Glacially, Holmes County, Ohio, sits on two stratigraphic units of northeast Ohio. Primarily, the Pennsylvanian stretches across most of the county with the Mississippian webbing down into it from the north, like a complicated system of tributaries. But more importantly, the blue line stretches nearly perfectly across the wide center of the rectangular county, delineating the furthermost southern reaches of some ancient glacier. The boundary neatly divides north and south Holmes County into two plateaus. The north belongs to the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau, the south to the Appalachian Plateau. Or to simplify it further, the north begins the plains, and the south belongs to Appalachian hill country.
I don’t know in which region my home is. I do know that that if you turn south down any nearby small road, the small township roads fall and dip and curve. Fields are planted in small valleys that appear abruptly, then fade from view. Red barns nestle into the sides of wooded hills, and cows graze in plunging ravines and hilltops.
To the north, pastures for animals stretch and roll. They’re the “rolling hills” that make Holmes County a popular tourist destination. I’ve climbed those hills, too, and remember the summer day when my brothers and I, lured by the sounds of large equipment, crossed the ridges for what seemed like hours till we came to a man-made cliff. Below us, in the belly of the earth, yellow excavation equipment was digging up earth, putting it on dump trucks, and hauling it away. We sat atop the hill in the summer sunshine, watching. In a ravine on the way back, in a wooded creek, my brothers had found many arrowheads, but now the that area is fenced off with more sharp wire.
It’s the fields on those rolling hills that I think about. Holmes County and the surrounding counties is home to the world’s largest Amish community, and they love the land. Only 25% of them farm today, because their population doubles every twenty-one and a half years, but all of them have roots on the farm. I do, too.
My mom tells me stories about sitting on a second plow behind a team of draft horses, her small hands gripping the reins to calm the horses. My grandfather came beside her with the walking plow, turning both around at the end of rows. She was four, and Amish, at the time. Our home never had anything bigger than a garden, but her expansive farm knowledge stays with her. She called me last week to tell me that they were experiencing blackberry winter, when the blackberry bushes bloom. We had a late spring, and a late blackberry winter, she explains, because full moon occurred scarcely hours after spring arrived. I can’t imagine a world in which this knowledge is useful, but I wish it were. She reminds me of Willa Cather’s country girls, “who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.” The daily struggle to keep the land cultivated gave her a vigor she still carries with her, forty years off the farm.
I sometimes visit the hills that she plowed, but they show no evidence of her. My uncle quit farming them twenty years ago, and now some stranger with a fast tractor leases them. Other fields have been divided into lots and sold to fund my centenarian grandfather’s unexpectedly long life. He tells me that the biggest mistake he made in life was to sell his horses which he followed over every inch of his land.
I drive to work, northwest, only one mile away from the farm where my mother grew up on, where my cousins still live. It’s technically in the glaciated areas, but because of its proximity to the edge of the glacier melting, kames and other hills dot the landscape. More fields stretch across the landscape, often up a gentle hill. At one point of my drive, three country roads span a lazy intersection. A prosperous Amish farm lies to the east, with twenty draft horses grazing in the field.
Off to the side, one lone tree stretches up, high into the sky, surrounded by a white fence. In Holmes County, the Amish bury their dead in the fields, surrounded by white wooden fences. They have no church buildings to bury them near, and a town cemetery would seem a secular, sacrilegious end to their lives. They bury their dead under trees, out in the fields, up on the hills, and the white fences get painted every year. All the other white fences in the area are vinyl, but these are often built from wood that comes from the land nearby.
In the next quadrant lies a series of hills. They recline silently, brushed with corn, or soybeans, sometimes. They loll supinely next to one another in a comfortable harmony, as if they were distinct at one time, but they’ve given in, lying back, slack. My eyes widen, as if to encompass their purpose, being, or substance. They calm and nourish, like a beloved, fruitful mother. They’re silent, with little to say.
I’ve lived in Virginia, where every morning I peered out to see what hue the Shenandoah Mountain took on that day. The majesty of Massanutten Peak called to me from the other side of the valley. Mole Hill, a considerable ascent, stuck out like a zit, or a wart, with a story to match its personality.
The hills in northern Holmes County rest. They have a different sort of personality, as if they’re a different species from the mountains and hills further east and far west. They have no heart-wrenching peak, no summit, where hearts call out to the sky. Shenandoah Mountain challenges people, separating Virginia from West, but these hills complacently agree with their beholder. My geology professor said many of them were formed by the glacier’s last efforts to maintain its heaving, slow-moving form. I pictured the glacier, formidable and foreboding, creeping inevitably across the landscape. Warmed by the land beneath it, it inched on, till bits and chunks of sand and gravel fell out from its underside. The hills testify to its relieved collapse from its race across the landscape. These three hills seemed to have been pushed from out of its underbelly, dropping in a torrent of tiny, disparate ground bits. In all actuality, the glacier may have broken apart several miles north, but the hills always lie inert, as if they’d found their resting spot after a journey of a thousand miles.
Carita B. Keim lives in Berlin, Ohio, surrounded by hills. She graduated from the University of Akron in 2015 and currently is enrolled in the University of the South’s MA program of the School of Letters.