“Ah, working in the earth?” cashiers say when I hand them money, chuckling as they carefully avoid brushing against my fingers. Sometimes I feel like a rebel, wandering into the world of normal, clean-handed folks. Other times I feel shameful, as if the dirt on my hands is a brand that marks me forever as an odd and eccentric woman.
My hands suffered through college, free of calluses and dirt as they held books and typed papers. I loved reading and writing, but my hands craved the earth. Thus, near the end of two consecutive summers, I decided to extend my farm jobs instead of returning to school. How could I immerse myself in the academic world without knowing the taste of the cabbage I had planted, weeded, and watered? How could I leave before the juicy melons, the thick winter squash, the tender brussels sprouts, and the brilliant beets were ripe?
Two years in a row my father got a phone call one week before classes were scheduled to begin.
“Dad … did you send the check to Brown yet?”
“No,” he’d reply, with a mixture of amusement and frustration. He must have guessed the phone call was coming.
“I think I want to keep farming this fall.”
Then my dad would give me his as-long-as-you’re-happy speech. As he spoke I would stare at my hands, trace the lines of dirt around one of my palms, and wonder where my dirty hands were going to take me next.
When I finally returned to Brown, I studied plant biology in a lab under fluorescent lights. One week we sliced thin cross sections of celery, potatoes, and carrots and squinted at them for hours through a microscope. “Cells are the structural and functional units of life,” my textbook read. But as I stared through the microscope, I couldn’t imagine how these cells made a carrot glow brilliantly orange and taste sugary sweet. It had never occurred to me before that when I harvested pounds and pounds of carrots, I was pulling billions of complexly organized cells from the earth. It also never occurred to me that when I ate a crisp, fresh carrot, I was chewing millions of nuclei, microtubules, and endoplasmic reticula, everything spinning and slipping down my throat, entering my own body of complexly organized cells.
I failed my first exam in plant biology. I stared and stared at the bold red grade and wondered what on earth I was doing in school. My passion was for plants, but not in a lab. I could make beautiful flower bouquets, plant delicious salad mix, pull weeds faster than any normal person should, and identify plant diseases. Yet under a microscope I couldn’t tell the difference between the xylem and phloem in a corn cell. Cells, I told myself, are “the structural and fundamental units of life.” This is life? Diagrams of cells and a red failing grade? I gazed at the exam and then at my hands, which were pale and soft. This study of life, I told myself, is killing my hands.
One month after I graduated from Brown, I became a full-time farmer. I have now planted through three springs, sweated through three summers, harvested through three falls, and rested through three winters. And although I’m still not really sure what a vacuole or plasmodesma is, I feel a certain awe when I cut a head of lettuce and think of all the cellular structures that make it crisp and green and sweet. It is these cells, I realize, that make a lettuce a lettuce and not a tomato or a cucumber. But at the same time, I realize that it is my hands that nurture these plants, these cellular arrangements. My hands are dirty, they are alive, and they work gratefully with life that I will never fully understand.
Rebecca Maden works on a 160-acre farm raising plants, vegetables, and flowers for a roadside stand in Brandon, Vermont.