April 17, 2012, 6:00 am
The sun has been rising steadily over South Philadelphia for the last hour or so, shifting the black outside into formless gray surfaces across our backyards. A grill, a concrete divider covered in matted green ivy, a fence slowly come into focus as 6:00 am approaches.
I have been lying here listening to the tenuous cries of feral cats, mounting birdsong and my own breath in the muggy morning air. A bean tree has created its crooked, stubborn life in the partial dirt alley behind our house, and starlings and, today, a wayward seagull have paused to give a call before moving east toward the water.
Ninety degrees in April? Unfathomable. How this uncanny weather is about to affect my future is anyone’s guess, at least right now. Lord knows I’ll have to start figuring all that out soon. But right now I’m not thinking about weather reports.
I am thinking about dirt.
Two weeks ago my family, Nate and I dug up thirteen shovels of dirt from a two-acre perimeter on the property in the Lehigh Valley. We carried it home, mixed it together and laid it on newspaper to dry overnight before shipping it off. Penn State will test it for phosphorus, arsenic, nitrates and a slew of chemical words whose boxes I checked without understanding the names. Soon we will have some guidance as to what is happening in that shale land that may become my home, and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how to coax it to life.
As 2012 rolled in this year, I knew two things for sure: I was unhappy with my work, and I was, for the first time in five years, growing disillusioned with the city. I talked to Nate, I talked to my friends, and I talked to my parents, and for the first time in a long time I started to think about dirt in a big way. And it felt right. I started sending out applications to organic farms for work at the end of January.
I started visiting farms, reading books by farmers and articles about high tunnels and farmstands. I e-mailed the Food Trust for a farmer’s market application, knowing full well that we are probably years pursuing this issue further. I drove to New York to interview with Keith Stewart and his wife. Keith is known for his work and runs a well-established farm that he’s been tending since the 80s, and for the next six months I’ll be working for him along with a handful of other interns I’ll be meeting soon.
My success, failure and love of dirt at the end of all of this will determine my next move, which at this moment may include creating and operating a farm. My parents, who have always been amazingly willing and able to roll with the punches their daughters have thrown over the years, went from coolly skeptical to wildly interested over the past three months. This past week my father assembled nearly a dozen rain barrels and my mother attended her first Exploring the Small Farm Dream class at a Penn State extension office. The guest speaker talked about creating CSA shares for people in the SNAP food aid program and running classes and summer camps to teach kids the importance of sustainability, and I could hear the excitement in my chest reflected in my mom’s voice. For the first time, I started to believe we might pull this off.
Last June I joined Back on My Feet, a running group in the city that partners with homeless shelters instills a sense of self-worth and purpose through running. Three days a week I leave my house in the morning dark and run to meet my team at Broad and Bainbridge, where we run with guys from the Ready, Willing and Able shelter nearby. This team is what I will miss the most when I leave – I know that unequivocally. These guys have pushed me to try harder, to run faster, to dream bigger than I ever have before. Without them, I never would have realized how much I needed to shake up my post-grad existence, or that I want to be working and living and sweating outside instead of feeling my eyes give out behind a desk and a computer.
When I told them I was leaving, my guys immediately started to call me “Farmer Liz.” This blog and this journey are in honor of them and everyone in my world who has encouraged me to take this plunge (and to share it with them). I hope this undertaking will, at the very least, pleasantly distract you for a few minutes a day. Maybe you’ll start looking for some dirt of your own. Regardless, stay tuned. It’s sure to be an adventure.