I wish I was one of those people who could lay my hand to soil and see history in it. If I was, I would pick up earth and let it fall through my fingers, reading stories in each fleck of mica and between every grain of dirt.
My people have not, I imagine, ever been these soil-lovers either. We have had to work too hard to appreciate the beauty of soil. It is not something rich with stories but laden with toil and subservience. We are sharecroppers.

It was only when my dad was in high school that my grandparents bought the land and house my granny still lives in today. Even then, they had no sheetrock on many walls, and the bathroom was still outdoors. It took them more than 20 years of working tobacco for someone else before they were able afford the shell of a house. Farming never made them rich, and from what I can tell, it never made them happy.

Even when I ride with my dad through the eastern North Carolina fields of his childhood or amongst the horse-drawn plows of Lancaster County, PA, the sparkle in his eye is, I think, one of appreciation and respect more than joy. I don’t see him striving to get back to the land, even though he has made – true to his line – his living from it.

And here I sit, two generations removed from toil and one from farming drawing lines in words, not earth. I have done manual labor – laying out saplings when Dad’s nursery first started, weeding impatien beds with my brother, sowing seeds even this very spring – but this is not where my living comes; I do not depend on the earth for my very self.

I come in words, in the toil of mind, not body. My father speaks with enthusiasm about what I do, but then, I hide the palms of my hands in shame for their softness. No callouses come from typing. My uncle and granny and cousins – my boy cousins – they do not see writing as work. I fear they are right.

So when I dig up a bed using a hoe and the weak muscles of my shoulders, I pray to understand the strain of lifting bales of hay and sheaves of tobacco. I cry out from the effort of digging in both the soil and in memory. I am the first of my people who can hold the soil and find beauty in it. May I have the grace to do so.

Sharecropper's Tobacco Barn“Sharecropper tobacco barn showing tobacco in field across the road… ” – Photo by Dorothea Lange