Tilling Old Soil

I’ve been thinking about dirt a lot lately

A few weeks ago, I went on a long bike ride from the middle-of-nowhere in central Alabama to the Georgia state line. This trip on two wheels had a little bit of everything: a-bit-too-uncomfortably-tight lycra, peeing in the woods (twice), dodging piles of farm animal manure, and notably, a daring escape at 350 watts from the jaws of a stray pitbull in one of the most depressing little towns I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure of visiting.

By the end of the day, I was completely covered in muck and grime and a bit of caked blood. My body was spent, but my mind was in a fresher state than I’ve found in months.

I spent the day alone with my thoughts pedaling through farmland that hasn’t changed demonstrably in the time since white settlers first forced the Cherokee and Creeks away from these lands. Mountain vistas and rolling hills are dotted with subsistence farmhouses decaying to nothingness. Rusted tin, bellwort and bloodroot, small acreages of cattle land with a bred heifer standing alone atop a ridge, empty monoculturist fields that would be replete with cotton another time of year. The southernmost end of the Appalachian plateau is a breathtakingly beautiful place to visit, and it’s difficult to spend any time there without having the weight of history and place enfolding you on all sides like a heavy blanket.

History is what I want to talk about - not some grand history of a specific place or nostalgia for days when people worked outdoors with their hands. I want to say a few things about personal history and the disservice we do to ourselves when we look too harshly on our past endeavors or the paths that have led us to where we currently find ourselves.

Seeing all this rich dirt - mile upon mile of farmland - got me thinking about the places that things grow and how differently things like past experience or geography or the amount of help you receive can affect one’s experience with the act of growing things. It may be somewhere serious where you’re producing food to provide sustenance. It may be something that’s fun and full of whimsy. All of it is informed by a lot of factors that are outside your control.

There’s labor involved in gardening, and tons of metaphors we can use (planting seeds, pulling weeds) if we want to draw some allusions about how the act of growing things can parallel growing as a person. I mean, telling a lot of stories with a farming motif seemed to work okay for a particular guy in ancient Judea…until it didn’t.

Gardens ebb and flow toward entropy. We fight back the wild, pulling weeds, killing pests. Left untended, everything returns to a natural state - unkempt, untamed. We know and accept that gardening is hard work and it’s imperfect and that it’s a struggle to keep things growing.

I wish that more of us would apply this same sort of logic to our own growth

I’ve taken a circuitous route to get to the heart of my post, and this particular piece of writing will need some tending, some weeding, to get it where I want it to be. Its state is unfinished, much like me, I suppose, and that’s okay. We don’t have to hide the work or the mess that we find ourselves in.

The main thing I’ve learned from all of this inner dialogue about dirt is this:

It’s imperative that we choose to be kind to our past selves.

  • Be kind to the things that past you tried, even if they didn’t go as planned.
  • Be kind to the things that current you is doing, even if it’s not what you previously envisioned.
  • Accept that you cannot control every variable.
  • Growth is a process that takes time, sometimes lots of it.

The life that I have is not the life that I planned for in college. (That includes both the first time in college and the time I went back to study something entirely different). And the sort of half career in between. And the period where I hid inside and thought I was going to die from a global pandemic. Oh, this also includes the three pivots in the last three years when I said “Now I know what I’m doing.”

I’m not doing what I planned to be doing with my life. I don’t think I’m doing what other people expected of me. It’s still a good life, and I’m still growing, and planting new seeds, and tending the soil. I’ll keep doing that. It’s okay that I’ve had to get my hands dirty, and it should be expected that I’ll continue to. It’s okay that things are wild and messy and uncontrollable. There’s some beauty in that.

As Bill Watterson said:

You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. Try to enjoy the scenery on the detours. You’re likely to experience a few.