Harvest Soakings

The small heads of lettuce I am harvesting are lit by an eerie, neon-like light when I look up to catch sight of Aunt Terra, dressed in bright blue rain pants, at the bottom of the twisting gravel lane. I call out a greeting and point to the black, brewing storm clouds in the western sky. “The rains are coming!” I say in anticipation as the wind nips at the end of my long-sleeved shirt and Koko cowers, tense and expectant.
When the first drops come – dripping here and there, splat, splat, full of foreboding – and a great thunder boom crashes in our ears, everyone rushes from their places in the field to the truck to hurriedly put on their rain gear and boots.  Kazami and I look on enviously, still rooted to our job of harvesting lettuce, for we did not bring down any protection from this unexpected rain.
I hope with all my might that the rains will not be heavy and will pass quickly – only to come back later (we need this rain) when it’s so sweltering that the rains would serve as a cooling shower. As I wish this, I feel the giant, loud drops of rain start to pelt down harder. I try to concentrate on cutting and cleaning lettuce, but it proves difficult when my back is being hit, again and again, by freezing drops. I shiver – for it is morning and the sun has not risen over the horizon yet – and goosebumps cover my body.
I start to scream as the heavy clouds fully let loose and soak me instantly. I am in the middle of an unplanned, freezing cold shower, unable to turn the water off. Kazami, though he seems unfazed by the cold rain, takes off with the truck to go up to the shed and grab our rain gear. I am trying to keep the rain out of my face so that I can see, bending low to the ground and letting my back side get drenched. My shoes are rapidly sopping up water and my knife is slippery and covered in mud, making the cutting difficult.
Suddenly, there is another smash of lightning and thunder – very near – and I hear Daddy shouting above the thrashing of wind and rain for us all to run to the machine shed. So I grab my knife and sprint, rain in my face, splashing through puddles, following Koko’s lead.
I am soon joined by Aunt Terra and Val – Val is soaked to the bone, too, and her glasses are all fogged up – and Matt, Mustard and Daddy soon after that. “We’ll wait here until it clears up a bit,” Daddy says and we all nod, bedraggled and dripping. Koko looks smaller with her puffy hair wet down and looks up at us with her big brown eyes, seemingly relieved that we are all safe.
I shiver again as Aunt Terra moves closer to the side of the shed to watch “waves and waves” – as she perfectly describes it – of pounding rain as it blows across the field. Rain dumps onto the plastic roof so loudly that it is difficult to hear Daddy say the next command: “Once Kazami returns with the truck grab the ten or so lettuce boxes from the side of the bed and run them to the truck. Then hop on the truck and go up to the shed to wait the rain out up there.”
The rain is coming down so hard that I hear the truck before I see it. We ready ourselves, as if for a race, crouching down–until we see the nose of the truck. Then, all at once, we take off. Daddy sprints toward Kazami, waving at him to stop at the foot of the gravel hill so that he will not get stuck in the ever increasing mud, and everyone else shoots toward the boxes. Mustard gets there before me and heaves three boxes up. I decide to carry two – one full of the cilantro Kazami and I harvested, and the other half full of lettuce. Then I am running again, through the mud, blinded by the rain – and when I am halfway to the truck, I go through a puddle and suddenly I am slipping and falling. The boxes crash onto my legs and cilantro bunches and lettuce heads fly up into the air. The next moment I am up again and Matt is beside me, helping me pick up all the veggies – and I am laughing hilariously.
I am still giggling as I run – in last place, everyone else is already on the truck – and set the boxes on the back of the truck to then jump on. Kazami backs up and turns the truck around, then hurtles the truck up the wet gravel, and I close my mouth and eyes as water hits my face. I feel as if I am underwater and rain is rushing into my ears, so I keep wiping off my face with my hands, only to get sprayed again and again.
 I wish with all my might that we will make it up the steep hill and thankfully, one last push of the gas and we are at the top – roller coaster ride survived. We all heave a sigh of relief and someone says, “This rain will be perfect for all the seeds we planted last night,” and I smile, knowing that this is true.

