Monday, October 24, 2011

Out of the Closet

'Nights are long since you went away..
I think about you all through the day.
..My buddy, my buddy,
 your buddy misses you...
Gus Kahn wrote these lyrics way back in  1922, but the sentiments are repeated in farm homes every fall when the greens of summer fade and the behemoths of harvest emerge grumbling and whining from metal sheds.  Magazines and newspapers pile up on the table and favorite TV shows queue up on the DVR. As the days wear on, the cooks scramble their brains and surf the Web for something, ANYTHING new and different, palatable when lukewarm and possible to serve in a Rubbermaid container.  The mantra begins:  when we get done with harvest, we'll.............

Cell phones and XM have lessened the isolation of the guy in the combine from home and Fox News, but bringing in the sheaves still leaves the folks on the home front with lots of "free" time between meals and at night.  After the leftovers have been stowed and the trash disposed of, the laundry hauled from the basement and the mail sorted, the sun may be down, but there are hours, rather than miles, "to go before I sleep."

What to do, what to do. Kids and women of all ages have packed up to visit pumpkin patches and parades.  We've had movie evenings with chick flicks and musicals. Reading, writing, washing windows, hanging pictures: so much more time for fall cleaning than spring. 

In that vein: pull out the hobby mess that has languished all those lovely balmy evenings of summer.  Behind closed doors in my living room resides half a lifetime's photo record, stacked willy nilly in unsteady sedimentary layers under the assorted dress coats and jackets.  There are thin albums with yellowing edges holding the little square fading Instamatic pictures of our early married years.  It was a big event to finish a cartridge of film in those days.  My Instamatic used flash cubes; holidays required careful rationing so that film and flash came out even at the end of the event.   

It was a marvelous birthday when I got my first SLR in 1982.  The first roll of pictures documents two little girls playing under the falling golden leaves of the silver maple in the front yard of our house on 4th street.  The amber sunshine, the red plant shelves, their bright smiles all blaze from the prints in the slightly more real than life hues of Fujifilm.  

There is no rhyme, reason, or particular rationale in the albums, but I can begin the sorting process by remembering which album style followed another.  There are square fake leather post albums that hold a mere two prints a page; these are late '80s and early '90s models.  Much of the nineties is contained in Hallmark post albums with colorful fabric covers.  They are oversized in more ways than one. Each page hold four or five prints, but I have extended the binding beyond all reason and many of these albums are more like antique folios: the story is told leaf by leaf held between covers only by gravity.  Some sturdy but elegant albums were another online purchase.  No adhesive here: the photos are sleeved.  Very efficient but not conducive to souvenirs, brochures, maps, and the other ephemera of travel.  One of these albums is devoted to our only overseas trip, a 2005 family odyssey to Ireland with Millie, Charlie, Nancy, Kevin, Blake, me and the three youngest boys.In these albums are pictures of at least three graduations and two weddings.  These albums blend seamlessly into the smaller albums of Target provenance.  Holding 250-300 photos, they are impossible to overstuff and stack firmly.  But they are indistinguishable from one another; it is quite possible to lose track of what exactly it is one is looking for while going from album to album. Aaron makes his first appearance in one of these faceless albums.  And after him....the deluge.

Clearly, this is all terribly anachronistic.  Blake gets a great deal of pleasure from his tall tales of my digital photography.  I guess he has the right: he bought me the digital camera in 2008 after Lizzie, Gabe, and Abbie came along, after Ben and Kenzie were wed, and before our second sailing cruise.  (To be honest, I don't think I took MORE digital pictures than I did print the second time.) He insists FedEx brings me yellow Shutterfly envelopes on a hand truck...or perhaps it is a Yellow Freightline truck with a pallet jack and a forklift..........well, you get the picture.  Firm in traditional storytelling mode, he accompanies these tales with exuberant hand gestures and exaggerated eye rolls.  

The price I pay for being the family historian.

At any rate, the closet in the living room was good for several evenings of harvest entertainment.  Some albums encompass no more than the month of December: Farm Bureau Annual meeting, the Live Nativity, preschool programs, cookie parties, wrapping presents, trimming the tree, untold instances of culinary creativity and consumption. The creative destruction and general hilarity of multiple Christmas day celebrations. All recorded, year by year, every one precious.  

Now they are stacked in chronological order, more or less, earlier to later, back to front.  To an untrained eye, the whole arrangement may not look like much progress.  But that's how it is with harvest activities:  some are more productive than others; some more practical.  My scrapbook project is finished for the time being.  On to another time honored harvest past time:  home improvement!

