It All Began With A Simple Dream
An idealistic young farmer who moves his family to a Mississippi flood basin, suffers financial ruin — and becomes increasingly paranoid he’s being framed for murder.
Excerpted from Soil by Jamie Kornegay
What does it matter, a dream of love
Or a dream of lies
We’re all gonna be the same place
When we die . . .
We’re all gonna be
Just dirt in the ground.
— Tom Waits
The drought began in May and lasted three months. It turned the earth to stone and the vegetation to yellow wisps. Then it rained all of August. The ground couldn’t drink fast enough. Ditches ran over and then the creeks and then the rivers. Water collected in every furrow, making marshes of yards and farmland. Crops disappeared, fields became lakes.
By September the water had crested, lying stagnant in the valleys and heavy in the atmosphere. Cut down in its prime, the heat returned to settle a score. It took weeks but the water slowly retreated. Heaps of mire and bracken puddles festered, causing the dead grasses and shrubs to sprout anew in the untimely swelter. Wildlife gradually returned. And things were uncovered that might have been, for the betterment of all, left hidden.
One afternoon in this supposed fall, in the bottoms near the Tockawah River, a slovenly woodsman tottered through the underbrush, using an old pool cue to keep himself upright. He seemed put together from two separate men — the upper one plump, decisive, and keenly observant; the lower one lost and withered, flailing along in a pained shuffle. His way was fraught with a thousand irritations, and he addressed each one with a sigh or a groan or a fit of whispered curses. He might have been a troll trampling through the forest, so miserably did he announce himself.
Behind the woodsman came his companion, an old half-coyote who looked deranged with her one eye and mangy fur and arthritic lope. She seemed equally dismayed as they passed through the lattice of twisted limbs and dangling vines, stepping over fallen trunks and around leaf-strewn mud-holes. They had trespassed over a pasture and down into the hollows, searching for a swampy patch where the woodsman enjoyed poaching game birds. A series of afternoon cocktails had distracted him from his whereabouts, and now he had gotten turned around in the thicket.
The woodsman was a ways yet from being elderly but hastened his decline through bad luck and careless bachelor living. Drunken haphazard rambles and forays into evident danger were all within his casual realm. He’d earned his bowlegged scramble several years earlier while working at a local oil mill. He was slacking off, standing against a steam pipe when it ruptured. The rush of steam swept the blue jeans off his backside and broiled his flesh from hip to ham. He was drenched in hexane coolant from the pipes, and the chemical seeped into his tissue and made him crazy for a short while. First responders found him writhing on the factory floor, laughing hysterically, emphatic that giant lizards were eating his legs.
Months of skin grafts and years of rehabilitation followed. He still walked like someone who had taken a picnic in a bed of poison ivy. A cash settlement bought him early retirement and kept him in pain pills and cold beer. He spent his days exploring the shaded contours of society. It was common to spot his garish pickup truck lurking along the back roads, him there sitting high in the driver’s seat atop an inflatable donut. He had a perverse interest in simple murder and had come to the river for something to shoot.
His dog hadn’t eaten all day and was nosing through the leaves when she caught a scent and scampered off. The woodsman grumbled and limped after her into a clearing where the ground was spongy and white from river mud that had dried in the sun, appearing on the leaves like a bed of ashes over the earth.
“What is it, girl?” he called.
She’d discovered a jumble of bones at the base of a young oak. Seven feet up, in the crook of its branches, a skull and antlers were wedged. The skull was blanched white, fully scoured by blowflies, and the collapsed pile below was picked similarly clean, only a few swatches of fur among the leaves. The woodsman puzzled over the scene, trying to reconstruct the circumstances that had created the buck’s misfortune. The strange had become common under the upheaval of nature.
He reached up into the tree to collect the antlers but his head went light and he wavered. He pulled a bandanna from his trousers, wiped his flaming pink face, and consulted his hip flask. He looked up at the midafternoon sun and hobbled south until his legs were dazed and he felt no sensation of walking at all.
Finally he arrived at the riverbank, where a foundered picnic table sat legs up in the shallows. He leaned on it, heaving with exhaustion and pain. The dog tumbled in first, splashing and lapping up water in aggravated snaps. He rested his weapon against a tree and stepped gingerly out of his jeans, unsnapped and peeled off his shirt. He doffed his straw hat and then slowly waded into the pool, clutching branches and bolstering his descent with the cue. Water rose to his waist, the coolness cutting under his wounded flesh like a reversed burn. He tensed as it covered his bulging stomach and climbed onto his chest and took his breath away. He imagined steam coming off him, the hiss of an open valve. The shock of cold drew the piss right out of him and away on the current.
