Dirty Hands

  • Posted: May 1, 2023
  • Category: Blog
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My window opens onto a landscape of wind driven snow. It’s late April but it’s April in Colorado. Snow is in the air, literally, both old and new. The temperature this morning is in the 20’s, for the third time in the last two weeks, dropping to 7o only ten days ago. I believe my 2023 apple crop is one with Planned Parenthood’s unborn clients, a casualty of the womb.

At times like this, I remember my youth on the farm, standing beside my Dad watching an approaching hailstorm to the west out the porch window. There was nothing to be done but watch . . . and wait. I had seen this scene repeated many times. The oncoming black clouds coming through the Wildcat Hills – hail beneath an unearthly white translucent sheet of hail. Unconsciously, we brace ourselves for the percussive hammer of ice on our roof only minutes in the future. The 19th Century painter, John Martin, must have seen storms like this to paint his visions of the Apocalypse.

If an August storm, there was a macabre choreography to be seen soon through our window, the scything march of ice through the corn. The tall straight green corn stalks falling in their serried ranks, the ordered ranks of vegetation cut down by endless streams of icy bullets sweeping the field clean.

At times like this, Dad would be seized by momentary despair. Months of work and the family’s livelihood poured into those devastated fields – gone as if they had never been. In my adolescent way, I would try to comfort my Dad; “It wasn’t as bad as it looked.” But what did I know, I was just a kid?

Dad would be down for a couple of days, but then he would bounce back, working to recover what might be salvaged. The next spring he would enter the fields once more, full of optimism at the promised bounty of future crops.

Fate marked me out for a different path, perhaps an act of God’s mercy knowing my weaker character. I don’t have the intestinal fortitude to endure the weather’s vexatious vagaries, feral Nature’s grip on my fortune and the malign movements of markets playing dice with my circumstances.

After I left home to travel my own path in the cube farms of the Adorables, I would come back to the farm. Talking over coffee at the kitchen table before the rush of kids and activities, Dad and I talked shop, the business of the farm.

I didn’t agree with Dad on some of his business decisions. I respected his thoughts and experience but was blind to his motivations. I had become an engineer morphing over time into its degenerate progeny, a businessman. In my life, I have followed the rhythm of the market, the logic of probabilities, the art of the deal.

But my Dad was something different – a farmer. In time I have come to understand his to be a nobler calling. Yes, Dad understood the logic of the market, but a fat financial statement wasn’t his motivation. For Dad, it was about the land. The land we lived on was his and he loved it. The land had been baptized with the lifeblood of his own beloved father. In time, it had become his and Dad hoped to pass it to his own two boys. It was an unspoken but deep disappointment in his life that I had chosen to leave it.

In my retirement I have returned to the land, not his but my own. I have come to believe that for a man there is in the land something akin to what children and grandchildren are for a woman, a love beyond ourself that not only completes us but calls us to be the best we can be. I think our own piece of land provides us meaning we can get no other way.

It is on his own piece of land that a man begins to understand the meaning of the word – stewardship. The land was there before he came and the land will be there after he leaves. It is only his for a time but it is entrusted to his care for that time. He hopes to leave it to his children, hoping they will love it as he does. As he fulfills his duty of stewardship, he learns much about his own character.

Who understands men better than He who made us? What does God promise the Patriarchs in Genesis? God promises them their own land, land that their children will inherit. The Prophet Micah is given a vision of what it will be like when Christ returns:

“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”

Even as my Dad hoped for me to love the land as he did, he also wanted me to go to college, to make something of myself. And so I did. But in so doing, I lost a piece of myself, a piece I might have shared with him. And now fifty years later, I have made a homecoming of sorts, but like the reunion with a lost love it is bittersweet, but a pale shadow of what might have been.

Higher education – it is a two edged sword. Our world cannot exist without it, yet it isolates us from our nature. But even as we forget who we are, we remain. There is in men a desperate hunger for our own land, yet living in our urbs and suburbs we are creatures thirsting in the desert. Is there any wonder we succumb to the Environmental Gospel in our ignorant neediness?

A rite of passage into the Land of the Adorables is higher education. I grew up on a farm living among farmers shaped by uncounted generations before them. Therefore I have lived among free men and seen freedom. But what about my children? It is left to the schools and the history taught there to teach us who we are and what we need.

From time to time, the French bring forth young girls destined to die young who see more clearly into spiritual dimensions. They seem almost angelic beings, existing on a plane beyond our own but living a life calling men to our duties in this one.

The most famous of these was Joan of Arc, but another was of the 20th Century, Simone Weil. A mystical spirit, like St. Jeanne d’Arc, she defied the conventions of her time but has greatly influenced Christian thinkers ever since.

Ms. Weil was a member of the French Resistance in WWII, working for Charles De Gaulle in wartime England. Afterwards, she collaborated with T.S. Eliot in a book attempting to draw on her experience, hoping to prevent such tragedy from repeating. In it she writes:

“The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”

In our families, in our workplaces, in the media we see a generation of young men formed and shaped by higher education. With few exceptions their experience of the land is of a neighborhood park, vacation trip to Yosemite curated by park rangers or skiing in the back country. They are human beings and the hunger exists in them. But they do not understand that hunger, having no connection to the past generations from which they came.

