Up From The Soil
Time moves surreptitiously. What we perceive as the past was once somebody’s future; their labor and toil were planted in hope of a future harvest. One day our future will be somebody’s past tense and our modern world will smugly be perceived by another as a relic of the distant past.
I chose the caption for this image because there is a story behind every picture. Often in a glance we only see the obvious, filtered by our perceptions. Perceptions are a double-edged sword that can sharpen or obscure our view and we may even carelessly discard what we thought we saw as insignificant.
What do you see?
Beyond the obvious black & white photo of a man plowing with a mule you see on this page, is an image that has many shades of meaning. To many it evokes a mental image of an era less advanced than the one we take for granted. We like to think of ourselves as ‘modern’ and to us the concept of a mule and a plow as opposed to a machine may appear primitive or quaint. The very thought may seem an anachronistic throwback dislocated from the world we live in. But what if we could see this image with a different pair of eyes? If we could manage to look beyond our assumptions we may see something starkly different than the obvious. Obviously, this image carries a deeper meaning to one from an agricultural perspective, nor would we expect someone who has not turned the sol by their own toil to appreciate the subtlety of what they see. It’s nothing less, than by their own lack of experience they have not attained the capacity to appreciate what they see. As I write this, I just now happened to recall instances growing up; one on my grandfather’s farm in the ‘bootheel’ of Missouri, helping him at an early age to plants beans. Listening to stories fondly told at the dinner table by my aunts and uncles of my mother and her siblings picking cotton in the heat of the day, or walking through a freshly plowed field next to our house. And I even have a perspective from the mules’ eye as I grudgingly pushed a small steel turning plow by hand in my dad’s garden. Back to this solitary image, the distinction may be more than one of subtle nuance but something entirely different than the first conclusion we happen to land on. Let’s take a moment to take a second look.
These images draw the minds’ eye to reminisce back to a simpler time. A man takes a moment to relax for his picture as he has been plowing with his mule team. He projects a certain independence; strength and self reliance. When I see these images it seems to be juxtaposed in stark relief to the modern context we inhabit for the moment. As with any snapshot, an image merely captures the instant but as time constantly, surreptitiously moves along its course often unaware to us as careless observers; gives us the illusion of permanence. However, as he, so we too will one day be relegated as artifacts of the past by some observer in the future.
And I’m reminded that of all those who have lived, worked, dreamed, and labored before us; those labors are the fertile soil that contributed to our present. Their labors, much like plowing, are the fruits of their toil; watered sweat, we sprang from their soil.
These images appeal to the thought of us striving to become self-reliant. To some their lifestyle may be construed as demeaning or primitive but to me, I sense a people who persevere to do more than just eke out a living in what some would perceive as a life of drudgery.
In contrast to a less sophisticated technology, I pulled this image and others like them out of a search engine; a technology that did not exist at the time this picture was taken. A simple image search on Google or similar yields many similar pictures, many from the early to mid 1900’s. Each picture seems to tell its own silent story. Plowing is in itself an old technology going back a few thousand years across other continents and cultures. The plow itself is a new technology compared to earlier modes. Plows advanced as men strove to become more efficient, and the plow went from a crude blunt object to its more refined technology. The steel plow pulled by a mule was itself at one time a new technology even though we might consider it to be a crude device when compared to a modern tractor and disc. One image culled from the past and archived through the internet was of a man plowing with a mule from Summer County in Tennessee around 1941.
The steel and wooden plow and mule team and freshly turned soil appear to have a subtle meaning than first ‘meets the eye’. The ground is ‘seeded’ as an investment into the future; both his and ours. Although we may not labor behind a plow, we are not nearly so different as we may think. We take the technology available to us and we toil and sow to plant the seeds for a future harvest of our own, one that we intend to reap ourselves one day. However we choose to do so, by whatever means we choose, we do so with the expectation that we will enjoy the fruits of our own labor.
As I look at this picture I feel some inner connection to this unknown person. I don’t know him and yet, on some inner level, I do. His name may not be important, may not be remembered by history, but his life and labor tell a story of its own. His labor and many more like him prepared the way for the generation to follow. They plowed seeds of hope and reaped a harvest we enjoy today.
Rather than employ nuance I will simply state my working thesis, which curiously seemed to evolve as I wrote. Apparently the writer was not aware of his writing but in some reverse synthesis of thought, I became a product of my own writing, I started with a caption that only stated the obvious but as I wrote, it coalesced into something more than an assignment. It seemed as if the image had a story to tell and as I wrote I seemed to be little more than a scribe jotting down its’ message, rewriting and clarifying until the inchoate message, unspoken, took written form. Nothing as macabre as a voice from the past but rather, giving the past a voice as I wrote. My thesis, of which I was unaware of at the time, evolved to be thus; A thread runs through the fabric of human experience. Unknown persons living their lives out as do we. Our circumstances may differ but we are all a product of our times and experiences. And all of us labor to sow the seeds of a different kind in hopes to reap a harvest at some not so distant future. And as this person has passed through his prime so we too are moving through time as a fluid medium; transient, yet moving forward. And, as he, so we too will one day be ‘planted’ in the soil waiting for a future harvest.