Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When We Were Very Young

We had a set of A.A. Milne books when I was....well, very young. There were...and are...four of them...and I always thought of them as a progression: When We Were Very Young, Now We Are Six, Winnie-the-Pooh, and The House at Pooh Corner. The first two books are children's poems, whimsical rhymers full of imagination about childlike observations we sadly ignore or forget as we age and are preoccupied with larger topics. The second two introduce the much loved characters from the Hundred Acre Wood, the companions of Christopher Robin as a young lad before he also leaves the enchanted land in which his stuffed animal friends reside. Our copies were cloth bound, Christmas gifts, no doubt, because all our books were Christmas gifts, well worn before we left the land of the Hundred Acre wood, but never forgotten and always beloved.

Believe it or not, the approach of another August anniversary brought A.A. Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh to mind. NOT because our ever accumulating sum of anniversaries might lead one to believe we were gaining on Pooh Bear's girth...or forgetfulness (Pooh is, admittedly, a bear of very little brain ), but because thinking of anniversaries made me remember when we married...which is "When We Were Very Young", you know.

And now we are not. Which leads me to sum up this year's anniversary in a way that might be accused as childish...but should be forgiven in one given to grandmotherhood!

"If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear."

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

As any long married person knows, even the most attentive spouse, after years of conversation...or years of exposure to machinery...can appear distracted. His or her mate can always remember this bit of sound advice from the stuffed bear.

" When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen." A.A.Milne
After nearly four decades, (not quite there yet; that number will demand a party.) I fully expect any day to be an adventure with a small 'a'. But there is no doubt that Life happens when one tries to keep up with the Big Boots. Adventure can be exhilarating ; Adventure can be terrifying. Adventure by definition is never boring.

So wherever I am, there's always Pooh,
There's always Pooh and Me.
"What would I do?" I said to Pooh,
"If it wasn't for you," and Pooh said: "True,
It isn't much fun for One, but Two
Can stick together," says Pooh, says he.
"That's how it is," says Pooh.
Once we were very young, and now we are not. But as Pooh, very little brains or not, reminds us, what isn't fun for one is so much better as two.
Sticking together..
As years pass...
That's how it is....

Friday, August 22, 2014


"I was a child of the sixties...."

This July night is cool...and quiet, too, except for the child size snoring of Gabe in the room across the hall. Gabe and Abbie are spending the night; Abbie has the big bed all to herself because Gabe prefers the rugged individualism of the thin foam mattress of the cot.
This cot is no longer new; it's a sturdy Swedish model procured from LLBean a number of years ago. If it had a conscious, it would be amused at its desirability and glamour among the younger set.
When Ben was a baby, he slept in the wooden playpen that had been mine when we visited my folks' house. It is a tribute to the peaceful flexibility of babies that he slept contentedly on that old hard thing. He graduated from the playpen to a cot in our room; my grandfather's wooden Army cot, still solid after all those years, smelling of the basement on which it had been stored for decades and faintly of the moth balls that preserved the ancient woolen Army blanket that acted as mattress. It was low to the ground and I do not recall him ever falling out of it.
This cool night is an anomaly. It may even set a record. I do not believe July was ever cool when I was growing up. I slept on the top bunk as near to the edge as was prudent, hoping to catch an errant whiff from the box fan stuck in the open window. The nights were never quiet; people were outside chatting in the dusk way past my bedtime awaiting any faint breeze. The fans were important fixtures in my life and I remember each one. There was the 24" fan with the powder blue casing that my father used to exhaust the hot air from the garage. I got in serious trouble one time when I threw water into the big fan, relishing the refreshing mist it sprayed back on my face. The other fan was no more than 16" across but the high powered motor would blast the hot air like a turbojet engine. It was an almost iridescent metallic gray, heavy for its size, and a serious piece of mid 20th century engineering. Granny had the best fan of all, though: an older style,black enamel with a gold fillet on the base and motor. The blades were elaborately caged for safety's sake, and it boasted three speeds. What made it a cut above all others was its ability to oscillate. Turn the dial and a mere one dimensional breath of air became a zephyr of comfort, cycling back to refresh the breathless soul with a barely perceptible 'click'. Oscillation! What a civilizing concept!
My other grandparents were outasight on the early adopter's curve of climate control. One summer when I was still quite young we showed up for a visit and there was a behemoth of an appliance in the front window of the living room. It was loud and large, but it was the first home air conditioner I had ever encountered. That air conditioner didn't keep us from sleeping with the windows open at night though, sweating to firecrackers in June and cicadas in July, but the living room with the televisions and my grandfather's recliner was now climate controlled during waking hours.
When Grandma and Grandpa installed central air, the behemoth window unit traveled back up to Orland Park in the back of our Dodge Dart. In my mind it looms large as our refrigerator, but surely that's an exaggeration of my memory. My father installed it in the living room wall. We could have cool air, but not much and not too cool. All the doors on the house were to be closed so the cool air could be conserved and confined to the kitchen, dining room and living room. At night we opened the doors for circulation after the air conditioner was turned off.
Our neighbors in Orland Park had a swimming pool. We could only see a corner of it through my mom's flower bed and our neighbor's shrubbery, but sound travelled just fine across the boundary lines and there was many a wistful and wasted glance in the direction of all the shrieking and splashing. Even though Orland Park flooded a flat lot for wintertime skating, there was no public pool in the town. Visits to Missouri meant pumping up inner tubes on a hot afternoon and walking down a mown path through the pasture to our biggest farm pond (christened Lake Ginger in honor of my mom). The water was bath warm from the sun for the first foot, but down below where our feet and the little fishies swam, it was calm and cool. These outings were marred only by efforts to exit the pond without becoming mired in the muck or squishing a dozen stricken frogs. Even better was summer vacation, no matter where we travelled because there was always the chance the motel we pulled into might have a POOL!
Water is the final antidote to the dust coated weariness of August. From coast to coast, forbidden Great Lake to frigid mountain stream, urban fountain to Kansas chlorine, cool blue opposes blistering orange on the color wheel of comfort.

