I don’t remember when it clicked. When I finally figured out that having dirt on my hands was an experience, not just something to wash off.
I also can’t remember not having dirty hands. We (my brother and I) grew up outside. Literally. There were a few occasions mom actually locked us out of the house! Now, before anyone starts feeling bad for poor Adam and me, these were Mom’s “cleaning days”. No one, and I mean no one was allowed in the house until cleaning was complete. Now that I look back, we were outside for HOURS and the house wasn’t much cleaner than it was when we left… Maybe it was just her “peace and quiet days.” Either way, I don’t actually remember feeling particularly upset about being able to play outside unsupervised anyway. And we had no less than a million things to do. I’m not saying that we had a ton of toys, but if you take two boys and give them a few Tonka trucks and a dirt pile, you will have a perfect, working, to scale model of any construction site. We even had a custom-made dirt sifter made from hardware cloth. Dump trucks, rock haulers, excavators, backhoes, graders, bulldozers and the coveted “Boss Truck.” The Boss truck was the one we used to argue over, whoever had the Boss Truck determined where the dirt went, where the rocks went and inspected the roads for proper “flatness.” I would dare say, we knew everything about moving dirt and road construction by the age of 8.
Then came the tree houses. Dad always had some extra odd job or project he was working on, and with that came an endless supply of treehouse materials. Wood scraps, nails, screws, wood that wasn’t scrap but we took it anyway. And tools! Real tools! Not that little wooden tool kit that we got for Christmas. You know the one, the little hammer with the pine handle that snapped. The stamped steel wrenches that bent if you applied it to anything other than the nuts and bolts that came with the kit. In hindsight, that’s probably what saved the entire house from being dismantled. We would sneak away with any tool we could find, hammers, screwdrivers, hand saws, hatchets and axes, bow saws, pruners, the list was as never ending as the supply. I don’t recall any tools ever making it back to the barn though. But the sacrifice was worth it! We had three iterations of tree houses. Each one bigger and better than the one before. The last one being three floors, ladders, steps, rope swing, zip line, elevator for tools and snacks, bunk beds, screened windows, shingle roof and cedar shingle siding. The Cedar Resort. Stretching 25 feet in the air suspended between a handful of cedar trees it would easily sleep 12 kids, although I think the most that ever made it through the night was four.
Now to pay for all that we couldn’t Sneak out of the barn, we needed money. Allowance was not really a thing we used in our house. We just had our assigned chores and completed them, sometimes without putting up too much of a fuss. And every time Adam or I would approach the subject, it would be challenged by the notion that a roof and food and clothes were being provided and we just had to do the work. I think the ultimate reason we had to to chores was succinctly put as “because I said so.”
So at the age of 10, I was told that there was a job I could do that would pay me money. Real cash money. Our family friends owned a greenhouse and strawberry farm up the road and I was recruited to help for the season. Now up the road is a Maine thing, it generally means in a northerly direction, whereas down the road would imply a southerly direction, however, in this instance it can and should be taken literally. It was uphill. Very much uphill. One and a half miles of riding a ten speed bike uphill at 6am. Now the ten speed bike had been “modified” and only really had 8 speeds. Nevertheless, my eagerness to please ensured that I was on time every day, regardless of weather and always came prepare with a water bottle and maybe a snack. I’d been to the farm several times and had a pretty good lay of the land, so introductions and orientation was nothing more than a short explanation of what we were going to do for the day. Day one- plant berry plants. It was a pretty simple operation, Harold sat on the tractor, which had an attachment that would simultaneously poke a hole in a row, add liquid fertilizer and drop a plant, all I had to do was keep up and place the berry plant in the pre made hole at the correct depth. All I recall from the rest of that day was, tractors move faster than humans, deer give birth in May, and the water that they used to mix the fertilizer was from Antarctica. Six hours later, my back hurt, my hands were muddy and frozen, and I had dirt all over my face. My reward? An all downhill ride home on the bike. I swear I was going 50. The next day was a different chore and each day was something different. Then Friday came. My first paycheck. Cold hard cash. And as I left, on my bike, with my dirty hands and face, muddy shoes and a sunburnt neck, I had a sense of accomplishment. I worked hard, I got paid. I earned my money. I got out what I put in and it was mine.
I worked there for a while until I was old enough to get a “real” job. But it was there that I learned about what a work ethic is, sticking to a project, and always be looking for the the next one. I learned about plants and flowers, about which berries were the best and when to pick them, I learned that old ladies will give you a dollar if you help them with their trays of berries and flowers. And I learned that if you’re willing to put in effort and get dirty, you will be rewarded.
I entered the “real” workforce and worked various jobs through school. Moved around, lived in apartments or with friends, never got my hands dirty. I stopped digging in the ground, stopped hiking and kayaking. I had my sneakers and loafers neatly stored by the door, instead of a pair of boots resting where I finally took them off. I wore khakis and button downs. I got colds, flus, my skin got soft and my nails were always smooth. I got fat. I had essentially lost myself. I had become so disconnected with my roots that I was just a shell of a person, floating through life with nothing to do. Subconsciously, I think that’s when I knew I had to go back. Reestablish my roots. Get my hands dirty.
I got a new job, where I get fresh air. I do physical labor, I plant things, I water flowers, I help old ladies to their car. I bought a little house on a little acre and I’m making it my own. I’m not rich, I won’t ever be and I don’t want to be. But what’s mine is mine and I earned it. I don’t get sick, my hands are rough, my nails are chipped and permanently dirty. I don’t wear sneakers much. My boots go on when I start the coffee and they come off just before I go upstairs to bed. I’ve come to know that as the two best feelings of the day, when I put my boots on in the morning and take them off at night. It has a meaning. Just like the dirt on my heads, it’s significant. It’s the end of a day, and whatever payment I receive will have been earned honestly.