So Near the Soil

Soon after I purchased land in southwestern Wisconsin, a stranger from Missouri called me. “I’m your farm’s manager,” he said with a drawl. He had helped the widow who’d owned my property before me. Would I like to keep him on? He would arrange to rent my fields and sign me up for programs. What programs? I wondered. Why would I need a manager? He wasn’t a farmer. He didn’t even live in Wisconsin. It sounded like a scam, so I told him I wasn’t interested.

The land where my partner, David, and I planned to make our home was a giant rectangle, partly wooded, partly tillable, bisected by a spring-fed river. On eighty of its acres, for a hundred years, farmers had raised corn, hay, or soybeans. I hadn’t meant to purchase such a big parcel, much less a former farm. But David and I fell in love with the place while visiting one snowy January morning. We braved the river’s rough ice to reach a flat expanse in the valley surrounded by hills. We hiked up a steep, narrow road through a forest that led to another, more secluded expanse on a ridgetop.

We had been looking for somewhere to start over. We weren’t young, but we were more than a decade younger than the average American farmer, who was fifty-five then, in 2004. We wanted to live more healthily than we had been in our city offices, staring at computers. We hoped to spend our days outdoors, breathing fresh air. We wanted space and freedom to experiment with natural building techniques and renewable energy. I planned to trade writing for farming as a way to make a living.

Farming was hard, messy work, I knew. But I liked hard work, and I figured farming would come naturally to me. For as far back as family stories and municipal records indicated, my forebears were farmers. But I hadn’t decided what crops to grow or how. During the next four years, while David and I built a yurt, a straw-bale garage, and then a house on the property, I would research possibilities. I would practice by raising a large garden.


The flat stretch near the road was a thicket of weeds, and I owned no equipment for breaking sod. A neighbor recommended hiring Hugh, who lived a few miles to the east, to disc and rototill the area. Hugh was a real farmer, an old local whose last name went so far back in the region that it appeared on road signs. He must have known the people who had farmed my land for half a century before the widow’s family bought it. He probably understood my soil better than I did. I worried that he’d recognize I was no farmer and think it a shame that someone like me had bought the place. I hesitated to approach him after David and I pulled into his driveway on a May afternoon. 

We found Hugh standing by a tractor next to a pole barn. He was short and stooped, but his face was clear and smooth. He spoke in a weak falsetto. As we became acquainted, his big black dog jumped on us and pawed at our arms. Behind us, on the state highway, giant farm machinery passed by. 

Gazing toward the road, Hugh said, “You think they’re getting their investment back on those things?” He knew a guy who owned some of that equipment, he said, who farmed 1,500 acres of corn and another 1,500 of soybeans but wasn’t breaking even. “People go into debt, then go into more debt and don’t even seem to care.” Hugh had a lot of opinions—kids these days don’t know how to work hard and “I wouldn’t live in one of them cities if you gave it to me.” We mentioned our idea of buying a tractor someday, and he warned, “Some people, they just paint up old, broke-down tractors. Buy one of those tractors and you’re paying three thousand, four thousand dollars for the paint.” 

The sun was at its peak and warming us. The dog settled into the grass near our feet. Hugh kept talking. 

Before he retired, he said, he had grown nine acres of tobacco. The crop wasn’t unusual for southwestern Wisconsin—since the late 1800s, most of the farms in our area, including mine, had grown some short-season, cigar-wrap tobacco—but nine acres was a lot. Raising tobacco means three seasons of back-breaking labor: setting the fragile seedlings by hand in spring, snapping off the budding tops in summer, stripping the leaves and hanging them in the barn to dry before the first snowfall. But until the turn of this century, as cheap, imported tobacco flooded the market and the government ended price supports for domestic tobacco, it was the most lucrative crop a family could grow. It bought school clothes, next year’s seed, new machinery. 

“What a lot of work that must have been,” I said to Hugh. 

“How’d you think I got so hunched over?” 

I asked if he had taken advantage of the buyout that the USDA had offered landowners with tobacco allotments. My property had come with a 1.5-acre allotment. The buyout announcement in my mailbox was my first inkling of what the farm manager from Missouri meant by “programs.” Since I had no intention of growing tobacco, I signed up. For the next ten years I would be paid about two thousand dollars annually to not grow tobacco—a strange, undeserved windfall funded by the big tobacco companies. A nine-acre allotment, I figured, must have earned Hugh more than one hundred and twenty thousand dollars over the same ten years. 