Deep Breaths

We wake when the sun is beginning to light the trees
Aflame with deep hues of red, purple and orange, and
As the moon fades into brightening blue I count
The chickens as they jump – one, two, three at a time –
Spreading their wings to flap to the ground and scurry
To peck at feed and gurgle – swallow – water.
It’s the calm before the storm –
Before sunlight moves to cover everything and
Sombreros are thrown on to shade eyes that are
Stinging with salty perspiration falling from foreheads as we
Wrap green twist-ties tight
Around chard, kale, basil, parsley –
And bend to twist summer squash off spikey stems.
Before the raging battle between humid air and body
Before mental and physical fatigue causes punchy laughter to
Flow out of our mouths and echo throughout the Bottom Field –
I am watching that last chicken twist her little head – peer down
At the ground, contemplating –
And I smile at her, waiting, waiting, until –
She finally squats –
Then propels herself through the morning air.

Crushed by Heavy Air

This past week on the farm has been exceptionally – and dangerously – hot and humid. It is the kind of sauna-like humidity that produces pools of sweat on noses and foreheads and causes perspiration to make glisten tan arms and drip down white legs. The heat slows minds and time and makes it difficult to eat, but drink we do. We gulp water any chance we get – splash it onto our hair and let it drip down our faces and backs. Our faithful dog, Koko, gets a soaking from time to time, too – her black, long hair is undoubtedly too hot for comfort – and I smile as she shakes, water splattering everywhere. Rarely does the lazy, heavy air decide to move – but when it does, I am so covered in salty sweat that the sudden cool is a momentary shock, enough to make me sneeze.

The air is so full of moisture that any moment the sky could burst into rainfall. Thankfully, on Monday afternoon, the sky finally did let loose. We were murdering squash beetles – smashing the small, red eggs on the broad leaves of the summer squash plants – when a single, deafening boom of thunder caused Brian to jump and me to scream in terror. Then the black cloud-covered sky erupted into rainfall and Daddy shouted that we would take our lunch break. As Daddy and I ate sunflower-seed-tomato sandwiches in our kitchen, we stared outside the glass sliding door, hopeful, as the rain waves splashed down. “Are you happy?” I asked Daddy and he smiled to reply, “I just hope it doesn’t stop…”

It did not. The rain gage read that in the hour it had poured, we had received six-tenths of an inch of water – enough to ensure that no more midnight irrigating would be necessary, at least for a while.

The humidity did not let up one bit, though, after the storm. So still, we drip while energy is sucked out with our sweat, adding another weight to the moist air.

Midnight Sprints

Full moon? Kazami points
I smile, shake my head – not yet – and
Climb into the bed
Of the truck to ride down
Through the darkness
Wind in my curls
Flittering lightning bugs and
The planetarium of twinkling stars, above
Replace the truck headlights and
Guide us to the long beds of
Germinating seeds
Kazami and I each take one dripping tape and then
We are sprinting – 100 meter dash –
Down those beds, tape in hand
Moving them to the middle rows so that
Those seeds, too, will drink
We walk back, breathing hard, and then
Pick up another tape to race again and again
Until lungs and leg muscles ache and
I am smiling, saying goodnight
To those thirsty seeds…

