I just finished reading The Good Earth, a portrayal of thousands of years of ancient Chinese history wrapped up in the life of one man. Wang Lung is a father and farmer living in a world of tradition, superstition and blunt mortality, whose existence revolves around the dispassionate but life-giving land. Pearl S. Buck writes,
“There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods . . . Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together— together— producing the fruit of this earth.”
The land is both nurturing and uncaring, life-providing and destroying. It exists beyond the little lives and little centuries. What in Modernity compares; how can we understand with our tiny first world problems and contingency-sparse existence? Yet as one reads, the vitality of the land imprints like a footprint in the soil of a freshly turned mind; one can feel one’s sympathies and world view shifting and even temporarily settling into an ancient order of life, of death, of birth. It is somehow familiar to some primal ancestral self, still stirring in the blood from ages ago.