the hands belong to henry. henry is my farmer. well, he wouldn’t probably think in quite such possessive terms, but i do.
henry’s hands, the way i see it, are sacred tools. and they do sacred work. he is all about the business of putting life into loamy, yeasty-smelling soils. soils that teem with life.
and from that teeming soil, henry grows mounds and heaps and bushel baskets full to spilling. henry coaxes life from life and puts it back again.
just this past saturday, at the first of the farmers markets of the season, henry rolled up his truck from congerville, smack dab in the belly button of illinois, where his 10 acres are nestled between kinder creek and walnut creek on what he calls The Land, and he hauled out tender baby leaves that taste of the earth, and roots too, that seemed mighty happy to see the light.
there was mesclun, and spinach, of course. and ruffly lettuces and lamb’s quarters and arugula and asparagus, in stalks so green and sturdy you wanted to eat ’em raw, right then and there before they saw a drop of steaming water.
and, because henry is no ordinary organic farmer, there were shiso leaves, and asian flat-leaved chives. and french breakfast radishes, and just plain red ones too.
there was rhubarb by the crate and tender baby beets, and hardy sweet potatoes that, like wine, henry said, got finer over winter.
with every freeze and thaw, the gnarly, nubby roots–jerusalem artichoke and burdock, to name but two–who spent the winter underground, took in what the earth around them had to offer. and it offered plenty.
henry knows and honors all the earth: the soil, the seeds, the wind, the rain. it is all of the circle that is henry’s life. it can become all of ours, too, if we pay attention. if we rinse the dirt off henry’s sweet potatoes, put them in our pots, in our tummies. if we commit them to our very souls.
i’ve known for weeks that henry was out early in the morning, tending to the alchemy of seeds and sprouts. tending, too, to the fields, the rich black canvas for his farmer art. he plowed those fields, churned winter cover back into the earth, where it, in turn–it is all about the turn, ecclesiastes’ turn, in farming–would feed the summer crops.
all the while, he was keeping close eye on warm fronts and sudden frosts. when it came time, time to clear the greenhouse of his headstart on growing things, he would be deep in transplant, tucking tens of thousands of sprouted things deep into the earth.
while we were waiting, waiting for the saturday when henry’s tents would once again be raised, the bushel baskets turned, their earthy prizes spilling onto tables.
i talked to henry early saturday, i asked him about his sacred work.
“it is sacred,” he began, cradling a clutch of beets, “but if you say that, it kind of ruins it right there. it’s at such a level, it just is.
“as soon as you start to describe it, you start to lose it. it sounds pretentious or silly. when really it is sacred. sacred is getting dirty, getting wet, getting hot, getting cold, producing food.
“i work with life and death every day. life means death to another organism. harvesting a crop is death. decaying matter is death, but it gives life. it is a sacred thing. there is a sacred balance between life and death.”
i stood there feeling mighty blessed that the man who grows my food thinks these thoughts while working in the fields.
henry let on that it was weed season now, meaning he is on the prowl, clearing out the things that shouldn’t be, to make room for those that should. he’s out the door at half past four, these days. back in at 8. and that’s night we’re talkin’, people. 15 plus hours, and getting longer by the day.
“it’s not hard at all,” said henry. “what i do, i match my life to the cycle of nature. nature does the hard work. it pulls me along. the sun actually pulls me out of bed. the longest day of the year i’ll be up at 4:15.
“you don’t feel tired at all,” he insists, and you get the sense he really means it, you get the sense henry never says what he doesn’t exactly mean.
“whereas in winter, i’d feel dead because there’s no light. in winter i get home at 5 o’clock, eat dinner, think about going to bed. i look at the clock, 8 o’clock. i think, ‘man, i wouldn’t even be coming in from the fields yet.’”
henry is in the fields from february ’til almost christmas. his hands, earth-stained, hard with purpose, are the tools that i’d been thinking most about.
i asked him if he ever blessed his hands; told him i’d been offering up a prayer or two for those blessed tools.
he gave a little chuckle, turned his wrists to give his hands a better look.
said: “i always liked my hands. i must say. they’re my best tools. i like to watch ‘em move.
“they work so well. they do whatever you want, pretty much, without you thinking about it. they harvest, they weed, they get cold, in the bone-cold autumn, they get so cold they won’t work the zipper to go to the bathroom. that’s the one time they don’t work. they’re game, they’re completely game, but they just won’t work, can’t make it happen.”
henry gave his fingers a little wiggle.
“they go places without you telling ‘em to do it. i think that’s why i always wanted to work with my hands.”
he wiggled ’em once more, he bounced the beets. he looked down on his farmer hands. “they sing and they dance.”
indeed they do. they sing, they dance, they feed me through and through.
ahhh, it is a blessed thing to have your very own farmer. i share henry with all of you because, like the bounty he culls from the earth, there’d be no sense in hoarding him or what he harvests. henry is so wise he knocks me speechless. i could listen to him all day. i hope you too know a farmer. tell us about your farmer. i’d love to hear a tale of other hands that sing and dance. especially deep in blessed sacred earth.