WINNER OF THE 2011 CREATIVE NONFICTION CONTEST SELECTED BY EULA BISS
“We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how much we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.”
–Charles Darwin, after the death of his daughter, Annie, 1851
The kitchen window of my youth looked upon Grandpa’s farmhouse. From this portal I would spy on Grandpa as he walked down his front steps, stooped to feed his mutt, Barney, and ambled toward his weathered barn. Beneath his trademark Oshkosh pinstripe overalls and chambray shirt, Grandpa’s upper back rounded and he pitched forward from his hips when he walked. His leg joints moved in a rhythm different from the rest of him, as if controlled by an amateur puppeteer who didn’t know when to pull the strings. Grandpa didn’t walk like the rest of us, and watching from the kitchen one day, I asked Mom why.
She filled her mixer with flour and sugar, added eggs she had grabbed from the barn that morning, making yet another batch of cookies.
“Grandpa’s parents died of the flu when he was just six or seven,” she said, pressing the lever on the mixer so it stirred. “His uncle Paul took him in because he was his godfather. Paul put him to work right away. One of his first jobs was lifting rocks out of those North Dakota fields. His back never recovered.”
A child, my age, bending to deliver a rock from its bed. Too heavy, yet he lifts, curling his body around the bulk, cradling it in his arms. Walking unsteady to the wagon hitched to the horse team. Lets the rock fall with a thud into the wagon. Straightens out the best he can and heads back to the field, over and over.
We don’t see how much the soil turns beneath our feet. Not like a fast, swift-moving river, but at its own steady pace. Buried within the soil are heavy stones, debris left behind as long-ago glaciers retreated north. Each year, some of those stones make it to the surface, pushed up by the freezing and thawing of the dirt. And worms—tens of thousands wiggling and roiling in just one acre of dirt—spawn enough movement to constantly shift the soil. By spring, fieldstones poke their heads out of the ground. If left there, they will break a plow’s blade. They must go. In Grandpa’s youth, farmers were just breaking the virgin North Dakota prairie, priming the ancient land covered in prairie grass for its new role supporting wheat and corn. Rocks were everywhere.
Today, these fieldstones decorate lawns throughout the Midwest. If you want rocks, just ask a farmer, and he’ll point you to where he keeps his pile of fieldstones. “Sure, take as many as you want,” he’ll say, and off you go with free lawn adornments. Dad uncovered a large boulder once in one of his graves. The vault guy used the cranks and pulleys that usually lowered bodies into the ground to lift out the rock and place it in the back of Dad’s truck. Dad gifted the rock to Mom, a rock from a grave that served as a lovely centerpiece in her flower bed.
Why do we speak of the earth as terra firma? Why, after a harrowing plane ride, do we kiss the ground? Earth’s surface façade masks the turmoil under us. Soil expands and contracts, freezes, thaws, cracks, rises, sinks, and a tiny worm moves through the dirt, paving the way for water and air to flow through and shift the soil. It happens so slowly that we cannot feel it. We don’t notice the change until a giant rock breaches the plane and breaks the plow.
Genesis 2:7: And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Dad was destined for dirt. A little boy on a dusty farm, wearing dusty denim, rough-housing outside with his brothers and sisters. Dirt from the gravel driveway, dirt stirred up by his dad on the tractor. Dirt and mud tracked into the house, his mom fighting a losing battle amid the constant baking and canning and caring for a dozen kids.
Dad eventually left the farm but the dirt coursed through him anyway. He worked as a farm laborer at the University of Minnesota Southern Experiment Station in Waseca in the ‘60s and ‘70s, driving tractors and cleaning barns in the process of helping scientists develop new and better crops, new and better livestock feed. Then, when I was two years old, he became a gravedigger.
He spent a good portion of each week within the earth itself. Descending into the hole, his head rising above ground level. He wielded his shovel into the hollow’s four corners, carving and smoothing dirt, chopping tree roots that poked out from the side walls. Surprised worms wiggled deeper into the soil, shocked by the sudden flood of light into their dark caves. There, in the darkness, Dad found cool. A relief from hot, humid Minnesota days. The cool emanated from the walls, almost in waves, rhythmic like a breath, the earth itself a living being.
Grime collected underneath Dad’s fingernails and settled into the rough grooves of his callused hands. No amount of scrubbing could remove all the dirt. Not even scrubbing with sandpaper-like Lava soap, especially engineered for men like my dad. The dirt clung to his skin, thick like paint. When Dad shook hands at Mass, or with other parents at my band concerts he looked clean, but in reality cemetery dirt flaked off onto others. And onto us.
