LOOK: Bradford Johnson, Untitled, 1987. Mixed media, 12 × 28 × 3 in. This image is featured in the essay “Wreckage and Rescue: The Art of Bradford Johnson” by Joel Sheesley in Image no. 25 (Spring 2000).
LISTEN: “Child of Dust” by Thrice (words by Dustin Kensrue, music by Dustin Kensrue, Edward Carrington Breckenridge, James Riley Breckenridge, and Teppei Teranishi), on The Alchemy Index, vols. 3–4: Air and Earth (2008)
“Child of Dust” is the final song of a four-EP cycle structured on the four basic elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. It’s written as a sonnet in the voice of Earth.
Dear prodigal, you are my son and I
Supplied you not your spirit but your shape,
All Eden’s wealth arrayed before your eyes.
I fathomed not you wanted to escape.
And though I only ever gave you love,
Like every child you’ve chosen to rebel,
Uprooted flowers and filled the holes with blood.
Ask not for whom they toll, the solemn bells.
O child of dust, to Mother now return,
For every seed must die before it grows.
And though above the world may toil and turn,
No prying spades will find you here below.
Now safe beneath their wisdom and their feet,
Here I will teach you truly how to sleep.
The earth personified laments how humanity has not reciprocated the care she gives. We’re made of her (Gen. 2:7) and are invited to enjoy her beauty, and yet we abuse and destroy her and each other.
The second stanza alludes to Cain’s murdering Abel. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” God tells Cain in Genesis 3:10. Line 8 is a reference to John Donne’s “Meditation 17” from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which uses a metaphor of land erosion to express humanity’s interconnectedness:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
In other words, when one person dies, a part of the whole of humanity is severed, and in that sense any time a funeral bell rings, we ought all to mourn the loss of a piece of ourselves.
Line 10, in the third stanza, references Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus was talking about his own literal death and resurrection, but the principle applies to our dying to sinful desires, an act that enables new life to spring up in us (see, e.g., Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20, 5:24; Col. 3:2–5; 1 Pet. 2:24).
Kensrue’s lyrics have Mother Earth asking her prodigal children to return to her. As they sing the final couplet, the band puts the microphone in a wooden box (a “coffin”) and shovels dirt on top of it, creating a muffled sound effect. The last sixty seconds of the track are near silence, just the faint clinking of shovels into dirt and rocks. It’s as if we, the listener, are being buried.
Lent is a time when, beneath the world’s incessant noise and toil, we sow ourselves; we reground ourselves in God. The song can be interpreted in several ways, but I see it as calling us to die to self so that we might truly live. Dying and rising is a lesson that Earth, with her seasons and agricultural cycles, can teach us. The seed must be buried before it can experience growth.
(This song is featured on the Art & Theology Lent Playlist on Spotify.)