What on Earth possessed such a speck of a town to name itself for something so vast? The people of Earth, a farm community between Plainview and Muleshoe in the Texas Panhandle, are accustomed to this question from passers-through, who also delight in snapping pictures of their city limits sign announcing: "Earth . . . pop. 1512."

The story goes that Earth's founding families in the 1920s named it Fairlawn and then Tulsa but were overruled by the U.S. Postal Service, which had awarded those names to other towns.

As lifelong Earth farmer K.B. Parish tells it, the community got its name after a meeting in which its founding fathers had spent hours trying in vain to name it. They emerged to find the Panhandle winds blowing so much dust that "it seemed the Earth itself was moving," one farmer is said to have remarked.

"So they just decided to call it Earth," Parish said.

Another version, recounted by Blanche Hudson, who at 76 writes a column for the local newspaper, holds that the name was chosen when an early settler scooped up some dirt and said, with feeling: "Ah, the good earth."

In any case, the name today is no greater novelty to the people of Earth than Washington and Dallas are to their inhabitants. K.B. Parish said most people think about it only when they go out of town.

"Someone asks where you're from, and they look at you like you're crazy when you say you're from Earth," he said.

"It started getting real bad around the time of the space program," said Doug Parish, K.B.'s brother and partner. "They'd say: 'You're from Earth? Great, we're from Mars.' "

"I tell people I'm from Earth and they say, 'Where's that?' " said Hudson. "I tell them it's 18 miles from Muleshoe."

Muleshoe, the locals say, took its name after a mule threw a shoe there many years ago. Halfway is halfway between Oldton and Plainview. And Quarterway is halfway from Halfway to Oldton. Then there are Needmore, Levelland, Brownfield and Shallowater, all self-explanatory.

As one might expect, almost everyone in Earth lives off the pancake-flat land -- raising cotton, corn, wheat, cattle and soybeans or selling equipment, fertilizer and services to those who do. As such, Earth is reeling from the same sagging prices and high interest rates that have convulsed the rest of the farm economy. Conversations at the local diner, where farmers gather in the late afternoon to gossip and talk of hard times, often sound even more cosmic than they are intended to be.

"Earth is in terrible shape," said Carl Jones, remarking that farmland around Earth today is worth less than half of its 1980 value.

"Earth is starting to look like a ghost town," said K.B. Parish, referring to boarded-up stores on the town's half-mile-long Main Street, punctuated by a single blinking traffic light.

It frustrates Hudson that Earth doesn't make more of its name. "I feel sure we're the only town in the United States called Earth," she said, suggesting that town leaders could draw more businesses to Earth by playing up the name. It was a little embarrassing on Earth Day last year, she said, when "a big newspaper up North" called to find out what the town was doing for the occasion.

"We were doing nothing. We didn't even know it was Earth Day," she said. But the experience raised the town's consciousness, and this year residents declared "Clean Up Earth Days" from March 16 to 23, rallying students, merchants and others to sweep streets and alleys, rake leaves, prune trees.

"Our goal is to make downtown Earth more attractive," said a statement by the organizers. "If a town ever needed cleaning, it's Earth, Tex."

Sponsored by Earth Merchants, a business group, the campaign was called "Loving Earth and letting it show." It was apparently a smashing success, but unfortunately, no big newspapers called Earth to ask about Earth Day this year.

This was a bustling community until 1942 when many men left Earth to fight in World War II. "Earth was at a standstill, but with the return of the servicemen, Earth began building again," according to "A History of Lamb County."

A newspaper -- The Earth Sun -- was started. Then came the Earth News, which bought out its competitor. The owners agreed to retain the "Sun" in the masthead after townspeople protested that they liked having two heavenly bodies in their newspaper name, Hudson recalled.

Unconscious punning is a fact of life in Earth. While explaining the origins of the town's name, Hudson digressed into a discussion of her years as a speech teacher, then scolded herself: "Oh, I got sidetracked. Back to Earth . . . . " The Earth News-Sun reported a recent drop in local tax collections amid a statewide increase under the headline: "Sales Tax Collections Up; Earth Shows Decline." The Earth Ag Supply advertises "Making Earth Grow." The local mortician trumpets: "Caring for Earth families . . . since 1966." The Chamber of Commerce implores "Try Earth First." The local rodeo, a little less unconsciously, calls itself "The Best Little Amateur Rodeo on Earth."

And for visitors to Earth, the sendoff is: "Come back to Earth sometime!"