The dog made her spastic climb ashore, and he reached for her, ran his hand over her slick fur as she scrambled up the bank and shook off. She took a shady place beneath the scrub and rubbed at the ever-festering scab around her swollen-shut dead eye. Years ago he’d made the mistake of reaching for a pork rib he’d dropped in front of her and had to stab her there with a screwdriver to break her bite. It was the only time they’d ever harmed one another, which was more than he could say for some couples.
He crouched and closed his eyes and felt the water tingle against his chin, listened to the dog’s peaceful snores, and then he began to enter a shallow trance himself. Something thrashed downriver. He felt sure there were no gators this far north, not in a cool, flood-swollen river like this one, no matter what the old coffee guys were saying. Nevertheless, something clawed at him, some premonition that told him not to linger here.
A far-off engine whined, an upriver boat or jet ski. It grew louder and by the time he opened his eyes and craned his neck, it was upon them.
A man astride a four-wheeler had come barreling out of the woods and slid to a halt just beside the bank, not twenty yards upriver. A beagle pup ran up behind him, excited and breathless to the water’s edge. The young dog spotted the woodsman and seemed prepared to dive in after him, but the stranger snarled and the pup heeled on the bank. The woodsman caught himself even as he opened his mouth. The stranger had not seen him there in the water, obscured behind a clutch of branches. There was something disturbed about this character, something familiar too. He was gangling and mud-encrusted, gasping in the heat and nervous, chiding himself or the dog or some absent third party. The woodsman could have been looking at a spry version of himself.
The stranger scanned the bank and the river and all around but still did not detect the woodsman or his dog there. A busy beard and wide-brimmed hat obscured most of his features. He unhooked a large cooler from the four-wheeler’s rear rack and lugged it down to the water in spastic jerks. He knelt beside the cooler, opened it cautiously, and peered inside.
The woodsman’s eyes darted to his mutt. Most folks took one look at her long feral muzzle and high ears and would not believe she was tame. She stood there, a little discombobulated, until the young beagle scampered up stupidly and jumped her in rough play. She stopped the pup with her bared yellow teeth and a gurgling snarl. The young dog retreated with a whimper, and the nervous stranger rose to attention. He slammed the cooler shut and marched around to find the commotion, stopping short when he saw the ragged bitch with her arched fur and cold cycloptic glare.
“Hello!” the man called out.
The woodsman didn’t reply. A call from the water and a word of explanation would diffuse the situation, but he didn’t want help climbing out of the river, like some old invalid, pathetic in soggy underwear.
The stranger called out again and waited with nervous suspicion. “This somebody’s dog?” he hollered.
The man looked around, took a few anxious steps. There was still the stink of guilt or madness about him, and the woodsman watched for several minutes as the stranger walked back to retrieve a plastic bucket from inside the cooler. He returned and uncapped the container and set it down in front of the old girl. She sniffed and retreated, came back and sniffed again with a submissive bow. The pup moved in to sniff, but its master chased it back. “Go on and eat,” said the stranger to the woodsman’s dog. She sidled up and began to devour whatever mix was inside. Every now and again she hacked and sputtered, looked around, once back at the woodsman, who slipped beneath the water and took up hiding under broken limbs.
The woodsman surfaced silently and there was just enough headroom under the branches for him to see the stranger crouched there, waiting for the dog to finish eating, studying her with perplexity. Finally the man asked if she was done. She licked her lips and leaned in for a scent of him. The stranger patted her head, and she licked his hand. He held her beneath the jaw and appraised her, as the woodsman gnashed his teeth and craved her attack.
Instead the stranger stood up and removed his hat and pulled off his T-shirt as if he might take a dip. He bent down and used the shirt to wipe the dog’s mouth, twirling it around her muzzle like a game of tug. She let her guard down, her tail wagging, and in the next instant he’d pulled a pistol from the back of his shorts and pressed it into the balled-up shirt and fired. She let out a short whimper and collapsed, the report no louder than a cracking branch.
The woodsman sank. He tried to push up from the bottom and hurl himself toward the shotgun propped against the tree, but he’d gone numb from his chest down. He saw the stranger, like some spinning discus hurler, toss her by all four paws into the middle of the river. He heard the muffled kerplunk, felt the reverberations from her deadweight entry. He lay low until his lungs began to burn and teased his lips over the surface to steal a shallow breath.
