Recently i spent a morning — a cool, clear Saturday morning – with Mr. John Willis, a recent and colorful acquaintance, in Pine Mountain, about 10 miles north of where i live. He is from a long line of tomato farmers in Florida and is, at 79, a man who is well versed in soil and seed and Source of Life. He is getting ready to break up a small plot of ground for planting strawberries in the next couple of weeks and offered to show me his process for preparing the soil – deep plow, harrow, till long ways, till sideways, till diagonally, build mounded rows on 5 foot centers. A lot has to happen to make Harris County land, usually full of red clay, productive and, since i’m planning to use the fall and winter to work some ground near my house for a good garden next spring, i’m asking folks, at every opportunity, for their wise counsel on how to make things grow.  …

           Mr. John, like other people in my town, was gracious to share information with me, and was kind not to laugh at questions that must have made my ignorance all too obvious. He is one of several locals with whom i’ve spoken lately about gardening and small farming in this part of Georgia, and his comments are consistent with a theme that seems present in all of their advice.

           A good crop all starts with the soil.

           Mr. John introduced me to a new word this morning — “you work the soil until you get it to the right tilth.” …  Tilth – i had an idea, from its context, what it meant but checked it out in the dictionary when i got home:


“1) – act or occupation of tilling; cultivation of the soil. 2) Cultivated or tilled, land. 3) – the state of being tilled.”

           In the essays, novels, and poetry of Wendell Berry, there is frequent and, at times, reverential, reference to topsoil. (How we’ve treated the topsoil, he implies, is a good test for what kind of stewards we’ve been of the creation.) If you’re like me, topsoil is one of those things that, crucially important though it might be, has managed to stay off of my radar for, well, pretty much all my life. But the Mr. Johns and Shorty Floyds and Wendell Berrys and others like them are making me attentive in good ways to a simple but vital reality of life – that everything matters and that even land is a beloved part of Kingdom life. In the process of learning about local land, the Sower Himself tilling my heart for days of keener gratitude and more appropriate stewardship.

           And i wish good tilth for you.


           “Sow for yourselves righteousness,

           reap the fruit of unfailing love,

            and break up your unplowed ground;

            for it is time to seek the LORD,

           until He comes

           and showers righteousness on you.”

              Hosea 10:12

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38 Holes To Fill

   September 11, 2008

              I have no idea how many trees are situated on the land that I call home, the 1200 or so acres that my dad acquired in the late 1960’s. The number would, no doubt, be a large one. But I could take you to the tree which I have done most to cultivate. It’s a sassafras, just behind my house, presently 12 or so feet high.

               A few years ago, while mowing grass and weed eating around the stumps of some wind-felled pine trees, the sassafras sapling, 2 or 3 feet high, caught my notice just before I might otherwise have cut it down. I made note of its presence, finished my work and returned later to build a small brick and stone barrier around the base of the tree. Since then, it’s gotten regular water, mulch, food, and, to the extent I could give it, protection. Each year, I have trimmed limbs and branches to give it shape and direct its growth a bit.

              It might not be the most beautiful tree on the land, but I attend to it like no others. We have, after all, a certain affinity between us now.

              At present there are 38 holes in our pasture – in low, mostly unusable areas – put there intentionally this past summer. The idea is to put trees in them to stop erosion and beautify the fields. The holes are big ones – put there by Bobby Joe Baxley’s backhoe – and filled with good dirt. i’m wanting to fill them with trees that will produce game food (acorns and fruit for turkey and deer, or nectar for our honeybees) and add some seasonal color to the place.

              My options are several.

              I can buy already somewhat mature tees (15 to 20 feet tall) from nurseries, the argument in their favor being that, if I plant anything small, I might not live to see them in a fully grown state.

              Or I could plant smaller trees (4 to 6 feet), purchased from nurseries or transplanted from around the farm.

              Or I can find tiny saplings – a couple of feet high – plant them in those great big holes and nurture them to whatever height they might reach before I pass off the scene.

              Or I can gather acorns and other seeds, and start at the beginning.

              I’m not sure what I’ll do, most likely a combination of the middle two options, but the thought of tending what ever gets planted, with the annual prospect of satisfaction that surely come with each year survived, is a pleasant one. That I might someday sit under their shade or eat honey made from their nectar or track birds nesting in their limbs is what I imagine, in some very small way, my married friends experience when they plan their family lives.

              When I finally do plant those trees, I will do so with delight and, for days, will walk from one to the others to make sure they are doing alright in their new residence.

              A friend in the tree business told me recently about a wealthy client who has a ‘country home’ among his inventory of real estate holdings. The wealthy client, in his late 50’s, wanted some trees planted along his driveway and had the resources to have fully grown varieties –  40, 50, 60 feet high – moved to the land and laid out precisely beside the road. There was no waiting, no pruning, no dirt on the hands. I’m not sure how much satisfaction their shade might ever give him but I wonder if an instant forest lacks the wonder of one more patiently grown.

              Last week, in the woods nearby, I found a sassafras seedling, about a foot and a half high which I’ve potted for safekeeping until it’s a bit older.

               With it, I’ve got my answer for one hole in the pasture.

              37 to go.