“Yeah. I made out real good,” he said wistfully, as if he would have rather been out planting tobacco. 

USDA programs never figured in my mother’s stories of growing up on a farm. She spoke of digging for arrowheads in cornfields and drinking cups of milk still warm from the cow. But her family’s mid-twentieth-century farm would have been subject to government quotas, subsidies, and reporting requirements. In 1933, the Roosevelt Administration initiated agricultural programs to ease the double whammy of Depression-era crop failures and economic collapse. Since that time the quantity and complexity of those programs have ballooned. My fields, long ago logged in the USDA’s ledger, belonged to four of them, including the one that established tobacco quotas and led to the buyout. 

As I researched farm possibilities, I realized that the agency would require me to report the type, location, acreage, and yield of any crop I intended to grow for sale. The overhead perplexed me. The limitations seemed unjust. But they couldn’t be avoided. After all, the USDA conducted surveys to ensure compliance.


Discing and tilling turned my garden space into an expanse of melon-sized sod lumps. I spent a week chopping the lumps with a spade, pulling out the grass and roots, shaking the dirt free, then pouring it into the spaces where the lumps had been. I sat in the dirt, clawed, squeezed, and kneaded the dirt, and squinted at the freshly exposed worms that periscoped for safety. Under the sod, the soil was brownie-colored, moist, and crumbly. Surely fertile. I nudged delicate lettuce and herb seeds out of their packets. I nestled pumpkin, broccoli, and strawberry starts into hillocks of straw that ticked as the sun warmed them. 

After a few days, I saw dirt peeling away from tangled roots whenever I closed my eyes. My hands became gnarled, the skin under my fingernails raw. My clothes were smeared and caked with soil—yellow, brown, gray. Straw showered off my overalls and boots. When I washed up, the water ran brown. My cheeks and nose radiated red. I was never happier. 

When I was a child, gardening had felt like a sentence imposed by my parents—lugging heavy milk cans full of water, hoeing in the heat, and thinning carrots while mosquitoes fed on me. But gardening as an adult, on my own terms, was different. Planting gave me hope. An expanse of freshly turned soil was like a blank page. Dropping seeds into it, I was setting new lives in motion. Anything was possible. I couldn’t predict exactly what I’d get, but I knew I’d reap something from almost nothing. 

In my first garden I planted a half dozen pumpkins, thirty-six tomatoes, sixty-four garlic bulbs, sixty potatoes, several rows of kale and leeks, and long blocks of popcorn, among other things. Every year after that, I sowed in excess, even after vowing to scale back. No matter how unrealistic my ambitions, planting brought joy. 

It coincided with the return of migrating birds. My property was within the Mississippi River Flyway, and May mornings were loud with birdsong. As the fog began to lift and I was setting seeds, I learned the amorous and territorial phrases of orioles, warblers, meadowlarks, phoebes, and bluebirds. But the red-winged blackbirds dominated. Over and over, the males belted out four notes that matched the opening of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”: The moon is right . . . The moon is right. I wouldn’t lose this maddening earworm, my temporally incongruent planting song, until the blackbirds calmed down in July. 

At dusk, after annotating my garden map, I would look up to see nighthawks swooping overhead. As I put away my shovel and hoe, barred owls and whippoorwills called from the uplands. I thought about my ancestors who tilled before the advent of government subsidies, or even tractors. Surely, they felt this deep connection with their surroundings. I thought of Tolstoy’s Levin, the author’s alter ego in Anna Karenina, who reveled in the honest satisfaction of farming and expressed his spirituality through nature. As a farmer, I imagined, I would be like Levin—soulful, striving, and imperturbable. 


I read books about farming, attended growers’ conferences, visited farmers, and asked questions. Like many novices in our area, I dreamed of starting a diverse organic vegetable operation. I pictured my valley field a deep-green Eden of harmoniously flourishing species. I saw myself reaping bushels of nourishing food. I could sell produce at farmer’s markets, through subscription arrangements with customers, to grocery stores, restaurants, or Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic grower’s cooperative, whose headquarters stood only a half-hour’s drive from my property. 

One family I knew seemed to be living my dream. The couple—a lanky man and his petite, blond wife—had started their farm a few years before I bought my property. They grew fruits and vegetables, raised chickens and pigs. I would visit their place to buy produce and eggs and later, after they built a commercial kitchen, pizzas and cookies. I went to gather data, too. What were they having success with? What did they struggle with? They lived only five miles up the road, in the same valley. I figured their soil, water, and weather patterns must have been similar to those on my land.

