Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dancing Elephants

The house is empty; I have stockpiled the inputs for a major home improvement project; the sink is full of go cups; and there is a mixture of grains in the washer and dryer. It is harvest time.

I have a love/hate relationship with harvest. We had rain Thursday night and sprinkles Saturday; picking Indian corn led to boots that weighed in at 10# each with the mud on the soles. Never mind, of COURSE the combines will go anywhere, even if the wagons have half mile, 3/4 mile hauls to the trucks. The belt on the big auger broke. The new grain head isn't here yet. The corn is blown down and full of dirt. We know now, before we even start, that there will not be enough storage. The family part of our family farm hasn't settled into a routine, leading to minor disagreements. By the end of harvest, the family part of the family farm will need some serious space from each other, leading to minor disagreements. was a drop dead gorgeous day in late September. The sun was so bright on the garden, I had to keep angling away while I deadheaded perennials. We stopped in late afternoon to celebrate Bella's birthday, with the farmers arriving from one direction and the families from another. I took Blake back to his pickup, wondering yet again why he left the windows open to gather quite so many fat lazy slow late season flies. The combines were sitting at the corner, squat and towering at the same time, pearly white corn kernels piled high on every corner.

The weather forecast is good. The grain is drier than it was at any time last year. Sometime this week, we'll achieve the rhythm that harvest assumes when all is well. We are never a well oiled machine; the best we can aspire to is a tumbling herky jerkiness akin to the domino effect. No just in time delivery for us; we are a ballet of blindfolded elephants.

But that is a part of harvest I do love. The monumental sweep across the terraced hills of the combines; the auger wagons following behind, playing catchup, making their own trails back to auger or trucks. The fluid drain of the grain from the tank; the explosion of dry beans on the windshield; the roar of hydraulics as the combines pull out to shift into road gear when a field is done. Each piece of the machine tumbles into the next. The combines move, the wagons follow quickly, someone brings at least one pickup. The machinery fills; the combines sit, the wagons sit...something must be broken in the chain of command. An auger? Or is it just taking that long to transport all the rest of the dominos from farm to farm. All over the Midwest, farmers, farmers' sons, wives, grandmas, daughters, grandpas and as many kids as can fit in the cabs partake in the dance. It takes thermoses, paper plates, Tupperware, iced tea, Snickers and Pringles, crock pots, paper towels, wipies, Windex, ibuprofen, trash bags, phone chargers, apples by the bushel, pizza, batteries......and these are just the necessities for one combine driver.

I like to ride at night. Once the kids were grown and gone, keeping Blake company in the evening became our ritual. I bring out some hot coffee and chocolate, or a bottle of wine and two plastic cups, and we spend our evening together listening to post season baseball, or jazz on XM. Sometimes we don't turn on the radio at all. In the hills, you might not see the other combine at all unless we dump at the same time. All points of reference blend into the darkness so someone leaves lights on in a truck; the night is disorienting. The skies are bright with stars though and time passes quickly together as the head chews up the stalks and the ears bounce into the machine. We scare up birds, little gray birds that scatter up from the ground. Occasionally we chase a rabbit. A good deal for the bunny in the dark; his life expectancy with hawks on the thermals is not good. Nothing is as quiet as the night when the combines shut down and you stumble through the stalks and the dew to your chilly pickup.

Not so for the bin site. I don't dump trucks like I used to, but it was always a challenge to be where you needed to be to make sure the auger didn't run empty, the auger didn't run too full, the truck was raised when needed, etc., and still preserve one's hearing. I got lots of quality reading done dumping trucks, but was never sorry to leave the noise behind. When we first started farming, we had a portable grain dryer; it was a tremendous bottleneck in the harvest process, but added the smell of ....hmm, maybe steamed cornbread?

I picture harvest from space as we would observe an anthill. Each indistinguishable vehicle creeping along its path with its own distinct purpose and destination looking like so much chaos and confusion from a distance. Crash! goes one of the elephants in the ballet as an unloading auger catches a tree limb. The monumental procession grinds to a halt as the elevator shuts down for maintenance. Parts have to be fetched from 3 hours away. It rains.