The woodsman watched the stranger’s silhouette move along the bank. On level ground he’d have a fighting chance, but not here in this vulnerable blind. Somehow, beyond the woodsman’s capacity for luck, the stranger still had not seen him under the brush or the weapon propped against the tree or the pool cue or the blue jeans and shirt laid across the bank, all of it out of place at the water’s edge.
The man returned to his cooler and bent beside the shore. He washed his hands in the river and then doused his face and hair and neck; he crouched still for a moment and listened, took several long, deep breaths, and then returned his attention to the contents of the cooler by his side. With a sudden steadiness he reached in and pulled out a fish, which he slowly passed into the water. It floated stiffly on its side out into the current, followed fast by another and then another.
The woodsman watched in terrified wonder from the dross as the current carried them one by one toward the middle of the river, each frozen stiff as firewood, a wisp of steam rising up from their scales, going their own passive ways. The man fed nearly a dozen fish back to the river before he sealed the cooler and stood to watch them pass downstream, oddly bereft of purpose, as if drifting toward some new demise.
Before the flood, a stouthearted young couple was putting down roots in the nearby town of Madrid, where they’d settled after college — a man, his wife, and their young son. They painstakingly refurbished a house and planted an attractive garden in the back, where the father let the toddler dig and explore and pluck green tomatoes too soon from the vine. Smiles were never absent from their thankful faces, and if there were troubles then no one bothered to recall them. But a young man, especially one so clever, will grow restless and sometimes throw away everything when he turns elsewhere to affirm his life’s purpose.
The trouble started with compost. He first began making and experimenting with it for his job in soil management at the local Farm Service Agency. He started small, a few wooden bins in the backyard of the home on Nutt Street. He collected kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, raked leaves and grass clippings. He spread one ingredient over the next in lasagna layers, sprayed them down with the water hose, and turned the piles regularly with a garden fork. If properly maintained, the compost would actually become hot to the touch and would belch plumes of steam when stirred on cold mornings. He loved the earthy smell that rose from the mounds, the whiff of rot and fiber, the way the soil broke and fluffed a little more each day. Here was nature at work, made more efficient by man’s guiding hand.
He began to judge everything for its recyclability. All matter was either carbon or nitrogen. Soon he was collecting bags of lawn debris from neighborhood curbs and canvassing farms for straw bales and manure. He sorted leaves by species, made flowcharts of dung potency. Bins and mounds multiplied as he tinkered with ratios and tested fertility. He tilled up every square inch of backyard and planted vegetables and herbs, lined the front walk and driveway with big terra-cotta pots, each plot a test patch for some specially formulated recipe.
When he submitted a sample to a USDA-sanctioned exhibition, earning the highest marks in soil friability, nutrient retention, and water solubility, the local newspaper caught wind of it and dubbed him Compost Man. This gave his colleagues a good laugh. Even his wife joked to their friends about his growing “mudballs” out back and said she’d prefer him sneaking off with her lingerie catalogs than ogling the seed brochures the way he did.
One morning he walked out back to turn the piles and found that someone had laid a cruel turd atop one of his prize mounds. It was definitely human. The stench was complex and he found a fast-food napkin with brown streaks nearby. He couldn’t believe the audacity. They’d just hopped up on the bin, draped themselves over the corner, and let one rip.
He paced the back porch and spent hours at the window, profiling every neighbor who walked by with a pet. Every jogger, every biker every long-haired mischievous teen. What was this compulsion to foul something so pure and constructive? Who was deranged enough to do such a thing? He walked out back with his hammer and studded the rims of each bin with nails. Next time someone came snooping pants-down in the dark, they’d pay with blood.
His colleagues thought it was a hilarious prank. Even his wife suggested gently that he was taking it too hard. “We eat out of that soil, for God’s sake!” he replied. “You want to end up in the hospital with a bacterial infection? Can you see our little son, dead from E. coli poisoning?”
She was skeptical of this, but he scoured the internet to prove the causes and insufficient cures of various bacteria and infections, moving on from there to viruses, superbugs, pandemics, extinction events. The deeper he dug, the more perils he uncovered.
Likewise the prank grew epic in his imagination. It was a pointed statement — “I shit on your life” — made by a lone creep and endorsed by a society that deemed him irrelevant. Somehow the smallest things can break a man, and the hairline fracture deep within the young scientist spread over the next several months. It did not depress him or slow his obsession but rather excited his research, leading to more compost mounds and more outlandish experiments. He upset the whole neighborhood when he planted a late-season crop of corn right there in the front yard. His wife was horrified by bean and cucumber vines planted in the rain gutters, cascading down like gaudy Christmas decorations. “You’re turning our beautiful home into a feedlot,” she accused him.
