Dirt Under My Nails: An American Farmer and Her Changing Land

Dirt Under My Nails: An American Farmer and Her Changing Land

by Marilee Foster

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A woman farmer observes with a poetic and appreciative eye the transformation of the plant and animal life on her land through the changing seasons, and now through the encroachment of residential development.See more details below


A woman farmer observes with a poetic and appreciative eye the transformation of the plant and animal life on her land through the changing seasons, and now through the encroachment of residential development.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After graduating from college in 1994, the author decided not to take any of the career paths usually followed by liberal arts students. Instead, she joined her brother in the family business, a 600-acre potato farm in Sagaponack, N.Y. In this engaging book, based on a weekly column she writes for the Southampton Press, Foster muses about the pleasures of farming, even on land at the eastern end of Long Island, where development is so rampant that her town seems like "a territory under siege." Although she is often tempted to block out mentally the sight of the "architectural eruptions" that surround the farm, for the most part she takes the changes in stride, ignoring the spackle buckets and pieces of cardboard that blow over into her fields from adjacent construction sites and observing with amusement the antics of the seasonal residents who jog past her in spandex outfits. These are, after all, the customers who buy her vegetables at the roadside farm stand she runs as a sideline to the main business of the farm. Instead, Foster tries to concentrate on the pleasures that make farming life so rewarding for her, chronicling the four seasons with entertaining accounts of farm activities. Her charming essays sparkle with insight and humor, and speak movingly of the enchantment she finds in the world around her, even when it is in danger of being lost forever. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
After graduating with a liberal arts degree in 1994, Foster decided to join her father and brother in running their family farm, located on the eastern end of Long Island. Her weekly column for the local newspaper became the basis for this book. Like many gardening and farming journals, this one follows the four seasons of one year, commenting on weather conditions, planting activities, and agricultural pests. There are observations about the native flora and fauna and reflections on the tenacity of farmers. Foster repeatedly expresses her contempt for the growing number of wealthy summer visitors and for those without "ancestral connections" who, she claims, are turning the area into "a kind of high-end suburbia." Foster's account of farm life lacks enthusiasm, and her descriptions of nature are humdrum, having neither vitality nor lyricism. Much more insightful looks at the disappearing American farmer are given in Victor Hanson's The Land Was Everything and in the works of Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon. The books of Hal Borland and Gladys Taber are far more appealing in their depiction of country life. Foster's title is recommended only for regional collections. Ilse Heidmann, Olympia, WA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From newcomer Foster, a keen and wholly lovely catalogue of seasons growing spuds in the midst of swells. Out on the South Fork of Long Island, the remaining farms are less likely to be bounded by stonewalls and hedge rows than by monumental architectural experiments. The Hamptons are schizophrenic, with 65,000-square-foot mansions plunked down on famously fertile soil in a region known for its truck farms as well as its summer homes. Foster's family has been cultivating this earth for five generations; she has "watched, a little dumbfounded, as our open spaces have given way to the infrastructure of an international resort." Though the author has done her part to resist the forces of greed, she does not overly dwell on that situation here. Rather, Foster agreeably evokes all that is worthy and special about the land on which she has always lived but still hungers to know better: the farm, the overgrown graveyard, the scattered ponds, the romance of out buildings and barns, the vivacity and annoyance of weeds, the weather. ("So much about Hurricane Floyd made me fear him. Even the name sounds like a pedophile.") Her account contains elements of the pastoral, but it also has plenty of quick, edgy material: "When contemporary beach houses fall into the sea, I compare it to the bitter divorce that often comes at the end of an exaggerated romance." The roll of the seasons is a constant in the background: the hundred chores that spring tugs at her to attend, the coming and going of birds (she gives their local names: crow-blackbird, golden-winged woodpecker, and, best of all, the browns), the care and maintenance of 600 acres of vegetables, the languid bliss of October to April. The tenacityand availability of life, amply admired and admirably evoked

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Chapter One

A dusting of snow that takes all day to settle makes me feel at home in December. With snow there is no reason to resent the cold. With snow the ground is luminous and night is held off. There are no shadows.

    The next morning, snow gives away secrets. No one sees the cat that slips under a broken board and into the cluttered shed. It is the little footprints she leaves behind that betray her.