....the paint samples are in the back of the car.............

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Counting Candles

My Father is rich in houses and lands,
He holdeth the wealth of the world in his hands!
Of rubies and diamonds, of silver and gold,
His coffers are full, he has riches untold.....

And the hymn continues, 'I'm a Child of the King, a child of the King, With Jesus my Savior, I'm a child of the King...'

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies....

How better can I describe the wonder and thankfulness I feel on the eve of another birthday. It is a good thing to give thanks, to count our blessings, to recite a litany of all we receive that we do not earn, or deserve.  "We should at all times, and in all places, give thanks."  And we shouldn't wait or delay, even if our only prayer is a heartfelt, 'Thank God.'  

I am a child of the King, but I am also rich.... not merely comfortable and safe.  I too hold the wealth of the world in my hands........whenever I lift Josh to see the cow plates on the wall or show him his toothy reflection in the mirror.  My coffers are full of untold riches when I draw chalk pictures on the front porch, play catch, sing songs and dance, or take aim at the bad guys.  My cup overfloweth.

We gather together in the October sunset.  Having an October birthday means taking the party on the road, but pares life to its most essential elements: family, fields, food, fellowship. I take advantage of my station to eat the caramel frosting off the top of Abbie's cake which she has dropped into the bean stubble.  One serving is never enough.  Josh has already eaten, but his auntie sneaks him a bite.  Start 'em young.

Next week I'll get spoiled by the East coast family; I know this from previous experience.  The Virginia countryside will display the beauty of the earth, rain or shine.  It will be a greener landscape than our dusty fields of stalks.  Their home will be mine for a couple of days.

'For the love, which from our birth':  the care and attention and unselfish love of  our parents; the joys, cares, worries, and pride of being parents; the wonder and amazement of being grandparents; the awe we feel as we realize our Heavenly Father embodies all of these and unending compassion, patience and forgiveness.  All of these are treasures of this world and the next.

'I don't feel very different these days; I know its strange.  I guess I've gotten used to these little aches and pains.'  Matraca Berg reminds me grandmas can wax poetic too.  Our house overflows.....with Legos, with books, with photos, with music, with evidence of two souls living in partnership and harmony that is close, if not always in tune.   A limp here, a snore there: badges of honor as the birthdays pile up.

Yep. Lord, all I ask for this birthday is that you continually nudge me, whisper to me, or downright yell at me when I forget to be thankful.  After all You've done for me, I must do no less.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Legends of the Fall

"Tonight the moon was out, it was nearly full.
Way down here on earth, I could feel its pull.
The weight of gravity, or just the lure of life...."
Mary Chapin Carpenter's verse whispered in my ear as I made my way back to the Jeep from the cab of the combine.  To be accurate, the moon was a mere romantic sliver fading into the western horizon.  The Milky Way wrapped up the arch of the sky like a giant package. I looked up the sky chart for October 1 to put a name to the planet dominating the eastern sky.  Jupiter....I'll be watching you these harvest evenings as I reacquaint myself with the rising fall constellations.  Its a Friday night: I can see the halo of the lights on Burlington Junction's football field.  The air is still: I can hear fireworks at the football game in Tarkio.  Things must be going well for the Indians.

I've pretty well quit looking at the weather forecast, September has been so dry.  I haven't watched the ten o'clock news either.  But the wind yesterday was memorable enough that I checked out NOAA to see when it would end.  Our corner of the world had the dubious distinction of a red flag warning AND a chance of frost.  Fire and ice....Robert Frost...
Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

One terrible dry year I nearly burned our farm down.  We've always burned our paper trash in the deep hole we use to dispose of greenhouse and garden debris as well as downed tree limbs.  One frosty morning in November, I burned our household trash as usual, and then the kids and I went shopping. While we were gone, a north wind akin to the one that filled the air with dust yesterday churned through and caught some random spark left from my fire.  When we returned home, the rural firemen were gone, but a good portion of the harvested bean field around the greenhouses was blackened.  I could see where the fire had crossed the driveway within licking distance of two greenhouses.  It was a sobering and sickening experience.  This spring was dry as well and we weren't so lucky.  Somehow a bit of fire escaped the notice of at least ten people and melted the plastic and all the wiring of one greenhouse.  We have often lost plastic to the wind. We have frequently lost plastic to ice; losing one to fire was a first.  Fire is terrifying.  Ice is depressing.  To farm is to have fear of the Biblical plagues bred in your bones.  I tremble in deep rooted sympathy for folks in sere landscapes of the South.  I stand four square in the middle of the ancient Greek elements: earth, air, water, fire .