He read incessantly and became an expert on diverse farming techniques from ancient to modern civilizations. His interpretation of historical patterns convinced him that poor soil management had led to the downfall of societies throughout time. He relayed all of these findings to his farmer clients and expounded on the hazards of modern farming. They were hidebound men who planted cotton, soybeans, and corn as their families had for generations, trying to eke out modest livings against increasingly volatile world markets. Times were tough enough. They had no use for antiquarian farming theories promoted by some arrogant, pencil-pushing upshot. Nor did they appreciate his accusations that they were squandering the soil by leaching it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, casting a blight upon the land and rivers and seas with their shortsighted and unsustainable methods, virtually ensuring that their grandchildren, along with everyone else’s, would wander the famished countryside like starving refugees in a desert of poisoned dust. All they wanted from him was help filling out subsidy applications and disaster relief forms.
The soil scientist grew bitter and withdrawn. He felt rather like a young suburban Moses, entrusted with critical information from on high that the general rabble was too distracted to glean. The agency confirmed this by requesting his resignation.
Their idyllic life threatened, his wife went back to school to get her teaching degree while he stayed home with the boy. But he did not mope and feel sorry for himself. Just before his forced retirement, the young farmer had attended a regional ag conference where he heard a lecture on advances in hydro- and aeroponic technology delivered by a famous environmental scientist who made the stunning admission “Plants don’t actually need soil to grow. Just a fissure for their roots to spread and soak up moisture and nourishment.”
It was an offhanded remark, on the way to a larger point, but to the soil scientist it felt like an atom bomb. The statement was so simple and staggering, so obvious. Soil-free farming. Why had he never seen it? Look at the bonsais and cacti in their rock gardens, the weeds growing up from cracks in the sidewalk.
His imagination vaulted years ahead to farms that operated indoors, fields stacked one atop the next in glass high-rises, each floor its own crop grown in recycled water and mineral baths. He saw farmers in white lab coats appraising the beautiful plants, no bugs or blemishes, no sweat or sunburn, not a speck of dirt in sight. The future will be spotless! Hoes and plows became droppers and beakers. Computers monitored optimal growing conditions. All of the equipment was powered by the sun and the wind, a perfect organic machine. The greatest pitfalls of agriculture — pestilence and disease, the unpredictability of weather, poisonous pollutants and industrial runoff — could be solved by making the whole process simpler, cleaner, and more efficient. He could build it and lead the innovation. He could make the world healthier and more peaceful. There was no time to waste. To proceed authentically, he would have to start from the ground up.
He searched for a piece of land, spent two months sorting through overpriced and unsuitable plots until he found a house with seventeen acres twenty miles south of town. It had been a rental property for years, but the owners had come on hard times and were looking to unload it quickly. The house was a charmless pile of bricks compared to their town cottage, and the backyard was full of castaway equipment and scrap. The fields were grown over, all scrub and marsh and raw potential. Beyond the house was pastureland and forest, even a river, the wild and portentous Tockawah River, which ran along the southwestern edge of the property and would serve as a constant source of irrigation. It was the perfect site for his experiment. All of it could be his for a song.
He composed his pitch and approached his wife. She listened to him describe the experiments and the laboratory and the farm tower he would erect, how he intended to produce enough fresh food to supply the local population — “Not a farm so much as a growing system, indifferent to the whims of markets and nature.” The way he described it and the completeness of his vision revealed a surprising logic born from his craze, and she became seduced a little.
She wondered about the home they’d made, the comforts they’d earned. Couldn’t they live in town and start a farming business on the side?
The start-up capital to make this dream a reality required both the proceeds from the Nutt Street house and the inheritance she’d recently received from her stepmother, an unexpected gift which might have been wisely spent paying off student loans or starting a college fund for the boy.
“What better way to prepare a boy than to raise him in the country?” he asked. Teach a boy to hunt, fish, and farm, and you’ve paved the way for an honest, salt-of-the-earth man to live free come hell or high water.
She got a far-off look in her eye. Could she see it all before her, just as he had? Or was she scared to say no, knowing that if she kept her husband and his ambition shackled here she risked losing the very things she loved?
She had faith in him and his passion. He was asking her to double down on their young fortune. They took the leap together and spent some of the best days of their marriage in this shared endeavor.
A year later they were ruined.
An excerpt from SOIL by Jamie Kornegay, reprinted here with permission of the author and Simon & Schuster. For more information or to purchase a copy of SOIL, click here.