Field of View
by Angela Dribben
I began as both plant and poison. Plants are often pruned in order to send the sustenance to the part of the plant we want to grow. In tobacco, we “top” the flower. Trumpeted blooms in champagne creams and grapefruit blush cascade down the stalk. We snap them off, discard the beauty, so that the leaves grow full increasing yield and body, known as profit.
I envision my birth as mythical rather than being the result of two teenagers growing up too fast. As though the earth spun me up out of red clay and rose quartz. My belly a mud puddle swimming with tadpoles. My skin the weave of glittery spider webs running between blackberry brambles. I imagine tree stumps of pines we planted becoming my legs. My hair the shine of morning glories in shades of deep purple and dresses made of Queen Anne’s lace, not immune to chiggers but strong enough to withstand the itch.
I thought I would always live on our small family farm because there were houses everywhere. I am not sure when I realized these were mostly barns, old tobacco barns for drying leaves. There was one actual house down the dirt road behind our home in the corner of four fields. A small creek ran past it.
I remember being small and walking the dirt roads, packed clay, being blinded by sun ricocheting off quartz, pink veins coursing through the crystal. I thought we were rich, all these jewels through our earth. I dreamed of the crowns I could make myself from our land.
I am the daughter of a farmer, meaning I played with my sister in the same yellow playhouse my grandfather had built for my aunts. It had a front porch and a window, another house on the land I thought I could live in one day.
I am the daughter of a Virginia tobacco farmer, from a farming community numbering less than one thousand people. I required 2,552 miles of distance, feeling estranged and isolated in a city of 50,000, before I could discover what of myself I’d left behind. For fifteen years I thought it was just familiarity I missed. But it’s more: to live off the earth necessitates a faith in something outside of ourselves, relinquishment of control, trust in tomorrow. Farming connotes both dependency and self-sufficiency. It has always been a conundrum; in the last several decades, due to government subsidies and large corporate buying power, it has become even more so.
Tobacco farming meant my mother was at home to teach me to read before I ever went to school. It meant not living close enough to any of my friends to just walk over; it demanded imagination. There is something to knowing the land you stand on is the same land the man you loved first stood on at your age, and your grandfather, and your great grandfather, seven generations of farmers. A respect for everything around me hung nearly tangible in the humidity.
This place is what gave me the strength and health I have. A dentist once remarked about the quality of my teeth, asking if I grew up on well water. I did grow up on well water, minerals built strong teeth and bones. At the last bone density test I had the techs performed it twice because my score was so high, they thought it might be wrong. I am the daughter of a tobacco farmer—strong.
My daddy is the reason I wake up early. I am not sure if it is a habit formed within genes or a behavior pattern formed early. Each day before heading to the fields, he made intentionally-blackened toast, an even spread of butter across still hot bread softening from the middle out. The clean swift swipe of a butter knife blade dividing the slice. Sausage patties already cut in half laid flat side down. And the final fold. Breakfast. Every morning I still race the sun to its feet and eat breakfast.
I am the proud daughter of a man who works hard and believes that I was born to do the same. His jeans always heavy with sweat and poison, his shoulders round because everything rested on unpromised rain. My father had just graduated high school when he found out I was on my way. He married my mother that fall instead of leaving for college. He may have never minded not progressing forward with formal education although I minded for him.
I see my father as my provider, a man unmovable. I also see him as I would see a son or a brother, someone to protect. I felt responsible for him not going away to school. I held my mother responsible. It is neither of our faults. I now understand he does not resent staying at all; over time blame dissipates. He is the son of a farmer and perfectly content right where he is.
I don’t know when I recognized we weren’t rich, that rose quartz wasn’t even a semiprecious stone, and that my parents couldn’t afford a rock tumbler for me anyway. These buildings weren’t homes; they were barns to be emptied and torn down one by one. Without purpose, the irrigation ponds would be left to bleed dry. They were never lakes of fish, only snakes. It doesn’t matter though, none of this thwarts my love for this place. An emotion that surpasses love, it is more a need. A need for nourishment that only it can provide.