Each visit found the couple hustling to plant, weed, harvest, sell produce, or maintain equipment—or gone to pick up supplies or deliver products. I felt guilty for taking their time with my questions. One mid-July afternoon, in the sweltering heat, the man was weed-whacking through a half-acre of raspberries, wearing a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and bandana, sweating and getting showered with shredded vegetation. His wife was rebuffing their children’s pleas to make one more trip to the swimming hole. Everyone seemed harried and weary. Yet they were also driven to succeed in their ambitious aims. 

On a later visit, I surveyed a field of hazelnut bushes my farmer friend had just planted. These bushes were cultivars designed to thrive in our climate. My friend had been compelled by a man in our area who was selling the hazelnut starts and trying to establish a collective of hazelnut growers. 

I had also visited the hazelnut guy, who was bearded, energetic, and talkative, and who, after majoring in environmental studies, had become an evangelist for permaculture. Permaculture is a method of growing multiple, mutually beneficial crops in a single field, as in my Edenic vision. He led me through the mowed lanes between his hazelnut bushes, barely pausing for breath during a discourse on farming. He emphasized how detrimental our Midwestern monocultures of corn and soybeans are to the land. He said we had to break our dependency on these food and fuel sources in favor of something more natural. The benefits of hazelnut crops over soy and corn, he told me, were numerous: no need to till the soil, less erosion and runoff, flood resistance, and no need for pesticides or herbicides. When we spotted a bird’s nest in a hazelnut bush, he parted the weeds to get a better look. “See that?” he said with delight. “Never find that in a cornfield.”

When I asked about his investment, he told me that he had spent seventy thousand dollars on the nut bushes we were looking at. “What’s your market for these?” I asked. “Have you broken even?” He hadn’t. To make a living, he raised and sold vegetables to Organic Valley. But he had grown hazelnuts for only nine years, he said, and the market was still in its infancy. He expected the hazelnut business to take off. For now, though, he and his family ate a lot of hazelnuts themselves. One problem was that no mechanized harvesting equipment had been designed that could pick the nut clusters and crack the shells without crushing them. I left the hazelnut plantation shaking my head. I didn’t know if I had the kind of faith required to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a crop whose returns were so uncertain.

And each time I visited the farming couple up the road, I was intimidated by the work that consumed them. I recognized that organic vegetables would earn a premium over conventionally grown produce. But that wouldn’t make up for the unrelenting labor they would demand. I began to consider other crops, such as sunflower seeds for oil or grain alternatives to wheat. Crops that didn’t really match my original vision.


The local USDA office was in a bland, beige building on the edge of town where the farm fields began. On its walls hung posters advertising subsidy or grant programs. Each poster featured a sunlit, smiling farmer standing in a field. I wore a tee shirt, overalls, bandana, and dusty work boots to my first appointment with the USDA program administrator. Still, I didn’t look like anyone in the posters or anyone else in that building. 

The administrator, who seemed to be twice my height and breadth, stood and called me to her desk. Her tone was brusque. We had already suffered miscommunications. Now I sat where she pointed and confessed that I hadn’t received the forms and reminders regarding application deadlines she’d mailed. She looked at me with a mix of disbelief and exasperation. 

All I had to do was sign on two lines—a task that the farm manager from Missouri would have taken off my hands. I didn’t understand the programs I was asked to reenroll in. Studying the forms didn’t help. The administrator was terse. Other landowners were lined up behind me. So I signed, pushed the forms back toward her, and hurried out of the office. 

In the years that followed, I gained little clarity about the programs. If I asked, the women who worked for the USDA would explain again while I looked around at their full candy dishes, seasonal knickknacks, and family photos, wondering if they had been raised on farms, if they still lived on farms. Their expertise seemed innate. But the acronyms and jargon of agricultural subsidies remained gibberish to me. I never researched the programs once I got home. Maybe I didn’t want to taint my nostalgic notions of farming. 

During one visit I was handed an aerial map of my farm and told to sit at a child-sized table and highlight in different colors which acres were planted in various crops. I froze. I wasn’t planting anything. Until I decided what type of farm I would run, I was leaving the fields fallow. What color should I use for that? Older men with rough hands and barrel-shaped bellies sat at the table, too, coloring their maps, joking with each other. They knew which markers they needed and where lines should separate the colors. Finally, the program administrator took back my map. “I’ll take care of it,” she said. She would mark my acres as planted to grass. 

