Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Background Noise

The prairie rim is no where as evident as on northbound route N out of Mound City and just across the Atchison county line.  If you want an evocative landscape, pick a hilltop, make sure no one is coming up behind you, stop, pull off onto what passes for a shoulder and turn off your vehicle. If you stopped today, you heard a cacophony of geese as the blues, the snows, and the Canadas passed overhead at altitudes just above treetop to stratospheric.  They veed into an infinity seemingly as distant as an MC Escher composition. Watching them pass over, the dun colored fields and the silvery washed skies made me feel I was part of an animated Andrew Wyeth painting.  Off and on through the day the geese called, at times loud enough to be heard above the ventilation fans and even the click-click of the seeder.  It was a soothingly harmonic accompaniment to the otherwise mechanical clatter than epitomizes the natural processes of growing plants in a greenhouse.

While gardening itself is a peaceful pursuit, characterized by the quietly rhythmic and repetitive motions of hoeing and the musical patter of water upon soil and leaf, growing the raw material for a garden is anything but.  One day in January only the winter wind drives the last remaining elm leaves skittering across the ground and the next the silent night has an undercurrent of blowers and ventilation fans dispersing toasty BTUs through thin skinned bubbles of six millimeter poly plastic more drafty than the walls of our 100 year old house.  During the day, electronic controllers tell the heaters to shut off and on, the aluminum louver to slowly creak open and just as reluctantly close, and the whine of a 48" or 52" ventilation fan to slowly crank up to maximum airspeed.  In the gutter connected greenhouse, interior fans start and stop in unison; their coordination and underlying hum brings nothing to mind as much as a beehive.  There are so many in the 19000 sq ft space that the cessation of their undercurrent makes the big ventilation fans relatively undetectable.  All this machinery and energy just to emulate the God given warmth of natural springtime!

The other big noisemaker is the transplanter.  There is something almost Seussian about this contraption with its telescoping metal fingers that pick up and grab the tiny green seedling so rudely pushed out of its cozy niche by yet another push rod.  All this in and out has a sound track of whooshing air, kind of a calliope/steam engine hybrid caused by the air compressor rattling off and on.  Think Billy Joel's 'Allentown'.

As cookie cutter and turn key as this all sounds, growing plants in our greenhouses is still more art than science, more touchy feely than technology.  We are as tuned to the equinox as the geese.  We start looking for bugs on our plants about the same date every year. We know the sparrows will attack the first crop of dianthus seedlings and the mice will munch the verbena.  I can guarantee rodents will attack my sweet peppers, especially the banana peppers, and never touch the fuzzy tomatoes. Before the end of the greenhouse season, we will lose one batch of the big headed African marigolds to some benighted bunny living under the pallets.  Instead of golden blossoms, we will have pruned bushes.  Last year Ryan took umbrage at sharing with the rabbits and bagged a couple; much less destructive than turning the dogs loose to chase 'em down!

Growing the flowers of summer and the transplants for your salsa and salad is a hot, dusty,  and loud business.  That is, when its not cold or sodden or muddy.  Even the most hands on of agricultural tasks requires a big boost from the machine age.  Something to think about when contemplating your prospective return to nature.

Like most farm folks I have my favorite parts of the work day.  Opening the door to number eight on a Saturday afternoon in March, turning on a pre-season baseball game, and shaking tomato seeds into the seeder has been a ritual of my life for nearly twenty years. The essence of spring is the scent of the first pansy blooms borne on the warm air exhausted from the big house. But the signature sound of our business is that of the antique Sundermann floor heaters on a early spring night: first the fan motor, then the click of  the gas valve and the reassuring roar of the blue flame inflating the plastic tube that runs the length of the houses. When I walk out to my car in the dark, the afternoon wind calmed and the silent stars above and hear that sound, I know all is right in greenhouse world.

1 comment:

  1. You describe the "noise" of your world in such an elegant way. Thank you for posting at the Country Fair!