Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Roots of My Raisin'"

I was born for this country. Well, no, I wasn't. Born in this country, I mean. I was born in Joliet, Illinois and spent the first 15 years of my life in a far southwest suburb of Chicago, on the cusp of the black land farm ground where 3 bedroom 2 bath ranch houses without basements cowered under the greenish skies of frequent tornadoes in the spring and huddled beneath the frigid gusts and snowy blasts of the long winters. These were the years when we future baby boomers flooded the existing elementary schools and new teachers were added mid year to ease the burden of crowded classrooms. Our church was a century old but our junior high was brand spanking new. Our family took the train downtown to the Loop to window shop in Marshall Fields or Carson Pirie Scott, or watch the sailboats on the Lake , or stroll the galleries of the Art Institute. We hiked the trails of the Forest Preserves of Cook county or skated the shallow sloughs in the winter. We bought sweet corn from some church members who had a farm just outside town; we pulled the fuzzy leaves of soybeans to use for play money with our friends.

And that's about as much as I knew about farming for many years.


My mom and dad bought forty wooded acres of Callaway county long before they returned to Missouri for good. While my sister and I were very young, we would stay at our grandma's while they spent time on the property. Later on, they acquired another 120 acres just across the gravel road; it had an abandoned house, a good well, and pastures quickly returning to cedar, sassafras, and persimmon. My father tells me his family thought he was nuts for buying land at his age, but he had the heart of a farmer and felt part of his wealth should be measured in acres. By now, Laura and I were old enough to be taught to work, and trips to Missouri meant picking up the little cedars and smaller trees my dad had cut, building brush piles and slowly, slowly reclaiming the pasture. My dad had a big pond built and we spread seed on the dam.

We learned to identify animal tracks; we hunted for fossils in the limestone creek beds that crisscrossed the property; we enjoyed the 'bob whites' calls echoing from grove and fence row and laughed because our neighbor down the road was named Bob White, too. The city kids whose chores included picking trash out of the yard every night before my father got home learned to work side by side with their folks, doing the same kind of work for the same hours, just as farm kids have always done.

Our rewards: floating on the placid green surface of 'Lake Ginger', watching fireflies by the kajillions, following the life cycle of the monarchs, tightlining for bluegill off the dock of my grandpa's farm pond, learning our way around the tool shed, shooting off fireworks in the humid humming twilight of a country Independence Day.

My father grew his female hay crew and tried to teach us how to ride his Honda motorbike (we drove it into a corner post of the corral). We helped rebuild a wind mill into a ham radio antenna. We learned the rules of rural electricity...and a rural water supply. We hiked cross country one snowy weekend to ensure the cattle had water and the house had electricity; we hiked back out Sunday evening. I spun the bicycle on loose gravel into a blackberry patch; I wandered for hours along quiet stony creek beds. My father piped WLS into the second floor so Laura and I could listen to the New Year's Eve countdown and watch our breath from under electric blankets. I don't know how much I learned of farming, but I grew to love our local landscape, its bony geology, its hard won carpet of grass on the gentler slopes, its deep leafy ravines in the woods. Picking up bales, painting gates. fixing fence, weeding, and helping repair and renovate a hundred year old farm house laid the foundation and prepared the seedbed for the conversation my father and I had when I was choosing a course of study for college. He told me that agriculture was a useful, vital, and moral industry...and I need never be concerned about my part in making the world better if I were engaged in agriculture. That clarity of purpose was all I needed. I consigned my love of music to avocation and enrolled in the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri......

...Three years later two newlyweds packed their belongings in the back of a 1974 F-600 and drove north to become the third generation of Hursts to farm in Atchison county. We weathered the farm crisis of the '80s, three droughts in our first decade, floods of varying proportions in every decade, and years when prices were so low, the government bought everything we grew. We've watched the population of our county plunge more than 20 percent and our schools struggle to field a football team. We started a business when farming was hard. We suffered through the growing pains of that small business and learned to adjust to the vagaries of economic forces outside our control. We raised three kids on the farm, where they worked alongside us, learning responsibility and tenacity: to finish a task not just when it was easy, but despite it being hard.

It has been a whole forty years since my father gave me his opinion of my career choice.

Guess it was good advice.

Monday, November 10, 2014

About Grandpa

This day when I turned in off the gravel at the bin, I could see the combines and thanked my lucky stars that the neighbor's beans had already been harvested.  I've been down here before, but not often; this field is only 23 acres, easy to miss in the scheme of meal deliveries over the course of two plus months.  The terrain is a crazy quilt of river bottom fields and patches of oak timber, overlooked by steep uncultivated fields of brush and rocky glacial till....what passes for waste ground in this productive country.

When Blake's grandpa Charles T Hurst came south in the '30s, these bottoms were more water than soil, a riparian thicket of cottonwoods and old river beds, the higher ground planted to crops.  He helped clear some of those bottoms, felling the trees by hand one brutal winter.  It was part and parcel of the tales he told us all, making the object lesson easier to take with his humor.  Grandpa was born on the eve of Theodore Roosevelt's first term as President.  Like T.R., Grandpa was never afraid of hard work; he was a prime example of T.R.'s "strenuous life."

