Monday, July 28, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/28/08)

While visiting one of my older brothers, David, nearly three decades ago as he lay dying of pancreatic cancer, the hospital dietician came by asking for his menu choices for the next day. For breakfast he wanted Rice Crispies with a sliced banana, milk, and sugar, a taste of childhood.

Now, David was no wimp. A Marine captain severely wounded on Iwo Jima, he kept a jar on his desk filled with shrapnel that had surfaced throughout his life. He'd been a military attaché in Rabat, Morocco. A professor at Caltech with the sobriquet "Dirty Dave," he was an avid sailor, a Fulbright scholar, an author with a style tasting of butter, a connoisseur of fine wines and cuisine, a college wrestler, a surfer, a marvelous chef, a gardener extraordinaire, and a wit, bon vivant, and raconteur. Five Nobel Laureates were guests at his sixtieth birthday party.

As he lay dying asking for Rice Crispies, my heart broke. I knew what he meant. In his embers, he caught that fugitive sense of timelessness given only to children, as Wordsworth said, "trailing clouds of glory."

The scene of an admired older brother being struck down in his prime by a ghastly inevitability has haunted me throughout the years, leaving me an abiding sense of accountability. Even the strongest amongst us need comfort, secular sacraments transmitting some sense of meaning amidst the swirl of the meaningless.

As with Dave, Rice Crispies will do it for me, but along with them a garden will do it, too, particularly the feel of soil. I can still see my father hold the soil in his hands, saying, "Aye, laddie, 'tis where it all begins and ends." It was the same with Dave in his Wellies inviting me to feel his garden's soil above the cliffs at Point Dume in Malibu.

The feel of soil running through one's hands is one of those secular sacraments which, as the Book of Common Prayer reads, is "and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." The outward and visible signs of hands and soil give us those inward and spiritual graces, allowing us to move beyond the certitudes of what we know to those sometime fugitive things we believe, those fugitive things that make life worthwhile. We know the intangible only by touching the tangible, no longer as bystanders but partakers in the making of heaven and earth, surely a divine enterprise if there ever were one.

William Blake said it best:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Comfort is not so much a place of ease and retreat as it is a groundedness amidst the swirl of life's confusions and death's absurdity. Indeed, the word "comfort" comes from the same Latin root as "fortify." The feel of soil connects with us that timelessness of childhood.

Gardening begins with soil which is a thing different from dirt, the stuff God gives us. Soil is what the gardener makes of dirt, how the gardener shares in the process of creation. If one wants to find good gardeners, start out with feeling their soil. A love of soil is the mark a gardener. Everything else is secondary.

Other than a healthy garden, enriching soil saves water. Soil laden with organic matter makes the water-foolish garden less foolish and the water-wise more lush.

Alfred North Whitehead, the great mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, wrote in Religion in the Making, "Religion is what individuals do with their solitariness." The solitariness of which he wrote is that experience when the "earthly freight" of life weighs heavily upon us and when we can no longer run away into our diversions, when we hold "eternity in an hour" in the forests of our nights. The feel of soil enriched with garden's decay is one of those solitary sacraments, allowing us in touching the tangible to recall those fugitive intangibles.

Again, William Blake said it best:

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


A beautiful essay, one I will show my good friend, whose father also served with distinction on Iwo Jima.

May I ask, what was your father's name and battalion. And, if I may, when and what did your brother teach at CalTech? My brother-in-law graduated from there, and wonder whether he had been in your brother's class.

Thanks for this and the many other fine thoughts you send my way.