My hands have always been a dead giveaway. They are callused, and my nails are clipped short. In the winter they are clean, but the telltale lines of hard summer labor are woven across them. In the summer I can never scrub my hands enough to remove the dirt, and by July I usually quit trying.
“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.