praise to the transformers
I dread the job, but the room has to be emptied. Both of my father’s knees are bad and the day will come, sooner than later, when he can no longer climb the stairs to his and my mother’s bedroom, and their bed will need to be brought downstairs. My parents, I’m sorry to say, have made a career out of living in the moment, putting off anything that can be put off another day. Except my mother finally understands that stair-climbing time is about to run out.
They call this room the “salesroom,” the vision having been that customers to their junkyard might enter this room and not the living quarters of the house. The room was never finished, however, its floor still a concrete slab somewhere below the flotsam. The salesroom and its attached half-bath long ago became packrooms, which my mother and I are unpacking.
The odor of mold is so intense it might actually overpower one of us. It seems deadly.
“This mold can’t be good for you,” I say.
“We need to get the door open,” Mama says. “And a fan going.” Never tall, my mother has lost some height and earned some wrinkles. Her soft hair is light gray now, tucked up with pins. She stumbles a little as she turns to retrieve an electric fan. She wants to help me with an extra door, a random white door leaning against the actual brown door on hinges, but it’s blocked by a whimsicality of stuff and is too heavy for her anyway. I wade into a thicket of walking canes, maybe five of them, handing them two at a time to my mother, who plants them in a cane forest by the large fireplace. I move a wooden clock with a chain hanging out the bottom, careful not to hit a dusty, foot-tall glass case, its walnut frames loose, displaying a wadded piece of paper. I stand holding the flimsy case, surveying for a horizontal clearing to stash it.
Finally the door is open, sunlight filtering in, the September day heating up southern Georgia. The fan is humming.
My parents are collectors. My sister says to get real and call it by its real name, hoarding. I close my mouth tight.
There is an entire banana box of chargers—for cell phones, cordless phones, toys, tools. If somebody needed a charger, this would be the place to look. If someone needed a table lamp, this would be the place too. I had no idea my mother loves lamps this outlandishly; it’s almost a fetish. One lamp’s glass base is filled with seashells. One is large, ugly, ceramic. Somebody has ruined a crockery jug making another. Some have torn shades, some have intact ones, some have none. Five or six shades are stacked inside each other on an antique bed.
“We’ve got to figure out what to do with all these lamps,” I say to my mom. She’s standing just outside the door ripping rotten cloth off a lampshade. She intends to save the metal skeleton of it. Her sensibilities would never allow her to pitch the entire ruined shade in the trash, since she knows very well from life on a junkyard that the metal can be recycled and that recycling metal is lucrative. “Got any ideas?”
“I don’t, honey. We’ll have to pack them up somewhere.”
“Do you know anyone who sells lamps? You could give them all away. Somebody might be able to make money on them.” Even as I say this, I know in my heart that’s not going to happen. My folks don’t give anything away. They are keepers.
“We can put them under the old car shelter out at the farm,” Mama says.
“They’ll just ruin outside,” I say. “But we’d have a lot more room to work if we got them out of here.” There are at least twenty table lamps. I begin to line them on a little patch of floor at one end of the room, between two large rolled brown carpets, half-painted canvases, lone shoes, a wicker laundry basket filled with somebody else’s clothes, all manner of etcetera. This clears a small island of floor space, enough to start packing up the boxes I’ve brought.
I begin packing whatever is within reach—an alarm clock, a basket of silk flowers, two candle holders, a ceramic owl, a wooden owl, a brass vase, a conch shell. Many of the things I find are ruined—dusty, molded, crushed by weight, decomposing—because, I realize, when a person is a collector, when his or her mission is collecting, maintenance is not an objective. My mother is hesitant to throw out anything, second-guessing herself to think of a use, but I take a break from the stuff and go roll their curbside trash receptacle to the edge of the unfinished porch. It gets the rotten pantyhose, the broken glass, the shoes warped and split beyond use.
I keep packing, stacking boxes in white space I’ve liberated along a wall. “Two more canes,” I say to my mom.
I find a handful of pencils and pens. “Let’s put office supplies in one box.”
“Here’s a bag of pens.” My mom hands them to me. I would bet good money that 90 percent of them don’t write. My mother is working hard. She knows that it’s time.
We don’t get far before we find termite damage. My parents knew we’d get to it. They discovered termites a decade earlier and treated the house foundation and the footing.
“So that stopped them?”
