There are signs that the summer is ending. A few days ago, I was reminded sharply that in less than a month, I will be returning to Michigan and school, turning my back on these fields and forests and the silence of my land, my home, this middle-of-nowhere, just-shy-of-paradise scrap of the Green Mountains, and returning to the city. Returning to traffic smells and streetlights, to paved sidewalks and a flat horizon, to bustle and sound and seventy-five thousand five hundred forty-eight hearts beating out of sync, to a place where there are no stars. It’s exciting–it’s new, and will be the biggest adventure I’ve embarked on yet–but it’s terrifying, too. It’s another uprooting. Another step towards the far horizon, which I’m still not certain I ever want to reach.
From the front step I look out over the mountains, my mountains, and I can see the summer wane. The trees are deep, deepest green, their leaves heavy with life and with death, already fast-approaching. The mountains are tinged so faintly with brown now, like a wisp of mist pulled over the hills, where the first leaves are beginning, just the smallest bit, to yellow in preparation for Autumn’s approaching blaze. I can see it coming. I can feel it. Soon. The breeze smells faintly of smokey petrichor and the dust of crumbling leaves.
In the garden, the harvest has begun in earnest. We slip out of sweaters pulled on against the threatening rain and cold breeze of the heights, and enter the greenhouse. Everything is alive–a bit too much so. The lettuce has bolted, the cucumbers trickle up the plastic sides of the greenhouse, the beans are as thick as my ring finger. A zucchini as long as a baseball bat and as big around as my thigh just won’t stop growing. The first tomatoes are turning red. The entire last ten feet of the forty-foot space, my father points out, is filled with a veritable tsunami of pumpkin plant. He wades through it, turning over leaves with his feet to seek out the still-green fruit. We’re overrun with growing things, and the weeds aren’t far behind the produce. The past few weeks, our garden has been neglected. I roll up my sleeves.
My fingernails are dirt-blackened already from days spent weeding row after interminable row of beans and sunflowers at another farm, where I actually get paid to do what I love and come home in the afternoon wearing half the dirt in the county all down the front of my shirt and ground into my knees and wrists. My palms are stained purple from the thousands of pints of blueberries I have harvested over the past few weeks. My fingers are calloused from scuffling the dirt around next year’s strawberry plants and burying the sisters and daughters, the runners. I will add to this rainbow of good, real color today.
We tackle cucumbers first, reaching carefully into the spiney green shadows to pull them from the vines, the best ones still small enough to pickle. Someone remarks on the prickles, and I smile, because this is something one who does not work the soil wouldn’t know. Cucumbers bite. It takes only minutes to mound a bag high. The beans are next, and we kneel, pulling them from the bushes, up to our elbows in green leaves and purple stalks. A few of them are bitten off halfway up; another creature has been enjoying the harvest as much as we will. No matter–there is more than enough to share. Another bag, half-filled. We settle yellow summer squash above the beans, round and fragile-skinned. They are too soft to sit above the cucumbers without being wounded.
The tomato plants are tall now–eye-level and still growing. One has begun to press supple fingers against the plastic curving overhead, reaching towards a sky it will never see, protected beneath the dome of the greenhouse. I reach in, trace my eyes down the stems, seek out suckers. They sap the life out of the plants, forcing them to grow out and up, leggy, wild, rather than producing fruit. I break them off, pull them out gently, so as to touch the plants the least amount possible. Tomatoes are fragile, too. I gather a handful of new red cherry tomatoes, round as marbles and twice, three times the size. They roll between my palms and smell like summer and soap and all the sun they have soaked up. It’s hard not to eat them all, right there in the greenhouse, seconds off the vine. In that moment, it’s the hardest thing I can think of.
When I finish, my arms are greened up to the elbows, my fingers turning black, the backs of my hands bright yellow with the sticky acyl sugars the tomato plants produce. I scrub my hands three, four times before the yellow-green starts to wash off and my fingers stop feeling slick with the tomato tar. My forearms prickle and burn where the spines of the cucumber vines have scratched my skin. ‘O plunge your hands in water, Plunge them in up to the wrist; Stare, stare in the basin, And wonder what you’ve missed. The water in the sink runs green, and despite my efforts, my hands will not clean.
This is something I will never find in academia. This is something I will never feel in the city. I will learn to research, will translate ancient manuscripts, will read and write my way to kingdom come, will learn Latin and Norse and Old English and who knows what else. I will do good, and learn good. But how can these things be all? How, when I cannot come home to a greenhouse smelling of damp earth and mulch, can’t reach into a tomato plant and come back, sticky up to my shoulder, hands overflown with all this ripeness? How, when I can’t look up and see Deep Heaven, when I can’t sit down in the dirt, rub it into my palms, my jeans, my forehead? When I can’t glory in physical labor, feel the sweat run on my skin and the sun beat on my back, turn my hands calloused, my fingers blistered, and revel in it? How, when the most life I can find will come in minuscule, manicured lawns and a row of saplings along a freeway? There is only so much one can learn from the inside of a library, a study, a classroom. Only so much; and none of it the most important, truest, deep-down things. I have to be Home for that. I am Home, and I am not yet ready to leave it again.