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.  


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