One of my fields was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which set aside formerly tilled fields for wildlife. That made sense to me. Another field was eligible for a subsidy that safeguarded corn growers’ prices, even for landowners who no longer grew corn. In fact, most USDA program dollars, allocated in the Farm Bill, pertain to only a handful of commodity crops, including corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton.

The USDA policies were logical when they were conceived. But in the twenty-first century, they weren’t as helpful to the small family farmers I knew as they might have been to my grandpa. According to the Environmental Working Group, between 1995 and 2019, the top 10 percent of farm subsidy recipients took 78 percent of the $223.5 billion total, and the top 1 percent received 26 percent of the payments. Although the government tries to limit the amount each farmer can collect, property owners, including some wealthy politicians, game the system. One tactic is to assign multiple partners or farm managers, people who might never set foot on the farm. 

Still, just as the top earners took handouts they didn’t need, I was receiving a few thousand dollars I didn’t need to support a farm. I continued to feel like an imposter at the USDA office, even years later, when the women who worked there greeted me as a friend. 


In the height of summer in the second year I gardened, I bought a used tractor. It was a blue New Holland, ten years old, forty-six horsepower. Smaller than the tractors that Hugh had called a source of crushing debt, but not a hobby tractor. Tiller, bucket, brush hog, broadcast seeder, and plow blade attachments came with it. The man who was selling it had moved from Boulder to a parcel south of us two years earlier to be a garlic farmer. As we stood between his barn and the plots of knee-high garlic, he said he was returning to Boulder. I didn’t ask why he was giving up on farming. 

I used my tractor often—to cultivate, mow, dig, and move earth. Operating it thrilled me. No enclosed cab shielded me from its power. On ignition, the machine grumbled and shook. Its exhaust rose in plumes. Its engine blasted me with heat. Manipulating the pedals and levers, I reveled in how fast and forcefully my directives were executed. The tractor was loud, smelly, and mighty. It wasn’t nimble, though. I used the tractor and its tiller to churn the garden soil in spring, but once the electric fence was up and plants were growing, I needed a smaller tool that I could control with a light touch. 

At the time I was writing a book about pedal-powered and hand-cranked devices, The Human-Powered Home, and building human-powered machines. Such machines are novelties in the U.S. But around the globe, pedal-powered devices—water pumps, for example—can save lives. A solution between hauling buckets from a creek and installing a municipal water system, they’re an example of appropriate technology. They’re efficient, affordable, easy to use and maintain. For my garden I wanted a more appropriate technology, something between a hoe and a tractor. I decided on a bike-wheel cultivator. Picture a unicycle with handlebars where the seat would be. Add a tube with the head of a handheld cultivator, a three-pronged claw, extending at an angle behind the wheel to fall at ground level. I constructed one from the parts of a bike I found at a thrift store. 

Plodding forward mulishly, I pushed the cultivator to create rows for planting, or later, to weed. The soil peeled back. Chickweed, nutsedge, and purslane sprouts fell away left and right of the tines. In wet summers, I used the cultivator to break up the mud and aerate the soil. After the mud hardened, I broke it open again, and the clayey crust crackled like starched taffeta. 

Cultivating became my second favorite part of gardening. Walking the rows for hours and leaving clean, parallel lines in the dirt was meditative. It reminded me of editing—tidying up, eliminating the inessential. It was also part treasure-hunting. Most weeks I unearthed a surprise: a shotgun shell, a shard of white dinnerware, chips of chert, the debitage created while making arrowheads, and once, a ten-thousand-year-old point made from Hixton silicified sandstone, the oldest stone on the planet. 

I used the tractor to mow my fallow fields so they didn’t turn to brush or woodland, leaving open the option to cultivate them one day. But in the garden, I used the bike-wheel cultivator even when a tractor might have worked better, faster. The cultivator kept me close to the ground. I could stop, squat, and inspect some fragment that caught the sun, or even graze on baby arugula. So near the soil, I probably ate some dirt too, let it seep through my pores. That summer I made the bike-wheel cultivator, scientists announced a new discovery: soil contains bacteria that activate serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain. Touching the dirt meant taking antidepressants. I wasn’t surprised. 


One evening during my third summer of gardening, as I was still weighing what kind of farm I would operate, I turned into our driveway to see a cluster of moony marble eyes and wet nostrils in the glow of my headlights—our neighbor Peter’s cattle. They had escaped their pasture days before. I left the headlights on and got out of the car. The faces dimmed, receded. The bulls shuffled away, toward my garden. I phoned Peter, who said he’d be right over. 

