What's Dirt to You?

What's Dirt to You?

Ignore the soil at your own peril

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both enthusiastic farmers. In Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, he declares that "those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God." Both men believed that the virtue and strength of a nation started with its soil, and thus, both fervently experimented with and advocated for ways to ensure the preservation of the virginal dirt of the young nation.

Many of the original settlers were drawn to America by stories of fresh soil and the promise of bountiful yields — visions that drew on the Christian understanding of the Promised Land. In keeping with this common understanding, the soil sat at the base of civilization, and any civilization that abandoned and destroyed its soil was bound to do the same to itself and the people that comprised it. It's cliché to say, but the present American Empire has definitively abandoned its soil, ignoring common sense knowledge like "the best fertilizer is a farmer's footsteps" in favor of top-down reforms meant to maximize agricultural output and reduce the cost of food at the expense of everything else. Yes, food is cheap — for now — but what did we trade to get here?

Beyond ignorant agricultural attitudes, the population has become divorced from its civic duties and browbeaten into ignoring common sense in favor of the dictates of an unelected "expert" class whose interests often diverge from those of the people they claim to serve. These trends also indicate the depleted nature of the American cultural soil. The present situation is the antithesis of the self-reliance and civic duty expressed through our founding documents. Many would have you believe such virtues are lost and of a world that no longer exists — or, is a figment of one's imagination. After all, the new world has minted new values in the place of the old that render an attachment to the land irrelevant, and thus, all values springing forth from the land are also irrelevant.

You'll hear words like "reactionary" or "Luddite" lobbed at you should you try to advocate for cultivating a first-hand understanding of the soil through working it. These are foolish proclamations, of course, and far from attempting to return to some halcyon dream world where the soil was black as night and the corn as tall as a ship's mast, developing a relationship with the land is simply to develop a relationship with that which will persist long after us. Understanding the land under your feet is a timeless endeavor that men have devoted their lives to and been all the better for. Unfortunately for the forces of commerce, people with strong ties to the land are not easily manipulated or moved about. With entrenched interests in the land come entrenched beliefs and entrenched cultures that gain their strength from being in a particular place at a particular time and from working a particular piece of land. As we've learned over the past few decades, it's far more profitable for business if people do not develop ties to a particular place or piece of land.

Back to Jefferson's statement. Stated otherwise, Jefferson elevated farmers as the chosen people of God. The virtuousness of farming has largely disappeared from the modern zeitgeist except in rare moments such as during Super Bowl commercials and the occasional country song that skips the whole beer, trucks, and girls schtick for a Hollywood-like recreation of rural life. Our vision of what farming is has even been transformed as industrial-scale agriculture clouds our view of what farmers actually do. Stewarding the Earth has been commoditized and transformed from using your hands to care for a plot of soil into what products you purchase, what car you drive, and who you vote for. These new virtues are shallow reproductions of the original virtues first expressed by Virgil in his Georgics and later repeated by Washington and Jefferson and barely deserve the designation virtue — "brand loyalty" would capture these values better.

As for the role of modern man compared to his agrarian forebears: in the 18th-century, "farmer" was a label applied to more than just those who grew food or raised animals. Famer referred broadly to "a state of mind" and to those who "extolled the virtues of orderliness and Godliness [and of] working with one's hands." Farmers were "self-reliant souls upon whom the democratic republic was based." The virtues of the farmer are accessible to us all regardless of whether we drive a plow into American dirt.