Still, when we are all moving, our individual tasks achieve a greater purpose. The fields empty; the bins fill, and, we can see a job completed. And that's the best feeling of all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fighting Words.

Ephesians 6:13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

Poor hope. We treat hope as a commonplace, as in 'I hope it doesn't rain'. Or we use it as a less than graceful adverb to ward off any number of mundane boogeymen: ('hopefully'). After the general election of 2008, some of us never wanted to hear the word 'hope' again, embodied as it was in the wishful thinking of millions who were destined to be disappointed in any earthly prince, not only this particular one.

Let's forget all that and recognize hope for what it can be: our personal Maglite in this world of troubles.When our power is out and we are frozen with foreboding, hope is the beacon that gets us safely through the alley, the woods, the basement, any of the prisons we find ourselves in. Emily Dickinson called hope, 'the thing with feathers', giving it the power to lift us from doldrums great and small. Paul gives hope greater weight, calling it 'an anchor of the soul.' Whether hope is a fluttering thing lifting us up or our ballast against stormy waves, we should seek our hope and work to hope, knowing it a part of the great triad of the Christian heart, 'faith, hope, and love.' Hope is not flippant, not superficial, not skin deep, not easy to accomplish. Another verse of Hebrews links faith with hope, assurance and conviction; all weighty rock solid terms.

Hope yields nothing to worry. Hope is the antonym to despair. We don't have to be Pollyannas; that belies the state of humankind. We aren't owed the results we hope and pray for. But we owe our faith and future the effort it takes to hope.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saints in the Sand

Back from New Mexico, from one of the centers of civilization for North America. We wandered amid the volcanic debris of Petroglyphs National Monument, reading the blurbs on the trailposts, purporting to explain via the experts what each picture meant to the creator. What really made some of our fellow humans perch out on that sharp black scree slope, laboring stone upon stone to leave animals, monsters, swirls, faces, arrows and other unknown creative scribbles. We didn't follow every trail, but there is no hospitable shady spot nearby, no protected cave or shade tree. Nothing but geology writ large, a canvas of stone spread over several square miles and media built to take whatever Mother Nature can dish out. You want a lasting impression? Try basalt.

I am always intrigued by art of the past, and the older the art, the more piquant the notion of the continuity of humanity, the similarities outweighing the differences, much like the genetic blueprint of all beings varies a surprisingly small amount. Here is a macaw; here is a goose. Even I admit that this interpretation is not a stretch. How often did a macaw appear in the markets of these people? Once in a lifetime? Every week? Was the bird memorialized for posterity like comets and other celestial outrages have been through recorded history? Or are the pictures art for art's sake, the outpouring of creativity hardwired into human beings before we could write.
If these folks had lived anywhere less harsh, we wouldn't be able to speculate and admire their pictures today.

This is also the land of ancient churches, formed of the earth, arched, curved, leaning this way, buttressed that. With reredos and emaciated saints gazing from deep set piercing painted eyes. The carved beams are black with age and the benches are narrow and hard. One church is surrounded by a low adobe wall, planted with a hedge of Russian sage. There are adobe wells beneath each of the six rain chutes. A two foot tall stalk of corn grows in singular splendor in a stone ring. The chapel is beautifully maintained and the altar retablos and santos in their niches beckon with medieval gestures. Another chapel has almost impossibly primitive wooden towers, but new construction and landscaping lead from the gravel parking area (with room for tour buses) to the church. A lovely mural graces the restrooms. One can buy lunch and gifts and crafts a short distance from the church. Inside, the black eyed saints still demand attention, respect for their age, and the palpable devotion of the visitors and worshippers alike. A traveler files through a room with discarded crutches and passes one where there is a hole of holy dirt. In Santa Fe, the oldest chapel, that of San Miguel, can only be accessed, in time honored fashion, by passage through the gift shop. The weathered exterior is surrounded by scaffolding and we gladly donate to continue its maintenance and renovation. These churches are silent during our visits. Most request no photography, though no signs to that effect are visible at San Miguel. The loneliest chapel we visit is in a village on the high road to Taos. The late afternoon mountain sky is full of clouds and darkens the facade of the locked building. Weeds are growing beneath one tower through the adobe and the effects of age and weather are brutally obvious. This church dates from the 18th century, and while it is the most evocative of the landscapes, it is a sobering reminder of how much money and labor it takes to keep the lovely old structures in use. This is not just history, because history is part of the past. These churches are living like a giant oak or redwood is still living, even though the world of their youth is almost unimaginable to us moderns.

