Dirty fingernails, and proud of them

By Chris Collins June 13, 2012 09:21 am

I proudly arrived for work last Monday with dirt under my fingernails.

It was the kind of dirt that isn’t easily scrubbed away by a fingernail brush or washed away under a hot morning shower.

It was the dirt that embeds itself deeply after a day of garden planting.

That’s what had occupied my time over the weekend. And though I make my best effort to keep my hands protected by gloves,  there are always a few moments when I’m required to get my bare hands in the dirt to press, pat and perfectly position young plants.

I was considering why I had taken such pride in seeing that stubborn black dirt under my nails as I drove to La Grande Monday morning.

(Part of the Herald’s move to a new design had required my editor and me to travel the 42 miles to the office of The Observer, our sister newspaper, that day.)

The drive gave me time to think about why I took such delight in the thin dark line against my otherwise pinkish nails and pale skin.

As I drove along, I decided that the dirt was a badge of honor passed down to me by my farming grandparents and parents.

The first photographs taken of my brother,  sister and me as tiny babies were always posed in front of our Grandma Alta’s lush flower beds or in the potato fields with our Granddad Ben.

And as we grew, we spent our time playing in those gardens and running through the fields of their small farm.

Later, we were drawn to the fertile fields of Southern Oregon that surrounded our hometown and where our parents spent a part of their working lives. And where they’d sometimes return from a long day of planting or digging potatoes looking like vaudevillian actors in blackface, with just the whites of their eyes and their mouths peering out from a coating of the rich, black soil that produces the delicious Netted Gem and other potato varieties grown in the Klamath Basin.

My dirty fingernails were just a small reminder of my family’s ties to the land, but I have to believe that it’s those ties that stir my desire each spring to plant a garden. Even if it’s only a small backyard container garden.

I participated in the Oregon State University Extension Service’s Master Gardener classes this spring, and I’m looking forward to putting what I learned into action this summer. Already I’m reaping benefits as I harvest the spinach  I planted in a layered “lasagna” garden during one of the classes.

On Mother’s Day, a strawberry patch was planted. And as of June 3, the garden includes zucchini, tomato, cucumber and basil plants.  And pole bean seeds that I hope to see germinating and reaching for the sky in the coming weeks are in the ground.

I’m happy the garden was planted in time to benefit from last week’s heavy rains, but I regret not taking advantage of the earlier warm weather. 

I’m also monitoring a crop of garlic planted last fall and the perennial crops of oregano and thyme that have returned.

And my flowers, though not as lush as my grandma’s, include the row of peonies the bloomed just in time to be knocked down by the rain. Red petunias were added to the blue flax and white daisies and yarrow to create a red-white-and-blue display for the Fourth of July.

A red dahlia that I moved inside for the winter also has reappeared and will be blooming soon. And two red ivy geraniums will add to the  July holiday color.

And though I’ve never claimed to have a green thumb, I’ve experienced some gardening success over the years. And that has led to the need to learn the art and science of preserving the harvest, just as my mother and grandmother have done in the past.

I’m eager for the weather to warm up and for the garden to get growing, just as I image the other farmers in my family have done in years past.

Chris Collins is a reporter for the Baker City Herald.