Making Prayers with Dirt

When I was three years old my father prepared a garden and invited me to help him plant it. By then I had been already captivated by all things Earth for probably two years. During the chill of winter I played in the coal pile in our basement; in summer I dug up worms and put them in my pockets. I found nothing more thrilling than turning over rocks and watching life scramble away from my scrutiny, all to my mother’s dismay. I didn’t know what planting a garden meant; I thought it had something to do with those marvelous worms.

I can picture it still, kneeling next to my father as he opened a package of beet seeds…whatever they were. He explained that if I put them in the soil before too long I would have beets. He took my hand and while securing my chubby little palm skyward he dumped a few seeds into it. The image of my hand holding those seeds remains fixed in my memory like a snapshot. I was confounded. How could those lumpy, bumpy things become beets? They looked and felt like strange, tiny stones. But as instructed I pushed them one by one into the dirt. Beyond my comprehension, I ran off to explore something else and didn’t give it another thought, forgot about it until my father walked me out to garden a week or two later.

There where I had “planted little stones” tiny leaves were poking up through the soil. After that I ran out to the garden countless times a day to look at those leaves, completely mystified. The morning inspections were the most amazing. Clearly the leaves were bigger than the day before.

The clincher came when we began to harvest the beets. The pageantry of leaves, having been consuming enough, was nothing compared to the secret things that had been happening in the soil itself. My father grasped the cluster of foliage and gave a tug; out it popped. Seeing beets dangling at the ends of leaves triggered a stunning revelation for me. Nearly sixty years later I remain completely devoted to that divine mystery. And even after reading thousands of books about the science of soil, plants and ecosystems that sense of magic and the ultimate unknowability of it have never left me.

By now I have sown uncountable thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of seeds. I have looked on each of them with that same sense of magic. It feels like prayer. In that protracted moment I can see it swelling, germinating, reaching for the sun. The foliage is dancing, flowers and fruit are dazzling, and I can feel the deep, abiding hope locked secretly away in the next generation of seeds. When I plant those little creatures of hope into the soil I pause to feel the particles and smell the bouquet of the same hope. I find myself rubbing it into my old, sunburned skin. Consumed by the spirit of gratitude, I am grateful that my crippled body can still descend to its knees and be reborn like the Phoenix, not out of fire but out of dirt.

I find comfort in knowing that the wisdom of my ancestors can be found there and that one day soon my life will immix with theirs in that place. The wonder cannot be solved; the magic is inexplicable. I make prayers with dirt and my ancestors come to kneel at my side enthralled by the beauty of the mystery too.

You are wondering what happened with the beets. I harvested a few with my father’s help and took them to my mother. She cooked them right away, and then added a little salt and butter before I ate them. The power of that medicine coursed through me; my first acute sense of knowing the realm of the unknowable. To this day beets remain powerful medicine for me. I eat them when I am sick, sad, or overwhelmed. They remind me that I am connected to something greater than myself, a continuum that links the moment of creation to all of infinity. My life is in the flow of that, wondrous and inexplicable.

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Responses to “Making Prayers with Dirt”

  1. Kathy Bassler Phlegar March 31st, 2017 - 3:54 am

    What a heartwarming essay of remembrance, painting a vivid picture!

    • Thank you, Kathy! It really was that moment that set me on a path for life. All things Earth became the center of my universe and shortly thereafter ecology. From there I added the study Paleolithic people and the climate change that effected their lives; and finally ethnobotany. And even at this age I remain an avid proponent of these things. Thanks again for your comment.