A Glimpse of the Garlic Harvest 2011

The image that burned into my mind the moment I arrived down at the field Wednesday morning with Kazami (a quarter past six and a little late), was of Mustard, the most energetic of our farm hands, hanging onto the front of Daddy’s old, beat up tractor for dear life as it plowed through a bed of garlic. The scene reminded me of a cowboy hanging off a train door as it speeds along, and I flinched as I thought of what would happen if his arms tired or slipped.
Upon joining the others – Val, Brian, Peter, Matt and Michelle, all busy pulling up garlic, shaking the black clumps of dirt off, and placing them neatly, roots all facing the same direction, in piles to the sides of the beds – I learned that Mustard was acting as a weight to give the front tires of the tractor enough traction so they wouldn’t just spin in place but move forward. The extra weight was needed because Daddy was testing out his new, custom-made “garlic harvester” – an implement with a broad blade that sinks ten inches into the soil to cut just under the garlic bulbs.  The heavy blade could not sink into the earth and cut the long, thick garlic roots without the extra weight on the front of the tractor. But Daddy figured out a better system by the next bed, attaching the front loader and filling it with a load of heavy dirt to replace Mustard.
The new harvester worked great – few bulbs were sliced through and most required no knife to dig up – a labor-saving treat compared to all the years before. Thanks to the garlic harvester, and to the quick hands of every worker on the farm – the same quick hands that had completed task after task of catch-up weeding and planting the week before, even giving up an otherwise lazy Saturday to do so – the first few beds of soft-neck New York White garlic were all pulled and the large empty hayrack was now piled with thousands of white, red-streaked bulbs.
The next step, after Daddy pulled the rack up with the steep hill to the barn with the tractor, was to sort the garlic to extra-large, large and small sizes. The giant bulbs needed to have at least seven cloves, which deemed it good enough to be used for seed for next year’s garlic, and were put into piles of twenty bulbs, lined by their roots, tied with twine, grouped into five clusters on the same string, and finally the string of 100 bulbs hung from the rafters of the barn.
When the sorting was done and the murmur of numbers in my head died out, we headed back down to the field to pull more soft-neck garlic. Daddy pulled the big hayrack back down the hill with Matt, Mustard and Michelle sitting on it – and produced quite a scare for all of us when the tractor started to slide on the loose gravel, pushed forward by the heavy rack. I did not witness this, but I heard shouting as all three on the rack quickly jumped off. (Before starting down the steep hill, Daddy had told them, “If I start sliding, jump off the sides of the rack – not the front.”)
The hayrack pushed the tractor downhill, but Daddy turned the wheels so it turned into the bank of the hillside. When the front wheels of the tractor and the front loader hit the bank, the tractor lodged tight and stopped the rack from rolling further down the hill. Then, as Peter and I ran  down to the middle of the hill to see what was happening, we heard Daddy and the farm hands scramble to get logs from the woods. We watched as they lodged the logs in front of the rack’s wheels, and then unhooked the rack and moved the tractor from its horizontal position across the lane to facing forward once again. Finally, when Matt succeeded in re-hooking the rack to the tractor and the logs were removed from in front of the hayrack wheels, Daddy told us all to hang on to the back of the rack as he cautiously crawled the rest of the way down the hill.
Down in the field, we were soon drenched in sweat – thanks to the humid midday heat – as we filled the rack with garlic once again. It was then time for our two-hour lunch break, which, as usual, sped by. Revived by a power nap and ice cream, I sorted garlic with the others for the second time, in the hottest part of the day, in the shade of the great oak tree near the barn.
Then we traveled down to the field again, this time all of us riding on the hayrack – and all poised to jump off (“to the sides, not the front”) if trouble ensued – to pick the last of the soft neck garlic. I had forgotten my water bottle and my headache from the morning grew to pounding.
When the rack was covered in thousands of garlic plants for the third time that day, Daddy let the farm hands off a few minutes early. Then Kazami and I jumped aboard the rack, while waving goodbye to our cheerful farmhand friends, to make our way up to the barn to sort garlic one last time.  
On the way up the hill, I laid down between the mounds of bulbs, surrounded by their strong perfume, to peer up at the blue sky and to watch the fluff of the few clouds drift by as the tractor moved.  I remembered the first time we had brought the garlic-laden hayrack up the hill that morning, when Kazami had done the same thing, and Matt had laughed and said, “You are in a garlic coffin.” I smiled, thinking that being surrounded by these beautiful bulbs in my coffin would not be so bad, and closed my eyes, lulled by the sound of crunching gravel and the purr of the ancient tractor, which I knew had been through so much that day. 

Beautiful Storms

The wind is screaming when I awake
Raging through the tiny holes of the
Window screen above my head and
Bursting cold against my skin
I close my eyes to the trickle of water
Splashing leaves, petals, dirt
Sigh and relax as the sound grows
To pouring, pounding and deafening
Later I am walking in dark blue haze
Toward a smiling face when
The sky flashes on its light and
Lightning stems across the heavens –
A firework.
We have had a couple of storms such as these this week on the farm, which thrills, saddens and awes me all at once. The thrill and awe comes from the beauty of it all – the way the world suddenly turns bright, and the grass lime green – but the distress comes from the knowledge that these rains will do us no good.

When Daddy sat us down early Monday morning for his weekly talk, in front of the chalkboard on which he had written down all of the jobs that needed to get done this week, he stressed that he hoped the soil would dry out so that he could get more seeds in the ground and tackle the ever-increasing weeds. “This week is crucial for weeding,” he explained seriously, “The Great Garlic Harvest is in a couple of weeks and during that time we won’t have any time to weed. This is the time of the year that weeds grow the fastest, so we need to tackle them now before it is too late.”
Rain pounded against the shed roof as he said this, though, a sore reminder of the obstacles we faced. Weeding is especially difficult in muddy or rainy conditions because mud sticks to fingers, hand hoes and clothes so that pulling out weeds takes expert precision and hard work. To make matters worse, if a weed is pulled but accidentally left in the bed, it might re-root because of the wet condition.

