Today, unwittingly, I took Erick’s advice and I sort of took a day off. I drove my wife to LAX during AM rush hour to meet her departure for a month in Portugal.
Then like any married man who has a month to live like an animal, I went off the reservation.
I went and rented the roto-tiller.
I’d noted with alarm that I’d gotten out of sync with the natural world around me, that the longest day of the year had just passed, and that the days would now only be getting shorter.
Time to get that new section of the garden in. Past time. Way past time. If I get that new section prepared this week, whatever I plant could be knee-high by the time my beautiful Brazilian bride returns from Portugal.
This is where I should insert a two word paragraph that says simply, ‘Big Mistake’ — except it wasn’t.
I’ve rented a roto-tiller plenty of times with great, convenient, and productive success. Until today when I encountered the tender mercies of St. Augustine. Yes, I’m tearing up a large section of well-established lawn for this new garden section. Like the one St. Augustine who was sent to convert England, this sod hesitates but ultimately will not turn back. As the other St. Augustine had taught, life quickly became a struggle between the forces of good, light, and order, and the satanic, dark and persistent evil of… St. Augustine.
My gardening efforts represent my attempts to convert my black thumb into a green thumb – or at least a gray one. In the software world, we call it technology validation; the effort to confirm that what we think will work …will actually work. I don’t have much confidence in what the future may hold, especially as the central region of my state is currently growing far less food than it did 2 years ago.
So validating my ability to grow food is important to me. Thus I was inclined to remember my own forebears who came to my native Oklahoma in the land run of 1889 and became Sooners. That farm is still in my family and was recently conveyed to the family members who still farm it. In that part of the country, the first farmers, my forefathers, were known as sodbusters – a term that normally carries a measure of derision.
It doesn’t for me anymore.
These are people who arrived in their new home, and as soon as they had filed their claim at the tent that was the land office outside Blackwell, Oklahoma, returned to their land and began to break it. In return, the land frequently broke them. In surveying the pitiful results of their first day of labor, they knew harrowing despair and defeat. But they didn’t accept that defeat. Some way, somehow, they turned the land to their purpose.
And they built a nation. They built the most powerful nation on earth. And by the way, they did it for themselves. Out of selfish self-interest.
These men stood especially erect because something in them knew that if they didn’t in the few moments when they had the chance, their back-breaking labor would leave them permanently stooped. They had little patience with words – they needed results. Today.
Today I was educated by the difficulty of busting sod. But the lesson can be extracted from many occupations, and the character required to occupy them, that made our nation great. The men and women who tamed our rivers by canoe, flatboat, and eventually steam.
Wildcatters who heard the sound of singing steel above and knew that their well casing was about to come down on their heads, mixing the joy of vast riches discovered with the dread of death in the next few seconds – a reminder to us today that even with the current disaster in the gulf, petroleum exploration is still far, far safer today than it was in its first five generations. At least that gusher didn’t eject its casing.
The engineers and the immigrants who built our railroad grades knew many of the cultural and political problems we know today. Yet they contributed vastly to the enrichment and building of our nation. They did it for themselves, not their country.
Recently I had a chance to meet a no-nonsense machinist. The old kind, not the kind today who is really a computer programmer and never gets dirty. Shaking his hand was like shaking hands with a pineapple; he’d had that many small injuries over the years. Again, I was awed what people had given of their bodies to advance their livelihood… our commerce… our nation.
It’s easy to revere the minds that contributed directly to the governance of our nation. But their toil to build a lasting nation would have been in vain without the people (of whatever occupation) that I’m thinking of today as the sodbusters. Today, the founding thinkers would be ‘quaint’ academics hovering on the verge of losing their tenure because they don’t understand ‘reality’. (and perhaps, because they do not have a hyphen in their name or heritage – both is best)
Yes, great minds conceived our Constitution, but their achievement was far greater that they crafted a document that could be understood (this was also their intent) by any old sodbuster out there. The Constitution, after all, did require ratification. And many, many citizens could not read and had to have the document read to them. Yet they understood it, mistrusted it some, and they ratified it.
When I cast my thoughts in this direction, I stand in awe of these people. I want you to stand in awe of these people, too. Remember that after their long day of backbreaking labor, they did not have the Diversity Cafe down on the corner for their dinner. Someone had to spend hours shooting, gathering, preparing that dinner, too. They didn’t want to know how tolerant you were of diversity. They wanted to know if you could weed a row before dinner, if you could hit what you shot at, if you could spend a hard day in the saddle, and if you took good care of your animals (husbandry – another lost art for modern masculinity). And if you had an animal suffering, did you have the grit to shoot it yourself.
Elsewhere, I’ve pointed out that when we are called on this season to walk our precincts, it’s not much compared with the combat, wounds and death many endured to make our country safe.
Walking your precinct is not much to ask alongside what the sodbusters gave each day to pass something along to their children. Not much compared to the hazard that the flatboat communities dealt with as they floated down the Ohio, then pushed and flogged up the Cumberland.
And to you people who are already out walking your precincts, while I’m still trying to ‘organize’: I stand in awe of you, too.
I was so sore by the end of the pitiful amount of work I had performed, it took me an hour to load the roto-tiller and return it. Humiliated, chastened, defeated. 1/10 of the work I had planned was accomplished. But unwilling to accept defeat. It’s going to take a spade and a back to break this sod. The soil will be barely ready when Isa returns. We won’t get a crop in before mid-July. Have to plant a fall crop, not a summner crop.
But I’m grateful for the lesson. I’m grateful for the example.