Dirt, Chicken, and the Reimagined Rose

The Chickens of Yuba City
The Chickens of Yuba City

I was gifted with a childhood defined by dirt. I recall living in a small white house next to the Yuba City livestock auction. Cattle grazed to the left of our home while peaches ripened across the road, their rootstock drinking deep the irrigation held tight by a patchwork of checks. Further away, fertile clods gave way to varicose earth, hot and unfriendly. Everywhere a chicken – even today. Jackrabbits bounced like kick balls through the foxtail barley and star thistle. Three miles as the crow flies, my grandma’s house hosted a walnut orchard and almonds. The hopeful dirt, wet from pump water faded away into cracked crust and barley stubble. Always one spark away from destruction. A mile further great-grandma’s farm continued the dirt’s earthy work supporting Banty chickens, nervous goats, and watermelon vines. All the way to the Sutter Buttes, field after field of continuous dirt. Some of it chapped and sun-abused, the balance well loved. Every square foot of the dirt farmed by a community of belief, collectively trusting the land would give food if they gave effort to the land. And that’s the way it was. As a young child I only saw dirt. Then I saw the land, and eventually place, a place of significance and meaning – a place that was in me and I was in it.

My wife Andi was recently at Laity Lodge, a magical, oasis-like locale in a canyon on the Frio in Central Texas (overseen by our friend Steven Purcell). The family behind HEB and Central Market set the whole thing in motion years ago. We have visited there often and count the people and place essential to life. This time, Andi and Kathi Riley Smith attended the Food Retreat. Along with Laity staff, they cooked the late Judy Rodgers’ famous recipe for roast chicken. Judy and Kathi came up in the nascent farm-to-table movement with Alice Waters, and both cooked for Alice at Chez Panisse in Berkeley – later working together at Zuni Café in San Francisco where Judy’s chicken came to fame – and where Kathi is a chef once again.

One of the guest speakers at the Food Retreat was Ellen Davis, a biblical scholar from Duke Divinity School. Ellen’s most beloved riff is encouraging an agrarian reading of the Bible, specifically that part of the 66 books of the  Bible Christians share with the Jewish people, the Torah. I heard a podcast where Ellen talked about being a teenager living in Israel. She said the land became so familiar to her that even today she cannot read the Bible or exegete a text without seeing the land in which the story took place. Readers unfamiliar with Ellen Davis may know poet/farmer Wendell Berry. In America at least, he is a clear, sane agrarian voice weaving together God, people, and place in a farmer/artist way. For Berry, the Bible, and certainly the agrarian view of reading it, is “the story of a gift.” What Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, and others like Wes Jackson and Norman Wirzba have in common is a deep respect for the land and the Giver of it. To hear from any of these people is to hear clues to a faithful way forward stewarding all that God has entrusted to the human family, including dirt, land, and place.

Today I opened my email to see a NoiseTrade advertisement for My Brightest Diamond, the recording moniker of artist Shara Worden. I’ve watched Shara from a distance for several years. She is one among a few recording artists of her generation that are truly unique in thought and execution. She has contributed to an artist retreat at Laity Lodge and I’ve met her parents there in years past. Her story is also unique. She moved to Detroit when people were fleeing its troubled decline. She bought an abandoned house. Had a baby. Made some music. According to a Huffington Post interview, Shara moved to Detroit so she “could be a part of the urban gardening movement that is happening in the city.” Shara’s friend, artist Erin Martinez, digs up roses from empty lots where houses were torn down and replants the roses in a garden. That way all is not lost, and what someone once loved and cared for is loved and cared for again – and the dirt holds it all together.

Jesus spoke of a way of rightful being and living with God, people, and place. He gave it a name that the people of the time would understand – the Kingdom of God, and then he turned their notions of kings and kingdoms upside down and inside out. His talk of the Kingdom was not a once for all, clear as a bell theological declaration. It is however a creative means to reorient, even reestablish what it means to be God’s kind of fully human person. That is, a person alive to healthy relationship with God, his people, the land and all that is in it.

I see in the land of my youth, the farm-to-table movement, Laity Lodge, Judy Rodger’s roasted chicken, Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project, Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Norman Wirzba, the greening of Detroit, Shara Worden and her friend’s reimagined roses – the story of a gift, for our time. And for this man, all good reasons to say thank you to God through Christ Jesus.

23 thoughts on “Dirt, Chicken, and the Reimagined Rose”

  1. Thank you for this post. As a Midwesterner, with farming ancestry going back 160 years, I cannot look
    at fields growing without thinking of the family connected with it, the stories created from it, and the love and tears put into it.
    Thank you!

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  2. Great story, Charlie. Very “dirty” lol. I appreciate where you are coming from, but in a sort of backward fashion. Like a Benjamin Button story where I started out old and grew younger as I came to know the dirt that I am from.

