Photo by Carol H. Goldstein
My father was not a farmer. His great grandparents—fleeing the increasingly violent antisemitism of the Russian empire during the late nineteenth century—left Minsk and settled in rural Indiana. They opened a general store in a town so isolated that the few Jews who lived there worshipped on Sunday. The family moved to Indianapolis, where his father and uncles opened a hardware store. As a child, the closest my father came to nature was the thin line of trees separating his house from the neighbor’s.
When my father was eight, his father took him to look through a telescope in the backyard of a family friend. They saw Vega, bright and blue, high in the summer sky. My father declared that he wanted to be an astronomer.
“You can be an astronomer, Sam,” my grandfather answered, “but you probably want to have a store, just in case.”
When my father was eighteen, he joined the army and repaired radios in the Pacific. He studied engineering when he got back, wanting no part of the family store. Soon, he got a job helping to build a radio telescope in West Texas for Harvard, which led him to another job working on a radio telescope, this time in Massachusetts. At forty, he was teaching astronomy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where I was born.
One summer morning I sat down at the breakfast table with cornflakes and orange juice, and my father looked up from his coffee.
“You should be a potato farmer.” I was used to sudden pronouncements, and ignored him until I had finished eating. My father’s idea of casual conversation was to tell people that he’d reproduced seventeenth-century mathematician Christiaan Huygens’ method for measuring the distance to the sun. The week before, he’d told me I could identify aliens by their mismatched socks and odd questions. This was right before he advised my sister Annemarie’s husband to abandon his Ph.D. in film studies and become a well-digger.
“Why should I be a potato farmer?”
“You’d always have a job. Everyone eats potatoes.”
“But, Dad, I’m only nine!” I said, somewhere between amused and annoyed. It wasn’t as if my father would help me. He was a professor of astronomy, for crying out loud. Even at nine, I sometimes thought I understand the world better than my father did.
After breakfast, I wandered into the side yard to watch him dig holes for a fence to keep the rabbits from his newly dug potato patch. Even in the garden he wore plaid button-down shirts like the ones he would teach in, and dark socks pulled halfway up his calves. The soles of his long leather shoes were rimmed with red clay. It was early in the day, but the intense heat had begun to bear down, and the cicadas sang their winding, creaky songs. The metal blades of the post-hole digger (PHD) crunched through the sod. My father grasped the two handles close together, rotated them slightly, and then brought up perfect cylinders of clay topped with bright green grass; he was a Ph.D. with a PHD.
I was intrigued in spite of myself, listening to my father talk about how we would have to live off the land when oil ran out. Maybe I did want to be a farmer when I grew up—to raise animals, and grow my own food somewhere outside of Charlottesville at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A few days later, after some negotiation, my father offered me the last two rows of his potato patch to grow strawberries (I wasn’t terribly interested in potatoes). I imagined unhooking the fence, going into the garden, and picking strawberries, eating them while they were still warm from the sun. I would ask my mother to teach me how to make jam.
My mother grew tomatoes, basil, and chives. Unlike my father, she was not a person with grand ideals. But she was much more likely to get the small things done, wading into the garden—rain or shine—to weed her tomatoes. When we went to the mountains she would pick buckets of blackberries, swatting the dog’s nose away from the canes because she had developed a taste for them too. Back at home my mother would make blackberry jam, even though she herself didn’t like the taste of blackberries. This was when I learned that two rows of strawberries would make hardly more than a tablespoon of jam.
Unfortunately, weeding did not interest me at all. I stayed inside and read My Side of the Mountain, a book about a boy who runs away to live in the mountains, surviving off the land and befriending owls. Like my father, I loved the idea more than the reality of what we called farming. My father would not have been able to leave his coffee and the paper to work in the fields at first light. He probably would have stopped in the middle of harvesting to calculate the angle of the sun. We ate potatoes the size of ping-pong balls because he dug them up early, too impatient to wait for them to grow to proper size. He didn’t listen to my mother who pleaded with him to wait just a little bit longer.
The strawberries survived the first domestic onslaught of periwinkle, but the creeping tendrils of ivy were more than they could take. The following year, my father turned over the strawberry bed into his weedy, neglected potato patch without a word. Not long after that he took up identifying wildflowers. It was a project my parents tackled together. They worked to learn the wildflowers, but wanted it to be native knowledge for me—identifying plants for me again and again, hoping that I would grow up knowing them.