Mom and Dad remodeled our double-wide trailer shortly after Dad settled into the gravedigging work. In the house, just for Dad and his dirt, a new entryway with a space for boots, a shower, and a washer/dryer. When he came home from work, he first walked into the entryway bathroom to take a shower, before he could bring cemetery grime any further into the house. When he emerged from the shower, he placed his work clothes in the washer. Mom followed after him with a vacuum. He entered the house washed clean, a baptism, a reborn, clean man.
We worked hard to prevent the cemetery from coming into the house, but it settled into us anyway. It settled on the counters, on the sofa, on the carpet, sank into our skin and bones. Though we could not see it, it worked its magic. Like the worms that toil under the ground. We could not shake off death. We could try to separate it from life, but it wound around us like a rope pulled tight. A piece of it would always linger, would always come home with Dad and live with us.
Dad ushered bodies through the natural cycle, if you believe from dirt we came and to dirt we will return. Though the cycle Dad perpetuated was not organic. Bodies weren’t wrapped in burial shrouds and placed gently into the earth. Our Western culture dictated that Dad bury the body within a casket, the casket within a vault, an end-of-life version of Russian nesting dolls. Still, caskets and vaults will not last indefinitely, no matter what a slick funeral director may say. The thousands of bodies that Dad buried eventually will sink into the soil. But what of their coffins, their vaults? In thousands of years, will those break the surface like fieldstones? Gravity teaches us that everything sinks. Above the surface, objects drop to the ground. But maybe the surface itself is a neutral zone. Below the surface, it’s a fight to rise to the top.
Charles Darwin studied worms for forty years. After his famous Beagle trip, he settled at Down House outside of London and mulled not only natural selection but also barnacles, plants, and worms. He titled his last book The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. For more than three hundred pages, Darwin expounds upon worms, examines them from every angle: their eating habits, sexual habits, nighttime and daytime habits. This book was his baby, the book he had been meaning to write for decades. In ill health, he raced to get the book published before, as he put it, he joined the worms himself. The book debuted in 1881; it became an immediate best-seller, selling in bigger numbers than his seminal Origin of the Species had upon its publication. Darwin died the following year.
Darwin found contentment in pause, perfectly happy to wait decades to measure the slightest, most imperceptible changes: the change of organisms, the tens of thousands of years it takes a glacier to retreat, the work of a worm in the soil. Darwin lived to old age, but even if he had lived ten thousand years one gets the feeling it would not have been long enough.
If Grandpa had lived ten thousand years, I’m not sure he still would have spoken of his loss. Dad did not speak of his losses either: a dad dead suddenly of a heart attack, a brother dead suddenly of a heart attack, and just five months before Dad himself died, another brother, dead of a heart attack. Dad dug the holes for his two brothers and when everyone had departed the cemetery, he shoveled the soil over them. In this Midwestern place, we descendents of stoic northern Europeans, we bury our emotions. But as with the soil, nothing can stay put.
Few others aside from close friends and family knew the extent of Darwin’s grief upon his daughter’s death. He and his wife had ten children, but Annie was among his favorites. He wrote a short memorial recounting Annie’s life, for family eyes only, more than anything to work through his grief in one way he could do well—through the written word. Only recently have historians uncovered the devastating impact Annie’s death had upon Darwin and his work. Darwin was never particularly religious, but after Annie’s death he cast aside any shred of faith he may have had. If God, by nature, has a divine plan and will for everyone, Darwin could not understand why God would will the death of his beloved daughter.
Here I Might be expected to say I work in the dirt because it’s my heritage. But I don’t. I don’t grow vegetables, I don’t tend flowers. I don’t dig up the soil to place bodies within it. I surpassed Grandpa by graduating from high school, and I surpassed Dad by graduating from college. So now, by virtue of education, it’s my “privilege” to not have to work in the dirt.
But I feel the pull. Like people afflicted with geophagy, the desire to eat earth. I don’t want to eat it, but I do want to ingest it, to have it live within me. I want dirt molecules to rise up and sink into my bones, like how it became the very being of Grandpa and Dad, so much so that they could not have done anything else and been happy. Tearing them away from the dirt would be to kill a part of them.
The word for what Darwin studied is bioturbation.
I grew up in the middle of farming central, and here I remain. My current town is so small that in the summer I can leave my front door, take a left from my driveway and in two blocks, if I kept going straight, the tall corn stalks could subsume me. I could disappear like a shadow into them. If I drive just a half hour from my home, I can see the fields that Grandpa tended, I can be in the cemeteries where Dad dug graves. Their spirits linger, and I try to go back to my hometown often just to breathe them in.