The Southwest evokes these emotions from visitors routinely. We react to the unadorned landscape, the scarcity of vegetation, the clarity of light, the way even our human structures here seem to grow directly from the soil itself. It attracts artists, there's no doubt, whether attracted by the physical attributes or the metaphysical. Sometimes music just comes out of the air and your toe taps to unheard songs; in New Mexico, the beauty is so close to the surface, but so deeply rooted, that it grows on the rocks.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

not one thousand, just one night.

Just call me Scheherazade. I'm sitting on the tile patio of a fanciful New Mexico inn with a glass of red wine, green chile salsa and blue tortilla chips. There are farolitos on the roof ledge and the window frames are painted Santa Fe turquoise. Just behind me is a romantic wrought iron gate leading to a courtyard with, of course, a fountain, a swing, and more flower pots and blue doors. There is a second floor to this inn, lending it an even more protected air.

Our room has been designed by the Arabian nights....there is more tile and mosaic than I have ever seen before. There is a curtained skylight and and an embroidered coverlet to the bed that could have employed a dozen seamstresses. Carved columns at least pretend to hold up the beamed ceiling.

We spent this afternoon wandering hither and yon along the narrow streets of Santa Fe. The crowd is a hodge podge of punks, families and would be beautiful people. At least we imagine them to be beautiful people. We watch them trying on designer leather and window shop the dozens of jewelry stores. We are shameless about strolling the galleries of art that we like, pretending we could find a home for a 3/4 size bronze buffalo in the front yard or Remington wannabe bronze in our entry way. Blake would look great in a big hat and I could luxuriate in a leather jacket and silver and jasper bracelets.

I have a couple of goals for this trip. We have been blessed with warm, sunny days with beautiful Western light. Task one, already accomplished. I have visited San Felipe de Neri in Old Town of Albuquerque, San Miguel in Santa Fe and hope to see several more lovely mission churches before we leave. In Old Town yesterday afternoon, I was irresistibly drawn to a black and white photograph of a white cross and a weathered white church in Golden, New Mexico. That churchyard is on for tomorrow; I need to find it. Georgia O'Keefe painted the churches of New Mexico, and therein lies my third goal: visiting her museum up here in Santa Fe.

This has nothing to do with my real life. It has everything to do with the life of the mind, with imagination, with stepping into this other place with my closest companion and having these days to unwrap later on together.

Hmmm..I will fulfill one familiar task tomorrow. I'll still make a little cute pot of coffee in our elegant room. There are even real pottery cups (turquoise, of course). We'll shower in that amazing bathroom with the mosaic birds and flowers in the shower stall. We'll have someone fix us breakfast and then visit some museums and take some more pictures of odd looking people and walk alot and bask in the sun, shadows, and mountain views. I have my eye on a pottery shop with interesting plates, but I REALLY want to visit the shop with little cowgirl and cowboy vests and skirts. Don't know what I can fit in my luggage.

