I’d been hoeing for 45 minutes when I realized there’s got to be a better way. After building several garden boxes from reclaimed wood on our new homestead, I couldn’t for the life of me level the ground on which they would be placed. The more dirt I removed to level one side, the more it would throw off the other. The metal blade of the hoe clanged against the rocky soil sending reverberations up the wooden handle, numbing my hands with every strike.
I needed a break.
Still, I struggled against an urge to dig in more and force my will on land older than myself; earth that whispers my ancestors’ origins. This may not be my paternal family’s land leased out of our ownership to the local government of Burdette, Arkansas, for 99 years. It’s not my maternal family’s parcel in Memphis, which we had to repurchase after my grandmother’s death. But historical markers designate that the Trail of Tears cuts right through this property. It cuts through my own lineage, too. I feel a kinship to this land. Resigned, I dropped my tools and went to sit and reflect on why I was being so hardheaded.
How I came to this place
My wife Tiffany and I both grew up in the Midwest. I was born in Chicago and Tiffany was raised in a suburb outside of Cleveland. We met while living in Chicago where we, like the rest of the country, experienced the increasing number of food recalls. As we planned our life together, we began to imagine a home space to grow and raise our own meat and vegetables. At the time, I was on the academic job market and began to focus my search on the South for its long growing season and my own familial connection.
I struggle with actions that fall into the realm of giving up. And yet, I’ve certainly witnessed the physical, mental and emotional distress that result from holding too long to ideas, projects and relationships that should be relinquished.
The garden boxes with which I struggled had a former life as an unsightly wooden playset on the property when we purchased it. I’d recently placed a large seed order and promised Tiffany that all those peppers, tomatoes, leafy vegetables and herbs would have proper grow spaces. Yet the land, our land, would not yield to me. I worried that this small setback could be the beginning of seeing our homesteading dreams shrivel in the sun.
Bloom where you’re planted
This wasn’t the first time that I was overly persistent despite every indication that I should cease all action. Located just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, Conner Homestead is a beautiful 15-acre property with a spacious home, workshop and saltwater pool; but it wasn’t our first attempted purchase. Before finding our forever homestead, my wife and I had our hearts set on Panther Mountain, 10 acres of pine-shaded land with two fishing ponds and a manufactured home customized with such care that you could not tell it wasn’t built on site. But the banks could tell, and to them it mattered in their financing. And yet, I persisted, scouring the depths of the lending industry to find someone who would grant the mortgage. Ultimately, it was impossible.
For me, impossibility is a hard pill to swallow. Raised on the Reading Rainbow Theme Song lyrics and “nothing beats a failure but a try” rhetoric, I struggle with actions that fall into the realm of giving up. And yet, I’ve certainly witnessed the physical, mental and emotional distress that results from holding too long to ideas, projects and relationships that should be relinquished.
By year three on the academic job market, I felt as if I were drowning in all of the despair that is part and parcel of underemployment. I clung futilely to prospective jobs that clearly were not for me, even enduring a literal tornado and a search committee chair quoting slurs offensive to my identity as a Black queer woman. I would not have been happy at that university in Georgia. I realized it during that interview dinner when a flash of rage surely belied the smile plastered on my face. The man with whom I was speaking cavalierly quoted something about “n-----s and fairies,” attributable to someone who probably was neither. I knew it even as I cried upon receiving the news that I did not get the position. Shame about my relentless pursuit of that job in the face of such obvious disrespect overshadows any other feelings I have regarding that experience.
Similarly, Tiffany and I know that we would not have been happy on Panther Mountain. It was a beautiful home, but the bank was correct in their assessment. It did not lend itself to future customizations for our needs, and I imagine I would have continued in my forcefully ineffective manner to try to bulldoze it into submission and failing miserably in the process. I needed to discern which actions were pursuing a goal and accepting that the journey may not always mirror my plan, and which actions were from one drowning in their attachment to a plan and flailing for any semblance of a lifeline.
Forces of nature
We’ve witnessed the power and rage of the Earth in hurricanes, tornados, floods and oscillations between frigid cold temps and scorching heat. Yet, if we listen, she is a gentle teacher. Our stewardship of this land included installing solar panels to make sure that the all-electric home property uses a renewable energy source. We have started planting what will become a food forest — an area where edible trees, shrubs and plants are cultivated to mimic natural ecosystems. Much like how finding my position at the University of Central Arkansas placed me in an environment that naturally nurtured these other aspects of my life.
I returned to my garden project, open to receiving the life lesson that the land offered a hardheaded homesteader in its refusal to yield to my forceful nature. Reaching past the garden hoe, I grabbed a scrap piece of wood and wedged it under one side of the box, raising it. I placed the level on each side of the garden box and confirmed that all sides were indeed level. Turns out it's easier to level up than level down.