People always say that you can tell a lot about a person by simply observing his or her hands. In most cases, I’ve found this to be true. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s still apparent that my first real job was dishwashing. I remember spending back-breaking hours over those stainless steel tubs of suds and half-scraped dinner plates and appetizer baskets, but nothing was more satisfying than earning a few bucks at an early age, even if the job only paid $4 an hour.
I immediately put the savings in my college fund most times, as I was taught (however indirectly and/or abstractly) about returns on investment and approached adolescence as my chance to cough up the money that I knew my parents couldn’t necessarily provide for my education — not that I expected it. Either way, I eventually traded in my dreams of becoming a veterinarian or choreographer, and set my sights instead on trading insight with people through a bachelor’s degree in writing.
Because I grew up in a family made up of a lot of farmers who prided themselves on their work ethic, I’ve never been daunted by the prospect of labor. In that vein, however, I find myself untrusting of those who are characterized by what I call “baby hands” — in other words, hands that look like they’ve never done a lick of manual labor in their life. We all have our secret stereotypes of people whom we only know by appearance, and for whatever reason, this is mine.
I recently snapped a picture on assignment, and I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism of the image—it’s a picture of a farmer’s hands, each lined with the long-time effort of manual labor, holding the feedstock he produces. I see it, and I automatically think that the owner of these hands has experienced a lot, worked even more, and thereby must have some unique kernels of information to share. Well, indeed, he does.
Regardless, you’d never guess that the hard-working farm hands featured on the cover have also held a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering. But they have. And now he’s putting them to work both by farming Kentucky bluegrass and researching the potential for farm-scale energy, thus freeing farmers from their dependence on the grid, through a project called Farm Power.
Even in the day of GPS, I admit to getting a little lost from time to time. On my way to interview David Gady (and his hands) of Gady Farms and Farm Power in Washington state, I was running late due to my directional ineptitude, and working myself into a frenzy about how I was going to excuse myself upon arrival. But as soon as I arrived, the need to explain myself melted away with warm smiles.
The friendly faces who were expecting me at Farm Power had to wave me down from in front of an unassuming poll barn, which appeared to my left after a fork in the gravelly road. I pulled in. We chatted. I had to borrow their camera after realizing that I'd left the batteries for my own camera plugged into an outlet in my cubicle. I interviewed. They responded. I took photographs. They explained what I was photographing and how it came to be. I met their children and grandchildren. I sat at their kitchen table. I even petted their dog.
I’ve scheduled many an interview over the years, but I can never quite place those people who are long distance over the phone no matter how many times I talk to them. I never know quite what to expect, or how to present myself when I finally meet them. It is very rare, then, when I feel like I’m talking to my neighbor over a split-rail fence deep in the countryside. Like comrades. Old pals. It seemed natural to fly to Rockford, WA, for a day and a half excursion to find out what these hands have done over the course of their life.
Maybe it’s because I trusted them.
No matter what, I learned more than I thought I would on that trip. Part of my education was on Farm Power, but the other part of it seemed to be telling me: Feeling comfortable with who you are, where you are and who you want to be has more to do with everything than you think. And if you’re looking for yourself, some times you must look no further than the palms of your own hands. And when you look at them, please remember that the comfortability you seek is also in your own hands.
What’s your take? Let me know by e-mail at email@example.com.