that God sits on the front steps of heaven doing the same thing.