That I am the daughter of a tobacco farmer; that has been both a comfort and a destroyer.
Policy changes and economic necessity mandated a change of occupation, not just for tobacco farmers and not only for my father. This remains true today. In 2017, small family farms (less than $350,000 in Gross Cash Farm Income) accounted for 89 percent of all U.S. farms. Large-scale family farms ($1 million or more in GCFI) accounted for about 3 percent of farms but 39 percent of the value of production. The median total household income for all farm households at $75,994 exceeded the median for all US households at $61,372, misleading perceptions of farm income. The truth is a little more than half of US farms are very small (annual farm sales under $10,000), leaving these families to not only work the farm but also pursue off-farm revenue streams in order to supplement the majority of their household income.
Due to the undeniable health risks associated with tobacco, anti-smoking campaigns began in the 1960s and really hit hard by the 1980s. Government policies significantly changed in the early 1980s. Smoking decreased. Public health litigation increased. Tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris began looking outside of the US for the leaf with the most profit margin leaving the buying to federal government established growers’ cooperatives. “Declining export levels and increasing import levels meant that tobacco co-operatives were using tax-payer dollars to purchase more and more domestic leaf by the 1980s.” Leaf imports hit an all-time high in 1983. In 1987, Yul Brynner told us all “Don’t smoke. Just don’t smoke.” The plant that built my home was fast becoming the devil.
I was in elementary school watching my father fail, my safe world shatter. I watched him lose his definition of self and family when the industry changed and the tobacco buying went overseas. I saw him lose his livelihood. I watched what he believed in become evil, but I never saw him appear fragile. I had no idea the struggle I was witnessing. To cope with the changes, he started a pulpwood company, the only company his immediate family started that did not carry our last name, Gregory. He called it KASS after us (Kathy, Angie, Sarah, Stone). He was last and that’s the way I saw him move through life. I am not sure why, but the company crumbled. At the time I had never failed at anything except maybe when I got second place in a spelling bee. I couldn’t have understood what this felt like to a man, to a father. I did manage to not only catch up in the number of known failures but far surpass him. I know what it is now to feel stuck down on your knees.
He failed so quietly I didn’t realize that my family was shifting. A father has no time to be loud or slow in his failure. There is only room for movement to the next effort to keep land in the family, family beneath roof. I watched him get back in a truck and start hauling logs again. He was not home as often; he left earlier, stayed gone longer. There were no more lunches in the fields, no more cardboard flats filled with orange peanut butter nabs and moon pies delivered mid-morning. There was no more riding in the back of the pickup truck out to the fields, momma driving a stick shift poorly, stalling out the clutch, missing gears.
Persisting through a series of rejections, he built a thriving trucking business. My mom made some changes of her own. She got a job and left my father taking us with her. I can’t help but wonder if he had been able to keep farming, would we have stayed together? Daddy would not entertain questions like that. Having once been briefly married to a man who lost his business, I know how lonely marriage can become when a partner charged with providing struggles to do so. Would I have stayed in a sheltered place? Would I have still run wild and fallen prey to men so early in my life? How much of me is where I was born, who I was born to—or was always who I would be?
Tobacco farming defined more than my family, this was my community: hard work and faith, a safe world. The Sheltons, playing Barbie with their youngest daughter in her second floor bedroom, field breeze blowing in her open window. The Mosers, playing Marco Polo with their children, Tracey and Stephanie, down at Elkhorn Lake while our fathers worked. It’s Tracey and his wife inheriting his grandmother’s two story farmhouse at the edge of a field just down the road from his Daddy’s. The Easts, Joyce’s spaghetti suppers. Joyce, my Sunday school teacher, a woman I knew loved me.