Grandpa had a heart attack the spring after Blake and I were married.  We were still in Columbia, planning to be back on the farm in May after graduation and coming back to Tarkio every weekend while we worked to make the little tenant house on the newly rented farm livable.  It was March and the cattle were out on the neighbor's bottoms when we got home; I helped Blake chase those critters through the muddy woods: a new wife in a strange new life, with no knowledge of the lay of the land, and part of a family in shock and worry.  These many years later, I recall the abject helplessness I felt, channelling tears and frustration into Lord only knows what maledictions on Hurst cattle.

Grandpa recovered completely from that scare in his 78th year. He continued to go to auctions accompanied by a grandson, run a disk, and drive the combine every day of harvest until he could no longer get up and down the ladder.  Everyone learned to give his combine a wide berth in the front and stay out of his ever increasing blind spots.
 He and Grandma welcomed their first great grandchild in 1979 when Lee was born.
I don't know what he's telling little Lee in this picture but I can tell you how he spoiled his great grand children in ways he probably never spoiled his grandsons.  Blake learned many of his life lessons by working side by side with Grandpa, long before I was around.  I saw a man who delighted little babies by playing bumblebee, bumblebee with them (bzzz,bzzz,bzzz) in a most undignified way; who always had a HoHo in the freezer to share and whose face would never fail to light up when a toddler was around.

Grandpa did his bookkeeping on an adding machine and kept his photos and files downstairs in a freezer so they were safe from water and mice. He seldom threw anything away, on the assumption one might still get some use from it.  One of Blake's favorite tales has to do with fixing fence with Grandpa.  The wire was rusted and brittle and Blake asked Grandpa how old it was. "I don't know, "said Grandpa, "It was used when I put it up in the '30s...." One year Blake ordered him a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, but came to regret the gift when Grandpa used the news to tell him...often... about the impending doom of the next Depression.  Once burned, twice shy.  Grandpa didn't live in the past, but he never forgot it...

When Annie was born, we moved out of the tenant house into a house in town with enough bedrooms and heat.  Grandpa never said anything to me, but he wouldn't darken the door of the house either except to meet his second granddaughter.  Three years later, we moved out of town when we purchased a farm with a house on it....and back into Grandpa's good graces.  That spring he showed up at our door and put up my mailbox...a tacet benediction for the returning prodigals.

I am always surprised by Grandpa's thatch of black hair when I see pictures of him as a young man; I only met him when he was well into his 70s and white headed.  He always wore long sleeves and overalls.  Often the overalls were so worn they'd lost their pattern.  He turned his left foot over and wore his boots out on the inside....a trait I see every day because it has passed down to his eldest grandson.

Grandpa loved to take us all out to eat.  Sometimes that meant Betty's Hilltop or the Rulo River Club where we'd all eat fried fish.  A special occasion might mean a trip to Wheeler's in Auburn where they'd set up the back room with a long table to accomodate the nine adults and four wild youngsters that comprised the family in those days. Our little family didn't eat out much back then, but the chance to go to Wheeler's was still a mixed blessing; would we get to enjoy the good food or would one of the kids make Grandma Hurst nervous by throwing a fit, spilling their water, or just not sitting at all. As we loaded up, leaving the wreckage behind us, someone would put some more money on the table for a tip; Grandpa was always generous to his family, but not much of a tipper....

It was a November evening in 1998 that we got the call from Blake's folks to come to the hospital.  Blake and I were driving back to town from where he'd been running anhydrous on a farm north of Tarkio.  Grandpa left us a month shy of his 98th birthday with family surrounding him, with the harvest all in and a goodly portion of the fall work accomplished.  We still tell Grandpa's stories to his great grand kids, who remember him, and now to his great great grandchildren.  He was our generation's tie to farming as it was before self propelled machinery, before commercial fertilizers and seed, before flood control and terraces, before paved roads and electricity. He was our everyday example of how self discipline, frugality, and industry can overcome hard times. He and Grandma made 60 plus years of marriage; just more evidence of the virtue of stick-to-it-tiveness.He was good to his family, and had a dignity he had earned . Grandpa could be stubborn and set in his ways, but he covered it all with a smile.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Buying Time..After the Fall Back

November 2...Cold feet
November hangs in the balance.

On the one hand is the weather: the darkening afternoons, the lowering skies heavy with frozen precipitation, the looming deadlines on all outdoor activity...the crops aren't all out, the fieldwork is incomplete, the garden is still a mess and the greenhouses are not all covered. Despite the long nights, sleep is restless and there is an undercurrent of unease.

On the other hand, there is the unmitigated generousity of Thanksgiving.  The slate is wiped clean on Thanksgiving...all incomplete tasks are put on hold, paused, or just we cease striving and concentrate on the long term thankfulness we are called upon to express as our joy and obligation.  We are the worst of sinners if we neglect this glorious duty.