Like cattle shoulder deep in a farm pond and hogs in the damp of their mud holes, humans escape heat any way they can. Kids spray squirt guns and bust balloons; they float in galvanized tanks and hike with their towels to the deep spots in creeks. They will finish any household chore assigned just so they can strip down to their chlorine faded suits and while away those super heated summer days in a pool.

That's the coolest spot of all.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pretty Exceptional

"Benjamin Franklin extolled agriculture as "the only honest way" for "a nation to acquire wealth," in stark contrast with the alternatives of war ("plunder[ing]) and commerce ("generally cheating")."15 (Jim Chen, The American Ideology)

Reading this, I have to wonder if the estimable Mr. Franklin was speaking to some proto typical gathering of 18th century yeomen in their cleanest coats and boots.  It has the same ring as many a buttering up delivered in stirring tones by many a presumptive friend of agriculture.  To hear tell, the one percent upon which the nation stands are those folks raising commodity crops, meat, and fiber, not fabulously wealthy investors and entrepreneurs and others of their monied ilk.  We in the crowd take all this laud with a block of salt; firm in the conviction of the general usefulness of our toil and the virtue of our profession without reaping the laurels of Olympian heroics.

This is partly why it has taken so long for farmers to rise to the need to tell what is true and what is untrue about the vocation of creating food from the rawest of materials. Man is no alchemist and can neither turn sunshine to bodily fuel nor grass to protein like plants and cattle do.  But he can tend his crops and livestock; it is a high calling to be a good shepherd.

We Americans get ourselves all atwitter whenever the term 'American exceptionalism' is resuscitated.  The belief that our country is something unique among nations or  has been and hopes to be a source of inspiration and goal of aspiration has not only proponents and opponents, but a cycle as definite as sun spots. 

On the other hand, if you look up ''agricultural exceptionalism", you get a lot of academic papers dealing with labor issues and other "exceptions" that agriculture is granted as opposed to the rules other industries have to follow.  Not so uplifting, huh.  

The back and forth, the accusations, the ads, and, let's face it, the out and out lies of the Keep Missouri Farming amendment campaign have been educational and sometimes, stomach churning. As a proponent, I have heard and read plenty of what the rest of the world believes, whether behind the anonymous veil of comments on some website or the lofty pedestal of a big city editorial column. I am proud of the able and articulate defenders of farmers' use of technology, our husbandry of animals, the wholesomeness and tastiness of what we send to food processors, groceries, and even farmers'markets. Anyone with an open mind CAN get an earful of real life and has no excuse to lean on easy stereotypes or half baked theories about agriculture.

I don't know what theme is most persuasive to someone from outside of the agricultural community.  The common ground, the bedrock, the refrain of every farmer or rancher I see posting on Facebook or writing a blog or plastered on campaign materials?  The theme that sends me to my computer to look up that term 'agricultural exceptionalism', that lofty term for our daily bread?

It is a wish for continuity in agriculture...that agriculture will survive for the next generation to follow parents, grandparents, and even ancestors into the profession of farming if they so desire. I know of no other calling, (excluding military service perhaps) that expresses itself and prides itself and extends itself from generation to generation.  Why do families hope their children become farmers too?  In this day and age, it certainly isn't the need to "grow your own help", as marvelous as working side by side can be.  It isn't a  speedy or worry free trip to the "top", wherever that is.  And I don't believe that a family farm is a golden prison, trapping unsuspecting youngsters in the amber of repetition and stagnation. 

