Roots in a Lovely Filth Refreshment for an Overheated Future
Roots in a Lovely Filth

Roots in a Lovely Filth

A new novel by Lynn R. Miller. Roots in a Lovely Filth, joins The Glass Horse and Brown Dwarf as the third book in the quartet The Duden Chronicles. These books are published by Davila Art & Books and distributed in concert with Small Farmer’s Journal.

Refreshment for an Overheated Future

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA


“He studied the tiny view of leaf weep and soil crawl, the microscopic textures of filament highways and miniscule piping, the curling burst of cotyledons, those inch-wide inch-high soil areas which never went dry, and the adjacent dry rings with thin flakes and hard bits. Here the sand, dark and moist, while just under the old toss-off galvanized tin bit the sand was dry, blond and beachy. Up against, the thin black lichen-pocked scab rock salted the edge of the glacial loam and protected the further long reach of black, rich, fine, seed-thirsty dirt. He picked up a hand full and squeezed it, first sniffing and then touching his tongue to it. A lovely sweet filth.” – page 33, Roots in a Lovely Filth

If we are to be saved, who and what will save us? In the title of his new novel Lynn Miller calls out its name: Roots in a Lovely Filth. The book’s title is a refreshing declaration and appreciation of what must matter, what will feed and free us. Here the reader sees where fertility begins and ends, lands and lies fallow for its season of rot, where the feeding must begin again as always amid the muck of the past. And equally modest and sure-footed is the matter of who will do the work which will not do itself. Nor in the long run will it be done by the massive fossil-fed engines of Agribusiness, nor any Artificial Intelligence with its costly and dubious inputs and its commodification of crops that can poorly imitate any flavor in a lab to cheapen and disguise mountains of corn and wheat and soybeans.

The book’s story concerns a pair of young unsung hero farmers, Enno and Ahnah Duden, and a secret society that gathers itself around them, to protect these innocents and deflect the dark forces that would bring them down. The hollowing out and erasure of the nation’s rural lifestyle and substance since the early 1970s has resulted in several generations of what Lynn Miller sometimes calls “farmer pirates,” who must assume a low profile to conduct their farming, and are treated to the skepticism and scorn of the few big Agribiz players left, who rarely admit how often they too are driven to the brink of insolvency and despair.

There is a bold sense of arrival and purpose to Lynn Miller’s new novel, which is a third continuation of his Duden Chronicles, extending beyond The Glass Horse (2008) and Brown Dwarf (2020). Some readers already know how Lynn Miller plays some of the visual and graphic games of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and shares a laugh at human follies with Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes. These strong ancient spices flavor dishes he conjures and serves, that are the fare of modest humans who have always savored our common predicament. But in this new book the narrator stands close to the reader, and keeps edging closer, by turns dodges and hectors and whispers, taking it all so personally that despite our silly selves we readers can’t help but pause and reflect. But that is not only or even mostly its effect, nor the least of the book’s plantings, growings and gleanings. Punctuating his masterful storytelling with a myriad of quotes both real and conjured, as well as visual puzzles and historical context to rest the gaze, the book assembles and reflects a living culture, an alternative and sometimes furtively blessed reality that stands quiet and ready, often poignant with its wry encouragements and tart advice.

The freshest idea in this new book may deserve a little further tillage. The narrator offers the reader the notion of “Supposanomics”—which might be defined as gently speculative getting, earning and spending. The idea measures when and where enough is enough, supposing that a better, more honest and fairer deal could be struck by humans with nature, where there would be balance in the return to all living, to all other lives alongside the human. Where “Suppose” means to lay down tentatively as a hypothesis or conjecture, in this case an alternative to the extractive and rapacious science of economics, where anything goes and it’s all there for the taking, that has brought humanity’s use and thoughtless abuse of nature so near to absolute ruin. “Supposing” might also act in keeping with the facts of the case, a reasonable and truthful conjecture, arrived at by intention or design rather than happenstance, so by no means a speculative gamble. We need to approach nature as if it had agency and purpose, its own history and intelligence, well before and well beyond us. We need to feel ourselves as part of nature’s vaster whole, not as if it belonged to us, not here to be used at our whim and for profit, but deserving of respect accorded to the well-worn trail with its experiments, failures and growing successes reaching over billions of years of life on Earth. With such ideas readers may find themselves waking to a blessed new way of living, in a possible salvation that springs from farming’s own beginnings and versatility, that have served to join man, woman and child, fruit, vegetable and animal, wild and tame into one purpose over ten thousand years on the land. As the narrator explains, reaching ahead into the future:

