From the Earth by Randy Nelson
Randy Nelson’s nonfiction flash “From the Earth” focuses on a single memory of something he saw when he was very young. Just as his father plunged both arms deep into the dirt in the woods, searching for an answer, the narrator excavates a recollection only half-understood. For both, the earth yields a “wise and fertile gift.”
In flash, where every word counts, beginnings are crucial. From the very first line of “From the Earth” the reader is made aware of how indelible this memory is. “In the gathering dusk of an afternoon that still lingers, I followed my father into the woods.” “Gathering dusk” suggests that he is older, looking back. What he saw that afternoon “still lingers”; it has stayed with him all these years, resonant and mysterious. He followed his father, as generations succeed one another. (In his author’s note, Nelson explains that he started the first draft of the flash when his father died.) The narrator’s journey into the woods and into the past is both labyrinthine and potentially infinite: “It was summer and he was shirtless, that much I remember clearly. I can see him walking through a blackberry thicket like a man doing penance, then descending into familiar woods, and finally heading into the gullied maze behind our house. I had no idea that he might be looking for something as practical as hope. I was afraid he would keep walking forever.” His father, plagued by the prospect of his nursery’s failure, walks “like a man doing penance,” and then kneels in the dirt in an almost sacramental pose, an impression that is heightened when he raises a large clump of earth into the air. The earth becomes a sacred text that he reads—dark and rich, filled with bark and twigs and leaf mold and “hardly visible…white fungal threads, a network of them, that looked like spider’s filament.” The description of the earth connects a network of imagery in the flash, as the narrator reads his grown brother’s face, so similar to their father’s, finding “invisible filaments tethering him to the past.” —CRAFT
In the gathering dusk of an afternoon that still lingers, I followed my father into the woods. He had not prospered in his first attempt to start a nursery business, the crimson-budded azalea liners withering only days after he bought them. Then, after two weeks, they dropped leaves and collapsed into unmistakable failure. Worse, he had gambled with all our futures by risking the family’s savings when he could have kept to the security of a job in the post office. Now the setback seemed permanent, and he carried his guilt like a yoke. It was summer and he was shirtless, that much I remember clearly. I can see him walking through a blackberry thicket like a man doing penance, then descending into familiar woods, and finally heading into the gullied maze behind our house. I had no idea that he might be looking for something as practical as hope. I was afraid he would keep walking forever.
And of course I followed.
I found him on his knees beneath two white oaks, a shovel in hand and burlaps on the ground beside him. He appeared to be studying the entire earth, focusing at last upon a mound of matted leaves, which he turned, one by one, like pages of parchment. Then he reached deep, plunging both arms into what must have felt like the tillage of a fresh grave, and drew out a dripping, dictionary-sized clump of earth. The weight seemed to satisfy him in a way I can barely imagine. Then I watched him raise the tattered mass into sunlight and read intently.
Even from a distance I could make out the layers―an overleaf of leathery brown, then gray strata of bark and loose twigs, followed by an inch or more of compressed leaf mold that went powdering down into loam and dribbling between his fingers. When I walked closer, I could see tiny bits of insect wings, nearly microscopic snail shells, and dry crusts of sand. Hardly visible were the white fungal threads, a network of them, that looked like spider’s filament. Years later in college I would learn that these are called mycorrhizae, invaluable in bringing nutrients to rooted plants. But at the time I gave them no notice. I recognized only the yeasty smell of bread.
“Here,” he pronounced. “This is what we need. Woods earth.”
He carried out two loads within the next hour, mixing them with creek sand and a touch of the red clay that made up most of our land. In the following months he coaxed a new batch of azaleas into the first profitable venture of a family business that sustained us over the years. For a time, I believe, my father was the oldest active nurseryman in North Carolina. Certainly he was the happiest. He felt he had been saved from a leaden job as a mail carrier and from a far more humiliating defeat before his family. I believe, too, that he saw no useful distinction between mycorrhizae and magic. What he needed was hope. A bit of woods earth.
Doesn’t that phrase now sound elegant and ancient? No one in our family ever spoke of cultivating “the earth.” No one ever said, “I’m going outside to dig in the earth.” We used words like dirt and soil and field and land. Earth was something more serious, something biblical. And woods earth was the wise and fertile gift of forests.
Today my brother manages the nursery that still bears our family name. Each year he ships trees and shrubs throughout the East Coast, cultivates tens of thousands of cuttings, and frets constantly about irrigation and micronutrients. The result is that from Mother’s Day through July, the growing yards look like Mardi Gras. The azaleas alone will take your breath away.
Maybe that’s why I visited the nursery recently after first stopping to see our dad in the nursing home. I think I was drawn by the colors. Or maybe I was struck by the odd confluence of language—“nursery” and “nursing home.” I’m not sure, really. I just wanted to walk where our dad had walked, where nursery and home were indistinguishable.
The men were mixing dirt when I arrived, and I watched it come tumbling onto a conveyor from a machine the size of a truck. Huge beaters blended more ingredients than could be listed on the side of a cereal box. Everything seemed measured and scientific. The soil itself looked like chocolate cake mix ready to be boxed and aligned on grocery shelves. And the whole operation moved with restless efficiency. But as I watched my brother run his hand deep into the mix and raise a sample into the light, I realized how much he looked like our dad, worried and hopeful at the same time. There were creases at the corners of his eyes. Invisible filaments tethering him to the past.
RANDY NELSON is a multiple-award-winning writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications. His first collection, The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men, won the Flannery O’Connor Award, and his short stories have also been recognized in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses and Best American Short Stories. His latest book is a mystery novel set in the 1930s called A Duplicate Daughter. He is the Virginia Lasater Irvin Professor Emeritus of English at Davidson College.
Featured image by Katie Treadway courtesy of Unsplash