“That stopped them,” Mama says. “We just never got the mess cleaned up.”
My brother shows up at the door. In his early fifties, he’s tall, with his still-black hair trimmed short in the front, growing past his shoulders in the back. He follows me outside to the trash receptacle into which I’m tossing cardboard that termites have turned to powder.
“Do you think the termites are gone?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
“I wonder. If not, the whole house could fall down around them.”
“God, let’s hope not.”
“Did you see how the termites ate parts of that wooden desk?”
“No. But I see what they’ve done to the books.”
My father has bought a couple thousand copies of my second book, in hardcover, sold to him when the paperback was released, and they are stacked at the back of the salesroom in boxes. Daddy can’t resist a deal and he doesn’t want to see my name on the remaindered shelf. But termites have been enjoying the books a lot more than readers have. A few hundred of the books, it seems. Maybe more.
Eastern subterranean termites, the most common termite in the southern United States, work like this. They eat dead plant material, not only the structural timbers of buildings but also—once they break and enter a place—paper, cloth, carpets, photographs on the wall. They construct little tunnels through which they travel, called shelter tubes, which keep them hydrated and out of the sun and protected from predators, including humans. These tubes are made of plant matter, saliva, and soil. The termites tunnel up from the earth, where they live, through soft wood or some other biodegradable substrate, and they tiptoe through your property, chewing on what they can digest, which is cellulose, meaning wood or paper or cardboard, skulking inside their mud tubes.
They are detritivores, the scientific papers say. They live on detritus. They turn it into feces, golden pellets of droppings.
That means they are making dirt.
My own home, Red Earth Farm, is on a dirt road about thirty miles from my childhood home, where my parents live. In our garden shed is a jarful of dirt. When my husband and I give tours to people who want to see a working farm—not an industrial monoculture row crop farm but a farm circa 1900 with its milch cow and its hogs, its guineas and its Jersey bull, I lead them to the doorway of the shed.
“This is why we call the place Red Earth,” I say. Because of the clay at the bottom of the dried-up well, silky and moist but tough, resisting, a substrate of everything we do. Because of the native people who fought for this land until the creek ran red. Because of the slaves and the blood they lost. Because of the blood that ran from the women, and the men, and the animals whose lives were given to the people.
It just looks like dirt that happens to be red. Like a jar of crumbly loam. Like the frass of the termites; however, it is a sacred thing, constructed of the detritus of so many living things that inhabited this land. It is made of life and it is alive, both.
When the visitors are gone, I walk the dirt road alongside the farm the mile to the mailbox. Along it I find shards of flint left by the Creek inhabitants. On almost every walk I find something. We don’t have flint geologically in southern Georgia. We have ferrous oxide, little red rocks called “rain rocks” because rain washes them out. The lighter flint (lighter in shade and in weight) is easy to see among the scatterings of blood-red pebbles. I bring the shards home in my pockets, gathering up fragments of points and blades because this stuff belonged to people no longer here to pack it up. I place the artifacts in a flat basket woven of longleaf pine needles. In the basket is a button that says, “Go Make History.”
I try not to get depressed about all the stuff in my parents’ home. I have a hate/hate relationship with it. My parents, both born poor, came from a time in which stuff was hard to come by; now we live in a world lean in the things that really matter and that really fulfill, like civic engagement and family time and neighborliness, but fat with stuff—until all of us as consumers are morbidly obese. Stuff is constantly being thrown at us. As an author, I get more than my share, besieged with gifts everywhere I travel—cloth bags and T-shirts and pens and books. Book after book after book. We humans can’t quit making stuff, using more and more of nature to make more and more material crap.
Whereas the children of the Depression, like my folks, had to work hard to accumulate possessions, we have to work hard not to accumulate. I have to send a little note ahead to say, Please, no gifts to the folks who have invited me to do talks. I have to constantly walk through the rooms of my house with an eye turned toward purging.
So many human interactions are based on things, swapping our bounty back and forth, eBay, Craigslist, the classifieds, flea markets, consignments; and all shopping in general, of course, is simply human interaction at its most primal. But we have enough gewgaws and whatnots and doodads. No more. I have to continually seek different kinds of interactions, a different focus.
