I was born in Indiana, in a village so remote our closest neighbors grew popcorn. After my birth, in a snowstorm that closed interstates, my father rented a monster truck and drove across the fields to retrieve my mother and me from the hospital.
I grew up one state over, in Ohio. Our town was rural, but there was a clear divide between those kids who were country and those who were cool, as clear as which girls wore Guess jeans and which did not (I did not). My friends lived in the nice neighborhood, where you couldn’t even smell the manure spread on the not-too distant fields.Early on I learned to hide where I came from.
Everyone in my extended family, both sides, were farmers, except for my parents. My family grew soy, corn, wheat. They sold Christmas trees in the winter, and picked strawberries in the summer. One of my first memories is riding in the mighty combine as the dusty fields were harvested below my feet. I rode standing up, as if on a crowded bus, my small body pressed against the giant, angled windshield, my grandfather behind the wheel.
It was some time before I learned that not everyone’s family raised meat they ate, that the county fair was entertainment, not work, as it was for my family, who showed and sold animals in 4-H. At the fair, I watched my then-teenaged uncles enter the greased pig contest, trying to catch a piglet coated in grease and let loose in an area: the one who held onto it got to keep it.
I thought my parents had “gotten out” from that life. I was embarrassed by my relatives’ country accents, how they said “ain’t” and “warsh” and “crick”—and how my parents lapsed back into speaking that way when we visited.
As an adult, I tended not to talk about where I came from. My parents were the only ones in the family who had been able to graduate college; one of my grandparents only had an 8th-grade education. Most of the people I met in the cities where I lived, or later in graduate school, wouldn’t understand: how my grandparents kept goats they milked every morning, how my uncle had lost several toes to a combine, how everyone drove old trucks and no one had a lot of money.
I lived in Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York City—places so removed from the land that I remember getting overwhelmed in a grocery store in San Francisco, buying a tomato. I thought of how my mother liked to eat them straight from the ground, not even washing the dirt off. Iused to rise very early, like my parents—farm life ingrained into them, even after they had left it—and go to a park to try to be alone in whatever nature I could find.
I missed the country without knowing why, without wanting to give voice to it. But I was on track to never go home again.
Then in quick succession I got pregnant and separated from my husband (soon divorced). I had to go back to rural Ohio. I ended up living—and still live—in southeastern Ohio, where my son was born in the foothills of Appalachia, a few hours south of where I was raised.
The slight difference in climate meant the growing season is longer where I live now, and it’s much more common to know how to tend for the land, to want to. Neighbors left hand-me-downs on the porch for my son—but they left plant starters too.
Underemployed and with a child to take care of alone, I couldn’t afford a doctor, so when I coughed, a friend gave me slippery elm bark to chew. One afternoon my parents visited when I had goldenrod seeping in a jar with local honey. I planned to strain the leaves, and save the honey to treat colds and seasonal illnesses.
My father grabbed the jar off the mantle. “Is this goldenrod?”
I expected a skeptical look or lecture, but he only confirmed right away what it was for. “For allergies,” he said, and told me about the plant’s astringency.
Finally I was ready to listen.
This spring, my now 9-year-old son found a patch of morel mushrooms in the woods. When I excitedly texted pictures to my parents, they said my grandfathers—both dead for years now—would have been proud: one had been a forager and the other, supplemented farming with ginseng hunting. How had I not known that before?
The work my family has done for generations, growing food for themselves and others, was not something to be ashamed of, but a legacy. It keeps us alive and keeps us connected to the earth and to each other. I’m only sorry it took me years to really learn that.
Just a few days ago we stumbled across some stinging nettles, and I told my son he had had the leaves in a tea many times. Nettle is great for calm. The leaves are so sweet, you don’t even need sugar, I told my son.
“I love being Appalachian,” he said.
It has taken me decades to say what my son announced easily in the woods: I love being from farm stock. I love working the land. Living in remote and rural Appalachian Ohio changed my relationship to the earth, and by extension, strengthened my relationship with my family and ties to my own history.
I love the knowledge of plants passed down to me, and I love that I have passed it to my son already.
He nodded at the nettles without disturbing them, and walked ahead of me confidently down the path.