West Virginia farm

D is for Dominion

By William Woolfitt

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Considering “dominion” in the acts of protest by Dorothy Day and the stewardship of their West Virginia farm by the narrator’s grandparents.

 
D descends from the Hebrew ד, daleth, from the Greek Δ, delta, from the triangle-shaped door of a tent, the rich dirt the river carries to its mouth. D is for dove, donkey, dig, dough. See it open, see it surge and lift in the wind, a staked animal skin, a rain-heavy cloud. Hear it sing the long story of the places that we try to claim, the places that swell our hearts to bursting, hear it sing and then follow its variant thread, the secrets of rivers running north, masses of pig iron and dross and korl, the smoke of a spoil tip burning in Trace Gap.

 

In New York City in 1956, Dorothy Day and 26 protestors (Catholic workers, Quakers, anarchists) go to City Hall Park in Manhattan. Maybe they smile at the people walking there, the old man throwing crusts to pigeons, the mothers pushing baby carriages; maybe they peer at the dogwood and burr oak trees, look for birds perching there. Some protestors carry signs. Some join Dorothy Day in handing out yellow leaflets that say, Today our city is compelling its citizens to assist in the buildup of mass hysteria by joining the nation-wide air raid drill. In the name of Jesus who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend. We will not be drilled into fear!

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day, likely at Maryfarm in Easton, New York.
Photo courtesy Jim Forest and Flickr.

An hour later, there is the shrieking of the Apple Jack red alerts, and the FCDA drill begins, and people leave the park—their strides brisk, dutiful—and take shelter inside, or cower in subways, and stay there, waiting to receive the all-clear signal. Imaginary bombs fall, and schoolchildren hide under desks, and the park and the sidewalks and the streets are empty, and New York becomes like a ghost city, like a sunlit wasteland.

Dorothy Day thinks it’s all a scare tactic, a war game, a sham. While the red alerts scream, some protestors sit on park benches and meditate; some pray. Dorothy Day takes out needles and yarn, knits a row of scarf. This is how she does public penance. This is how she defies those who are greedy for power, empire, dominion. Maybe she’s thinking about bomb tests, hydrogen bombs dropped over the Pacific, and the flash equal to 500 suns, radioactive dust 7,000 square miles around, and the Japanese boat sprayed, the tuna fisherman dead.

The police take Dorothy Day from the bench, arrest her and the other protestors for refusing to go inside, lead them to the paddy wagons, hold them in bull pens, in the Tombs. Then the judge sentences Dorothy to the women’s detention house on Greenwich Avenue. Like the other inmates, she wears a wrapper and loose slippers. She tells herself when she kneels down on the seventh floor, corridor A, in cell 13, this is like a Carmelite monastery. This is a wonderful experience, performing the work of mercy, visiting the prisoner. She will work for the neediest, and eat their gray bread, watery gravy, and become one of them.

The jail’s relentless noises hurt her ears: 500 women shout, and repeat dirty stories, and sing all night long. Pots and pans clang, and the TV chatters, and the metal gates slam shut. Never a quiet moment.

Still, Dorothy tries to pray. Each day, more women are patted down, then led to crowded cells, and open toilets, and scratchy sheets, hard cots that swing on chains. Perhaps they feel the caress of prayer. The guards are not paid to love. Dorothy learns that the steel cooler is for unruly women; the tank is for addicts who lie in their vomit. A female prisoner can be given eye-wash, gargle, aspirin, heat rash lotion, cardiograph, x-ray, but no beauty.

When the FCDA organizes more air raid drills the next year, Dorothy Day pickets City Hall Park again, and hands out leaflets, and gets taken to the police wagon, and sentenced to jail again. In the detention house, she’s treated like a fearsome beast, patted down, put in a cubicle, given to the airless dark.

 

Four hundred miles away, in the middle of West Virginia, up a hilly dirt road, my grandparents live on a farm of 200 acres—some tillable, some steep and rocky, some wooded. Their three children are eight, seven, and five, already helping with garden chores, fence building, barn chores. My grandmother would later describe those years in the mid-1950s like this:

Jack had always wanted a cattle farm, so we began looking for one. We found our farm in June near Nestorville in Barbour County, along with an unimproved farmhouse. No water in the house, just a spring we carried water from and heated on the stove—first a bottled gas stove, then later electric. Later, Jack piped water into the house. No bath, so we used a zinc tub for several years.

Lots of work & rough living for a while, but we all loved our farm. There were fruit trees: apple, pear, black cherry. Later, Jack planted peaches. There were blackberries in season. We had several cattle, chickens, hogs. Not having lived on a farm before, I was afraid of the animals, but I finally got used to them & loved them.

I try to picture it: my grandfather and grandmother milk cows and sell the milk by the can, and feed buckets of slop to Poland China hogs, and pick tomatoes and half-runner beans, and live in a drafty house with a tarpaper roof and thin walls. I picture this too: they replenished their fields, had dominion over their living things—not domination, but stewardship, what Dorothy Day’s yellow leaflet would call productive life on the land.

In those years, the FCDA was telling American farmers, Every rural family should be prepared to help care for evacuees from attacked areas. The FCDA was mailing instructional pamphlets to farmers—pamphlets with titles like Your Livestock Can Survive FALLOUT from NUCLEAR ATTACK. Whatever my grandfather and grandmother might have feared the most—bombs, or war planes, running out of money, or bitter winters, or not being able to feed their children—they would have answered that fear with work, with daily chores. They were people who believed in doing the next thing.

Before moving to the farm, my grandfather’s jobs were at strip mines, where he repaired bulldozers and scraper pans, did some blasting, drove coal trucks. Now he cuts down the multiflora rose and clears his meadows, sprays herbicides, gathers walnuts and pokeweed, fells trees for firewood.

My grandmother helps the neighbor women pack sausage meat into cleaned intestines, into white cloth sacks. She saves everything. She saves recipes for 60 years. The oldest we have might be a page titled Squash Notes, mailed by the Agriculture Extension Service at WVU, dated July 1951, with recipes for fried squash, stuffed squash, the summer yellow hybrid in particular. Select the squash when they are young, the skin smooth and tender, in need of no peeling, the seeds tender and juicy.

I’d like to see in my grandparents’ work, the farm they sweat for, the life they make—in all of it a refusal of the fears that would have circled around them, clamped them tight. In their early mornings, their hours in the barn and meadows and garden, their raising of children and calves and seedlings, I want to see no selfish deed, no spoiling of the land, no fear, want to find what Dorothy Day calls the green of hope, the rising sap.

 

 

William WoolfittWilliam Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020).

Read five poems by William Woolfitt previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Jon Bilous, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of William Woolfitt by Arlyne VanHook.

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.