I may have to be a magician yet.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Endeavor to persevere

Ah, now back to work. I can safely say this has been one of the most frustrating summers I can remember for the work we do: the care, feeding, growing, selling and delivering of fall flowers like mums and asters. In past years, we've battled bugs: beetles making shredded wheat of hibiscus blooms, grasshoppers leaving naught but the steeliest of stems, a dizzying array of caterpillars that would work their way from beneath the ground cloth or hatch within the crown or crawl out from under the leaves. All these creatures had as a goal the destruction of our ornamentals, our summer crops. Wait a minute, I know, I know, these are not competitive intelligences. It is irresponsible and erroneous for me to anthropomorphize bugs. But, to paraphrase Jim Croce, 'that's not the way it feels'.

We've had droughts, windstorms, floods, summers that were cool and encouraged
the mums to bloom too early, summers with weeks of hot nights that delayed mum bloom til frost, early frosts, too, come to think of it. Compared to hybrid seed corn or soybeans, a mum is a fragile fainting thing, subject to fungus and bug. A mum will root from nearly nothing and grow from 3 leaves to fill a two gallon pot in a mere two months. But, like bunnies, or baby turtles, it doesn't take much to screw things up.

And this summer, instead of acres of lovely uniform pots budding, we have....rows with no plants because they cooked and rotted in July before they put on any growth at all. We have one variety with more yellow leaves than it should have. We have mums that are going to bloom late. We have varieties we didn't order that are clearly not suited for our daylength and temperature regime. We didn't get varieties that we know size up and bloom in a timely fashion in our part of the Midwest. It hasn't been fun.

But....we have worked. We've fertilized, sprayed, laid off the water and nursed til we're purple. Maybe some of our labor has paid off: after all, you can never prove a negative. If we hadn't taken these measures, perhaps they all would have died. We don't know.
I'm not used to futile efforts. That's one of the great things about growing for a job: you can see, measure, count your results. Plants get dry; you water; they revive. Five weeks after you transplant a little impatiens plug, you have a lovely carpet of bloom in the flat. It is tremendously satisfying to see a bay in the greenhouse transform from the color of peat to the colors of the rainbow. That's what we usually get for our work. That's not the end of it, obviously, but its a good start.

So the results of our labor this summer have led me to question the value of my work. I get up in the morning and I don't like what I see. I don't know that my efforts are bearing fruit. Sometimes I think I may be making matters worse. I wonder why I am doing what I am doing at all, and, worse yet, whether this job is a useful task that has God's blessing. Is this some kind of not so subtle message? Am I just particularly slow to take the hint?

Never fear, says the last issue of World magazine. In the nick of time as far as my attitude goes, there is wisdom straight from above regarding work.

One of the gifts of the Reformation is the adaptation of the word "vocation" to daily life. No longer did the concept of a vocation apply to the work within the sacred walls of abbey or chapel. Now each and every believer could be certain that his daily tasks, whether indoors or out, artisan or peasant, cleric or king or midwife or child, were intended, by God, for the glory of God. Ours not to judge the results; our task to supply the effort. Work may be interpreted by some to be a result of the Fall; no, Man was given the Garden to care for, the beasts and birds to care for. Husbandry and agriculture were gifts to us all; the Fall and expulsion from the perfect world left us to deal with disease, hail, drought, aches, pains and age. We weren't born to be ornamental. We were born to get out in the world, being "in it" if not "of it" and to make it better if we could. Congratulations and reward were never guaranteed; but believing that we are working His will when we work makes it possible to rest at night.

When we work with this attitude, we can be free of envy, preoccupation with remuneration, and discouragement when we fail in any of the myriad ways it is possible to imagine in the working world. We don't have to worry about the relative reimbursements of "working" moms and "stay at home" moms. We forget about comparing apples and oranges. We cease to struggle with our occupation while never ceasing to strive. We thank God for hands, heart, mind and the ability to use them each day to win our daily bread. Whether we work for our family, our parents, our church, our school, our country or because we are driven to a goal only we see, the bottom line is the same.

So, I guess I can think of this unpleasant summer, not as unproductive, but as another object lesson. There is room for improvement. Sometimes it doesn't get better. But there is still next year, God willing, whether you're the Cardinals or the folks growing and selling flowers at Hurst Greenery.

