Black Dirt and Old Bones: Meditation on Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1:4 says “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”

After the deaths of two old men I understood that verse for the first time.

I grew up in Linn County, Oregon. When I was a kid my Dad was the pastor of a sixty person church, with farmers and truckers making up most of the assembly. I remember the scared hands and missing fingers when the communion cups tipped and the offering plate was passed. After the benediction I would sneak by circles of them telling stories about brushes with death while in the woods or jobsite, and I listened with reverence. Men like that don’t die.

In my hometown, if you were old enough to steer machinery or lift hay bales, you were expected to work harvest. I would spend my summers from the age of fourteen cutting, sacking grain, or pulling a plow. The dawn to dusk work six days a week was tedious, but interactions with ancient farmers at church and in the field usually broke the monotony.

One of these old farmers was Charlie Bearly. He could always be heard walking into Sunday service because his right boot heel was an inch taller than the other. Part of his foot got blown off in a hunting accident. When I summoned enough courage to ask him the story he only pointed at his boot and said “Remember young man, that’s happens when you hunt on a Sunday.” Charlie knew Linn County like an old friend. He worked plow horses in his youth and was known for herding mustangs over the Santiam pass. He was the last of the real cowboys.

He slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s in his eighties. Dad would take me into the nursing home and read Louis Lamour paperbacks to him. I would sit there silently and watch as Charlie would sometimes laugh, sometimes cry—his eyes full of fading memories, happy moments and regrets. Charlie talked to Dad about his sin, saying he had done a lot of people wrong in his life. After he died there wasn’t an empty seat at his funeral.

I began working at Cross Roads farms in 2004, and there I became acquainted with Willard Keen. He had lived through the days of the Spanish Influenza and Great Depression, rarely leaving Linn County for ninety years. His vision was poor at best, so I’d be careful whenever he would start the forklift or fire his twelve gage. Willard had looked death in the face several times. One instance machine blades caught hold of his arm in the warehouse. It’s said he calmly wrapped his lacerations in rags, crawled over the cat walks, and down a twenty foot latter. After seeing his jagged scars I told my friends that the Grim Reaper had visited the Willard multiple times, but the old man always chased him off the property with his own scythe.

Willard was always trying to bring dead things to life. Every day he’d put a battery charger on a water truck that hadn’t run since the sixties. When that didn’t work he decided the spark plugs had dirty contacts and nearly destroyed my fingertips when he made me hold all eight of them up to a welding torch to “burn the dirt off.”  I would accidently break brooms and cheap tools only to find them put together disjointedly with masking tape. Grain bins in the warehouse were so old and worn that they would leak seed and Willard plugged the gaping holes constantly with burlap sacks. His thin, old frame never stopped moving. I was convinced he would outlive me.

Willard saw his last harvest at the age of ninety nine. They mentioned that in his twenties he had plowed with horses like Charlie and that his father had told him that the tractor craze was never going to last.

When I was seventeen I ran a John Deer with an eight bottom plow, working the same valley ground. I thought about plow horses eighty years before, lathered in sweat as they pulled with the young hands of Willard and Charlie straining to keep the main share straight from dawn to dusk.

I find my mind attempts to put flesh to fading memory—to revive dead things. Maybe Willard taught me that.  Sometimes like Charlie I lie in bed at night haunted by past happiness and regret. One day I will be as old as they were, and shortly after our bones will all be together in the dark soil. A sermon I heard many years ago in my little church comes to mind. A voice asks in the desert “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I think about the cycles of the earth: the new life in spring after winter; the green stalks of wheat before harvest; new dawns after new moons. I think about working in the same red twilights as Willard and Charlie, smelling the same fresh soil and watching the hours turn into days and days turn into years and I reply, “You alone know.”