Laura is a senior at SUNY-ESF majoring in forest ecosystem science and minoring in environmental writing and rhetoric. She lives in New York’s Finger Lakes region where she is surrounded by many reasons to care for the earth, but most important of them are her two children.
They still looked covered in dirt even after he had scrubbed them in the mudroom wash sink. I have few memories of my grandfather, but one I remember with great detail is of how his hands looked: ingrained with decades of hard work.
I grew up helping out on the farm first by picking rocks from the soil so roots could take hold, pulling weeds from around the plants so they could branch out, twisting grape vines around wires to provide them with support, then riding next to my father and grandfather in the combine as they harvested fields of wheat and corn, and when I was twelve years old, I was finally big enough to take my seat on the cabbage setter, a family rite of passage. If you survived your first summer of setting cabbage, you knew the work ethic needed for farming had been passed down to you through the generations.
After a long day of working in the fields my grandfather would wash his hands and leave his work boots in the mudroom and rest his body in the living room chair. Even so, his mind was still working. When he clicked on the television, it wasn’t to catch up on an episode of the season’s latest reality show, but rather to check the weather forecast and preview the next episode of his reality. Each year he worked the land in harmony with the seasons. In spring, he cultivated the land by plowing under the cover of winter wheat that had blanketed the soil, and once the threat of frost had passed, seeds and his trust were planted into the land. Throughout the summer, he nurtured the plants, supporting their inherit knowledge of life and growth. Harvest time arrived with the dwindling hours of autumn sunlight. Looking out across the patchwork landscape of wheat, cabbage, and sweet corn stitched together by rows of concord grapes, his time to gather the accumulation of the seasons seemed much too short.
And it was. Not long after sunrise on a hot July morning, stalks of hay were being cut and laid out in rows across the field to dry. After the hay had dried that afternoon, my grandfather and a friend of the family coupled the bailer and wagon to the back of the tractor and began making rounds up and down the rows. As they began down the last row, my grandfather standing on top of the tier of stacked bales waiting to catch the next one, the wagon jarred over a hole and he lost his balance. The wheel of the wagon crushed his skull.
For years I blamed my grandfather’s relationship with the land for his death. It had taken my grandfather away from me, and in return, I wanted to abandon my connection to the land. At the time, I thought my connection with the land existed only through my relationship with my grandfather. Now, I can see my connection to the land is ingrained in me and was formed through the relationship I had with my grandfather, which was rooted in his relationship with the land. He cared for the land and his grandchildren with the same hands. Working on the farm was much more than a lesson on how to plant a field of cabbage. It was a lesson on how to live in harmony with the land. The land didn’t take my grandfather away from me. My grandfather gave his life to taking care of the land and passed this relationship on to each of his grandchildren.
I can no longer remember why my grandfather’s hands were a memory I decided to hold on to during my childhood, but now, after eighteen years, my memory of his hands represents the relationship he had formed with the land. The land was part of him and he was a part of it. It wasn’t something he could wash from his hands at the end of each day. It was ingrained into his being and it is ingrained into mine.