Digging in the dirt

indexThe ground is suspect. Each mound of dirt is hiding something. I can feel it. I am a city boy who knows nothing about the harvest and the cycles of the moon or what that might mean for sowing or reaping crops. But I am on to something. A mystery is afoot here. I prod the earth with my tennis shoe gently. I bend and dig a bit with my bare hands. The potato I imagined in the shape of the earth is realized. Pure triumph. I could be a potato farmer! Not really, because it’s hot and sweaty and hard work. That’s so not what I’m into. But for a moment, I feel I could be a potato farmer.

We have been digging and unearthing potatoes at my grandfather’s fields in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina for awhile now. A horse my grandfather keeps for someone else is standing idly by the barn considering us with mild disinterest. I whined about missing my wrestling shows the first twenty minutes we were rooting around for potatoes. Up in my grandfather’s house at the top of a formidable hill, trash talking is happening. Jimmy “The Superfly” Snuka is flying for miles in the air and splashing down on another wrestler. The Saturday morning wrestling shows on my grandfather’s cable television are endless. If I get up at the right time and manage to get the television to myself, I can see nearly five hours of professional wrestling. Later, I can try out a few of these moves on my cousin Brian. I might give him the bionic elbow courtesy of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. He could suffer from a suplex or a full nelson. He is definitely going to face the fury of a Ric Flair figure four leglock until he taps out.

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Brian suffers from being a few years younger than me and a good deal smaller. When he grows larger than me in his later teen years, I will no longer want to wrestle with him. He lifted weights and participated in high school football. I am pretty sure he could pick me up today and administer an atomic drop to me (the illegal kind Jerry the King Lawler gave Andy Kaufman). Thank God Brian has forgotten all the wrestling moves I subjected him to in my grandparent’s backyard. Either that, or he does remember and he’s much more civilized than I once was. But Brian is still small at this point, and he might be subject to a dropkick if he doesn’t behave himself. “You’ll kill him,” my grandmother warns from the porch. No, I probably won’t kill him, I say. I am never trying to hurt Brian. He is just a great guinea pig for my budding professional wrestling career.

But we are in the fields now. We are trampling through the corn field. Finding corn is not quite as satisfying as unearthing potatoes. It’s too easy. But there is an art to knowing when to pick the corn and when to let it grow a little longer. I enjoy shucking corn except for the fine filaments that cling it. They remind me of dental floss. I can never seem to get them entirely off the corn. They stick to my hands. I hand my ear of shucked corn to my dad. He looks it over. “You call this shucked corn,” he says, removing several stray strands of floss. “It’s mostly shucked corn. Slacker-shucked,” I tell him. “Well it was shucked by a slacker no doubt,” he says. But he is happy to have me shucking at all.

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There is an art to farming I grudgingly respect. When to plant. When to hoe. When to bring in a crop. I’m clueless on that. I am a drone work force brought in to harvest and carefully supervised. I pick strawberries. I find potatoes. I unsheathe corn. I climb a tree to pluck apples and toss them down to my dad. The buckets full of produce grow nearly too big for me to carry.

This farm is not a sustenance farm. It’s a hobby farm. My grandfather is a gentleman farmer. After everyone’s bellies are full and his freezer is well stocked, he takes the surplus of produce to town and bestows them on businesspeople he enjoys doing business with. A bank teller gets a big bag full of apples. The guy who cuts his hair gets a few packages of strawberries. This is my grandfather spreading his joy and bounty to the world. Why is he giving food away? I ask my dad. He should be selling it. He doesn’t need to sell it, my dad explains. He’s happier giving it away. Everyone takes and eats of it and loves him all the more.

My dad bought two acres of land near our home in Salisbury. We kept a wild pony named Tony that refused to be ridden. The few times my sister and I climbed aboard we were shrugged off like pesky gnats. We never had any crops. Why don’t we have any corn? I asked my dad once. I always hated growing things, my dad confided. He could admit it now that there was nothing my grandfather needed us to dig out of the fresh earth. My grandfather’s small farm land and pasture had been sold by then. I was astonished. I always thought it gave him great joy that I was just too stubborn and stupid to appreciate.

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But my dad needed a connection to the land. He often went to help another man who owned a herd of cows – a fellow professor at Catawba College like my dad. I went way out in the country near Davidson with them a few times to move hay from a barn. The hay was a plague. Straw in your hair. Straw in your mouth. Straw up your nose. Throwing hay down from up in the barn, your muscles start to ache.  These crazy gentleman farmers, I thought. What do they get out of this whole playing-at-being-a-farmer thing? I don’t get it. My dad told entertaining stories about trying to get bulls and cows to mate and how one lucky bull gets to service a whole herd of cows. But the cattle life does not interest me.

The line of men in the family who have dirt in their nails came crashing to a halt with me. We live in New York City now. Though a community garden grows within eyesight of our living room window, we have zero interest in participating. My sons will never discover the joy of finding potatoes in the ground. They will not be trying to ride ponies or tossing large bales of hay around or helping bulls become fathers. Nothing wild snorts in a pasture nearby. A red panda that escaped a local municipal zoo here was quickly sighted and returned.

I can’t help feeling that my sons have lost something by never knowing dirt in their nails or straw in their hair. The value of hard physical labor that exhausts you. The closest we come to a farm is a Brooklyn farmer’s market some weekends.  The line of gentleman farmers weakened in my father who flirted with ponies and cattle as an adult, but left digging in fields behind. It ended with me. A city boy with sons whose hands have never grown calloused from hoeing or been caked with dirt from digging. Something precious has been lost. And I don’t mean the art of the atomic pile driver.

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Digging in the dirt

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