Later that afternoon, when a clear blue sky overtook the dark, furious one, we spent some gruesome, exhausting hours weeding the basil and carrot beds. The carrots were by far the worst – there were inch deep, lukewarm puddles in the aisles, and because I had forgotten, stupidly, to wear my rain boots and pants, I was in for some wet work. Finally, I decided to take off my shoes, socks, sombrero and long sleeved shirt so that I was working in a tank top, wading with bare feet. Still, my jeans were soaked and covered in heavy mud, and I had lost my hand hoe in the puddles by the time, hours and hours later, Val and I finally finished the bed.

With Tuesday came another raging storm and rains after the CSA harvest concluded. Thus, Wednesday morning had to be spent doing odds and ends in the greenhouses yet again, pulling the rest of the carrots for Market and mulching over where the aisles were now free of vegetables, so that the only rows left were lined with tomato, eggplant and pepper plants – and golden brown mulch covered the entirety of the greenhouses.

The exciting thing about the rains is that they have helped germinate all of the seeds from our most recent planting marathon – summer squash, watermelon, melon, cucumbers, winter squash, corn, beans, lettuce, beets, carrots and more are sprouting up here and there. But to that, too, is a downside – it is necessary now to thin and hoe these summer crops, but the muddy soil makes it impossible.

Though the summer storms are in all ways alluring and rains lulling, the Brockman clan and farm hands wish, again, for dry, clear-skied days.

Perhaps this calls for some anti-rain dances…

A Wish for Watermelon

I was sitting in the middle of the big seat of the market truck, with my phone in my hand, sunburned and punchy, in between Daddy and Val on the way home from the market last Saturday when those dreaded words came through the air waves and into my ear. Mommy was saying, “It just rained a lot here, so there is no way we can plant this weekend.”
When I relayed this message to Daddy and Val, I could see a cloud of worry and sadness drift onto their faces. We had not been able to plant for about a month and were behind on everything, especially the melon and squash plantings. The weather report was calling for rain throughout the week, so at that moment in the market truck, all three of us were thinking in despair: does this mean no watermelon this year?!
Saturday and Sunday came and went with no opportunity for planting, for the ground was deemed too moist by Daddy. Instead, the ninety degree plus high humidity weather of Monday was spent mulching up a storm – or rather, a dust cloud – and by the end, Daddy’s arms were entirely covered in black mulching dust, stuck by all the sweat that had poured down during those long, dangerously humid hours.
Tuesday, Daddy had hoped, would be a planting day. But when the CSA harvest was over, the ground was still not dry enough. It sure was scorching, though, and when Mustard came up to the shed looking pale and suffering from a pounding headache, Daddy, fearing heat stroke, immediately told him to dunk his head into a bucket of cold well water. Later, Matt brought the bucket down to the field, this time filled with ice water, so that all of us could dunk our heads as well, as we perspired and persevered through rows and rows of tomatoes with our scuffle hoes.

Finally, by late afternoon on Wednesday, the ground was dry enough for planting. The sultry morning of weeding left me devoid of energy by the time I took my two hour lunch break, but I could not complain, for Daddy did not even come up to rest – he just kept on tilling beds, afraid of an outbreak of rain clouds. He only stopped to rest for about a minute to gobble up a quick spinach sandwich and gulp water that we had brought down.
Then we planted rows upon rows of muskmelons, okra, watermelons, beans, edamame, cucumbers and corn by hand, dropping the tiny seeds one by one, six inches apart, into a furrow. We fertilized each bed that we planted with fistfuls of chicken compost and after laying out the seeds, covered them with a tamper. Then we transplanted kale and the last of the tomatoes.
While the sun faded into the trees and lightning bugs sparked in the dark, Kazami, Matt and I helped Daddy switch out lettuce seed on the tractor planter, completing eight full beds.
Thursday followed with the same fury of planting before the rains. In the morning the grey sky made us wary of rain as we transplanted kale and planted more with the tractor – greens, roots, everything – but the rain clouds rapidly flew by and only let down a few drops of water.
In the afternoon, we continued the hand-planting marathon with popcorn, summer squash, winter squash and sweet corn. I kept waiting for the sky to spontaneously burst with a flooding of rain, but it never happened, thankfully, so instead, Kazami and I took a short hour-long break, while Daddy worked on. When Daddy finally finished all of the planting he needed to do, he took us all up in the truck and started us on harvesting two hundred and fifty bunches of beets, followed by carrots and radish.

