Monday, March 28, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution?

The farmers came to the college town first class, in a limo with lots of leg room and complimentary bottles of water. Winter still reigned in the foothills but a watery sun warmed the stone buildings and the tinkling of a fountain belied the chill in the morning air.

The streets were empty; no student to speak of. But evidence of a young energetic population was obvious: a coffee/sandwich shop on the lower level nestled cheek by jowl with a bar advertising happy hour. A running shoe clinic stood across the plaza; a "smoke shop" featured products other than tobacco. Taverns, a downtown book store, arts and crafts and various haggard dirty unshaven hangers on with backpacks or instrument cases defined the downtown as undeniably youthful, mid to upper class, adventurous, and curious, all those characteristics not usually associated with farmers.

The fourth floor office suite throbbed with creativity. A boulder that had necessitated a special exemption resided as spiritual center of the organization. Under a back lit dome, it implied strong ties to Mother Earth for the various food products arrayed on the glass shelves surrounding it. Whether a Kraft energy potion or "Annie's Honey Bunnies" ( no icky additives or pesky preservatives), the foods on the shelves were part and parcel of the creative portfolio of the brain trust on the fourth floor.

We dropped our bags in an office, no, more like a library of cookbooks and knicknacks. Floor to ceiling decals, even Velveeta! Wind chimes of silver spoons, wall art of wine and vine, two hanging planters of herbs, once live, now dried. I took a picture of the month's worth of activities and the raised fist with the (pitch)fork leading the way to the Food Revolution. We farmers know what we know about revolutions. We are heirs to the Green Revolution; we feel threatened by the Slow Food movement. Forgive me if I formed my own opinion of any program including the movies King Corn and Food, Inc. and projected the reception the Missouri corn farmers might get at a brunch get together.

Inklings hardened into suspicions when the breakfast spread included organic this and natural that, gluten free, additive free, pasteurized (good old Meadow Gold), and beautifully out of season berries, blue and red. The coffee was fresh and hot; we were supplied brown paper moleskin lookalikes with plain brown wrapper ink pens to take names and make notes. Chairs filled with the young, the thoughtful, the casual, the curious, the creative minds of the the agency.

The boss was distinguishable only by a few grey hairs. Despite the apparently one sided listing of presenters and programs, he reiterated the aim of a fair and balanced hearing of all sides of the food spectrum. Many of the folks working at the firm had experience with farms, farmers, and some type of agriculture; at lunch later on, he declared us paranoid when we said we felt the accumulated good will of generations of consumers for farmers had dried up just like the thyme in the hanging pot. And, as it turned out, the roomful of creative types did exhibit humor, empathy, and a healthy curiosity about what it meant to be a farmer, a corn farmer, a big farmer and a family farmer. They listened attentively to the notion that organic was not necessarily natural, that natural was not always safer, that modern methods of farming were kinder and gentler to the environment and that we big industrial strength farmers lived in little bitty places and worked hardest of all to protect our land because we loved it. Their questions were thoughtful and sensible even while they showed telltale signs of the fear of the scientific we farmers have grown to dread. Interestingly enough, these young movers and shakers were not terrified by the structure of agriculture, nor was there a single question regarding animal welfare, both subjects we farmers view with fear and loathing. No, the biggest bogeyman in the Tea Room was the unknown, misunderstood, stepchild of Monsanto, the GMO. Yep, that scary GMO and its insidious presence in just about everything was blamed for autism, obesity, asthma, and other dark and dreadful unknown future maladies. GMOs were unleashed upon an unsuspecting public with goodness only knows what terrifying results. Untested and hyper fertile, GMOs, in the mind of the folks at that meeting, would take over the gene pool of the world, rather like the zombies lurking just under the skin of normal appearing humans.

