Blowin’ In: Soil
By Susan Mangan
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests . . .
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father digging . . .
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man . . .
I’ve no spade to follow men like them . . .
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
(“Digging” by Seamus Heaney)
When I was a child, I spent summers on my uncle’s farm in southern Missouri. The earth smelled ripe, made fertile by generations of cow manure and hard labor. This was the land where my mother was born.
As a girl, she collected eggs from beneath the dirty bottoms of hens, hoping that a snake did not precede her to an early breakfast. She milked cows by hand and collected black walnuts from the field by the lane. In times of solitude, my mother kicked rocks and thought about a life beyond the hay and cornfields where she could bloom, a wildflower in a big city.
My mother left the farm but brought me back each summer to breathe the country air, to eat ripe tomatoes off the vine, to lick the juice of homegrown watermelon off my sticky wrists. Standing in the field, I bloomed, a Black-Eyed Susan in the pasture.
Now, my eyes may be green, but how I identified with those lovely July flowers growing wild by the water troughs and along the edge of willow shaded ponds. I always wished my mother had never left the farm, but then I wouldn’t be me.
Still, I would pretend when I was alone in the pasture set to the task of filling the troughs with water for the calves, that if I stayed still for long enough, standing upon the soil, I would become part of the earth. I could stay there forever surrounded by June Bugs and butterflies, barn swallows and soft, milky sweet calves.
A Seed is Planted
A child benefits from learning about the natural world from adults who respect the earth. Farming, gardening, nature hikes, star gazing, it all matters to the formation of a generation that understands the delicate balance between progress and preservation. Each time a seed is planted, the balance is restored. Flowers bloom, vegetables reach toward the sun, bees are nourished, and the human soul is fed.
As a little girl, I enjoyed helping my mother pick out flowers at our local nurseries in late spring. She grew zinnias along the chain-link fence and moss roses in the hard Chicago ground. My mother never said no when I asked to grow pumpkins and cantaloupes, giant sunflowers, and towering stalks of inedible corn.
I tirelessly dug through the invasive wild mint that overtook the small patch of ground by our garage. By summer’s end, hard melons and sturdy green peppers would come to fruition. The family would starve if we had to rely on my novice attempts at gardening, but the yard was lovely, small and filled with life.
My husband gardens. He counts each potato, tomato, and bean that he grows each year. I laugh at the irony, as he is quite literally and metaphorically a bean-counter both in the office and in the garden. Nonetheless, he plans, plots, and cultivates what to grow and how best to nourish his seedlings.
My husband’s asparagus bed is his pride and joy. Ten years in the making, those gorgeous stalks are like children to him. Between our curious spaniel Lucy, the hungry bunnies, and the groundhog who makes an appearance each year, my husband must remain vigilant if he is to reap the rewards of a bountiful harvest come fall. My mother always said, “An hour in the garden puts all our problems in perspective.”
This past spring I visited the Seamus Heaney exhibit “Listen Now and Again” held at the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. My journey to Ireland was unexpected, but fate has a way of providing serendipitous moments. I was traveling on the bus from the airport and through the city center when I saw a placard announcing the exhibit featuring my favorite poet.
Listen Now and Again
The night my mother died, her last thoughts were about a column I wrote the previous autumn about Seamus Heaney and blackberries: “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” In this poem, Heaney writes of anticipation, expectation, and the sometimes-heartbreaking reality of life.
I never heard my mother utter these words or saw the understanding in her clear, sky-blue eyes. She texted her final thoughts to me hours before her death. Her words were about the blackberries that grew in the red clay of southern Missouri. Her last words were about our shared history and her anticipation for our future visits, and how the sturdy blackberry can grow even in forgotten soil. Interestingly, Seamus Heaney texted his wife before he died: “Noli Timere,” roughly translated, “Do not be afraid.”
As I entered the exhibit, Heaney’s voice seemed to rise from that other world. In reciting “Digging,” Heaney speaks of his father and grandfather, familial expectations, and how to blossom from the truth of one’s own unique composition. Heaney speaks of land and lineage, history and the future. Above all, Heaney reminds us that we are rooted in soil and how important it is to reach for that first seed.
*Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again. Dublin: Bank of Ireland. Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm. Every Saturday, 11:00 am guided tour of the exhibition. Wednesday 17 August, 1:00pm (Irish time) Virtual Tour of Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.