By the way, how many of you remember the quote in the title? Its from 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' and one of the top two I remember from the 1976 show. After looking it up, there are far too many to list here. The other quote is also from Lone Watie (Chief Dan George). " I didn't surrender. But they took my horse and made him surrender..."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor Day ----->Aaron's birthday

Labor Day has a dual meaning this year. First, it gives me a chance to write about work, meaningful or not. I have lately read several articles about vocation in the very traditional sense: to paraphrase Bill Buckley, 'more in due course'. Second, Labor Day this year is the day before Aaron's birthday....which, seven years ago, made it labor day for Ann and Matt.

Or, in their case, not really labor day. The doctors tried, oh how they tried. But 'twas not to be. This was my first experience at the other end of the phone line from the soon-to-be dad at the hospital. And, as the grandma-to-be, not nearly enough information was forthcoming from down there in St. Joe. Blake and I lay awake, not peacefully, until the phone rang at 12:30 with the blessed news that Aaron Matthew Schlueter was out amongst us now and everyone was going to be fine.

Ben was still in high school and 2003 was back in the day when Tarkio parked cars. Lee and I had mums to water. We knew the new family needed some rest, but it was tough to wait it out. Blake and Ben took off at o-dark-thirty and I rushed downstairs to the basement where my new baby banner was ready to be painted. Out came the red and black spray paint in honor of this new Tiger/Husker hybrid. I was so excited that I committed the cardinal sin of sign painting: I left out a letter. Aaron Mathew.....rats! Nothing to be done but put a little superscript 't' in its place....I didn't want all of Tarkio to mispell the kid's name before he even got home!!

It had been a long time since we'd done all the chores associated with a little baby. But, out came previously used blankets, afghans, a playpen, my mother's high chair. In addition I got a whole new bundle of boodle thanks to a grandma shower given by loving family and friends. Whew! The activity of grandma-hood was wonderful, but settling into that generation took some getting used to. The most difficult challenge was the car seat. Lydia and Ann put it in the car the first time. As far as I could see, the car seat was a wild beast that took two intelligent and athletic women to subdue it. From that day forward, I did not remove the car seat except under the greatest duress and necessity. It was a great day when Mr. Aaron got too large for that infant seat and graduated to a new green one that I could handle! The blue car seat lived in Lee's basement for several years; when Ann saw it back among the living, she gave me explicit permission to ditch the thing.

How wonderful it has been to resurrect all the toys and activities associated with little boys! Out came the Brio trains when Aaron was about six months old. He was perfectly happy to sit on my lap and watch me pick up 'cargo' with the little magnetic crane or run the train cars up and over the viaduct bridge. Baths, a utilitarian activity at home, stretched into long and involved play times with spoons, cups, sponges and squirting frogs. Out came the books...Thomas the Train, McDuff, Smoky the old engine, Hobo Dog. The advantage of hanging out here at night was the opportunity to fall asleep in a coccoon of blankets and pillows downstairs on the big leather chair...right across the room from an equally sleepy Grandpa on the big leather couch.

As befits a son of cooks, Aaron has helped make many loaves of bread for the bread machine. He got the scariest bump of his young life from the seat of a stool in my kitchen while helping me. I called his mom and dad, heavy hearted about the gigantic black and blue knob on the little boy's noggin. He has planted seeds in the garden, raised gourds under his play set, brought flowers home for his mom, pushed the buttons on the transplanter, carried mums, delivered plants, waited on customers. He knows his way around Hurst Greenery as well as he knows the Bluffs. He has ridden in tractors with his uncle Ryan, one combine with one Grandpa....and, when he has a chance, thrown that combine and grandpa over for the other grandpa's combine with a bigger "tv" screen.

It doesn't seem like that many years since I stepped on Legos. Or built with my old blocks. Or bought Matchbox and HotWheel cars. Or sat in the sun at a T ball game.

Its great to be doing it all again.....Happy Birthday Aaron....