Though I’ve never been one to engage in talk both detrimental and salacious, I will say this: There is trouble down at the Howard farm. That in itself is not gossip, but fact; things between Clive Howard and his son Darrell have been spoiling for years now, ever since Darrell proclaimed his intent to leave, and you don’t have to be a farmer to understand what spoils eventually rots, and what rots will inevitably die.
Way it was told to me, Darrell knew long before high school that farming would not be his future. His first trip to the cemetery guaranteed it. The Howard farm rests along two hundred acres of bottomland, in a holler just off the ridge road in the western part of town. Beautiful place, that farm. Wish you could see it, the way the willows curl up along the riverbanks and how the wood there carry the scents of cedar and pine in the winter and honeysuckle come summer, the deer that gather in the fields just as the sun dips over the ridges, the barn, a red so bright it looks slick. And at the border between corn fields and pasture, the four oaks rising like thick fingers into an empty sky and the white gravestones beneath them. Nearly twenty of them all told.
The Howards have farmed this land for generations; most of them are buried beneath those oaks, from Nathaniel Howard (“b. Dec 3, 1758 d. Mar 20, 1819,” reads the stone) to Robert Howard, Darrell’s own grandfather, who passed from this life to the next the summer Darrell turned ten. There are moments in all of our lives that come with a kind of slow focus that will define all the moments after. That’s what happened with Darrell that day. Standing there with his momma and daddy, tugging at his Sunday suit under a hot morning sun as the preacher read the Psalms and they all cried and sang, Darrell looking out upon all those bleached stones set against hard earth, knowing there would one day be others. There would be his daddy’s and his momma’s. One day, there would be his own. That’s when Darrell made the quiet promise that he would never be a farmer. He would break free of that hollow, make himself a life.
He’d seen enough of the future Clive had for him already. The early mornings spent milking the cows and feeding the hogs, the slop and the mud, the cold, the heat. Planting in spring and praying for rain and warm weather, only to watch as God said No and sent nothing but a scorching sun that turned the green corn a withered brown. The calloused hands, the aching back. Sunburn in August, windburn in January. All of it to scrape by as the prices of beef and corn plummeted, the only security what Darrell’s momma had canned to store in the pantry. For Darrell Howard, that was no sort of life. He wanted more from the world, and that’s why he’s leaving come summer. The university first, and then a proper job. Someplace in the city. Downtown, with a view of the skyline instead of the ridgeline. Suits instead of coveralls. Early retirement. The country club.
In Darrell’s own words, “An easy life, because that’s what living should be.”
Thus far, Clive Howard has not taken well to this news.
It isn’t that he views his son’s goals as less than the life Darrell had been born into. Whether sitting in a corner office or plowing the back forty, so long as Darrell works, Clive will be happy. And yet Darrell’s decision cuts deeper than mere employment, deeper than even carrying on the generations who have farmed the bottomland. It is work itself, and the place it will have in the life of Clive Howard’s son.
We are meant for toil, that’s what Clive would say. He would say the land is in his son’s blood, the fields and pasture as much of Darrell as the marrow to his bones. He would say the sweat that stains his brow and dirt packed hard beneath his nails, that ailing back and those calloused, hardened hands, are not the mark of a life spent in hardship, but one spent with purpose.
The Howards have always worked their acres believing such. They have been raised up in that same bricked farmhouse and laid down beneath those same towering oaks since the Revolution, and in all those long and lean years between, saw little more of this world than what lay between the ridgetops. None of them enjoyed what Darrell would call an easy life, and yet they each found this one truth: This world is not meant to be easy and our work in it is not meant to be short, because that work becomes a living prayer.
(This post originally appeared on the High Calling Blog, November, 2014.)