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My hands know things
Nick Offerman, Wendell Berry and rural knowledge
Outside the barn on my grandparent’s produce farm, there sat a collection of bushel baskets filled with, well, garbage.Or not exactly garbage, though. The baskets were filled with rotting fruits and vegetables. Anything that couldn’t be sold at market or eaten went into the bushel baskets which, not surprisingly, smelled. A bad smell at first. Nothing in the world smells worse than a rotten potato.
But then, over time, the bushel baskets smelled less bad. The vegetables and other stuff was far enough along on its transformation to something else to begin to smell different. Sweeter. Earthier. More like dirt, which is what it would become with enough time.
Eventually, the baskets got put on a wagon and hauled off to be dumped in a bigger pile. No one called this composting. It was just what you did with rotting stuff no one was going to eat.
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Because of this, along with the pile of leaves and brush we had around our own house, no one ever needed to explain the concept of composting to me. I mean, someone had to tell me what the word meant. But it already made an intuitive sense to me that orange peels and onion skins could become dirt. Of course. I’d watched that happen, even if I couldn’t explain the chemistry or biology of it. Rotten things could become dirt. Dead things, too. The line between a dead thing and dirt was always a thin one. All you had to do was dig around in the woods to figure that out.
Growing up, I assumed everyone knew things like this. I assumed everyone understood asparagus was the first vegetable of spring. Or that ugly tomatoes taste better than perfect ones. Everyone could tell the difference between flying things that stung or bit and flying things that were harmless. And everyone knew that the worst strategy in the face of flying things that stung was to start waving your arms around and batting at the thing. Big mistake.
A lot of this knowledge wasn’t even something I was taught explicitly. They were the things you just knew and it didn’t make you special to know it. In fact, it might actually be a little shameful, to have spent so much time barefoot in the summer. To have had rotten tomato fights with your cousins. To have missed so many of the cool trends and bands my college friends knew that they eventually decided I must be a Russian spy, the only sensible way to account for how clueless I was.
But, no, I didn’t grow up in Russia. Just in rural Kentucky. In a small town. Partly on a farm. The grandchild of farmers. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’m part of the last generation to grow up that way, or at least from that particular rural world.
I got to thinking about all of this lately after listening to an interview with Nick Offerman (I know, seems like a stretch, but stay with me), who is also a small town, rural guy. Like me, Offerman realized the value in his rural upbringing partly through the writing of Wendell Berry. The world tells you to turn your back on your rural childhood and people. Run away from there as fast as you can. Cover it up with a veneer of sophistication (=consumerism). Wendell Berry is the gentle voice reminding you of everything that childhood taught you. Berry lets you imagine that maybe that jelly bracelet trend you missed out on in the 80s was a blessing, rather than a curse.
For Nick Offerman, part of that rural legacy is his passion for woodworking—a practice of the body and the mind. The glory of making things with your hands. Of shaping the world in this way.
Writers, sadly, do not spend a lot of time working with their hands. I mean, hands are useful as far as the writing goes, but the hands are shaping words and this makes the hand largely secondary. Better penmanship or faster typing doesn’t make me a better writer in the way mastering how to work clay definitely makes a better potter.
I don’t think of myself as someone who works much with my hands, which is funny, as the same day I heard the interview, I’d spent the morning making bagels. This is a new weekly task I’ve taken up because being back in a rural place means there is no easy access to good bagels. This has been true of several bread products, like baguettes and ciabattas and flatbreads—all of which I’ve tried my hand at making over the years. I don’t think of myself as a baker, but I have spent a lot of time with dough over the past fifteen years.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that I’m just a wee bit better at shaping the bagels than my husband. This involves poking a hole in the circle of dough and then gradually widening it out with your fingers. My husband watched what I was doing. I explained what I was doing. He tried to imitate it himself. His bagels still didn’t quite look the same. My hands had a knowledge of the way the dough behaves that his do not. My hands know. My hands know things.
My hands know a lot of things, when I take a minute to think about it. They know the right tension to hold yarn while I knit. They know the right amount of pressure to apply with a trowel to pry a plant out of the ground. Or the little extra pressure if it’s a weed. They now how to chop and dice. Peel a head of garlic.
The world, though, often seems to make us forget about the many things our hands know how to do. Or our bodies more generally. The knowledge of the body is also the knowledge of nature and how to interact with it. This is what so much indigenous wisdom is, after all. You don’t need a fancy soil test to know what’s good to plant in. You feel the dirt. You smell it. You taste it.
The world wants us to leave that knowledge behind. Ignore it. The narrative that tells us to flee our rural childhoods and the narrative that disdains this other sort of knowledge are two sides of the same coin. To be from a rural place is to be closer to nature is to be less civilized is to be backward is to be bodily instead of cerebral. It’s no coincidence that this world tells us to be ashamed of our bodies and our rural backgrounds. They’re one and the same.
But if we trusted that knowledge more, we’d step farther away from the destructive systems of capitalism and consumerism. We’d make our bagels instead of buying them. Plant more of our food instead of eating off a truck. Maybe instead of buying pesticides when the stinging things come, we’d sit still and be with them. We’d let the rotten things follow their own life cycle back to dirt, that big life cycle we’re all a part of in the end.
Thanks for being here and reading along. If you’re not a paid subscriber, you missed a post last week all about my self-publishing journey so far. Stay tuned for more updates about my self-published young adult novel, FAIR GAME, about a girls basketball team who challenges the boys to a game, coming this summer.
Here is already a bit of knowledge I had that I didn’t realize was special—namely, what a bushel is, a half bushel, a peck, and a quart. We didn’t much sell things in pint baskets. Also, how these all related to each other—a peck is ¼ a bushel, three quart baskets make a peck, etc. So, if you sing the lyrics, “I love you/ A bushel and peck/ A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck,” then you love the person five pecks or fifteen quarts. Plus a hug.
Even as I was growing up, farmers were disappearing. By the time I was in graduate school, there was only one person in my county farming full-time. He leased most of his land. He was able to sustain himself only by raising prize bulls and then selling their “seed.” Several of the fields that had once been part of my grandparents farm became part of the airport or airport parking garages or hotels. It’s not that people don’t farm anymore, it’s that fewer people farm because of consolidation. So fewer small farms and lots of very big corporate farms. Which means fewer kids grow up on farms and the farms they grow up on are very different.