And as the sun set on the second planting day and the air cooled, the Brockman family and our group of intensely hard-working farm hands went home to eat and rest, to ready themselves for another long day on the farm tomorrow – which, this time, would be spent harvesting, not planting.

For Family and Potato Plants

Reggae beats played from my phone at exactly 3:50 PM and shook me out of a dream for the second time Wednesday. The hour-long nap had failed to cure me of my fatigue, which I blamed on the long work hours from early morning until mid-afternoon, during which time I had used my hand-hoe to clear out weeds so that the baby fennels could breathe and grow, and then mulched the potatoes. Lying on my bed staring half asleep at the off button on the alarm screen of my cell phone, I was tempted to hit it so that I could conk out again into a dream world where I would be safe from the hot sun and strenuous work.

Yet half an hour later, I was back in the Bottom Field, this time armed with a long scuffle hoe, peering closely at Daddy as he showed Brian – one of our many apprentices this farm season – and me how to thin the squat summer squash seedlings. He said to leave one foot of space between each plant – slashing through extra baby squash plants and weeds in between. Then he hoed around the plant so that about six inches to each side of the plant was weed-free. The demonstration looked deceptively quick and easy – as Daddy expertly and gracefully maneuvered the blade of the hoe so that it cut out everything but the healthy squash seedling. The hoe made a whooshing, banging sound as it rapidly slit the soil, and as Daddy moved back and forth, putting his back into the motion. For a second, Brian and I were both taken aback by the magical 10-second transformation of a weedy row of summer squash into glistening plants spaced evenly apart.  

Then Brian laughed, breaking the spell of amazed silence, and took over the row of squash while I trailed Daddy to hoe one of the cucumber rows.

As I desperately banged away at the ground, bent over and already sweating, trying to copy Daddy’s poise and speed, I remembered why I despised hoeing so much. Without Daddy’s gifted hoeing technique, I always seemed to murder the very plant I was trying to save. I felt as if I were using the hoe wrong, as well, and I tried to be stronger when hitting the ground so that the blade would easily cut through the topsoil, loosening the weeds.
As I furiously slashed around those cukes, I was reminded of another talented hoe-er – my older brother Asa. Hoeing looked like a piece of cake when Asa did it – by the end he looked like he had taken a leisurely walk while I always seemed to look and feel like I had just run a full marathon.
Asa was not down hoeing with us, though – he had left in the Honda Civic when the sun was high in the sky Saturday, to take the day-long drive down to Alabama, where he is working in a lab for the summer. The Friday Harvest before he left, I remembered that I harvested some early snow peas from the greenhouses and almost burst into tears while presenting one lonely pea to Asa because I realized he would not be here for the summer – for the first time in his life – to gobble down on those peas as we harvested, like he always did.
Thankfully, Daddy interrupted this depressing memory by calling from his truck, saying that when we were finished with the rows of cukes and summer squash, to meet him by the potato patch in order to mulch again. I was gaining speed now with my semi-magical hoe, and I pushed and pulled repeatedly with powerful strokes until Val, Peter, Brian and I had all met up.
I stretched my aching back as I put away my hoe and walked over to the patch of potatoes. We had already mulched about a quarter of the rows during the late morning. I gulped cold water from the jug that Daddy had filled for me up at the barn while he loaded the hay, and tried not to think of the fact that I forgotten my mask  again.
I took a deep breath as I surveyed the extensive rows and willed myself to go on. Then I lifted up a heavy gold-colored bale of hay by the two orange strings and carried it, stumbling, down the long row to where I would start.  I used my knife from my back pocket to slice through the strings so that the bale came apart into about ten sections. Next I spread out each section across the row. One bale usually went about ten to fifteen feet. Once this set-up was finished, I sat in between two potato rows, grabbed a section, tore it apart, fluffed up the hay in my hands, and stuck big bunches of it right up against the plants on my left, and in between the plants on my right, and then spread even more hay in between the rows. Daddy advised us to be rough when pushing up hay around the potatoes plants, since they could take the violent handling, and the mulch would be thick enough to smother out any pesky weeds. Mustard – another one of our farm hands – discovered some potato bugs on the plants and went on a killing spree. Those red gooey bugs that morphed into beetles were the number one enemy of our precious potato plants.
Even though I tried not to breathe in the dust of the hay, as I fluffed and grabbed bunches in my hands, I felt as if I were eating it – which caused me to cough from time to time. Dust was in my hair, stuck to my white, sweat-drenched long-sleeved shirt, and dumped upon my jeans. The heat of the sun, combined with the aerobic exercise, caused sweat to pour down more than ever before, and when I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, I could feel the grit of the mulch slip off. My eyes hurt from dust particle invasions and my throat was parched and mulch-filled by the time we neared the end of the rows and six o’clock rolled around.  
We all froze mid-fluff when Daddy announced our plan for Thursday. Because we have not been able to get much planting done due to the incessant rains, and it looked like the ground might finally be dry enough to till by Friday, he said, the usual Market Harvest would be moved up to Thursday. “Then if it is dry enough on Friday we will have all day to plant,” he added.
Harvest means we have to wake up and be down in the field at the crack of dawn, which these days occurs a little before 5 a.m.
Worst case scenario, we may find ourselves planting Saturday after the Market or on Sunday, or, most awfully, not at all this week.On that note, we finished another long and back-destroying work day.