    I retired less than a year ago and moved from near Washington DC to the Oklahoma city where I was born to take care of my aging mother. Within a month after the move, my mother passed and I was alone in Oklahoma. I had lived near the nation’s capital city for almost 40 years. I had no clue how to survive in hot, dry, windy, rural, tornado-y Oklahoma. But God led me to find the most amazingly friendly and honest people on every corner. They are a part of this land and they have made me feel a part of it as well.

    I always thought it was odd that I was born in a small city in Oklahoma, a birthplace where I never had the opportunity to actually live. Now I live here as though the very fabric of the place is woven into my soul. I guess it is my rebirth place.

    Keep up the writing.

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  3. A beautiful meditation, Chuck! As a product of suburban Los Angeles, it took me quite a while before I became aware of those connections that come so naturally to you. Thankfully (and weirdly), my academic studies took me in that direction (historical studies of water and indigenous people), and brought me into contact with the people and the earth. It took my wife to bring the earth-food connection to life.

    So often, our faith is too esoteric, too removed from the most basic and essential of gifts that God has given us. Thanks for pointing out how elementary that connection should be.

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    1. Understand – I went back, kept a house in my home town for 7 years – changed me for the better and I got to be close with my family again. Sold it now, but I would do it again. A great life decision. Best to you and your journey.

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  4. Thanks for the great read, Charlie. I was born in Baltimore, MD but moved to North Carolina when I was starting junior high. I was amazed that kids drove their tractors to school for vo-tech. I too lived surrounded by farmland and cattle and devout Christians. While I love Baltimore, I graduated high school in Lincolnton and these are the best memories for me. I made many “rites of passage” there. Your article brought the memories flooding back. Thank you again.

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  5. What a lovely piece of writing! It sincerely captures the California farmland … I can hear the chickens … I grew up in midtown Sacramento when a vegetable cart pulled by an old white plow horse still haunted the streets. My great aunt raised rabbits in West Sacramento on a tiny run down ranch guarded by her shepherd dog Leather Lungs. As a child,barefoot in summer, we really had the time to grow into a place …

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  6. Been here in YC 46 years now and there is still lots of dirt and chickens! Love the peach orchard behind us, our little vegetable garden growing in our backyard, and the view of the Buttes we can see over the fence. Life is good!

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  7. I grew up in Redding, CA, but my path eventually took me to Idaho, then Tennessee. Eleven years ago we returned to Idaho where our family gardens and lives pretty close to the earth with an assortment of sheep, goats, cows and horses etc..

    This is not the destination I anticipated for myself as an artist, but creatively and spiritually, I’ve experienced the richest period of my life here. Not in ways that could be measured by the music industry, but certainly for me personally and for my family.

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  8. Thank you, this is rich. I’ve been spending some time studying the landscapes of Yuba City as well as a couple of smaller towns in the area as part of a research project and I love what you have to say about it. I was not fortunate enough to grow up rooted to the land, I’m a child of suburbia but found dirt where I could. What strikes me in my studies of place is that the meaning in places is discovered and enriched when we meet with other people in those places and they become even sacred when God meets us in those places. What would happen if Christians truly dwelled in the places God puts them instead of rushing off to attain things whether spiritual or material. Again, thank you for your blog. I already love it.

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    1. Thank you Jenny for your encouragement. Your point about staying in place is the very thing that I think so many love about Wendell Berry’s witness. Though clearly an intellect that could have owned the world, he chose instead to return to and stay within a complex, but very small space/place – and to tell every conceivable story from that space and place. He has shown that a whole life of great meaning can still be derived from staying put and learning the value of what is, rather than what might be. Peace to you.

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  9. Beautiful writing Charlie. I did some of my growing up on a farm in northern Missouri and also a small town. Both disappeared in the floods of the nineties- can’t remember which year. I have often tried to replace those memories with gardens in Sacramento.

    I was in Detroit just slightly over a month ago at our awful Presbyterian General Assembly, but one of the things I truly enjoyed was the wonderful weather, even the lightening storm in the middle of the night, 52 floors up. It was wonderful. Blessings to your friend who is living there. May that city find the blessings of Christ in every corner and may you also.

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  10. As husband to a horticulturist, I have been challenged by how deeply the pictures of the Bible speak. Your roots seem to speak the same language of water, sun, seed, plowing, tilling, pruning, and harvest. For her, they enable connections that tie the Word to life in a way that I envy. She has prodded me to seek that same sort of connection with language from my own vocation, but the tie seems more distant and tenuous. Keep drawing deep from that well, CP.

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  11. As a very young child I promised myself that I would raise my own children in a home next to the woods. My deep connection to the Earth, her inhabitants and Spirit was born there. Thank you for eloquently weaving together a quilt of images relatable to so many, and that reminded me of my own beloved roots.

    Blessings to you from the community in which Alice Waters resides and has transformed food culture into an expression of higher consciousness.

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  12. Thank you. This touched me on many levels. I grew up in Detroit and spent 4 years living in southern Louisiana and your descriptions of the land brought fond thoughts to mind.

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