There is a poignant passage in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where desperate, hungry migrant workers plant secret gardens on stolen bits of land. The Okies (a slur for displaced farmers from the Midwest) struggle to survive in California refugee camps, surrounded by usable land lying fallow.
Now and then a man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. Planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.
Leave the weeds around the edge — then nobody can see what we’re a-doin’. Leave some weeds, big tall ones, in the middle.
Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath,” Kindle version, location 5585.
The setting is the Great Depression and the main characters are migrant workers hoping to make ends meet. The story is sad, full of physical and spiritual starvation. This suffering is caused by the uprooting of families from their farms and breaking up of rural communities, as tractors have taken over more and more of the food labor. The people are hungry because they no longer have a bit of earth to cultivate. The Joad family are the central characters of the story, but it is clear that Steinbeck has a whole demographic in view.
The story is reminiscent of Isaiah 5, where Isaiah prophesies to God’s vineyard — his people. He pronounces woes to Israel for their sins, including the stockpiling of land by the rich. God’s law included many stipulations about equitable distribution of land, but these rules were being ignored by God’s people.
Woe to those who join house to house,Isaiah 5:8-10, ESV
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”
Ultimately, the judgment for Israel is not unlike that of the American people in Steinbeck’s work — failing crops, hunger, and exile. The Joads, as members of American society, are made to “dwell alone in the midst of the land”, wandering because there is no more room — forced off their land and unable to acquire any more.
This is my first time reading The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s concerns about uprooting and loss of land resonate with my own beliefs about the importance of living close to the earth. Reading it, as I am, in a time of so much economic turmoil, I wonder if our country could survive another Great Depression. For most, finding a piece of land on which to grow food wouldn’t even be an option; today, farmers and ranchers make up less than 2 percent of the US population. How many Americans would know what to do if they had to provide food for themselves?
I’ve grown up on stories about my ancestors, who like Steinbeck’s Joad family, went to California during the Depression. My great-grandparents Cova and Lavola Reid made the trip with extended family. They moved all over the state, picking cotton, canning fruit, building dams and roads. To make ends meet, Cova and Lavola hunted — both legally and illegally — everything from deer to pheasants. He fished and gigged frogs. They gardened, and she canned their produce. He built one home for his young family in the rugged Ozark mountains of Arkansas and again in the rural San Joaquin Valley of California.
When I hear the old stories, I am amazed by how at home my great-grandparents were on the earth. To borrow Wendell Berry’s terms, they didn’t need an “expert” to do for them what every other creature on this earth does for itself. They knew how to live — forage and hunt for food and build their own shelter. They were never rich, but they always had enough. When I used to ask Grammy about the Great Depression, she never had all that much to say. Having grown up poor, she was used to a simple, natural way of life.
Three generations later, as a society, we are still exiled from the land. Only now, we don’t even remember what we’ve lost. Driven off the farms in the middle of the twentieth century, we’ve grown used to more concrete than grass beneath our feet. We have “education,” but we lack even primitive life skills. There have been “back to the land” movements throughout the last decades, and even now the homesteader trend seems to be growing. This is a mercy, I think, and a step back towards wisdom. I don’t know what is going to happen in our country. I’m not one to worry too much about tomorrow. Still, I think it is profoundly unwise that we, as a culture, have raised up multiple generations who are not really at home on the earth, who are out of place in their God-given habitat. God made us and placed us in a garden, but we have grown so used to the city that most of us would be at a complete loss if given the Edenic directive to work and keep the garden and eat the fruit of the trees therein (Genesis 2:15). Instead of depending on our habitat for sustenance, we depend on a system.
Those stories about my ancestors shaped my moral imagination when I was growing up, and I took pride in the animals I raised and the gardening I did at the time. After living in town for my entire adult life, though, I’ve found it a slow process to reconnect with not only my own lost skills, but those my ancestors had almost by osmosis. Building our own tiny bunk house has been a very slow process, in part because of all the weird economic issues our country is facing. But there has also been a huge learning curve, as we struggle to learn the knowledge that we’ve lost. Books and YouTube help immensely, but many people assume reliance on expensive tools and technology that our family would rather not invest in. So we have had to dig into old alternatives and think outside the contemporary big-box way of doing things.
There are days when it’s frustrating. I feel silly that I am so soft, so unused to certain kinds of work, so ignorant about things that used to be common knowledge. But there are more days when its exhilarating to be relearning so much that is part of our cultural memory. It feels more real than almost anything else I’ve ever done in life. Little by little, I’m learning to be at home on the earth.