As soon as I got home, I peeled off my sweat- and-mulch-covered clothes and rewarded myself with a shower. When I came out of the bathroom, spot-clean and refreshed, Kazami greeted me with “Tadaima (I’m home)!” I smiled in pure joy and replied, “Okaeri (Welcome home)!” and was infinitely grateful for my two sweet brothers – when one went away, I was granted the return of another.
I looked down at the hoeing blister forming on the bottom of my thumb, the bruise on my knuckle, and the hay-caused rash on my arms. Then I looked up at Kazami and grinned again, knowing that for this and the potato plants, it was all worth it.

An Unforgettable Morning

Sunday morning, seven hours after arriving home from a late-night hang-out with my two best friends, I was awakened by Daddy’s bustling around the house and the low burble and beeping of the weather radio. I closed my eyes tightly and hoped that the weather report would spare me of Sunday work – especially on the day of my graduation from high school.
I was not surprised, however, when Mommy’s footsteps softly reverberated toward my bedroom and, moments later, my fate was pronounced. “Sweet potatoes need planting before the rains,” she explained, and I mumbled a reply before tossing up the covers to get dressed.
After my usual morning routine of giving feed and water to fourteen high-energy chickens, followed by doing the same to the ever-maturing group of peeping pullets in their shed, I pulled on my sombrero to slip my way down the gravel path to the Bottom Field.
There, Koko sped toward me, tail wagging in exhilaration. When I looked up from scratching her belly, I saw Val and Brian – two of our farm apprentices for this season – and Mommy digging with shovels in the kale section up ahead.
We had transplanted green, red and Italian kale there a few weeks before, but the continuous rains ever since had left the soil so soggy and saturated at one end that the plants, starved of oxygen to their new roots, had died or had been stunted. Daddy said it was the first time he had seen plants grow smaller after transplanting rather than larger.

The wetter side had been massacred, leaving no option but a till-in and another planting from scratch, but the other three-fourths had been sprinkled with destruction. Daddy was walking up and down the rows, pushing in stakes next to plants he deemed too weak to survive.