No.  These successful people want their children to follow them into farming because it has been a good life doing good work for them and they want the same happiness and fulfillment for their children. It is so much more than just a little kid's wish to ride a combine with Grandpa or honk the air horn. It is more than wanting future grandchildren close at hand.   They have found satisfaction and reward in the incalculable bounty of nature and family ties.  They have taken the measure of the pluses and minuses of staying put and voted with their boots for their home towns.  Whether or not the children become engineers, bankers, executives or novelists instead isn't important and isn't the point. The desire to carry on family farms and family farming, anachronistic as it may seem, is a crowning glory of agriculture. It is the vote of confidence in both a way of life and an honorable profession. It gives us the trump card in any discussion.  Agriculture walks the walk, honoring the past, growing the present, and hoping for the future. 

May not be "exceptional", but it's close enough.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Once and Future Fair

How can I not wax nostalgic at Fair time? Years ago, before we had kids, Blake and I would get up before sunrise and head over to the Atchison County Fair to help wash 4H calves, check out the competition, and lend moral support.  The Fair took place late in August back then, and the mornings were cool and heavy with dew.  Blake's brother Brooks was the same age Aaron is now, so I imagine he didn't mind having some extra help calf wrangling in the wash pen.
  I was no expert on cattle judging, but I relished the neighborliness, the burnt coffee in styrofoam cups, and the fresh glazed doughnuts laid out for those willing to be early risers. Back then the Hurst family showed Simmental cattle, big long bodied steers that were eating machines and could tip the scales at  three quarters of a ton of beef. And there were kids less than 5 foot high controlling those beasts with a jerk on their halters and a stern look....and there were kids whose calves were completely in charge, dragging the rope from their erstwhile master's hand, trotting around the ring dragging the rope through the muck,...or ...worse yet, raising their tails high and heading for hole 5 or 6 of the Rock Port Country Club just beyond the cattle panels.

Flash forward.  Years pass; styles change and the Simmental behemoths that could leap like a stag have been replaced by smaller sleeker black steers with noses that could sip from a teacup. The kids of the '90s had  lovely Chianina steers to show, shiny, but as skittish as colts.  They felt just fine to the judges, but hang em on a rail and they might, but probably wouldn't, grade choice.
 Our family had a routine by then....have a rodeo right after July 4th, a very tense occasion during which  Blake would try not to scream at the womenfolk for not stopping the hurdling terrified 1200 pound bovines and the womenfolk would pretend anyone else in the family couldn't do better at lassoing said animals.

   After the steers were tied and haltered, the girls spent a week bringing feed and water to them before they attempted to lead them to the water tank and back again. If these milestones were accomplished without injury to either girl or beast, the steers were turned loose again, still haltered, to eat and drink freely, with the underlying assumption being the cattle were used to the girls and, once caught, we could catch ém again. Finally, the kids practiced with their show sticks, leading the calves around the feedlot, setting them up, and praying every single time that one of the steers would not take a notion to balk.    By that time, Blake would leave home every morning and come home every night asking 'Did you brush your calves?'  The curry combs, clogged with dust and hair, hung on the barbed wire as evidence of daily grooming.

All those years of showing did yield a couple of trophies, but we figured they were more like winning a door prize than evidence that we were calf jockeys.
  No, our real accomplishments were the three tough accomplished unflappable showmen we raised, capable of coaxing, combing, calming, all the while keeping a weather eye on the judge.  The steers were never much of a money making proposition, but there is no way to put a value on good habits, perseverance, and dedication, not to speak of stoicism when a critter breaks a leg two weeks before the show and has to become hamburger.

The kids of the kids are raising animals now.  Aaron's hogs will be bacon and chops and roasts in the freezer in a week or so.  He will have money in his account to start the process all over again.  Matt and Ann are already discussing how to make Aaron's project, not just good eating, but good looking as well.  Aaron's grandparents (that's us!) are justly proud of how he has improved in the ring from last year and we know how attentive his folks are to his work ethic when it comes to doing chores!

Just a year or two ago, the US Department of Labor proposed some new regulations for children on farms that would have limited the kinds of work kids can do, even on their family's farms.  The uproar was so great that the rules were withdrawn and kids like Aaron can still work and chore like our children did and boys and girls have for generations.  The proposed rules landed on the agriculture industry like a bolt from the blue: stunningly arbitrary and ignorant of the inherent family nature of US agriculture.  Even though this was a proposal from the Federal level, it is a perfect example of what  Amendment 1 is trying to protect Missouri farmers from: a misguided even if well meaning impulse that would fundamentally harm Missouri agriculture.

Amendment 1 is not the result of paranoia. Farmers know that "they"are really out to get us; we need only marginally keep up with current affairs from coast to coast to understand that what we consider productive ways of growing grains, animals, fruits and vegetables are suspect.

We look for affirmation from our neighbors and fellow citizens that places like Atchison county will continue to grow kids from town and country who learn to do their chores every day, be responsible for another creature's well being, and finally, take those lessons to heart and pass them on to another generation. Look at the youngsters at any county fair; read the bloggers on social media; count the number of blue jackets at your local school.

 Farmers not only grow our food; they grow our future.