A Burden

It’s Sunday. We’ve weathered two significant rainfalls in the last 10 days that have dumped nearly 6 inches of water on us. My farm roads, which have never been in great shape, are a disaster. This morning I worried that I’d lose my truck axle in the worst of the ruts (gullies?) carved out by the cascading water. There is nothing more powerful on earth than water. Hoover Dam is only a temporary impediment; nature always wins.

The tractor came to life, the 8ft. blade attached. I worked to bring the gravel road back to it’s original position. With the road repaired, I turned to other thoughts I’ve been turning over the last few weeks.

Farming affords a lot of time for thinking. Perhaps that is why I farm, for Lord knows I’m not a natural farmer. I look at myself as a placeholder, a generational bridge, a steward entrusted with a precious gift to deliver to the next generation. The precious gift of good land. This good land.

“Since 1690” is what our business card reads, and that’s as near as I can figure it. The farm I live and work on, the place that has come to identify who I am and perhaps even where I’m going, has been in my family that long. Three hundred and twenty five years is a long time.

The story I like to tell is pretty basic; my ancestor was a ship captain and brought a group of settlers to the colony of Maryland around 1680. For his trouble, he was granted 5000 acres of land in the southern end of Calvert County (Drum Point and what is now know as Solomon’s Island, originally Bourne’s Island). But the Bourne’s had a knack for loosing land and within a couple generations, the original tract was out of their hands. They slowly made their way north, having the good fortune to marry into land from time to time, until my great-great grandfather met his end in a horse racing accident. His widow then married a man from across the Patuxent River in Croom.

If you’ve ever spent some time in Southern Maryland, you’ll notice that all the old families here are pretty much related. We’re somewhat affectionately known as SMIB’s (Southern Maryland In-Bred’s). Instead of family trees, we have family trunks – they just keep going round and round.

My great-grandfather, Joseph, proved this doubly true; he married his double 1st cousin. I suppose he was simply grateful to have survived the Civil War. As a 16 year old, he joined up with the 1st Maryland Calvary (CSA), Company “D” and went to war. He somehow eluded death one time by using a reed to breath through as he hid in the Patuxent River while Union soldiers were hunting for him. He was finally captured outside of Richmond and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

His father having died young, his mother remarried, Joseph didn’t have any land from which to start off. But Maria did. She had 200 acres right on the Patuxent River, near Hall Creek. Her siblings owned another 300 acres, contiguous with her land. This had all been part of a 650 acre grant the Gantt family had purchased from the Hall family around 1690.

They were double first cousins, the previous generation having married together also. They had several children not survive into adulthood. But Henry, Tom, Joe, James, and Grace did.

Maria had two siblings that I know about, George and John (“Uncle Johnny”). It is Uncle Johnny who colors the family history. The Gantt’s are know to history as ambitious people, doctors, lawyers, and clergymen. One of my ancestors was married to the first Episcopal bishop consecrated on American soil, Thomas Claggett. It must have all run out of the family gene pool by the time Uncle Johnny came around.

Uncle Johnny could never quite settle down. He was a gambler and a drunk (they go together?). His addiction to gambling was so bad he lost his 150 acre farm in a poker game. How he was picked to be my grandfather’s godfather can only be due to family proximity and the lack of other qualified men.

This is the person who watched the family home burn to the ground while sitting on a fence, clapping. His $10,000 gambling debt in the 1920’s ended his independence. He spent the rest of his days sheltering in the bedrooms of relatives who had no real choice. Fortunately the farm was sold to my grandfather’s brother in law. The really good part here is the fact I will one day write a book about that side of the family.

My grandfather, James Sr., purchased the farm I now live on from the widow of Maria’s brother, George. James had returned from fighting in the trenches of France in 1919 and married Helen Howes from across the creek. They moved down to the home place, but Helen soon found living around her in-laws a burden in the task of reforming her new husband. (By this time, Maria had died, being struck down by the Spanish flu in 1918.)

So my Methodist grandmother persuaded my Episcopal grandfather to sell out and purchase Uncle George’s old place up the road. Relieved of the annoyance of those wine-making Episcopalians, my grandmother could now rear her growing brood in the strict manners befitting the temperance movement.

The farm was ill-used. Uncle George had been absent from the place for many years and a tennet family lived in the old house. Tennets were the remnants of the slave owning culture of Southern Maryland that had gone on for centuries prior to the Civil War. Emancipation had changed little in the day to day life of the former slaves. One day they were property, the next they were free with nowhere to go and no means of feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves. So while the worst practices of slavery were put aside (the breaking up of families, the overt beatings, etc.) they were still economic slaves of their former owners. This is a situation that continues to this day in some parts of Southern Maryland.

My father, James Jr., spoke of where four slave houses had been. I know two of these sites were pushed into the gullies in order to create more tillable land. One site lay in a tobacco field just beyond our oldest barn. Occasionally we find bricks; my sister found a crystal stone, worked round with a chisel and had a hole drilled in it. Clearly someone’s necklace.

I am sometimes burdened with the thought of those slaves. Until the late 1990’s the agricultural economy of Southern Maryland had changed little since the time Capt. Samuel Bourne settled here in 1680. Colonialism is largely an extractive economy; nothing reflects that more accurately than tobacco. It is a crop that is always taken off the ground and sent elsewhere. Tobacco was grown on my farm since it’s inception until 1983, when my father went into semi-retirement.

Little has changed about the cultivation of tobacco in 300 years. There is only so much mechanization that can be brought to it. It is largely hand labor over long periods of time. And so my ancestors answered that problem by purchasing African slaves.

I have no idea how my ancestors treated their property, their slaves. I’d love to think they were benevolent owners. I suspect they weren’t always, if at all. In order to justify the enslavement of another human being, one must see them as “the other.” And when you see someone as “the other,” it doesn’t take long to justify all manner of ill against them. It’s especially easy when they don’t look like you or speak your language, or act differently. And in order to make sure they stay that way, actions are taken to keep “the other” suppressed.

I’ve worked those tobacco fields. I’ve pulled the calves out of the gullies, had my ribs cracked, nearly passed out from the heat. I’ve bled, and sweated, and gotten soaked through. I can carry a 100lb. feed bag wherever it needs to go, cut a pig, butcher a hundred chickens, and kill anything that threatens my animals with exquisite proficiency. I am hardened by my life here. I am humbled and softened by the responsibility I have to those who actually worked this good land before me.

I dedicate this to all those who have and will work this piece of land in this small corner of God’s great universe. May we keep fidelity with each other. To those who had no choice, your work is remembered. To those who’ve had and will have a choice, know your heritage and the carry it with dignity and love.