My very honored Pastor Herder,
Thank you for pointing up dust as symbol of life, death and revival. You know how astronomers finally looked out and found the universe clouded with cosmic dust, eons of tiny particles swirling in mutual attraction, concentrating as primeval vortices and settling into galaxies of great hot suns attended by whirling satellites, ancient chaos organizing herself into our sparkling, meaningful signs of heaven. When these lights at last dissipate again, they collapse into dark, cold clouds of the same dust whence new worlds are generated. "For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust."
Here on my paltry stretch of earth, I was just such a particle in the drifting dust of America. Clouds of humanity wafted over the threatening seas, obtained purchase on the seaboard, scattered into the continent's deep backwoods, their European learning and culture settled at last into the Great American Dustbowl. They had left much behind, sometimes gladly, sometimes because it could not be otherwise. The erudition of the Old World (where you, Pastor Herder, are Superintendent of both Church and Schools in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar) became unschooled backwoods superstition. High churchmen came only as far as the seaboard, so that backwoods literacy owed less to pastor, school, or schoolmaster than to the mother's Bible. As for the father, his energies were consumed by the woodlands culture of the axe and long rifle. The family cleared its newground, built and defended a cabin, eked out a crop, and thrived in its isolation.. Exhaustion of the soil, or the advent of denser population with its dreaded childrens' diseases meant it was time to move on.
We out here in the west are the sandy delta of a flow arisen in far away Virginia and Maryland, spilled out over the Carolinas, trickled through Kentucky and down to Tennessee's rich Cumberland newground. Here my people was visited by Mr. Lincoln's Great War, its scattering and maiming not to be described. These were the detritus blown into Texas and Oklahoma, sometimes bringing their wagonload of backwoods culture, but not always even that. At the Trinity the big woods played out, by the 98th meridian, the rainfall ceased. Skill with the axe yielded to holding your saddle and throwing a rope. A six shooter was handier than the long rifle. Fertile newground was less sought than water, and the windmill became emblem for the Great Plains.
As far as the Trinity, tall pine forests still gave logs, the backwoodsman could still grow cotton and corn. Beyond, stretched dry gulch, scrub oak, chaparral, shinnery. The topsoil, at first rich in minerals, was frightfully thin. My mother sang of the "Sweet Afton," my brothers could recite "The stag at eve had drunk his fill, Where danced the moon on Monan's rill." Rowcropping seemed practical, my father even had a grape arbor. He raised cotton and corn where in my own day I found only bare limestone. The land had just blowed away.
Your letter so chock-full of biblical phrases is certainly fitting to a child of the Dustbowl, more fluent in the language of King James' translation than with his Bible itself, raised in stubborn respect for the church and yet in profound ignorance of religion. My mother, after her long day as farm wife with five children, never omitted her evening Bible reading. My father was respectfully uncritical toward the galimatias of Sunday sermons, but hardscrabble farmers chose their preachers for other qualities than intellect, and held soft hands in contempt.
Not that our education was neglected. The hymnal was catechism in those fundamental tenets, the grace of God and the insufficiency of the law. The songs were subliminal instruction in anagogical reading. I understood intuitively. "Nearer, My God, to Thee" spoke my own stoney griefs long before I connected the them to Genesis, to Jakob, to Bethel. From the Bible I learned my love for poetry, and I was brought to religion by love of language. The teachings belatedly confirmed our Dustbowl righteousness. I am shocked if a Saint strays from it.
Your most respectful
J. W. Worthy
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