ERROL CASTENS: ‘Do no harm’ applies many ways

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

A small farm in Madison County bears scars from several generations of my family, two owners prior to us, and several renters in the past couple of decades.
When King Cotton opened Mississippi’s heartland to settlement in the 1830s and ’40s, the continent must have seemed so vast that land became an expendable commodity.
Plowing up and down hillsides was easier than contour cultivation, and letting the topsoil wash away must have been of no more concern than letting leaves fall, uncollected, in a forest.
After my folks came to the place in the 1880s, there was less a dream of getting rich than of simply making a living, but the world’s favorite fiber remained a vital cash crop to pay taxes and buy necessities and occasional luxuries that the farm couldn’t furnish.
By the time my dad was a young boy, cotton on our family’s place was increasingly confined to the scant bottom land that defined the “headwaters” of a seasonal creek, although corn and millet were still raised on the hills for livestock feed and cornmeal.
In his later youth, during the Depression, low prices and the need for every possible penny pushed cotton back onto the hills.
My father’s generation of farmers embraced new ideas, and he determined to restore the farm to some semblance of fertility.
He used a tiny tractor to pull a moldboard plow – the same instrument that had been the place’s ruin – and turned some house-sized gullies into gentle slopes.
He fenced off pastures, built ponds and reseeded grass and legumes on the hillsides. Rotational grazing increased the variety, volume and food value of the forage.
After Daddy had raised grass and cattle for much of his adulthood, the farm still had scars, but it also reflected the healing from a lifetime of care.
Still, some of the best healing is where humans have rarely set foot.
Soil is visibly higher along fencerows, and birds and insects and small mammals are common therein.
Some areas were subjected to benign neglect, and in those havens weeds, then bushes and finally trees found their place, bringing back much of what the land grew before men first determined to plow and plant it.
Hurting people can bear parallels to our family farm’s abuse and recovery.
It’s easy for folks – some mostly selfish and some mostly well-intentioned – to inflict harm on another. And while others’ efforts to heal deep wounds are right and at times necessary, sometimes healing is most noticeable where human effort is least, where God is allowed time and place to restore as only He can.
Errol Castens is the Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter. He can be reached at

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