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Bringing Home the Family Farm

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.