    The guinea hens are nowhere in sight, but they too have left paths. They have scattered randomly from their coop and across the lawn. But they tend to gather about the doorways. By the side porch, the back porch, the front porch and even the glass slider, their congregation has turned the snow to slush. They shove their breasts at one another, they jockey and slip to get a better view of something inside. Perhaps themselves reflected in the glass? The polka-dotted birds will spend the day like mercury—rolling, scattering and rejoining. The seeds of frozen bittersweet and plumes of unexpected purple, the droppings of other creatures, bleed into the surface of the guinea hens' tramping.

    Sagg Pond went out again last week, leaving it so low and the mud so saturated that it reflects the sky. From where I sit, I can watch twenty blue herons as they make minor flights, really suspended leaps, from one side of their statuesque neighbor to the other. They too are mirrored by the mud; every move has a mime beneath it. Herons do an inevitable lanky dance.

    Really, we went almost all year without the ripe smell of mud. I, having just returned from the confines of aconvention center, take deep breaths of this odor, tamping it into the bottom of my lungs. I do not consider that from where I stand at White Walls, the place where the road crosses the estuary, this effort might gag me. It does not. The cold air diminishes the stench. The waft of the drained flats provides a kind of fingerprint, a unique muck, all our own.

    Though the emptiness of what was the pond has its benefits, seeing it so frequently makes me unhappy. There has been at least one public meeting on the topic of ousting the phragmites, the invasive, perennial wetland grass that surrounds the pond. It is generally agreed that the horrid reed has usurped valuable and attractive vistas. But before we go ripping them out by the roots, we should look for reasons why the non-native has successfully homogenized the pond shore. You could say that the phragmites are like corporate franchises. With diversity and energy, they have trounced indigenous competition. But we must acknowledge our part in the aggressor's success. We have unwittingly contributed to the propagation of phragmites by making the environment less and less comfortable for the native species, specifically cattails and mallows, because we dig, dig, dig our pond. Every time Sagg Pond is emptied into the Atlantic, thereby permitting the incoming tides to enter, salty effusions overwhelm the brackish marsh. Thus, the equilibrium is tilted in favor of the phragmite, which is eager to settle in and spread out.

    Elsewhere, however, reclamation is possible. On Saturday a crew of gloved hands descended on Poxabogue Cemetery. They tore back the overgrown edges, uncovered lost stones, and the place is suddenly large and waiting. I suspect that those who have regularly passed this burying ground have never known it was there until now. I go there today to find the grave that has been described to me by tombstone aficionados. Two daughters are buried there and while they share the stone, individual inscriptions are kept to either side, like pages of a book. The prayer for them is shared, etched across the entire bottom and does not heed the invisible spine. "Lie sleep sweet babes, until we meet again ..." The rest of the passage has sunk into the ground and I feel improper even pressing the grass to try to read on.

* * *

Today, evidence of a failed blizzard is in the farm fields. What was forecast to be snow but turned to rain couldn't sink into the icy ground. It puddled up and froze over. With the sun shining on them, the temporary lakes are metallic, as if steel sheets were set down in the ryegrass.

    One of the largest of these temporary lakes is in the field adjacent to my parents' house. When circumstances bore its creation, we kids were all happy because it gave us an alternative to our more permanent ice rink, the goose pond. The goose pond was a little depression in the backyard that my mother kept flooded for the comfort of her partially domesticated flock. Our goose pond, not unlike other small, murky bodies of water, seemed to have a gravitational pull on all us children. The surface was riddled with things you'd generally find in farmyards—cinder blocks, 2x4s, plow parts, and other miscellaneous scrap iron—all of it half submerged. It was, however, the frozen goose droppings, the seemingly most benign protrusions, that proved most hazardous. To lodge the toe of your skate in one was to come to an abrupt and complete stop, ready or not.