Harvest present conjures up harvests past.  Both combines feature GPS monitors. The children enjoy the moving mosaic of red, violet, green and yellow following the little green combine icon across the screen.  Various bells, whistles, beeps and buzzers monitor the vital functions of the monster mechanical beast.  When the grain tank is full or the unloading auger running, aggravating, repetitious beeps act as an audible cattle prod to the operator.  Still, the driver must treat the combine like the expensive Thoroughbred it is, feeling the rumble of the stalks feeding into the header and gauging speed, humidity, and yield faster than the photons can make it to the monitor. Push any factor too far and the whole symphony ends in a discordant chord.  We run much longer hours than we did years ago.  I assume the rotary machines are technologically superior and better able to process the larger volume of beans and stems.  Most evenings the beans would stop pinging against the windshield about the time the sickle bar quit shearing the stems.  This year, for a change of pace, the stems are still soft inside even though the beans themselves are down to a minuscule moisture below eight percent.  The dust is fierce; last week one combine caught on fire and spread sparks with each blast of the extinguisher.  With the advent of our grain wagons and diesel tractors, we haven't suffered the wildfires in the field of years past.  One memorable harvest, we burned two trucks, a pickup and Nancy's jeep....over the course of just two weeks!  

Fire and ice....twenty five years ago, we finished picking the bottoms after an ugly winter storm dumped snow up north and dropped temperatures into single digits in Atchison county.  We paid the price in spring in dead trees and shrubs, but farmers on the bottoms tested the strength of the frozen ground gingerly with their combines and trucks and brought the harvest home. The year we came back to farm, the men would chip enough frozen mud from the tread of the combine tires to keep them moving through the ruts of the bottom fields.  One Halloween, we set out to trick or treat Grandma Nelson with rain spitting and threatening to freeze.  By the time we got there, the power was out.  Grandma had her flashlight ready and treats waiting!  We crept back home over routes B and C that night.  In the morning, the Jack o'lanterns were coated with more than an inch of ice.  The elms in our yard were a wreck and power was out everywhere but our house.  We were warm but dry...there was no electricity to the well.  These fall ice storms are memorable for their rarity; winter ice storms for anxiety, exhaustion, and lingering aftermath.

Most evenings I do some housekeeping in the cab before I serve up supper.  The coffee Thermos,  squished water bottles, sections, fingers, sockets and three gallons of water require arrangement or disposal. I used to perch on the armrest in combines past.  Now there is a real live padded seat and room to stretch my feet out to the windshield. We used to think FM radio was a luxury. During the baseball playoffs or Saturday afternoon Tiger games, the farmers would vie for the catbird seat of the combine with its ear open to the sports world. Whether truck or tractor, the radio, or more likely, the antenna, would have given up its ghost a year or so into the hard life of Hurst Farms.  We've gone whole hog these days, realizing the thin line between work and torture may reside in the ability to listen to Special Report, Diana Krall, the Ricochet podcasts and Dave Ramsey. No longer do the markets and a.m. radio suffice: Blake sets his i-phone on the Sirius XM Sky dock and he is connected. None of these communications wonders is cheap, but blood pressures and tempers are in it for the long haul; communication, the experts say, is at the heart of a successful marriage. 

Riding the combine this year has been a less bone jarring experience thus far: one benefit of a drier year.  We shouldn't expect the washouts on the hillsides or the sticks and logs on the bottoms from toad stranglers or floods.  I am certain there will be dead falls on the sides of the fields though, judging from the sycamore limbs I've hauled off from my yard this summer.  Did you know there is an actual government wildlife program to encourage the downing of trees in the field margins?  "Feathering" is the technical term I remember.  When I heard of this, I was dumb founded.  Mother Nature not blowing down enough trees for you? Field borders require constant vigilance in our big combines with the long unloading augers.  The auger seldom escapes unscathed in a close encounter of any kind with branches or REA poles.  A wise man leaves a wide turning row and misses the big stick..........

'The weight of gravity'....or perhaps just the weight of harvests past.  We begin harvest in late September most years, but I remember filling the silo on my birthday one year in mid October.  We  typically finish harvest by Thanksgiving, but Blake's dad and grandfather finished in January. As much as the soil and slopes of our hills, the ditches and wet spots of our river bottoms, the winds, wets, warms and colds of our weather, our harvests bind us together over time and give us common history.