When my parents moved to Charlottesville in 1965, my father had a tenure-track job at the university, and they knew they would be there for a very long time. In the first few years, before I was born, my parents piled my three sisters into the car and took them for long drives in the country. They wanted to learn this new region where they found themselves.
They drove through Keswick, Boyd’s Tavern, and Hatton’s Ferry, the last poled ferry across the James River. They drove along the Mechum River, straight through the sharp turn under the railroad tracks, and ended up at Mint Springs, the swimming lake just east of Crozet. Or they went north, up toward the mountains. They cut home through Madison, where they bought cherry bookshelves and my father’s rocking chair, then north to Syria and Graves Mountain Lodge, where they ate fried chicken and collards at long tables, family style. Unlike what my mother usually made at home, it was rich and salty. There was pork in everything. They came home by the abandoned hotel at the bend of the road in Nortonsville or across the reservoir. My mother, in particular, prided herself on her ability to find her way home from anywhere in the county.
When I was ten and all my sisters were finished with college, my parents bought a weekend home, a tiny A-frame cabin at the edge of the Shenandoah National Park. This was not the tame yard crossed with cedar trees that surrounded the house in Charlottesville I grew up in. The land up there was rocky and steep, just beneath the spine of the mountain. It seemed wild to me, although seventy years before, the land had been cleared for grazing. A secondary forest was returning one staghorn sumac and prickle bush at a time.
On Saturday mornings we bought bagels and groceries and left town for the country. Just outside of town, the fields were broad and rolling, lined with double-railed wooden fences and runs for horses. The closer we got to the mountains, the smaller the farms were. Instead of lavish, three-story horse barns with brass nameplates, there were nineteenth-century plank barns with the roof half caved in. We were more likely to see goats and chickens. The mountains, which had looked gentle and blue in the distance, became green, leafy, and imposing. There were trailers with solid porches and satellite dishes. Rocks littered the small fields. We entered the woods and our car shook its way up the steep rutted switchbacks and across the broad treeless crest of our mountain. My parents commented on the changes they observed since they had last been up. Maybe the milkweed was out or Marsh Morrow had finally finished his roof on the round house at the top of the mountain.
Once the car was unpacked and the dead flies swept out of the house, we spread out. I left quickly, so no one would make me do chores, and took the dog exploring across the mountainside. My mother put on a sun hat and gardened. My father took the loppers and went off to battle the staghorn sumac below the house that threatened the view we had of Bacon Hollow. They built a stone wall and grew a garden that (mostly) wouldn’t be eaten by deer. My parents drank beer on the porch before dinner and then my mother cooked us big meals, tamale pie or spaghetti with meat sauce, and we ate until our stomachs hurt. My parents were content; they felt as if they were living a rural life.
My mother, raised hiking in the Sierras, knew the names of all the flowers and kept her 1962 copy of the Joy of Cooking, because the newer versions didn’t include how to skin a rabbit. I wanted that knowledge too. I remembered the Little House books my father read to me when I was small. He bought Foxfire books, which documented the lore of Appalachians, to keep in the cabin. I wanted to learn how to tell the weather from rendered bear fat in a jar. Was I brave enough to learn how to dress a deer?
My father tried to talk me into tending an orchard, telling me as usual that we were going to run out of oil soon and we should learn how to live off the land. He bought one peach tree, which he planted a few yards from the house. After the small tree was eaten by a bear, he went back to potatoes, wresting a new patch from the sumac and building a fence high enough to keep out the deer and bears.
My own theory of why I should have to learn how to live off the land had everything to do with the fantasy novels I had started reading with dedication when I was twelve. I read The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and the ravens that soared in graceful circles in the air currents over the valley became messengers. I read The Hobbit and suddenly the forests around me had the potential to change form. A trail was not a place to walk anymore. It was a road bristling with danger. There were Black Riders, wizards, and trees that talked. Children didn’t just walk their dogs to the overlook, turn around and go home and have dinner with their parents; they travelled beyond their own town to the next and the next. I imagined what magical powers I could have as I navigated the old road that was barely discernible through the birch-and-fern woods and pretended I was on a quest. I would need to be able to take care of myself, out in the mountain wilderness, when that happened.
As I grew older, I stopped trying to trace dragon bones in the outcrops. Instead I wanted to understand why the mountains fold the way that they do and how the rocks are veined with quartz. I wanted to be able to see the layers of soil over stone and know the history of how they got there. I wanted to know what made the crawfish-rich stream bubble up to the surface halfway up the mountainside. I wanted the stories, no longer of the little people, but rather of the landscape itself. Instead of sentience I was interested in natural history.
