Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Defense of Dirty Fingernails

What feature of yourself are you most proud of? Until recently, I wouldn’t have known how to answer such a question—far easier to say what bothers me, what I would change. After five months as a farmer, I now know: I am inordinately proud of my hands. My fingertips are pitted from the horse nettle thorns hiding among more innocuous weeds. The skin on the sides of my index fingers refuses to come clean—it is cracked and stained brown from winter and weeding. My fingernails have never been shorter, and yet somehow, when I think that they have no quick left, the dirt still finds a way beneath them. The skin on my left index finger has blistered away at one point from the sharp, taught line of the tomato trellising twine. My hands are callused, cut, never quite clean. They declare, more eloquently than I ever could, that they are useful.

My mother likes to call me her “over-educated farmer,” a reference to the assortment of degrees (none of which have the word “agriculture” anywhere on them) that I have accumulated. Academically speaking, I’m a love child of the humanities; I’ve studied literary analysis and anthropological theory, political science and economic history. Come my first day on the farm, however, I felt anything but overeducated. Where was the line between too wet and too dry? How did everyone else move so quickly from task to task? Why, despite detailed instructions and intense concentration, did I seem utterly incapable of filling the bucket of the front-end loader? Until then, the closest I’d come to farming was the semester of college spent wandering the cross country trails and identifying trees for a Dendrology class. I loved to hail the trees by their lyrical Latin names—Liriodendron tulipifera, Liquidamber styraciflua, Fagus grandifolia—but we learned little else. We never grew anything ourselves, used the wood, or even climbed the limbs. Before that, long ago, I had a children’s gardening book, narrated by friendly raccoons and mice, but I lacked suitable land in which to put theory into practice.

Juxtaposed like that, “theory into practice”, the two words seem like equals, or perhaps two parts of a single larger whole. Sadly, we have, in our rush to the city, to culture, to art, to have forgotten this most basic reality, that theory is meaningless without practical skill, just as action is often pointless without reasoned thought. We praise intellectualism as the pinnacle of success and assume that those who work with their hands for low pay couldn’t cut it in school. Tradespeople do not become wealthy, we learn, and wealth is the post-academic measure of worth. As for me, I’ve long since stopped measuring the significance of my days in dollars and cents; the satisfaction of a well-stocked market stand or the sight of new-hatched seedlings bridging the soil brings me more satisfaction than an extra $10 per hour. But I will argue fiercely that the physical skills of the farmer are as valuable as is the cerebral culture of the city. To privilege intellect over physicality is to ignore our bodies’ yearning desire for use. On my knees, feet bare, digging like a dog for potatoes, I feel a scale within myself moving toward balance after disproportionate years of sitting, thinking, reading (which, at the time, I reveled in as well).

Practice is a deep, intimate, integrated type of knowledge, so infinitely expansive that I sometimes feel as though I’m becoming lost within it. Even as my vision narrows to the 4 acres of Serenbe, the countless decisions constantly being weighed and tallied grow and grow, and I feel dizzy at the thought of even managing ten such acres. Let us seek this sort of narrative knowledge, information learned not by formula but by functioning in context.

That is why I, a theory-loving, textbook collecting, front-row-of-the-lecture-hall sitting school nerd, surrendered my desk and my number two pencils for a classroom that gets under my fingernails and between my toes. I’m learning farming as an apprentice rather than as a student, by imbedding the practice of it on my battered farmer hands.


farmer p said...

love it!

Anonymous said...

You can try going to
This will help with your hand`s.
It work`s great on cracked skin.

anne said...

so very well said.
Love your blog

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