    While this rink taught us exceptionally defensive skating techniques, we naturally longed for a wide-open space where we might take our skating to the next level and execute more graceful transitions. When the fields froze, we were presented with the necessary solitude and a pristine location that, if only imagined, turned our clumsy routines into acts of Olympic stature. The thing about these rinks was that they were only really good for a day, two days at most. As the water underneath inevitably receded, the ice became thin, first at the edges and then throughout, at places unannounced. What happened was that when you hit these spots with narrow blades, the ice, now a membrane, let go. Your steel runners were transferred immediately to the lower level, a quasi-frozen mat of muddy ryegrass. In better-known terminology, it is like hitting a gravel patch on roller blades.

    Initially my ankles would twist and surrender to the sudden change. But once I realized that by maintaining momentum—if I transitioned into a run, rather than a glide—I could stay upright. A few hasty steps as I paddled the air for balance usually got me beyond the weak spot, where the skates retook their intended charge. My action was not pretty. It interrupted both serenity and fantasy, but it introduced the reality of uncertainty, to which I first responded with adrenaline and eventually coordination.

    Recently, Southampton Town's elected officials implemented new guidelines for its comprehensive agricultural plan, detailing how the municipality hopes to survive and prosper, even in the face of what looks and feels like an onslaught of people, pollution, sprawl and traffic. With this new legislation, the officials showed how vital it is to maintain the rural character of this place. The year, which had begun with local farmers feeling they were skating on thin ice, progressed from uncertainty to cooperation. After many months of negotiations, contentious meetings and often-emotional public hearings, the agricultural package voted on and approved on October 22, 2001, was both feasible and acceptable to the farmers. It seemed as if it would preserve the farmland on the east end of Long Island as well as the farming community itself.

    The simple and wrenching irony has always been that the very thing that has made this area successful as a high-end vacation spot is called "open space". It is land abutting the Atlantic Ocean, woodland abutting farms, unobstructed vistas, peace, quiet and the occasional tractor. Open space here is largely still open space because it supports an economy—agriculture.

    For as long as I can remember, I have listened and watched as my parents, along with many other farmers, have waged a constant battle for the preservation and protection of our most vital resource—unencumbered farmland. Such efforts have produced beneficial legislation. For example, there is currently an agricultural district law by which farmland is not taxed in the category of residential but rather as agricultural, at a lower rate. Until this law was implemented, local taxation was based on highest and best use evaluation, not the production of potatoes but the hypothetical production of subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. And because property is simply worth so much more if houses can be built on it, without this law, farmland owners would have been literally taxed off the land.

    When the dialogue began between local government and agricultural interests, it was not nearly as constructive and flexible as it should have been. In order that Southampton Town adhere to the goal of maintaining the area's so-called rural character, it intended to adopt a new set of zoning rules. The prevailing desire is that fewer new houses will dot our landscape. The simplest and quickest way to do so is to require that all acreage of ten or more acres, when subdivided, leave 80 percent as open space.

    But the plan was insufficient because it was rigid. It failed to foresee that a larger set-aside of open space, in a mansion-minded society, would not save farmland but rather establish a precedent for even larger house lots. There was no guarantee or incentive that the land reserved for crops would actually be used for crops. In the past, my brother was hired to "plant" one such agricultural set-aside. He used perennial ryegrass seed; the result was an expansive thirty-acre front lawn.

    For farmers, the land is an asset, in some cases the only one they have. When the owner of farmland dies, the heirs are likely to pay huge estate taxes. A little comfort is taken in knowing that there is at least one way to pay the government and to keep the farm intact. Mostly. Though it isn't a blissful option, it is possible to subdivide the property and sell one or two parcels for development, thus raising the needed revenue or borrowing it against that liquid asset. But if the old regulations had been approved, the farm heirs would end up parting with more than they'd want. In this scenario the original acreage could very plausibly be diminished to the extent it would not be profitable or feasible to farm it. The legislation approved last October permitted farmers and farm advocates to transform what initially was seen as a "taking" from the farmers into a code that encourages both land preservation and the industry that sustains it.

    Perhaps more abstract for nonfarming minds to grasp is that the original up-zoning was offensive to the very people it avowed to "save". The only property that would have been affected by this proposal was that of ten or more acres. Overwhelmingly, the only people who own ten or more acres are farmers (or retired farmers or widows of farmers who rent it to farmers) or developers. The town was asking, essentially, that farmers pay for everyone else's view while risking their own financial vitality.