And so, I took geology in college, hoping that it would teach me to understand the bones of the land. My father was excited.
“You could be a geologist,” he told me over the phone. “You could work for the oil company,” conveniently forgetting that he predicted we would run out of oil before too long. I liked geology class. Tramping through the forest was a relief after hours in the library trying to focus on English literature. During labs, we scrambled up little hills to learn about land formation, causing further erosion as all sixteen of us climbed up to observe a rock cut. But the technicalities of the formations eluded me. I lost track of the names of rocks and didn’t care about the minerals that composed them. Those stories were too impersonal: they had no plot, no voyage, no voice, or arrival.
I read William Cullen Bryant in a literature class and thought about the literalness of becoming part of the earth after I died:
… Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs …. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old ocean’s grey and melancholy waste,
I read Shakespeare’s “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs…bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 73) and thought how autumn moved over the mountains, the leaves at the top of the ridge turning red, yellow, and brown first. The poems struck me much more than what I was learning in geology and told me stories of the land and seasons. I disappointed my father again and declared my major in English.
My connection to the natural world loosened further when I moved to Boston in my twenties. Boston was my mother’s world. My parents lived in Cambridge, and then Harvard, Mass., when they were first married. My mother gushed about all the things I could do: hear the orchestra at Symphony Hall; visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an Italian villa brought over block by block and reassembled in the Fens; and walk down quaint Marlborough Street in the spring when the trees were flowering. She told me stories about the time it snowed so hard that people skiied up Mass Ave in Cambridge, and she pushed my skinny father into a snow drift.
I surrounded myself with people, books, and expensive coffee. I took public transportation to work, bought a wool coat that I could never wear in the woods, and heard silence only when my roommates were asleep and the snow fell so hard I couldn’t see the house next door. There were a few trees around me, but no garden space. I worked as an editor, spending most of my day at a desk, yoked to publishing seasons, which are unrelated to the land. On my days off I walked around Jamaica Pond, watching the birds fly above the heads of the runners, parents, and the elderly taking slow constitutionals. The thin fringe of trees around the pond was pretty, but a weak imitation of an immense Blue Ridge Mountain forest.
I was born in the South, but my parents were from elsewhere; and like my father, I grew up Jewish in a place where Jews were rare. I felt at home in Boston, where I wasn’t the only transient, or the only Jew. I worked in a neighborhood full of Jews and academics, and no longer looked or sounded different than the people around me. As a teenager, I had once gone to the 7/11 down the street from my house for a chocolate bar. The man behind the counter seemed old to me, but was probably in his thirties, with a scruffy dark beard and a faded tattoo running up his arm. As I got my change, I said thank you, and turned to leave.
“Where you from?” he asked abruptly. It was a question I had heard before, or its variation, “Y’all don’t sound like y’all are from around here.”
“Here,” I said emphatically, gesturing to the doors, toward the street I had lived on my whole life. I was more local, surely, than this man, who may have grown up in the next county or state, no matter whether I had curly hair and a big nose or clipped my syllables rather than drawling them.
“Here,” I said again, as I went out, a strange desperation burning in my lungs.
Photo by Carol H. Goldstein
My father thought farming would give him an intimacy with the land that he never had. It would give a sense of being native to place, a part of the land and its cycles of weather. No one would ever ask him if he belonged. My parents are buried in Charlottesville, in a stone columbarium in the university graveyard. They have become, if not part of the land, as in Bryant’s poem, then part of the landscape—overlooking what is left of Meadowbrook Creek before it goes underground, the tiny fang shape of Lewis Mountain, and Observatory Hill. My parents, my source, my own history has become part of the landscape. Their names (and thus mine), carved in granite, anchor me to Charlottesville in a way that nothing has before.
In Boston, I stop at the farmer’s market every summer Saturday, as my mother did in Charlottesville when I was growing up. The market is smaller, just a few tents in a dirty parking lot behind the bank. Unlike in the South, people rarely talk to each other in line. The farmers accept food stamps. Waiting to pick up my CSA box, I watch the women filling bins with apples, turnips, and three kinds of potatoes with a wistfulness that is not entirely my own.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank Sonya Chung and Jessica Richard for their invaluable help with this essay.
Ellen Goldstein is a copyeditor living in Eastern Massachusetts; she plants her words in mostly straight rows.