Once, long ago, I had made plans to escape. Pig farmers and overalls and the smell of manure that wafted into our house did not scream sophistication. I thought I would fit in Minneapolis, but I was wrong.
My husband and I talk of moving away. The beauty and cool and adventure of Lake Superior’s North Shore call us, we who have never lived anywhere else. But even now, even in the preliminary stages of planning to move—stages so early we can’t even say for sure it’s going to happen—I know what I will long for. I will long for the farms. The North Shore’s rocky soil cannot support crops. Instead, timber and ore drive the region, and the shipping that transports those goods throughout the world. I don’t think of the family we will leave behind, or friendships that have been cultivated over nearly twenty years, or the resting places of Grandpa and Dad. It’s the soil that first springs to mind, the nagging thought that I would miss the dirt more than anything.
As soon as Darwin moved to Down House in 1842 he began his earthworm experiments. He spread broken chalk over a field to observe, over several years, how quickly and how deeply it would be buried. A prolific letter-writer, he mailed calls for earthworm observations and responses poured in from amateur oligochaetologists. Family and friends sent him soil samples from around the countryside. His work took him to Stonehenge, where he saw how broken monoliths had been partially buried by soil and earthworm castings. He tested earthworms indoors in controlled conditions, studying how changes in light, temperature, sound, and food affected them.
Thanks to Darwin, we know this: in one year, the estimated 25,000 or more worms living in one acre of soil turn up between fourteen and eighteen tons of material.
On magical spring days I clip my feet into bicycle pedals and cruise along country roads. The steep hills near the many rivers and creeks make my heart want to leap out of my chest. Little-used country roads connect tiny towns, arteries to hearts. I head east and in thirty minutes, I’m in Elysian. Who was the European settler who named this place? A settler/farmer who knew Virgil and Dante, someone who thought southern Minnesota invoked a slice of heaven?
Elysian looks like any other small Minnesota town: a gas station at the city limits, an aging water tower, faded red granaries. As I head out of the town, I hug the many fields and watch tractors prep for planting. The farmers massage the soil, getting it ready to bring forth life. I easily outrace the tractors, which plod along as I hit a high gear. I crank, crank, crank, lean and swift, the farmer heavy and slow.
I wave to each farmer. I usually do not have to wave first. In their fields, in their cabs, they welcome the sight of me, someone as eager to be outdoors in the spring air as they are. They raise a hand. No vigorous wave like that of an excited child, no slow back-and-forth like from a beauty queen. Just a raised hand, the white flesh of wrist and fingers poking out of blue denim long sleeve. Sometimes in true farmer fashion, just a raised index finger. It’s a simple salute. If hands could speak, theirs would drawl howzit goin’—not a question, but a statement, the second word landing lower than the first. Howzit goin’. A placid, serene surface.
I breathe in the freshly overturned soil and this is all I want to breathe, night and day. What strikes me is how sharply metallic the black earth smells. Like blood. Whenever I accidentally cut my finger and put my tongue to the wound, the metal taste surprises me. The rich red suggests I will taste something sweet, a cherry lollipop or licorice. But instead, I taste the bland, cold, gray of iron.
But it doesn’t surprise me that blood and soil might taste the same, smell the same.
The earthworm has five hearts.
My Minneapolis stint did not last. Just before my move I had met David, who was firmly entrenched in rural life. We married within a year of meeting. My teenage ambitions of life in the big city, a job as newspaper sports reporter, were replaced by life in a small town, a job as a newspaper obituary writer. But I had David, and his complete family that in so many ways paralleled mine before Dad passed—down to three kids and Sundays in church and a grandparent ruling over all.
And I cannot disregard the pull of the soil. At 19, the soil did not consciously factor into my decision to move. I only knew what was in my heart. But maybe the reason for my comfort here season after season is the black earth that envelops me.
Words break my surface, come forth like rocks. Death I knew from all those years in the cemetery. Grief was different, something to bury.
It takes years, generations. Worms turn the soil slowly. Years, generations later, we can see evidence of Darwin’s theories. It takes years, generations, for someone to speak of the grief. Grandpa’ surface was like that of the soil—unmoving, steady. Of his loneliness and loss, we did not speak. He died mowing his lawn. Heart attack, he tumbled off the lawn mower and into the soft, new grass of May. He died on his precious earth.
Words turn up slowly. Rocks don’t punch through the soil with force, no small volcanic explosions from fields as we drive by. My words appear only on paper. It is too early to speak of these things out loud. Perhaps later generations will speak of their sadness, sing it, dance to it, give it notes and a rhythm. Perhaps later generations will have more than a simple story about fieldstones.