I founded my beef cattle farm when I was fourteen years old. My dad had moved our family to a pocket of land in Bucks County, a nights-and-weekends escape from the office on the edges of rural America. As a kid unleashed on the disused fields, my tools on hand were an old tractor shed, a VHS tape borrowed from a local feed mill—How to Build an Electric Fence—and a livestock judging handbook that looked as if it’d been through the laundry.
The fall I bought my first steer was the fall I bought my first Polo Ralph Lauren sweater. It was black with a shawl collar you could close up to your chin with tortoiseshell buttons. Men’s, size XL. Because I had four more layers to fit under it. There are certain kinds of Pennsylvania cold you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve had to do four hours of fence building out in it.
I named my red angus Elmo. Because I was still a kid then, and so was he. The first lesson in taming a steer is getting close enough to brush him. He arrived wearing the mud of an entire summer, packed into his fur in a layer the farming world calls iron plate. Elmo was six hundred pounds and the height of my waist, which meant that with his head down he could knock me over at the knee. Which he did, the first time I tossed a halter over his forehead, a brush in my other hand. I hit the dirt face first, hands out, and the cold mud had seeped through the layers of my clothes before I realized where I was. I rolled over in panic at being stepped on. The things you’d break if they stepped on you—a hand, a rib. But the steer was standing beside me, waiting, the rope in reach. When I took it up, he knocked me down again.
I got my first lesson in the classics that day. Hours later, on my way back inside, I caught my reflection in the hall mirror—that XL men’s Polo sweater half lucent and chestnut with the fur I’d brushed out of the steer, my cheeks muddy and flushed, because for the first time in a teenage life of academics and books I knew what it was like to do something great with my own two hands.
A classic is beauty that is made to last. Maybe it’s as much what we do as what we make. Over time, my hands stopped blistering and started callusing, the sweater needed less and less laundering as the falls in the mud became fewer, and my red angus calf and I grew from children into champions.
How do we make things last? I sold my last herd of steers, went to college. In Fall 2015, I found myself thousands of miles from home, sitting at an empty desk in a blank apartment. I’d come to London and its novel-writing school to write the story of the unshakable tie between American land and American family. South Kensington was so far from the things that had made me myself, the dirt on my hands and the wide-open landscapes and the hard-won feelings of love and endurance and triumph that I needed to bring the novel to life.
How do we make things last? I unpacked to salve the writer’s block. I reorganized the tiny bit of my closet I’d brought across the ocean. I laid out sweater after sweater, all Polo, men’s size XL. Put one back on. And did it again the next day. And the day after. Because sometimes repetition isn’t for convenience but to set the stage. Because sometimes my America is as much an illimitable idea as the stories I write, the land I farmed, the clothes I wear. Because sometimes art begets art. And because sometimes, wherever you are, your home and your history can come rushing back in the form of a simple sweater embroidered with a horse and rider.
I am writing this in Texas, on a desk hewn from salvaged boxcar wood. My first novel, Rough Animals, has been printed and is sitting on a shelf. And I’m arming myself to face the blank page again with a sweater.
It’s my uniform.
- Photographs by Sean Burke
- Book cover courtesy of Rae DelBianco