    The few farmers who remain here have prevailed despite the most appetizing monetary offers. They have done so because when cows weren't profitable, apples were; when potatoes waned, horses replaced them. We are landowners who, rather than fold, chose to evolve; we have improvised and continued. We have not done so because we are merely waiting for offers to get better. We do so because the success of our parents or grandparents has taught and instilled in us a desire for this kind of lifestyle. What the Southampton Town government was threatening to do would have alienated rather than included the people who uphold and maintain the bucolic backdrop by which so many other residents—builders, real estate agents, landscapers, boutique owners, pool companies and the list goes on—do very well.

    Last October, the likelihood of a pitchfork rebellion was quelled by innovative and responsive governing. Rather than passing the draconian measures originally proposed, the town board listened to the farming community. Without the assistance of the Peconic Land Trust, Long Island Farm Bureau, the Group for the South Fork, and the passions of those most affected, these groundbreaking, incentive-based laws would not have been achieved.

    By the nature of our profession, we farmers are able to readjust and respond to changes on many fronts, be it the weather, the market, a broken piece of machinery, or infestation of pests. We are able to tolerate this kind of instability because we are permitted certainty about one thing, that is, if all else fails, the land, which we continually pay for with our time and labor and taxes, is ours. And when it is ours, there is not only a future for farming but options.

* * *

Although the rain is confining, I don't want it to stop. I move from window to window and see how a January thaw reveals the weakness of its season—like anything thin, undressed it cannot conceal its bones. The sparrows are tucked deep under the cedar trees. The only color I see is the putrid orange of unweathered wood, the exposed cross members of half-built houses. I don't want a purpose to drag me outside. Today, if we were young, we would play hide-and-seek. But at thirty-one, and alone in my parents' house, I ruminate about the contents of the bookshelves.

    In this house the books came from my father's side of the family, the Fosters. Some were salvaged from basement floods. Many have cracked covers or pages that disintegrate when turned. There are a few in good condition—the embossed leather family Bible and practical books about things like fertilizer, boat building or caring for your firearms. A favorite is Household Discoveries, a book brimming with blunt advice and extreme homemade cures for all that ails, from rats to lice to colicky babies and foaling mares. Though it's not nearly as entertaining, I am also drawn to the old business ledger. In a monotonously even, flowing hand, line after line reveals who sold what, when and for how much. The information, though not particularly poetic, has historic value. The penmanship, to the extent that it looks compulsively practiced, tells me more about my grandfather than anyone living can.

    All families are a combination of two—two sets of genes, two worldviews, two personalities. Cliff's family—landowners, laborers, tight-lipped. But my mother, some would say, came from an opposite world. There are piles of candid photographs—women smoking, dancing bears, babies in tin tubs, all black and white smiles against the rugged backdrop of early strip mines in South America. In the notes taken for a never completed memoir, my maternal grandmother glibly describes her husband and his family as one that was always "long on intellect and short on cash". The books that are in Dean's house are the ones that came from my mother's side. When her father died, the contents of his shelves were transferred to Dean's, not because Dean wanted them but because he had the space.

    My brother has a few books of his own, but the forcibly inherited collection outnumbers and dominates. Dean's Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding is conspicuously wedged between the chalky blue cover of The Communist Manifesto and the well-worn, gold and green spine of the Scientific American's Amateur Scientist. There are several books by Winston Churchill and the complete works of Rudyard Kipling. The biography of Genghis Khan—The Emperor of All Men—is right next to The Book of Mormon. None of this will ever interest my brother.

    Throughout his life my grandfather, Jack Beattie, shifted between systems of belief. I pull a yellowed pamphlet down: "Which Church Is Right?" and tuck it back in next to Orwell's Animal Farm. I find a circa 1950 self-help manual, How to Control Worry: In the Name of Common Sense. It cost just thirty-five cents and claims, in just a few short weeks, to be able to cure that which "causes so much fear, anxiety, wakefulness, illness and marital unhappiness". There is a thin novel; the author begins with this self-deprecating dedication: "For mother, who deserved better". In the end, the book I decide to take home is The Four Seasons, Japanese Haiku.


Excerpted from Dirt Under My Nails by Marilee Foster. Copyright © 2002 by Marilee Foster. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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