Before this awesome gravity is upon us, we can take pleasure and respite in the countdown to Thanksgiving...the vignettes of continuing fall in the weeks between commercial holidays. Work continues out of doors.  Even though the evenings come early, the weather in our part of the Plains, though unsettled, still can bless with bright sun and low humidity.  There is frost...but there has been frost...there are assuredly gray bitter days ahead...but the wind today  is swirling the brown leaves in a dervish and the lowering sun makes diamonds of the dust.

Here is early November in its golden gleam, its dust, its brief and breath taking beauty between the hot glare of summer and the brittle transience of winter.

Cleaning up after the frost ends the garden

Leaves of grass, of course

Bring on flannel...before the snow

pasta bowls...pasta food for guys in the field

winter keeper apples...sweet but scarred

warm socks

singing the praises of flowering kale

fall colors below 32 degrees

There's a guy in my garden cart

Deep shadows of an Autumn Joy sedum

Leafy joy

Where's Josh? There's a boy in my leaf pile!

Friday, October 31, 2014

All the World Loves a Parade

"to see the world in a grain of sand...." William Blake

"Carthage is a city in Jasper County, Missouri, United States. The population was 14,378 at the 2010 census. It is the county seat of Jasper County and is nicknamed "America's Maple Leaf City."

Bright and early Saturday morning, we find ourselves just west of the courthouse square in Carthage, Missouri. The sun has not yet risen behind the courthouse and the color guards and veterans' floats are in deep and chilly shadow. In front of us is a snazzy old Ford in up to date paint and behind us is the Cabool Marching band, warming up their horns, rocking some fanfares and showing more energy than I would expect considering how early they must have hit the road. Our hosts are putting the finishing touches on their float entries, taping up signs and filling the milk pails of candy that will soon be handed to importuning sweet tooths.
I get the lowdown on this event from one of the locals:

1) the parade will take two and one half hours start to finish.

2) there are more than 300 entries.

3) it always takes place this weekend in October, whether or not the Maple Leaves that are the erstwhile draw cooperate or not.

Then she takes me aside and in an act of infinite courtesy, asks if I'd like to walk over to the Post Office and use the restroom.

If you want a windshield survey of small town America, join a parade. Choose your basic components: a courthouse square, a color guard, a marching band, a grand marshal, a little miss and mister, elected officials and/or candidates more or less, church floats, school floats, local business floats.....and dance academies and emergency vehicles galore. Leaven your parade with any combination of Shriners' entertainment...I particularly enjoy the train, the bandwagon, and especially the calliope. The shortest parade I know of takes place close to home: two blocks south and two blocks west in length, but even it boasts riders of two wheeled and four legged saddles both.
Blake and I knew a vast quantity of sweets had been purchased for this grand event by the more than generous hosts of our float. We were prepared to tear our rotator cuffs to shreds heaving great clutches of candy to the multitudes waiting under the autumnal boughs along the parade route. What a disappointment it was to be admonished by the local authorities NOT to throw candy under any circumstances! The grandma in charge was quite serious about the trouble she might be in should any candy fall onto the ground through the course of the parade. No, the only way for the kids to get their treats was for the gallant young ladies in Official FFA dress to hand it out piecemeal while marching double time with a full 2 1/2 gallon milk bucket behind our pickup and the Farmall M of guests behind us. They made a valiant effort and I dearly hope they escaped without shin splints..
Waving at a crowd of folks you don't know....and who REALLY don't know you is awkward....but watching the parade route go by at 10 miles an hour is great. It was ever so tempting to keep my camera up to one eye for the entire ride, but I would have missed so much! With the accompaniment of the nearest band drifting to us on the breeze, the folks on the porches of the grandest mansions gathered with steaming mugs in hand, looking like nothing so much as small town college gentry. Indeed, there were signs of college allegiance throughout the parade route.....a virtual menagerie of Tigers and Gorillas and Bears..Jayhawks and Wildcats, too. The curbs were crowded with blankets, camp chairs, and strollers of well bundled babies.

As we neared the Middle school, the very first of the marching bands started straggling past us, headed in the opposite direction. We rode back to the beginning of the parade, followed by a convertible containing a tattooed biker, a guy in a University of Northern Iowa sweatshirt and two well coiffed members of the local theater group.
And this is what I love about small towns. If you had seen these four people individually on the streets of Carthage....and I did, before the would never have placed them in the same convertible after the parade. There is a story and one that might surprise folks that have decided rural people are as homogeneous and uninteresting as American cheese. Sure enough, the parade was still rounding the square when we returned to our starting point. Following the Shriners were the ghouls and ghosties promoting their particular Haunted Houses. Then a dance and rhythm group from Kansas City. Then a fellow with his septic tank pumper truck.....with a big pink ribbon on its side and a contribution for breast cancer with every job. A heart felt story in that one.

Finally, fitting as can be for a city on America's Route 66, there are fireworks...or at least a pickup shooting confetti! Big city, no...ticker tape, huh uh...but this heart of America celebration still left plenty for the street sweepers to work with....