So, what did a roomful of creative advertising folks want to ask of a genuine farmer? What kind of farming? Did we use GMOs? How much time did he spend on the farm? What would he do differently in a perfect world? The farmer explained in detail the balance sheet of nitrogen and the facts of life of inputs and outputs. Why was he a farmer? What about our family? These are the types of questions we love to answer, the kind that allow us to emphasize the bonds of family and community as we demonstrate the generational memory so rare in this mobile and transient era. Yes, we farmers pride ourselves on our dual personalities: ying for early adoption of labor saving, technological and scientific advances, yang for tradition, family ties and loyalty, roots to community, church, school, even when it is not any obvious advantage to do so.

No doubt I have forgotten some vital observation from our day in the college town. But it was encouraging to meet with a group that was truly inquisitive, without hosting an inquisition. So often the sides in the food/agriculture/organic debate are calcified, chips on all shoulders just the tip of the iceberg of willful misunderstanding and disagreement. Are farmers overly defensive? Do we assume the worst in every well meaning inquiry? Are our actions open to misinterpretation while we pile up the factoids for trench warfare? Are we like the leaders of one agribusiness, polling anyone for a way to become loved, just like Sally Fields? Speaking as one farmer venturing into presupposed hostile territory, sometimes, yogurt or not, breakfast can be common ground.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good Neighbors

In my little town I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord I recall my little town

Many's the time I've been mistaken,and many times confused
And I've often felt forsaken, and certainly misused.
But it's all right, it's all right, I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be bright and Bon Vivant .................

Bon Vivant is the farthest thing from my mind these days. But Paul Simon reaches out from a generation back with cogent lyrics to accompany these dark spring days. "Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town", joins the headline of a deep and continuing decline in the population of our little corner of Missouri. Our lovely gracious past as personified by some of our leading ladies is laid to rest and mourned by all.

But...God keeps His eye on us all. What can we offer; what ineffable essence persists in our latter days that makes our place special? We still harbor a remnant of America past here, one held near and dear in our mythology past and future; we have good neighbors.

On a simple street in our little town, there stand two old houses. One has been home for an older couple for many years; one has been home for a young family for just a few. The young family's home is spacious, but they are energetic and the little children often spill out of the interior, laughing, biking, swinging, digging. The yards meld seamlessly and the little children are as welcome on their neighbor's driveway, or porch, or home, as they are in their very own. There are "chores" to do and ice cream with which to celebrate their completion. There are exchanges of birthday presents for the little children and the lovely example of the parents for the youngsters of the gifts of time and labor as the young parents rake, mow, and scoop the common snow. What a special relationship between these two families, unrelated but by the ancient ties of common ground and regard. How precious the extra, unexpected, bonus love of old for young and young for old? What a blessing the bond has been for both families, one made more likely by the open minded proximity and generosity of our little town.

Neighorhoods can be miles apart. Out on the country roads, families miles apart grew up like they were just across a fence. Couples played cards; kids ran wild; cattle were mutually put back in whenever they wandered onto the pavement. Gifts were exchanged at Christmas and cake was consumed on birthdays. Everyone's kids were celebrated at weddings and graduations and everyone mourned at funerals. Time passed, and the second generations grew up, married, left town, or settled nearby. Misfortune was no stranger; certainly family rallied around, but so did the good neighbors. Whether days were sunny or dark, unsung, but never unnoticed, the unrelated family, the loving neighbors as close as family, were there. Bereavement is not only the lot of the blood relative. Our Lord recognized this and immortalized the special relationship in the tale of the Good Samaritan. "Which of these men was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?"

"the one who had mercy on him".

"Go and do likewise".

We are short on explosive growth. We could use a few new houses and a few less decrepit ones.

But our little town is rich with mercy, with generosity, and with good neighbors.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Only Heaven Knows

"Is this heaven?"

"No, its Iowa."

