The “Dirt” of Life
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
Did you know that buckets make dirt?
You read that right. Buckets make dirt.
In his essay, “The work of Local culture,” Wendall Berry talks of how buckets make dirt. Berry reminisces about a childhood experience of looking in an old bucket that hung on a familiar fence post along a path he often traveled. Looking into the bucket, he found that, over the years, that bucket had collected all sorts of things; grass, twigs, leaves, bugs, and anything else that happened to fall in. And over time, all of those things—all local things—began to decompose and, well...voila, the bucket made dirt!
What’s the point? His point in the essay is to highlight the local nature of things. The dirt in that bucket was made of Henry County, Kentucky. That’s where Wendall Berry grew up, and where he still lives. That dirt could not have been made anywhere else. It was particular to that spot—it was Kentucky dirt.
But, what’s the point!? There is something important in what Mr. Berry notices. Something particular happens where people live; where their lives unfold. Culture, traditions, and practices! Life happens where people are! Mr. Berry noticed that, over time, that old bucket collected all sorts of things and made something new out of it. This is exactly what happens in our lives.
We do not stay the same throughout our lives.
There is always something falling into our buckets; we are always growing, always collecting new things, having new experiences, receiving new information, and meeting new people. Things enter our lives, and we tend to hold onto the things we like. We build traditions around those things we love. We love them because they do something for us. We come back to them over and over again; and what's more, we tend to like them done a certain way: The way we experienced it the first time...or at least, the way we remember experiencing it. Traditions and experiences give life meaning and texture. They give our lives depth. These things give us something to both remember with fondness and something to look forward to with joy. Our lives tend to operate around traditions.
To add to this, it's particular and specific. No two people’s lives are identical, but they’re often similar. So it goes with local culture. The places people live become like that dirt in the bucket. The people and the places produce something specific and particular. For instance, I live in Roxboro, North Carolina. There are people and places here that exist nowhere else in the world. And that’s what makes Roxboro, Roxboro. It has people and families that go back generations. There is a history, a heritage, a way of life...and the people who live here love it. It's something that is held onto, and something most hate to see change.
When people live together in a community, certain things become shared. Local business, holiday celebrations, when and how things get done... local culture. A community is formed, traditions are formed, and sacred things are identified and shared.
But go with me back to that bucket on the fence. We look inside and find dirt. Particular dirt. Henry County, Kentucky dirt. If we wait a few years and come back, we will most likely find that same bucket hanging on the fence with that same dirt inside. But the dirt will also be different. It will still be Kentucky dirt, but it will be different dirt. Over time, new things will have gathered inside that bucket, and new dirt will have been made.
The same dirt; yet different dirt.
So it goes with us. As we live, we collect things...experiences, relationships, jobs, victories, pains and losses, etc. These things make us who we are. These things make and shape the culture in which we live. And yet, these things are always changing.
We are the same person; yet, a different person.
People enter our lives and people leave our lives. Traditions are established and traditions are ended. Jobs begin and jobs end. Marriage begins and marriage ends. Parenting begins and parenting ends. In many ways, we are always the same, standing at the doorway watching as these things enter and exit our lives. But, in many ways we are the ones changing. Because as each of these things enters and exits our lives—as traditions change, relationships change, jobs change— they change us.
We stay the same, and we change.
And God is at work in every detail. That's the beautiful promise of the Bible. What a glorious God we have Who watches over all of these details. Paul says it like this, “He is before all things, and in Him all things are holding together...” (Col. 1:17). Unlike that bucket, which just collects whatever falls into it, the Bible tells us that God watches over every detail of our lives. He brings things into our lives with a purpose, and He removes things with a purpose. As Job would say, “God gives and God takes away…”
The “dirt” of our lives is exactly what God cultivates it to be.