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.