“I never really liked dirt. It was, well, so dirty. When I was little, I meticulously avoided all sorts of soil, howling in horror if I muddied a dress.”
With these words, Diana Butler Bass begins her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World. As a man, her words might make me think we don’t have much in common. But most Sunday mornings, I wear a dress at church. And there’s a childhood photo of me, playing in a sandbox, wearing gloves. (I didn’t want my hands to get dirty.)
Last weekend I helped build a new hoop house at St. Columba Conference Center. Soon that structure will protect lots of plant babies. Sarah Taylor, Thistle & Bee’s garden manager, has carefully nurtured them in greenhouses, even in her own house.
A handful of men and Sarah struggled to put up those hoops. Our struggle wasn’t just that we’d never done this before, or that the hoops were unwieldy and sometimes uncooperative. Our struggle was also with where we were standing: in moist dirt, even mud. While I was there, I realized my issues with dirt are being slowly washed away.
“Over the decades, we moved to cities, away from the land,” writes Butler Bass, “severing both spiritual and physical connections humans had known through most of history. People became estranged from the land; dirt became an ‘it’….For the better part of the last two centuries…most of us have forgotten the deep, earthy perspective of sacred texts,” including the “agricultural tales” of Jesus. “Most of us have had to relearn the relationship between God and dirt,” she says. “Except farmers. They remember.”
Before I moved back to Memphis, I thought my mother’s parents had set the all-time record for greenest thumbs. As a boy I stood in their garden, unable to see the tops of grapevines, while gazing at countless fruits, vegetables, and flowers. I remember wondering, “How do they do that?”
Nowadays, I see their great-granddaughter, our Sarah, living into their legacy. She gets it about dirt and a whole lot more. Nowadays, I live with someone who also gets it. When we married, she didn’t take my name. Eyleen held on to “Farmer.” She says she’s living into her name.
I don’t think I’ll ever be a farmer like my grandparents or Sarah or Eyleen. But who knows? I’m living and hanging out more and more with folks who aren’t afraid to get dirty. No matter how clean I think I am or ought to be, I am invited to hear what I say in church each year on Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust.” I, too, am dust. I am dirt, and to dirt I shall return. Dirt is a good place and a good thing to be.
In the dirt we share, we help each other grow, even if that dirt fills tiny cracks in sidewalks and streets. I keep meeting women who are “Thistle Farmers,” borrowing the image born from the faithful ministry and work of Becca Stevens and Magdalene/Thistle Farms. “The thistle blooms in streets and alleys where women walk and sleep,” the women of Magdalene write in Find Your Way Home. “In a world that names them weeds, we taste the riches of thistles and savor their beauty.”
Here at Thistle & Bee, we plant seeds, seeking to grow herbs and pollinator flowers – even thistles! We create space for our bees to make honey. We do all this and more, because we seek to serve those on the streets and in the alleys of greater Memphis who are trapped in human trafficking.
They are, of course, not just victims. They are–as we all are–both dirt and thistle. Body and spirit. Perhaps we can all learn, as Butler Bass puts it, “how to remember” that deep, essential connection. Perhaps we can all learn how to be farmers.
– Rev Thomas A Momberg