One Saturday during the clearing-out time at my parents’ home, our neighbor, who is eighty-two and also paring down, gives us all his worms. He’s been keeping the worms that make dirt for him for fifteen years and he has lost interest. Besides, the wooden tubs he built for them are rotting and he’ll have to construct more if he doesn’t divest. Better to give them to the younger farmers down the road, my husband and me, whose enterprise is to make dirt, to build healthy soil in which healthy food will grow. This means soil full of microorganisms, full of minerals, full of mycorrhizae.
“They’ll eat just about anything,” Bill tells us. “Except citrus. They don’t like citrus. You got a paper shredder? They’ll eat paper.”
“What about eggshells?” my husband asks.
“Eggshells,” Bill nods. “I gave them some peanut shells once. It took them a long time to get rid of those. But they did it.” He tells us to bury the food to make it more available to the worms, since, averse to light, they hesitate rising to the surface of their bin to haul down food.
I run my hands through the awesome loam the worms have deposited. I hit a half-rotten pear and a pod of oversized okra. The okra holds its shape, but it is full of worms, not plant fiber, and they are busily turning the okra into something better than it was, some endgame we’re all heading toward, some substance that is the essence of all life. I bury the worm-pod and gather up a handful of gummy earthworms wrapped around clumps of rich black soil, rich as my parents’ packroom, rich as the bottom of a termite colony. Praise the transformers. We all become something better than what we were.
I’ve decided three things: one, I will accept anything that my mother decides to give me on the days that we clear out her salesroom. I will take any gift home to the farm and do with it what needs to be done.
Two, I will do this job without judgment. My brother and I have a running conversation, the basic summary of which is, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” That conversation begins with my parents’ long-standing date with the yard sales on Saturday mornings; or with the clearing out of a section of their yard that immediately begins to be refilled; or with the observation that their pack spaces are not efficiently filled, but are organized jammed at the doors, until the doorways become blockages, as if one or the other of my dear parents goes to that doorway and sticks something new through it, hoping only to get the door closed before the avalanche. My brother and I want our parents to change their ways. Magically. Which we realize, of course, is not going to happen.
Doing this cleanup job without judgment means just doing what needs to be done, without getting bogged down in the past or the future.
The third decision is really an epiphany. On a second or third visit, slowly emptying the jam-packed room, my father and I have a candid conversation about the termite-drilled books. “Let me have the ruined ones,” I say. “I’ll take them home and burn them.” (To make ash, also used to make soil.)
“It’s almost impossible to burn a book,” my father says.
“Not enough oxidation?”
“You’d probably do better to bury them than burn them,” he says.
In the end, however, he won’t part with the books. The undamaged ones will stay in the salesroom, still in boxes along the back wall. When my parents move their bedroom downstairs, they will eye the books daily. The rest, the damaged books, will go into an old trailer out at the farm that my folks also use as a pack house.
My father’s knees will not allow him to transport the books. I will do it for him, packing up termite-tunneled, chewed, powdery, unreadable books as if they were bound for the Smithsonian, stacking boxes ever so carefully at the back of the room, high as the ceiling, working my way toward the door.
You know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that termites can take a book back down from words and ideas and pages to nothing. No, not nothing. Back down to dirt. Where it all started.
That richness leads me to my third decision: I am not going to worry about what will happen to all the stuff my parents have collected, or that I have collected for that matter, because it’s all going back to the earth. All of it. The termites, the worms, the millions of bacteria in a spoonful of soil—they will happily do the work of deconstructing what we have constructed, and valiantly. Working as emissaries of the dirt, they will reclaim most of what humans have fabricated, at least the plant-based material, hauling it earthward in the tiny wheelbarrows of their mouths, one wee load at a time. Bacteria and rust and time will get the rest.
The little creatures will take down the books, they will take down the book jackets, they will take down the cardboard boxes. They will take down the shades, they will take down the canes, they will take down the walls and the roof.
All the stuff goes back.
Praise to the little beings who are the transformers. Praise to the transporters. And praise to the ground that accepts and banks it all, that keeps rising out of lava and bedrock into layers of humus, unsurpassed transformation, the best savings account humanity could have, the one real thing that stands between us and scarcity, poverty, hunger. Praise to the dirt, which contains all that we have and all that we are, our true home, our destiny.
Excerpted from "DIRT: A Love Story," edited by Barbara Richardson with a foreword by Pam Houston. Published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Richardson. Used with permission of University Press of New England.