They're out there. More than any other summer, I hear them coming and going, thanks to the Doppler effect and the 30 mile an hour speed limit sign just over the hill crest north of town. Trucks, not just our normal grain trailers, but all manner of loads from many corners of the country. Even with the wait where 136 tees with 59, Tarkio will come and go in the time it takes to shift all those gears.
I'd like to think some of those drivers welcome a change of scenery. Northwest Missouri on highway 59 is a topographical world apart from the I-29 route even with the Missouri in its banks. Sometimes an out of state plate will roar past me on its way north without noticing the one, two, three punch of semi trucks ahead. Not everyone is enthralled with the forced march on the blue roads.
On the other hand, there is more variation in those trucker's daily travels than there is in mine. The drive out to work changes subtly with the seasons. These days I admire the unreproducible hue of the big bluestem seed heads. Oh how I wish I could give it a name and put it on a wall or a rug! Each day the corn stalks lose some green too as fall knocks on August's back door.
But when I get to work, the days take on a Ground Hog Day regularity. Down the gravel I walk, ear phones in one hand and go cup in the other. The rows of mums await. I jerk the handle of the hydrant, plug in the cord on the tank and.....
...walk the lines.
In truth, walking the lines could be rote, but one rarely has that luxury. There are weeds to pull from around the mum pots. There may be pots tipped over from wind or animals that go bump in the night. From a distance the mum lines look uniform, like bunches of broccoli in a produce case. But up close, some are smaller and need the leader pulled aside for a watering or two so the plant will dry out, and grow roots rather than rot. There are wilted plants; perhaps the leader has been knocked out, but more likely it is plugged with algae or a mineral accumulation from years of well water. I'll pull out the leader, get a shower, plug it back in and hope for the rewarding dribble of water that means the plant can stay put. By late August, the bigger varieties are tending to grow together, so I'll spread the plants to the extent I can. A mum should be a globe....not a cylinder!!
By the time I've walked two rows up and down, its time to change the hose to the next line. Walk to the other end of the patch and repeat. In an hour or two, the hoses will meet in the middle of the patch; it will be time to fill the tank and move on to the next patch. Up closer to the house, Lee is performing the same ritual ballet.
What makes this not boring? Well, nothing. It is work, after all, and frequently its sweaty and buggy work that leads to some of the soggiest and stinkiest shoes around. I have to leave them outdoors when I get home, or on the hood of the Jeep after I've finished.
But it is also craft of a fashion, requiring concentration and attention to detail. Is there a yellowish tinge to that foliage? Wait, is that a web? Was it there yesterday? Which variety is budded? How soon will there be color? Should I water that line, or skip it today? Each plant is one of thousands, but each plant is one promised to a customer for a price too. Is that straight out of Poor Richard's? "Take care of the pennies and the pounds....etc." ?
If this part of the routine is successful, we'll begin another soon after Labor Day. The mums lines will empty, four by four, as we pull out the leaders, grab a pair in each hand, and walk them up into the trailers. We'll leave behind the losers, the ones with broken branches from wind or animal damage, the ones that are not quite big enough or lopsided. This is harvest Hurst Greenery style, just as satisfying as dumping trucks in the bin. After months of walking the lines, we drain them, roll 'em up, and fold the ground cloth under concrete bricks against the winter winds.
This is a humble sort of accomplishment. By the time the plants are arrayed in glory, they'll be planted somewhere else, part of someone else's grand design or an integral player in a harvest motif. Stellar Purples in K.C.; Tabithas in Lincoln; Dianas and Megans in St. Joseph; Wilmas and Ericas scattered down south; assorted versions of Cheryl in St. Louis. No grand burst of creative juices; just persistence, consistency, and a willingness to attend to every individual plants' requirements in addition to the bare necessities for all the mums. No room for shirking; the margin of error for a growing green thing in a black pot on black ground cloth in the blazing month of August is a small one.
There won't be a trophy for a job well done either. Like the truckers at the end of a trip, what we hope to accomplish is no more than the opportunity to do it all again the next year. Going forward, growing, beats the alternative.
Day by day, because they're mine, I walk those lines....