Put your hands into the mire.
They will learn the kinship
of the shaped and the unshapen,
the living and the dead.
–Wendell Berry, “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer”
With winter’s ending and the start of the soil’s thawing, we now enter Michigan’s infamous fifth season: mud time.
Mud is something of a foe on the farm. We fight to keep it out of the house, or at least confined to the mud room. I try to stay out of the fields when it’s muddy, especially here in the spring. If I get too eager and drive the tractor into the field too soon, all I accomplish is compacting the soil, maybe even getting the tractor stuck. Mud days delay spring seeding and transplanting, and they make fall harvesting a hassle.
I especially remember one rainy fall when the final summer squash succession was planted in the wettest part of our field. We were sinking in the soil up to our ankles trying to harvest them. Then someone on the crew had the brilliant idea to use overgrown patty pan squash—some of them big around as dinner plates—as stepping stones. So there we were, out in the field, balanced on these cucurbits floating in a lake of mud. Worked like a charm.
My neighbors don’t have the luxury of keeping their equipment off wet ground at harvest time, and in a rainy fall they are compelled to slog through their fields, leaving deep ruts. The damage they do persists even into the following seasons, where you can clearly see the stunted corn struggling to grow on that deeply compacted soil.
It is said God formed the first man out of the soil, and we know that after death we return to that soil. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” as the man says. This is the way of all living things. Walt Whitman even rhapsodized about it in an ode to compost. (“Behold this compost! Behold it well!” he exclaims. “Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards, the summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.”) And within the soil itself, I read, this same drama unfolds on a microscopic level: creatures living and dying and so creating more soil, this living skin of our planet, our home.
This is the kinship Wendell Berry is invoking, I think. “Kinship” is an interesting word to use. It describes a family relationship, one where we are bound by ties of kinship—which is to say, bound by responsibilities: to other people, to other creatures, to the soil itself and all the life it shelters and sustains. So we find ourselves enmeshed in a network of creatures that we did not create and cannot control and upon which we depend for our very lives.
And for the record, I’ve never in poetical rhapsody sunk my hands into the mire to commune with this kinship. I have knocked the mire off my tractor tires, scraped it off my disc’s coulters, kicked it off my boots, swept it up indoors, sunk up to my ankles in it outdoors. The closest I come to doing this is when I scoop up a handful in the spring to check if it’s dry enough to work.
Which it will be soon.