“Later in life, when I’m old and grey and my children are grown and gone, I will cherish the memory of my two kids playing in the irrigation ditch, stark naked, a week before Thanksgiving. ”
We were late getting the garlic planted that year, and snow was threatening at our farm, which sits at 8,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. My husband was at his day job, and I planted about a half-acre of garlic by myself, nervous the ground would freeze for good before we could get all the garlic put to bed for winter. The kids and I would wait each morning until the sun thawed the soil above freezing. Then we’d bundle up and trundle outside to the field. I’d summon all the patience in my heart to allow Silas, then age four, to “help” dibble the little holes for the garlic cloves I’d drop in behind him. Yes, I could have done it ten times faster alone.
But he would soon tire of the dibbling job, and the kids would wander off to the periphery of the garlic field in search of adventures. On warmer days, they inevitably ended up stripping down and getting into the little spring-fed acequia that runs through our land. Luckily, we live way back on a forest road where social workers aren’t typically lurking in the bushes, because I distinctly remember hoping that no one from child welfare would drive by and see my naked children in an icy ditch.
But farm children are hardy children. Now eight years old, my daughter, Ella, boasts to friends about running around in the snow barefoot (failing to mention her mom screeching after her, “PUT SOME SHOES ON, ELLA!”).
At our farmers’ market booth on Saturday, our kids and some of the other vendors’ kids dance around the tables of potatoes, broccoli, garlic, lettuce and other vegetables, begging for sweets (even farm kids love cheese Danishes) and playing games under the tables that threaten to knock over the whole display. We often hear people comment, “Oh how wonderful for your children to be raised on a farm!”
Wonderful indeed. For someone who isn’t living it, it sounds so romantic—children with great freedom and space, frolicking in the daisy fields with baby rabbits. The reality is only somewhat different. Yes, they have a more intimate knowledge of the natural world than many American kids. However, I am also certain my children are the dirtiest kids their teachers have ever met. The only time they make it to school without dirt under their fingernails is right after a trip to their Grammy’s house in the city.
Luckily, a lot of new scientific research indicates that kids who get dirty and crawl around in dirt and animal dander have hardy immune systems later in their lives. In fact, kids who live in the dirt have fewer allergies and health problems for their whole lifetimes. My children will surely live to be 100.
When our wild plums are ripe each September, their faces are often caked with plum pulp and juice. Since they almost never wear shoes (and since many of their shoes are lost to the tall grass and thickets of willows, after the kids dumped their footwear one afternoon and promptly forgot where), their little feet are grimy and tough as leather. They are, unfortunately, sunburned way too often, although Ella tends to tan. (“Ella, you’re brown as a little berry!” her Grammy exclaims.)
My mom—also known as Grammy—often tells me that she just can’t believe the things my kids know and understand about the world. These are probably not always things that make her comfortable. (Ask my kids about goat breeding and birth. They’ll give the gory details.) Ella was quite pleased this spring when she received special attention from her third-grade teacher for being one of only two kids in her class who knew what a “perennial” plant was.
They know what a bean plant looks like, and they know how to pick an entire field of raspberries and eat every last one when no one is looking. They know asparagus tastes the best right after you pick it. They know borage flowers taste like cucumbers. They know a dandelion from a wild chicory from a pigweed. They know that purslane tastes sour and sweet and a little bit like garden sorrel. They know how to climb a hay pile. They know that honeybees love squash blossoms and pollen from the corn tassels.
They know where the magpies hide their nests and how high up the poplar the redheaded flickers tuck their eggs. They aren’t afraid of a little animal manure. They understand there are microbes in the compost, and they know what worms eat. They know that old eggs float and good eggs sink. They know how to make cheese. My kids have both known how to milk a goat since they were about three—since their little hands were strong enough to squeeze a teat—and sibling arguments are often triggered over who gets to milk our Nubian nanny, named Shooter, first.
They know the slightly spicy, butterscotch scent of ponderosa pine in spring sunshine. They know what it’s like to hold a baby goat less than an hour old, barely clean from his mama’s tongue.
If you send them out to pick carrots, they’ll find them by recognizing the tops—and come back with muddy faces after not bothering to wash off the carrots before they crunch them. (I have photographs of Ella eating dirt when she was 10 months old; there’s no need for her to stop now.)
They have a 20-acre empire where they slowly, over the years, have come to understand all the ways of the plants, the secrets hidden in thickets of brambles and the mannerisms of birds. They have become intimate with the cobwebs and the spiders that live in them. Silas is seven now and has discovered the joy of treetops. He and his sister have built a campsite in the plum forest and a treehouse in the giant juniper. All summer long, they beg to sleep outside, under the stars.
It is a good life. And I am so grateful. I am not a perfect mother; I’m too often grumpy and busy, and I have never once sat down and finished a whole game of Monopoly with my kids. But any time I start to doubt myself, and the choices we’ve made, I remember: This life here is about as good as it gets. And these are the best years of our lives.
story by Kristen Davenport
photo by Gabriella Marks