This poignant sound bite from Field of Dreams is not merely touching visually: the serious young/old face of Shoeless Joe stepping out from history into the uber green of summer and posing this question to Ray, a fan suddenly possessed by past and vision, speaks to the inner longing of us all to know what is beyond the edge of our field of vision. It touches another chord as well. While we wait here on earth, and while we know intellectually and spiritually that heaven lies beyond, yet we have doubts: at our times of greatest happiness or quietest pleasure, we wonder how heaven can possibly be more beautiful than God's earth? If you are Ray Kinsella, or Shoeless Joe Jackson, or perhaps any one of a silent multitude of baseball fans, a day at the ball park may be about all one can wish for in happiness. Is it blasphemous to wish for verdant ball fields surrounded by fans with all the cheerful anticipation of spring training?

Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song about heaven too. "Nothing shatters, nothing breaks, nothing hurts and nothing aches" in her heaven. "No one's lost and no one's missing, no more parting, just hugs and kissing": a fervently desired outcome. But beyond that, "Grandma's there and Grandpa too, in a condo with to die for views" and "your childhood dog in Dad's old chair": homely, homey touches that we ordinary mortals can comprehend. What more comfort can we ask but that we keep our memories and good times and shed the parting, the aches, the hurts. I like the idea that my Granny and Grandpa, who loved the out of doors and travel, are spending their heavenly days looking out the windows at beauty beyond that of our lovely earth.

Years ago, in another season of loss, I came upon a song by Nanci Griffith. A young couple settles in the part of Texas, "the only spot on earth bluebonnets grow, and once a year they come and go, at this old house here by the road." He works the oil fields and she spends the summers alone, but their bond is deep and the refrain states, 'when she dies, she says she'll catch some blackbird's wings and then fly away to heaven, come some sweet bluebonnet spring.' They grow old together, tend their garden, and "set the sun", each year enjoying the all too brief bloom of the Texas bluebonnets, with the final stanza declaring, "when they die, they say they'll catch some blackbird's wings and they will fly awaytogether , come some sweet bluebonnet spring." That image has always brought a tear to my eye as I picture the husband and wife aging in body but remaining as fresh in spirit and faithful in heart as the bluebonnets that come back year after year to their old house by the road. No loneliness, no left behind, no loss, just an ascension together in the sweet season of the year on, not the wings of eagles, just the springtime's blackbirds.

This week the voice of Audra McDonald sang in my head. Here are words of query, of wonder, of hope, of comfort.

Is it warm against your face? Do you feel a kind a' grace inside the breeze? Will there be trees? Is there light? Does it hover on the ground? Does it shine from all around, or jes' from you? Is it endless and empty, an' you wanter on your own? Slowly forgit about the folks that you have known? Or does risin' bread fill up the air from open kitchens every where? Familiar faces far as you can see, like a family? Do we live? Is it like a little town? Do we get to look back down at who we love? Are we above? Are we ev'rywhere? Are we anywhere at all? Do we hear a trumpet call us an' we're by your side? Will I want, Will I wish for all the things I should have done, Longing to finish what I only just begun? Or has a shinin' truth been waitin' there for all the questions ev'ry where? In a word a' wond'rin' suddenly you know; An' you will always know... Will my mama be there waitin' for me, Smilin' like the way she does, an' holdin' out her arms, and she calls my name? She will hold me just the same... Only heaven nows how glory goes, what each of us was meant to be. In the starlight, that is what we are. I can see so far

In deep humility, admitting my complete inadequacy and lack of imagination, I love the idea of the fragrance of baked goods rising from the open windows of friendly kitchens. In the same way that I hope we will have the hearty work of gardening and live in complete certainty that music will fill the air. We know we see "only darkly as a mirror, but then will see face to face," but our loving Father knows our pain and gives us comfort. I smile when I think of those waiting for us, smiling, holding out their arms and calling our names.

But, as the song title reminds, "only Heaven knows how glory goes." The great mystery is beyond and we can but wait. Tom T. Hall had a few words about the heaven too, when he pondered the fate of Clayton DeLaney:

"it could be that the good Lord likes a little picking, too."

" A little picking" surely falls into the category of "every good thing and every perfect gift". Our loved ones know: we can but keep our eye on the prize and ponder.