When I first learned how to drive, I would fill up my car at the corner gas station. Local men drove their tractors or pickup trucks there and hung out in their worn overalls and John Deere hats, which they would tip at me when I walked by.
This is probably why I picture Jesus with dirty fingernails. I grew up around good people who worked the land and rode horses and cared for cows and their hands were often stained with the red clay of North Carolina. I have heard sermons about Jesus’ dusty feet and his carpenter callouses but my personal idea of him is with a little mud under his nails.
What is the Incarnation, anyway, but God getting down in the dirt-made-man with us? As a farmer’s granddaughter, this idea of Jesus showing us the real, messy work of God makes the most sense to me when it looks like digging in the dirt and pulling weeds and planting things that will grow. When I think of Jesus, I get a feeling like dirty knees and foreheads streaked with mud and freshly tilled rows in the sun. I have the brownest thumb you can imagine, but there is a part of me that feels warm and loved around growing things.
I have been reading Soil and Sacrament by Fred Bahnson because the idea of community gardens appeals to me even though I can’t actually grow anything. Bahnson clearly expresses the life-giving power of the work of agriculture as an expression of faith, and I enjoyed the sections that talked about gardening as co-creation with God and as part of an expression of humanity. While this was ultimately a book about food (and you know I love books about food), the sections that resonated with me the most were about dirt.
Donny believed that you had to find good soil to farm, but I saw it the opposite way. You start with what’s at hand, and by adding compost and green manures and other soil food, you improve it. You ‘avad [serve] the soil by giving more to it than you take away. And then you shamar [preserve] it, that is, you stand back and watch and allow yourself to be amazed at God’s mystery unfolding before you . . . [Y]ou must give more to the soil than you take away.
There is a particular spot in our front yard where Atticus loves to play, sandy clumps of dirt he dumps and pours onto his trucks. Being a toddler is an Incarnational activity as far as I can tell, physical and immediate and Pigpen levels of dirt. When he is digging holes with sticks and rocks, I believe he is also learning a little bit from the soil about the give-and-take of our relationship with the earth. My failures as a gardener have kept me from spending much time so low to the ground, but Atticus’s dirty hands are teaching me about the miracle and mysteries of the world beneath my feet.
I received a copy of Soil and Sacrament from the publisher but my opinions are my own.