I grabbed a shovel and following specific instructions, found a stake and dug a hole there. Then I found a healthy-looking kale from the extras planted in the middle of two rows in a bed of the same kind, and dug it up, making sure not to slice through the roots. The difficult part was making sure dirt stayed around the root when transplanting so that the connections between the roots and the soil would stay intact and make it easier for the plant to adjust to its new environment. Too often the dirt seemed unable to resist crumbling off during the move.
After laying the kale in, I snatched up clumps of dirt and crushed them in my palm, repeating until the gaping hole was full to the brim. My favorite part then followed – I got up on my feet to walk in a circle around the plant, firming it into the ground. The indent would also help to collect rain water.
As the sun followed its daily trail up, the air increased its temperature and humidity. I was glad when my brother Asa arrived after doing cattle chores (a favor for Grandpa while he and Grandma visit Uncle Fred and Aunt Odette’s newborn girl, Chenoa, in Oregon) – one more helping hand made all the difference.
But still, the line of stakes seemed never ending, and I was quickly succumbing to exhaustion and hunger. The newly transplanted kale gradually wilted in the penetrating sun, so Daddy sent Brian up to the well to fill buckets with water. My energy from eating only a banana for breakfast diminished with every press of my foot on the shovel. I began to wonder if we would be done in time for my graduation ceremony.
Past noon, we had moved from green to red to Italian kale and things were finally wrapping up. Brian stayed to finish splashing the plants with much-needed water, but the rest of us followed Daddy to the middle of the Bottom Field, where five long tilled beds were waiting to be filled with sweet potato plants.
Daddy demonstrated how to grab the top of the plant with one hand and the root with the other, and hold it sideways to slip into the soil at an angle, the root farthest south. Then he used his knuckles to pound down the long root and in around the plant. “One foot in between plants,” he finished, and we were off.
Planting sweet potatoes was a quick and easy task – a huge relief from the kale transplanting. Not only does Daddy’s method cut down on time, but since sweet potatoes take up so much space with their vines, they are planted only in the middle of the bed, meaning only one row, compared to the usual three, per bed.
Those long rows that looked so un-compromising before were being finished in record time. We were almost done when I realized that I only had an hour before I needed to leave the house for the ceremony—and I was filthy and time was ticking. The wind was picking up speed now, and as I speed-walked up the steep hill to the house, I felt the first drops of rain fall from the black, rumbling storm clouds.
I showered at what I thought was a fast and furious pace, which was quickly disproved by Asa’s pounding on the bathroom door: “We all need to shower, too!” Then I slipped on my graduation dress, covered it with the white gown and messed with my hair a bit before running into the kitchen to eat another banana.

The kitchen windows revealed how dark the sky had turned and wind whistled through the house. At the same time I hoped for rain, to give those sweet potatoes and kale a drink of life, I desired a rain-less afternoon so that the graduation could be held outside.

Minutes later, my family had undergone a magical transformation from dirt-covered button-down shirts and muddy jeans to dress shirts and pants. We piled into the car just as hail began to sail down, followed by a dumping of rain.

By the time we arrived at the high school, the rain had trickled down to a few drops. I ran in, a couple minutes late, to meet my friends for before-graduation pictures and I’m-never-going-to-see-you-again hugs, knowing that thanks to the unpredictable Illinois weather, I had been graced with an unforgettable graduation morning.

The Secret to Happiness

I used to think that my father was crazy. Every night, he would come home completely and utterly dirty–proof of his exhausting work tending to the Earth. His hands were the color of a cloudless night, the stars being bits of perlite–the sparkly white mineral used in the greenhouse potting mix–stuck here and there in the creases of his palm and fingers.  Brown stains remained even after he had washed up for dinner. I thought he was crazy because, covered in sweat and mud and dirt, he was the happiest man on Earth.

I didn’t always think he was crazy. When I was little, I used to throw dirt into the air to feel it rain down on me, run around with bare feet just to feel the soft ground below me, and make black gloves out of mud and show them off to my brothers. Then I started to go to school. It was a shock to know that now, dirt was a bad thing. No one wanted to get dirty for fear of germs. Gradually, I began to stop touching the Earth with my hands unless it was absolutely necessary. After a long harvest at the farm, I would try to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, afraid of what would get said at school. Yet I can truly say that those were the most depressing years of my life.

After years of not being happy but not quite knowing why, I had an epiphany. Naturally, this occurred while I was pulling stubborn weeds out of the ground with only my thoughts to listen to one scalding, humid day.  Such revelations often happened when I was weeding.  So far I had figured out how I could help struggling people in Africa, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and now . . . the secret to happiness.  Right then, feeling the cool, moist soil underneath my hot, sweaty hands, I felt some of the happiness from my toddler years come rushing back.   And I knew that dirt is the secret to happiness.

There is a liberating, freeing feeling when you bury your hands in dirt. It is difficult to explain, but the musky, fruity smell of the soil combined with the unique texture of the Earth makes you feel connected to Nature. When you close your eyes and feel the dirt teeming with life, it makes you feel alive too.

But not all dirt is created equal. The fertile, black soil of my father’s Central Illinois farm is one that not many people have experienced. I believe that dirt that has been repeatedly damaged by poisonous chemicals or has been compacted and over-farmed will not give one the same exhilarating happiness.

Now, I am truly content. Some days I come to school with dirt under my fingernails, proud to display my closeness to the Earth. Some people send weird glances at my hands, probably thinking that I am crazy.  Just like I used to think my father was crazy.  I do not know why, but this thought makes me laugh.