Many years back, when both my husband and I could still bend over without crackling sounds and shooting pains coming from the general area of our spines, we owned and operated a pick-your-own strawberry farm. This was an endeavor that he had started several years before I came on the scene. In the rose-colored, early days of falling in love, I was eager to prove my worth as a field hand. This freed him up to drive around in the air-conditioned tractor, while I made friends with the ticks and black flies and grew blisters on my hands from wielding a hoe. Love is not only blind, but apparently also immune to pain, heatstroke, and mosquito bites on the behind. (Obviously a farmer wife has a very different experience peeing in the woods than a farmer husband!)
I got to supervise a pack of teenagers desperate enough to agree to do manual labor in the hot summer sun, probably figuring it was a good way to impress the opposite sex by wearing Stanley Kowalski t-shirts or short shorts and tank tops. Not that I cared so much what they were wearing, but I soon learned the truth of the old saying: “One boy’s a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys ain’t no boy at all.” A more modern version might go: “One teenager can weed a row in 30 minutes, two teenagers can weed a row in 50 minutes and three teenagers just got in an old jalopy and headed off to Dairy Queen.”
Not that I blamed them much. Anyone who works the soil knows that it is hard labor, requiring not only physical stamina and perseverance, but also a healthy dose of optimism, faith and acceptance. As hard as a farmer may work, she is never ultimately in charge of what may come of her endeavors. Healthy plant growth requires a particular balance of good soil, sun, rain, light and dark, temperature, and freedom from pests or disease. A lot of this may be under our control, but there is a great deal that is not.
Sounds a lot like human life, doesn’t it? Which segues into my original memory that surfaced from “soil.” After a long, hard day in the fields, I was desperate for a cool shower, not because of any fetish about being dirty or emanating an un-feminine body odor, but to ward off the on-coming heat stroke headache. Shedding soil-covered clothes and shoes in the bathroom, I would often complain: “Look at all this dirt.” To which husband would reply: “It’s not dirt, it’s soil!”
I have to admit that for a long time I thought he was just being a snarky know-it-all, because really aren’t dirt and soil the same thing? When soil is on the floor of the house where it doesn’t belong, isn’t it dirt? No, not really. It may be out of place, or not particularly useful on the bathroom floor, but it is still soil–fertile, full of living organisms and capable of sustaining and nourishing growth.
There are many in our public arena these days who are trying to convince us that they are providing soil, when they are really only shoveling dirt. We need to understand the difference and plant our common hopes and dreams in the rich soil of diversity, tolerance and acknowledgement of our common humanity. To live up to our great potential as individuals and as a nation, we need to realize that hatred, prejudice, deceit, and dishonesty are not the soil in which our best selves can flourish, but are the dirt that will ultimately bury us.