He stepped out of his Suburban carrying a cattle prod, and I led him to where I’d last seen the animals. We peered through the near-dark. There they were, huddled outside the electric fence I had strung around the garden. The fence rarely stopped deer or raccoons, who slipped under, over, or between the wires and ate their fill. Yet these bulls, not finished but weighing almost a ton each, recognized and respected an electric fence. They stood near, but wouldn’t touch it. 

Side by side, Peter and I tiptoed closer. A few animals raised their heads and watched us. 

Peter stopped. He whispered to me, “Now what do we do?” 

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “You’re the farmer.” 

He cooed to them, “You’re about to eat up Tamara’s garden, huh?”

I half-laughed and the bulls ran, their hooves on the hard mud sounding like a stampede in an old Western. They made a beeline toward the river. By the time Peter and I reached the riverbank, they had crossed through the water and disappeared into the mist. 

Peter said he’d come back in the morning to search for them. We stayed by the river in the dark, talking. “It’s harder to raise a garden around here than a field of corn,” he said. I didn’t ask what he meant. But after a while, I figured it out. 

Across the road from my garden lay forty acres that our neighbor rented to another farmer. Every May, a giant tractor sprayed the field with Roundup. The early-season weeds would shrivel. A few weeks later, I watched the tractor, hitched to a planter, seed the acres with soybeans or corn. That took a few hours. No one would visit again until mid-summer to apply more weed killer or fertilizer, then once more in fall to harvest. Those few visits, the equivalent of two days’ labor, would yield about 7,200 bushels of corn or 2,000 bushels of soybeans. Depending on the year and the crop, the farmer would gross $24,000 to $28,000. He (it was always a man) needn’t fret about weeds. Although cranes, deer, and turkeys would take a portion of his crop, his returns would be large enough to absorb those losses. And very possibly, if he didn’t meet a minimum guaranteed profit, whatever government program he’d enrolled in would make up the difference. 

I jotted down similar back-of-the-envelope calculations as I continued to imagine my farming operation. I accounted for seed, fertilizer, equipment, labor, and markets. I could afford a small tractor, but not a giant one, which might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I couldn’t afford to hire help. I didn’t have a barn. I had tillable land, which was more than a lot of aspiring farmers had, but I still couldn’t figure out how to turn the bottom line positive. How does a person earn enough to feed themselves and their family on a small farm, especially if they aren’t growing commodity crops? Sure, Tolstoy’s Levin got his hands dirty and worked with the serfs in his fields, but still, he depended on serfs.


Although I still hadn’t tested my ambitions on a large-scale operation, each summer, my garden thrived. My harvests were epic. I thought, So it’s true. I’m a born farmer. 

Nights in September, I blanched and froze kale, spinach, green beans, or broccoli. I canned bushels of tomatoes while the moon rose—listening to the radio, watching the knife, the heart-like fruit I quartered, its veins and pulp and pith, the pink liquid oozing onto the cutting board and dripping onto the floor. I sweltered in the steam-filled kitchen. My back, shoulders, and feet ached. I fell asleep to the satisfying sound of lids popping as they sealed. I woke to see the cooled, ruby jars lined up where I had left them, hot, the night before. 

In October, as the hillsides turned gold, I sat on a folding chair in the garden with a metal bowl in my lap, cracking open pods of cannellini, black, or kidney beans. The beans chimed against the stainless steel while cranes yodeled overhead. Once, I opened a cannellini pod to find large oblong black beans inside. Other cannellini pods disgorged brown or yellow speckled beans of a type I’d never grown. A career farmer might have been furious about receiving seed contaminated by cross-pollination, as it would have meant lost revenue. But for me, cracking those pods felt like opening presents. I stayed out until dark to see what else I’d get. I saved the largest surprise black beans to plant the following year, and they produced an even wider variety of shades and sizes. 

During the height of one harvest season, after canning twelve quarts of pickles, I ran out of supplies. At the grocery store, while purchasing more lids and pickling salt, I mentioned to the cashier that I was so sick of putting up produce that I might throw away the rest of the cucumbers. She said, “I’ll buy them from you. Name your price.” I brought her two grocery sacks of a pale variety of cucumber called Silver Star. I asked her for ten dollars, only because she insisted on paying. I had no desire to sell what I’d grown. Giving away produce had become another joy of gardening. 