Peter Benson wrote of R.J. Reynolds’ Pride in Tobacco campaign that it “organized growers into what the anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls an ‘imagined community,’ a fictive kinship among people who have no direct relationship but feel like a family.” I misunderstood drying barns to be homes and irrigation ponds to be lakes, but I am certain we are of the earth. This small farming community is my family. This land is my home.
It’s disorienting to watch everything you were raised on be made villainous. I am aware of the evils of tobacco products and don’t use them. I did spend at least a decade in a love affair with Camel filters and whenever I smell one burning outside a grocery store or Home Depot I consider rekindling the flame. I am not defending any wrongs, simply recapturing the confusion of loving something beautifully broken.
Fifteen years ago, I specialized in hospice massage in Virginia. When one of my patients passed away, his stepson and his wife traveled from the end of Idaho’s gun barrel, for the funeral. We met and talked about snowboarding which I flew out West to do quite a bit. It was why I ate beans and did seven to eight massages a day, to ride the mountains. There is nothing more quiet than the sound of snow fall in the trees except maybe the slice of a snowboard through deep powder, a body torquing to create propulsion. Snow is a superior silencer.
The couple offered an opportunity to caretake a piece of property in Priest River, Idaho, a cabin on 300 acres of wetlands with a chain of oxbows that no one but us could fish. The U-haul was packed before I hung up. I wanted to know what it was like to snowboard every day. How good I could get. What would that life feel like? To live out West in the mountains.
My plan was to stay for the year I had been offered and get on back home. However, I’d brought my Virginia husband with me. An avid fisherman, he quickly became enamored with trout. I did not. No offense to the rainbows and the browns and the cutthroat, but give me a smallie in a rapid any day. Even fishing for steelhead on the Clearwater and witnessing a primal wolf chase did not dissuade me from my preference for Virginia. The deer catapulted over the brown-grassed knoll, fear radiating from her eyes, intent on survival. She cut a sharp right. I could hear her hooves strike powder from pale dirt. Then the wolf appeared, power pulsing from his haunches, equally as intent on survival, just by different means.
As much as this sight held time still, it is the thrill of sliding off a raft on the Maury River in Glasgow, Virginia, my foot nearly landing in a water moccasin’s mouth that thrills me. Probably wouldn’t so much if I hadn’t drawn my foot back in time. Watching two 8-foot-long black snakes entwined and tangled up with the trunk of an oak tree or the abandoned bodies of giant moths with faded black wings and orange spots. Tulip Magnolias heralding March, their branches outstretched like candelabras balancing cupped blooms in shades of childhood, skin loose on bones, easy movement, easy laughter.
We stayed in blue ribbon trout country, but he and I would not stay together. He happily fly-fished for trout and I grew sadder. Eventually we divorced, and I was free to return home, a permanent cross-country move now seemed more than I could negotiate alone. It was starting to look like my life was in North Idaho.
Idaho even has fewer roads than Virginia. The mountains impede them. This sounds like it would be a good thing in terms of preservation, but it also means more traffic on every road. It’s hard to get lost taking an unknown turn between fields and dairy barns, when there is no turn to take.
Still out West, I remarried in April 2017 and followed my new husband’s life an hour south into Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, a city at least five times larger than I was accustomed to. It is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the fastest-growing state in the nation, according to US Census Bureau data. I can understand the appeal of the lake and mountains, I just couldn’t stand the ramifications of unbridled population growth.
We felt held captive by our house with its vinyl siding in a pale shade of conformity. To go outside always meant to be subjected to people. I didn’t feel a draw to plant flowers in a rental yard in North Idaho. If I did go outside, I would see the neighbor who yells at his wife and his three-legged dog, hear the wheels of trashcans up and down driveways, sirens and the sound of speakers pushing back against car frames. All of the yards look the same, grasses looking sad-sacked from spending too much of the year in hibernation.
