Sometime around my fortieth birthday I began an earnest study of agriculture. I worked quietly on this project, speaking of my new interest to almost no one because of what they might think. Specifically, they might think I was out of my mind.
Why? Because at this moment in history it’s considered smart to get out of agriculture. And because I was already embarked on a career as a writer, doing work that many people might consider intellectual and therefore superior to anything involving the risk of dirty fingernails. Also, as a woman in my early 40s, I conformed to no right-minded picture of an apprentice farmer. And finally, with some chagrin I’ll admit that I grew up among farmers and spent the first decades of my life plotting my escape from a place that seemed to offer me almost no potential for economic, intellectual or spiritual satisfaction.
It took nigh onto half a lifetime before the valuables I’d casually left behind turned up in the lost and found.
The truth, though, is that I’d kept some of that treasure jingling in my pockets all along: I’d maintained an interest in gardening, always, dragging it with me wherever I went, even into a city backyard where a neighbor who worked the night shift insisted that her numerous nocturnal cats had every right to use my raised vegetable beds for their litter box. (I retaliated, in my way, by getting a rooster, who indulged his right to use the hour of 6 am for his personal compunctions.) In graduate school I studied ecology and evolutionary biology, but the complex mathematical models of predator-prey cycles only made sense to me when I converted them in my mind to farmstead analogies–even though, in those days, the ecology department and the college of agriculture weren’t on speaking terms. In my 20s, when I was trying hard to reinvent myself as a person without a Kentucky accent, I often found myself nevertheless the lone argumentative voice in social circles where “farmers” were lumped with political troglodytes and devotees of all-star wrestling.
Once in the early 1980s, when cigarette smoking had newly and drastically fallen from fashion, I stood in someone’s kitchen at a party and listened to something like a Greek chorus chanting out the reasons why tobacco should be eliminated from the face of the earth, like smallpox. Some wild tug on my heart made me blurt out, “But what about the tobacco farmers?”
“Why,” someone asked, glaring, “should I care about tobacco farmers?”
I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t form the words to answer: Yes, it is carcinogenic, and generally grown with too many inputs, but tobacco is the last big commodity in America that’s still mostly grown on family farms, in an economy that won’t let these farmers shift to another crop. If it goes extinct, so do they.
I couldn’t speak because my mind was flooded with memory, pictures, scents, secret thrills. Childhood afternoons spent reading Louisa May Alcott in a barn loft suffused with the sweet scent of aged burley. The bright, warm days in late spring and early fall when school was functionally closed because whole extended families were drafted to the cooperative work of setting, cutting, stripping or hanging tobacco. The incalculable fellowship measured out in funerals, family reunions, even bad storms or late-night calvings. The hard-muscled pride of showing I could finally throw a bale of hay onto the truckbed myself. (The year before, when I was 11, I’d had the less honorable job of driving the truck.) The satisfaction of walking across the stage at high school graduation in a county where my name and my relationship to the land were both common knowledge.