broken ground

Broken ground may mean uneven terrain, as when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote in The Lost Continent, “There was nothing but rough, broken ground covered densely with weeds and brambles, and tall, rank grass.” When used interchangeably with plowed ground, however, the term means tilled soil. Here, broken ground, like a broken horse, is tamed, reduced to human control. The violence implicit in the phrase can be heard in sodbusters, a contemptuous name first applied by ranchers and herders in the West to anyone who plowed the land. Because we break ground for new construction, we often speak of any pioneering endeavor as groundbreaking. By contrast, well-plowed ground is a piece of intellectual real estate so thoroughly worked over as to be exhausted.

Scott Russell Sanders