Bringing Home the Family Farm

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MY great-grandfather's eyes were hidden behind dark glasses to shield the world from his blindness. When I knew him, he could no longer see, yet, he could peer deep inside me. Strong of mind, he spent his last years trying not to lose sight of his dream the way he lost his land - piece by piece, as the stars left the night. He dreamed of willing the farm to future generations; it was a tract of land that had once reached all the way back to Leeds Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. During Grandpa Moaney's last years that dream was confined to one dark room in his mind. Poor health had forced him to sell most of the land that comprised the family farm - a parcel that began with two acres which his cousin, an ex-slave, brought outright during Reconstruction. The Freedmen's Bureau had been slow delivering on its promise to grant ex-slaves 40 acres and a mule. So, my ancestors paid for the land that came to symbolize their freedom. Over the years, my great-grandfather and his cousin added to the original two acres until the farm spanned 65 acres.

During the farm's heyday, my great-grandfather grew wheat, corn, and tomatoes for market, and raised cows, hogs, chickens, and ducks. He also had a small garden which put food on the table. In the fall, he slaughtered hogs, cured ham, and seasoned sausage. Three generations of my family had lived off the land.

I missed all that by at least a decade. In 1954, after his wife died, Grandpa Moaney decided to scale back production. He was 80 years old and his grown sons had all moved to the city. He could no longer maintain the farm. So, he reluctantly sold 50 acres to a prominent white landowner. In 1956 - the year I was born, he sold 13 more acres to the same man. The land was just about gone: reduced to the two acres where the house and outbuildings stood.

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For years, I assumed that those two acres were all there ever was of the family farm. My father, who spent his early years in the country and attended the one-room school house down the road from the farm, took me to the homeplace a few Saturdays each season. As each season gave way to the next, I witnessed the old ways bow to progress. I saw the pump replaced with indoor plumbing, the wood stove with a gas one, and the outhouse with an indoor toilet. And I saw weeds thriving where a victory garden had once grown. Grandpa Moaney's death in 1964 marked the end of an era.

Or so his progeny thought.

As a boy, my father had announced to his grandfather that he would one day run the farm. As my father neared his 50th birthday, he decided to make good on his promise. With a goal of planting a garden, he approached the wealthy white man who had bought the land from his grandfather, proposing to buy some of it back. As if the land were never meant to leave my family's possession, the man, now ailing himself, confessed that he felt guilty about paying my great-grandfather so little for the property. He offered to sell it back at cost.

So, in 1972, my father brought a dozen acres back into the family.

That milestone gains added significance in view of alarming black land loss statistics. In the rural South, land is the most valuable economic resource in black hands. Yet, black farmers nationwide are losing land at a rate of 1,000 acres a day, according to a 1985 report by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group of white and black farmers. This trend has seen black-owned farmland decline from 15.6 million acres in the peak year of 1910 to less than 5 million acres today.

My father's accomplishment alone is not enough to reverse black land loss. Yet, it has had far-reaching implications for my clan. In reclaiming those 12 acres, we have also recaptured the independent spirit which accompanies landownership.

Although the farm is just 75 miles from my parents' Baltimore home, the rural lifestyle is worlds apart from the urban rush and materialism. The down-to-earth pace has allowed us to get back to basics. My father has inherited a green thumb, tilling the sandy loam, making furrows with his fingers and entrusting seeds to the earth just as his grandfather did a century ago. My mother has developed a knack for canning and preserving. And my brother has become an outdoorsman.

For my part, I have gained a sense of history. I walk beneath the ancient oaks that shaded the shell road long before it was paved. I find solitude on the wooden bridge that spans the muddy creek and leads to Unionville, a town founded by black troops who fought for the Union during the Civil War. At the church cemetery, I read the slim marble headstones marking graves of kinfolk I never knew. As twigs snap, I think of the runaway slaves - Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and nameless others - who fled Talbot County's waterfront plantations and took refuge in these woods. The peace I feel here, I owe in part to them.

In the years since my father bought back the land, I have come to feel that I belong there. I take pride in seeing the soil that soaked up my forefathers' sweat once again bear fruit.

This land somehow completes me, validating my values with evidence of my ancestors' strivings. Their lives were simple: They worked the land and worshipped the Lord. They kneeled to plant just as they did to pray. They viewed each harvest as part of a continuum, linking what has passed with what is yet to come. This land is their legacy, handed down with love.

In the garden, my father picks berries, wearing the same straw hat that shaded his grandfather's brow. ``The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,'' he muses as a thorn pierces his thumb. The juice of the ripe fruit rims his fingernail and meets a fresh trickle of blood. He sucks the new wound, tasting both sacrifice and reward.

In his wisdom, Grandpa Moaney also grasped this bittersweet paradox. I still remember his strong hands. Long before his fingers became his eyes, soil embedded itself in his lifelines. His palms had carried us and uplifted us. If only he could have lived to see us pull up the weeds around his memories.

As my father surveys the field, I realize he's not just cultivating the land. He's preserving his roots ... and my heritage.

About the Artist Jon Imber paints landscapes that we can't take for granted. They describe spaces which don't quite add up, and which as a result ask us to rediscover a connection for ourselves. If we get lost in the patterns of marks he creates, in the end we pull back and gain new perspective.

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