I became a master gardener in North Idaho and was still too paralyzed to ever plant the first tomato there. Not that it’s the vegetable you’d want to plant, the growing season isn’t long enough. Nor for watermelons, although there is a variety of Sugar Baby the seed companies have manipulated to shorten its growing season down to few enough days that it may be a viable option. It doesn’t taste the same.
It’s not fair or defensible to say that the South is prettier than the inland Northwest. It’s too subjective. My reasoning mind knows this.
Yet, I can’t stand being away from our fields. It’s physically painful, as though I am dying slowly. Suffocating. Sally Mann defined it as “hiraeth” in Hold Still. “The evocative Welsh word hiraeth…means distance pain and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation…it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.”
The winter I left North Idaho was a strange one. More blue skies and less snow, as though it was trying to trick me into staying. I know better, this is not an Idaho winter. Plus, there will be a price to pay in fire come August. Some years the fires are so extreme, ashes fall in town, covering picnic tables and cars.
Next winter will most likely be brutally gray and cumbersome with snow. Even if it wasn’t, there are no camellias full of blooms, daffodils starting to come up, purple petals of periwinkle peeking up off the forest floor.
Besides, I have never not been homesick for farming our land. It’s as though one of my eyes is always looking back to home. A sheer nearly transparent glaze of pine stands, ditch lilies, cooled lush gulleys down back roads, and muddy creek waters lays itself over everything. The air back home is palpable, it’s thick and coats my hair and skin like a womb. Sometimes there is a moment where I can feel the damp shade touch my arms or the wet sun on my chest. Then I realize it is my imagination, that I am far away from that reality.
When I found myself buying cantaloupe grapefruit La Croix just to cry over the familiar taste of summer—Turbeville cantaloupe festival and old men made bowlegged by time with pick-up trucks full of melons parked by the sides of roads—we decided it was time to make the move. It happened very quickly as those sorts of decisions can. When you know it’s time to go, leaving suddenly can’t wait anymore. What was tolerable becomes intolerable. My body shook with the knowing that I had to go home now.
Driving east through Tennessee on I-40, magnificent sounds of rain thrashing against the windshield and sliding down to the hood, I realized the raindrops in Idaho don’t make a sound and I have missed that. In the South, rain announces itself with overblown displays of thunder and lightning, like a guest with gossip.
My visceral craving for this place goes much deeper than farming the land. It is the land and the relationship of the people with the land. I have wondered if it’s just that it’s home, but I have read others not from the South write about the impact its landscape has on their writing. There is something about time here, it passes gently like the rolling of our hills. Perhaps it is the profuse growth of plants or diversity in colors. Peonies planted on all four corners of a home, capable of living over one hundred years untended, in hues from magenta deep enough to get lost in, to charming pinks. Creeping phlox holding back hillsides, illuminating red clay. Spring’s birdsong bringing morning in even by the first of March.
We have returned for good. I will not raise tobacco. My husband and I will make our home in the old hunting cabin on Daddy’s land, restore one of the old stick tobacco barns, collect eggs from free range chickens, and harvest vegetables in a way that gives back to the soil that gave me peace for the first twelve years of my life.
This is a need that cannot be quieted. Not even the bugle of the bull elk draping haunting calls in tamaracks, while we crouch in molting earth behind our blind, could satiate my need to feel the cool of a gulley lay itself across bare skin. The foothills and fields of Southside Virginia are the only place I will ever know as home. Finally, I am both planted and intoxicated.
Born to teenage parents doing their absolute best on a tobacco farm in rural Southside Virginia, Angela Dribben followed a family tradition of first-borns attending a military high school. As it was primarily male, she tried to balance herself out with a woman’s college. She broke all traditions by marrying six times, only divorcing five. Her poetry and essays can be found or are forthcoming in Blue Mountain Review, San Pedro River Review, Motherscope, Crab Creek Review, Crack the Spine, Cirque, decomp, New Southern Fugitive and others. A Bread Loaf alum, she works with patients and caregivers in hospice creating legacy projects.