Running The Shovel

The daughter of a Delta rice farmer shares a sense of place

By Alexandra Failing

Our home, near Indianola, Miss., is smack in the middle of three fields with a little country road running in front of it. I’ve always loved the Delta – the flatness of it, the smell of the earth and the plants. You have space to think out there, and it’s like the sky goes on forever.

All of the kids in my family have worked and played in the rice fields. Carl and Robert, my two younger brothers, and I liked to slip and slide in the silky mud in the cold, runoff water beside the rice levees after dad pulled the boards out of the gates. After all, it was August in Mississippi.

I’ve loved everything I’ve ever done in the rice fields. As a child, I pulled coffee weeds, then later ran a shovel when I got old enough to handle it. My dad has always been a big influence in my life, and I knew if I wrote about the times we’ve shared in those Delta rice fields, it would have to be in a poem. You don’t love someone in an essay; you love someone in a poem.

My daddy’s heavy boots thud chunks of sticky gumbo mud
Down on our gravel driveway. Sharpened shovels clang in the truck bed
And the 7 a.m. coffee pot hisses and brews.
The frogs chirp in the morning mist when he leaves for the rice fields.
Up and down he tramps. Softly, my daddy tramps. Too hard and the dirt wall will
Crumble, spilling precious iron-laden irrigation water
Into the wrong paddy of waving seedling stalks.
His expert eyes, piercing blue and uneven from playing
“Catch-the-bottle-rocket” with a neighbor boy, scan the land.
Scan the dips and rises that trap irrigation water.
Shhick. His sharpened shovel bites deep into the levee where the paddies are uneven.
Schluckk. Fine wet mud comes unglued from the earth and he dumps it
Shhlopp on top of the levee.
His broad shoulders work in rhythm: shhick, schluckk, shhlopp,
Until, gurgle, gurgle, swissshh,
The precious irrigation water bursts free and flows
Smoothly through, and my daddy shoulders his sharpened shovel
And keeps tramping, softly tramping,
Down the levee
While the sticky gumbo mud gathers on his heavy boots.

Alexandra Failing, daughter of James and Kate Failing, is a senior at the Mississippi School of Math and Science in Columbus. James grows rice, cotton, corn and beans on the family farm near Indianola, Miss.

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