As the academic passion for victimology has advanced it has become fashionable to cast our country’s history through the lens of slavery. It is said that our country was built on the sweat of black slave labor, that our proud rhetoric celebrating freedom and liberty was simply window dressing used in the service of servitude.

As with most academic fashions in the soft sciences of which the discipline of History is one, this does not pass the smell test. One of many obvious refutations is the simple question, “If America is built on the back of slave labor, why did the South lose the Civil War?”

The history of America is obvious to those who love the land, love the land as dirt on their hands rather than as acolytes of the Earth Mother. America became great because tens of millions of people were given a chance to own their own piece of land.

And they took the chance. They braved the elements, hostile Indians, incredible hardships. They died by their hundreds of thousands from disease, starvation, exposure, the depredations of outlaws and Indians. Still they came on, driven by the dream of their own land, a place they could be free to call their own. They were not drawn by the hope of drawing a comfortable salary attending Zoom Meetings in their pajamas, but by the dream of their own land, being able to “sit under their own vine”

I stand in awe of those who came before me. They came in their millions to find their own land, “sit under their own vine”. But it was not free. Like anything of great value, it came at a steep price, a blood price.

The Oregon Trail was a wagon train route from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, passing through the Great American Desert now known as “fly over country”. The route of the Oregon Trail is the longest graveyard in America. Between the early 1840’s and the construction of the intercontinental railroad in 1869, 65,000 immigrants died on the journey. This is an average of one grave every 50 yards for 2,000 miles. One wonders how the survivors of this trek would view their many times over grandchildren, the hipsters of downtown Portland.

The plains of Texas were once known as Comancheria. A full moon in Autumn was once a fearful sight known to those living there as a Comanche Moon. The Comanche Moon was an omen of Comanche raiders sweeping the plains in search of plunder and slaves.

The region now covered by the States of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia was known as the “dark and bloody ground”. Daniel Boone cemented a place in American folklore by trailblazing a road through the Cumberland Gap into the “dark and bloody ground”, the blood of those Boone led soon contributing to its name. Boone himself did not escape tragedy there. James Fenimore’s classic book, “The Last of the Mohicans” is based on the Cherokee Indian’s kidnapping of Boone’s daughter.

For nearly a century, the area of New England and stretching west around the Great Lakes was a battleground of brutal guerilla warfare between European empires, colonists and Indian tribes in an ever-shifting web of alliance and treachery. Uncounted lonely cabins, built next to painfully cleared small fields in dark forests, were burnt. Those who built them, the butchered bodies of fathers, mothers and children seeking only to “sit under their own vine” consecrating the land with their blood. They had come to the New World attempting to leave empires behind, but it was their misfortune the Millennium promised by God through the Prophet Micah had not yet come.

Of course the land of the New World was not empty. It was occupied by uncounted tribes of natives who had lived there for millennia. They were human beings too. Like all men, they loved the land and did not give it up without a fight. In fact, they had been fighting over it among themselves for millennia.

When the immigrants arrived, they joined the already existing battle for land. From the Beaver Wars at the beginning of the 17th Century to the end of the Apache Wars in 1924 three hundred years later, immigrants in search of land battled those already there in a vicious zero-sum competition.

To make the claim that America’s history is the story of masters, slavery and bondage is to be either ignorant or mendacious, though in the case of Academia one must make allowances, remembering Paul’s words in his Letter to the Romans; “professing to be wise, they were made fools”.

It is well to remember slavery was normal in all human cultures until the Industrial Revolution made machines more cost effective than enslaved human beings. It was the much vilified fossil fuels allowing our better natures to emerge, but that is another story for another time. While there may be substitutes for fossil fuels including the labor of enslaved human beings, there is no substitute for our own piece of land.

And that is what America offered. It is our history, the history of men seeking their own piece of land.  Until we educated ourselves into ignorance, all the world knew that. As it says on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

One Response to “Dirty Hands”

  1. Russ Kyncl says:

    My Czech grandparents were peasants educated thru the 8th Grade by their Austro-Hungarian overlords. They didn’t speak German, which was a requirement to attend high school. Today, the nearest high school to their Moravian Highland village of origin is fifteen miles away. They moved to Chicago, saved up money from his job as Al Capone’s milkman, purchased 180 acres of Michigan ground, mostly forest, and went back to their self-sufficient peasant lifestyle, supplemented by seasonal cash income from Kuner, on THEIR land. My German great-grandparents moved to Rocky Ford, CO at the beginning of the 20th Century to escape tuberculosis in their adopted home of Wisconsin. Four of their sons, my grandfather included, stewarded the land with them. Various family members are buried on land they once owned, now cemeteries, in Ordway and Greeley. The other fourth of me comes mostly from Puritan stock, with many farmers included. Today I farm my yard, weeding our generous garden while I imagine my ancestors looking over my shoulder. Nice writing as always.

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