Of all the crop ideas I mentioned, David was most enthusiastic about growing seeds or nuts that could be made into biodiesel or cooking oil. So, one Saturday in August 2007, we drove two hours to a hazelnut operation in southeastern Minnesota to watch a demonstration of a new press designed to make nuts into oil. Halfway to Minnesota, the clouds darkened. Rain slapped the windshield. By the time we arrived at the farm, the downpour was steady. We stood in slimy mud under a thin canopy with a dozen strangers, all of us in soggy windbreakers, and listened to a man talk about pressing seeds and nuts. He held up a small jar containing hazelnut oil. It looked like pale olive oil. He cited numbers—how many gallons of oil to the acre, what percentage of oil each type of nut or seed contains, how much can be extracted with the oil press that sat on the back of a truck in front of us. But the machine couldn’t be demonstrated. Its plug didn’t fit the portable generator’s outlet.

After the talk, I met some more people from that area who were growing hazelnuts. They ruefully told of 15–30 percent success rates with their acres of bushes. Yet their dedication to the crop seemed steadfast. I kept thinking, snake oil. The economics just didn’t make sense.

I was offered a map and invited to walk through the acres of nut bushes and trees. But those paths were even muddier than the farm road we stood on, and now lightning accompanied the rain, so David and I left. The rain followed us all the way back to the little house we were renting while we built our house on the land. We discovered water pouring in the basement windows and spent the rest of the evening carrying boxes upstairs. 

The rain lasted for days. The rivers rose. In southeastern Minnesota, near the farm we had visited, several people drowned. Houses were crushed by mudslides along the Mississippi River. Villages in our county were evacuated. My valley field, the one I had imagined a lush green paradise, was under five to ten feet of water.

Miles up the road, the small family farm that served as my model was also under water. Acres of berries, vegetables, and hazelnuts were ruined. Worse, we learned, the couple had no safety net. At that time, the USDA didn’t consider vegetables a crop, so my friends hadn’t been eligible to purchase crop insurance. By contrast, commodity corn and soybean growers could, so their losses were covered. Seeing the defeat and despair in my friends’ expressions shook me.

Many organic vegetable operations in our valley were devastated by the 2007 flood. Fledging farms were forced out of business. Then an even worse, record-breaking flood hit in June 2008. My valley field was deep under water again. And after that flood, the couple who operated the farm up the road from me abandoned it, sold their land, divorced, and moved away. I don’t know if their breakup was due to the failure of their business, but the losses they’d suffered were certainly catastrophic. I tried to imagine enduring such a thing. I decided then that I couldn’t bear to be a farmer, or not the kind of farmer I had aspired to be.


The first time I met Peter, he had told me an old joke: “Did you hear about the farmer who won the lottery? When someone asked him what he’d do with his millions, he said, ‘Keep farming ’til it’s gone.’ ” Peter let out a machine-gun laugh. He had an advanced degree in marine biology, but he’d relinquished that career prospect to return to the farm he grew up on. Yet a few years after his cattle got loose and gathered around my garden, he let go of the farming dream. He rented his fields to a bigger operation and found a different job. Maintaining his small farm, it seemed, had become too much work for too little pay. 

Besides struggling with bureaucracy and weather, I couldn’t envision myself in the enclosed cab of a giant tractor eight feet above the ground, sealed off from the smells and sounds of the earth. So, I would continue gardening, which I loved, and writing, which I usually loved and which earned me a living, until the fate of my fields that were formerly planted and harvested by a man like Hugh became clear.


That fate did become clear, about a decade after I purchased the land, years after I had stopped mowing my fields to keep them ready for the plow. When the government announced a new USDA program to subsidize the creation of pollinator habitats, I signed up. I bought the prairie grass and flower seed, prepared the ground, and borrowed a neighbor’s giant tractor to plant. 

At last, I had resolved the question of what to do with my fields. The program brought me no monetary profit. But I was pleased with the outcome. I hadn’t invested in expensive equipment, plants, or years of grueling labor only to lose everything in a flood. I trusted that in time, the pollinator habitat would bring a windfall for the bees, butterflies, and migrating birds that lingered in my fields and flew over and around me as I continued to tend my garden.


Tamara Dean writes fiction and nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Creative Nonfiction, The Guardian, Orion, Seneca Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Four have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and “Slow Blues” was a 2021 National Magazine Award finalist. Her essay collection, Shelter and Storm, is forthcoming in 2025.