You wear as little clothing as you can. It's Columbia and it's fall, but you still survive half naked like you did all summer. You want the chill in the air to shake off the remnants of that thick Columbia heat that still clings to you. You want it to drive the cold deep into your bones. The cool air means you can breathe again, and here at the farm, that air breathes life into the plants the same way it breathes life into you.
City Roots sprawls in a way that makes you wonder which building is the main one; the greenhouses look just as inviting as the store. But still, you know better. You walk up and into the biggest structure, and inside this place full of people, your body suddenly seems conspicuously still. Everyone looks up and smiles, but their hands stay busy, washing microgreens or carrying bags from one room to the next. Erin, the farm's communications manager, comes up to you and smiles, the same as everyone else in this place. She takes your hand, and she makes you less obvious in your stillness. She tells you about this building, about the spot where you stand. About the building’s fake chimney that funnels hot air up to the ceiling. About which direction the store faces, so that it can get the best and avoid the worst of the sun's light. About how carefully the McClams built it. This is your introduction to the farm.
You leave the main house, and Erin shows you the fields first. Your distinctly not-rugged shoes sink a little into the muddy ground. You notice how Erin's chunky heels sink, too, and you feel a little less out of place.
Clumps of dirt stick to your shoes, a tangible reminder of the reason why you came here. Because you want to know what makes this dirt different. Why it’s the same as the stuff in your front yard and yet distinctly different. Why dirt in the South makes everywhere feel like part of some sort of common land: a place you belong and yet still don't. You cannot talk about land in the South without acknowledging that this place was never idyllic. That it was always cruel. But you cannot escape this place. And the land--those open fields like the ones you played tag in when you were little--is partly why.
Here, in the field Erin's showing you, peppers dot the green landscape with bright yellow and orange and red. At the edge of this first field, a broken tractor stands guard. Erin laughs. "Decor," she says.
The event pavilion is next, and Erin walks you through the long wooden structure garlanded with bulb lights. The sides are open, and you can see across the fields from here. This is a space for weddings and dinners and field trips, and you imagine long tables, dancing, what the lights look like when they're lit. The people that will inhabit this space and laugh under those lights, the students who will play with worms and squeal.
Erin walks you through the event pavilion to the fields on the other side, and she motions farther to the fields beyond the trees at the edge of the property, to City Roots land that you can't even see. You wander from the you-pick-em fruit bushes on the side of the property to the ones in the middle, and you resist plucking one of the last muscadines, even though you can almost feel it bursting in your mouth. You remember the way your grandma used to say it, “musky-dine.”
Erin takes you to the compost pile, where the farm has taken wood chips from Blue Sky Tree Service and vegetable matter from Rosewood Market and the restaurants around town. You expect it to smell strongly, but you can’t really detect anything in the air. The pile just looks warm, and it makes you remember all the days you would jump into leaf piles in your backyard.
The solar panels are beside the compost pile beside the greenhouses beside the apiary, and the “green” aspect of the farm slowly starts to make sense in your head. The way this place tries to give back to the land what it takes from it. The greenhouses with seedlings stuffed everywhere they can be fit. The nutrients sown back into the soil. You breathe in the smell of dirt in all these buildings and plots, and you look at the rows of green plantlets, heads furling up out of starter pots.
When you pass the chicken coop, the chickens ignore you, the same way the farmers have, like they’re busy in the same way. A man is working in the next greenhouse, and you stare at the creek simulation he stands next to, the wooden structure sloping down into the tilapia pond. You want to reach into the water, past the plants, and grab one of the fish as it circles around and around its home.
Outside again, you wonder what right you have to be here, your fingernails so clean and dirt-free, your shirt so white and crisp, in this secret pocket of rural space. In the heart of the city. You wander through farmers working, but they don't have time to talk to you, and you're not here for them. You are a tourist. You wish you'd worn overalls or plaid, that you could look more rugged. You wish you blended in more easily. You wish your fingers looked less outlandishly clean against their dirty ones.
But the farmers don't look at you funny for your manicured nails. They get why you're here, even though City Roots is nothing like public property. Because this is still a place for the community, and you as a part of that are inextricably tied to the land and what comes from it the same way that the land feeds on whatever you give it. The farmers get why this is your land, too. Your family never lived here; you never played here. But these fields are the same as the ones you grew up in. This place still holds your roots.
About the Author: Rebecca Landau is a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of South Carolina. A winner of the 2013 Havilah Babcock Short Story Contest and a former Writer-in-Residence at Art Farm, Nebraska, she is currently working on a short story collection titled Dirt. Also an avid hiker, Rebecca summited her first mountain, Harney Peak, at age 2. She hails from Sugar Tit, SC and lazily tweets @rebeccalandau.