“The Next Testament, they would later call it… For there to be a next testament there first needs to have been no first testament; for the second coming is a reckoning (or wreck-inning) not a beginning. No, this time it needed to be understood as something entirely different, not a reboot. This time it needed to be fresh and pertinent, somehow pertinent.” (P. 281)

Tilled into a stony, barren desert soil, with an eye to the weather and precious little grounds for hope, this fine book has us tasting matters of substance and nurture all the way, seeing alternatives and choices at every step. After a fitting cataclysm that conjures more than a light dusting of dread at the pandemic and the delusions of blundering co-conspirators, the book returns to embrace the daily round of farming life, singing a chorus consisting of a set of a dozen chores that come to pass all at once. Which satisfies more than page-turners might imagine with its grace and quiet poetry. And though by now the hour is late, there is still time to gather and surmise what with our help may likely be in store. Roots in a Lovely Filth is a tasty and necessary fiction to help unburden us of tired old economic ways and means, with its simple pioneering tools and playful voices asking for shared strength and purpose in the work ahead, lest we find ourselves exhausted and bereft in an overheated future. – PH

To read Lynn Miller’s novel is to venture across a wide and difficult terrain. It is not easy going and requires more than a little stamina and grit to see it through, but this can be said of any worthwhile endeavor. The novel itself defies analysis, resists summary and confounds category.

Constructed more like an artist’s assemblage or 19th-century commonplace book than a straightforward narrative, it contains everything from images of thousand-year-old tools to quotations from classical authors to incisive, ill-tempered grousings about contemporary society— all while relating a timeless tale of homesteading on marginal land, of building up a small irreducible farm on the verge of society, out somewhere beyond the pale.

The agrarian traditions Miller draws upon, and which form the bedrock of his perspective, extend across cultures and deep into prehistory. Miller’s knowledge of these traditions is hard-won and firsthand, acquired over a lifetime of research, application and season after season of plain hard work on the land with draft animals. There are very few individuals these days who still possess such knowledge. Lynn Miller is one of them. He is worth listening to.

– B.J. Omanson, poet, author of Stark County Poems

As I read I wonder will Roots in a Lovely Filth be to America what Táin Bó Cúailnge is to Ireland. … [I] find it thought provoking, entertaining, mystic. I go back to ‘A sense of place taking precedence over how or why.’

– Ian Sherry, cartographer and stockman/historian, Rostrevor, Northern Ireland

“… Roots in a Lovely Filth is extraordinary; extraordinary in its breadth across disciplines, in its scope of time, history, and wisdom, in its capacity to ponder the strength and the vulnerability that comprise the human condition in a redemptive light.

It is fiction, but the sort of fiction that hews to a deeper reality and so communicates what is most essential. And it is as wonderfully, challengingly intractable as any piece of land. It held me at a distance to negotiate the deep encounter possible in the lovely filth.”

– OSB Sister Ozanne Schumann, poet, Shaw Island, WA

Roots in a Lovely Filth is not an easy read; it’s a multidimensional journey in words and images. The language is dense and rich, like fruitcake perhaps, or the finest black compost. The characters are many, their names carrying a whiff of Dickensian fancy, their portraits odd and apt, and their intersections as meandering and intentional as roots in the soil. …. At its heart, this is a work of informed passion for farming – its history, culture and operations meticulously threaded into a narrative that grieves for what humans have lost or damaged, and offers a path for cultivating an essential and healing connection to nature.

– Rhona McAdam, Canadian poet, author of ‘Larder’