Dirt Farming

By Carol Ann Sayle

I grew up playing in dirt. A truckload of authentic topsoil—richly dark with life—delivered to our Balcones Heights lot outside of San Antonio in the 1940s and ’50s served as a temporary amusement park for me. I sculpted caves, smoothed roads and piled up mountain peaks on the mound in feverish delight, just ahead of my father’s shovel and wheelbarrow.

Chief (his nickname) struggled to spread the dirt evenly over the native caliche and doomed St. Augustine grass, while I dreaded the pile’s dispersion. Finally, I would relocate to a vacant lot nearby, which, because of the endless drought, was bare of any vegetative life.

In solitary play on the lot, my imagination ran to stories. The characters in these dramas were bright gold, empty shell casings (Flash Gordon and an army of hollow soldiers), or a little plastic Roy Rogers with permanently bowed legs (as if still astride Trigger) and a Dale Evans (also horseless but standing straight) that participated in awkward “Western” kissing scenes (yes, of course the cowpersons partook of those) as Roy’s lips were at a different altitude than Dale’s. But the pale soil—the backdrop for those frustrated little lives—was the most important character. I rarely wore shoes then, even on excursions to downtown San Antonio—which was fine with Chief, as he felt shoes were better saved for school—and my feet and legs were covered daily in the cloying dust. 

Sixty years later, I still love to feel the soil with my bare feet, although it is now a seldom-felt sensation. Farming requires footwear lest one become hobbled from injuries. It’s easy to be slowed by looking for stones and sticks when treading back and forth along the growing beds, and no one wants a toe chopped off by a tool. Alas, farming’s just too much cautious business and not enough play.

It was also serious business for my maternal grandparents, who were tenant cotton farmers in Coryell County at the beginning of the last century. They didn’t stay with it however, even though my grandmother loved her chickens, as do I, because the influenza of World War I took my grandfather, and reality relocated his young widow to Waco to raise her five kids on a secretary’s salary. Her daughter, Little Dove (my mother), wanted nothing to do with farming for the rest of her life, although she was oddly proud of me for being successful at it.

Thus the heritage of the grandparent farmers jumped Little Dove’s generation to rest in me. I’ve done other things in my life—taught school for a couple of years, worked with Larry in real estate for a few, painted for 20—yet, after more than two decades on the land, I’m still a bit surprised that I am a farmer. Probably my being attracted to farm boys made it an eventual outcome.

On a cool November morning, as I contentedly cultivate young lettuces in the front field of this farm, a middle-aged woman and her mother drive up, roll down the car window and tell me that they are making a “trial run” so that they won’t feel anxious trying to find the farm on market day. I nod sympathetically—navigating an unknown route while dodging traffic is tough for folks who remember empty streets, slower speeds and soft dirt from long ago.

After we discuss the potential market offerings for the next day, the mother tells me, in a quiet, nostalgic voice that I remind her of her grandmother. As I continue to break the crust of the soil with the shallow strokes of my long-handled swan-neck hoe, she says, “she held her hoe like you do: her back straight, both thumbs up, like hitching a ride.” As the women leave, I think of all the long-gone grandmothers—young women, old women—in their gardens, hoeing and pulling weeds from moist soil, giving the lettuce room to grow.

I am happy that this is my ultimate heritage. One day, when I’m too crunchy to be serious about farming, I’ll kick off my boots, drape them with my dirty socks and allow my feet to feel the warmth of the soil in my kitchen garden. I’ll grasp the hoe handle—my thumbs up and my back straight—and I’ll think of my grandmother in her own garden. 

Carol Ann Sayle is co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm with husband, Larry Butler.