Wednesday, August 11, 2004

AUGUST 4, 2004

Big water, big wind coming in. Mary is the steersman in our canoe. She says "It won't go the way I want it to." She says "I'm working and working back here." Later, after we stop for lunch, she says, "My arms are still trembling." It will take us a while to get our sea legs back under us.

Susan and Anne dump their canoe when they get cross-wise to a small rapids. They've got nine-year-old Andrew riding with them, Anne's son. All of them get wet. Andrew has his life vest on.

Anne's tent and sleeping bags got wet. She hadn't closed her dry bag tight this morning. "I didn't think we were going to do any serious water today."

We make camp early. The others are setting up their tents; Anne is laying out her sleeping bags to dry - hers and Andrew's and her twelve-year-old daughter Ellie's, who has been paddling with Mary's brother, Philip. Mary is picking blueberries.

A big wind comes up and takes one of the canoes off the rock it had been pulled up onto. The canoe slides into the water in the blink of an eye and before you can say Jack Robinson it's twenty yards off shore. Anne is into the water just as quickly; she swims out and nabs the prodigal, brings it back. Where Anne works, they call her Xena: Warrior Princess, and you don't wonder why.

Soon enough Susan is making supper noises. The first night is always prime - roasting ears and steak this year. "Cold, just like out of the refrigerator," Susan says with satisfaction as she takes the steaks out of the food pack. Philip grills them for us, to our various tastes - medium rare, medium, medium well.

"Tomorrow is a move day," Susan says, "so it'll be granola or oatmeal for breakfast." Susan's the group leader, with canoe trips to Quetico for more than twenty years. Everybody has an opinion, but one person makes the decisions; Susan's a good leader because she listens.

As we have our supper, we talk; beyond that, all one can hear is the wind in the trees. Or water against the rock. Darkness comes on.



I was invited by Starr Jacobs of Smith Center to have supper in the field with her husband, Brent, and with Brent's cousin, Dan Jacobs, as they harvested their wheat crop. I extended the invitation by asking if I could ride in the combine after supper while Dan continued running it. Dan operates the combine; Brent & Starr's son, Steve, hauls the wheat from the combine to the semi-truck that Brent drives; and Brent hauls the wheat to storage. This continues my account of some time spent riding in the combine on a Monday evening three days into Smith County's 2004 wheat harvest.

There is an extra seat up in the cab of the combine, off to the side of where the operator sits. Dan climbed the ladder and took his place in the cab. I followed him up and in and closed the door behind me.

The cab was air-conditioned - you want that in this sun, in this dust. It was air-conditioned, it was all windshield and window so the operator has a good view of things.

This was a brand new combine, used barely enough to start wearing paint off the moving parts of the header.

The big tires of the combine were in the front; the smaller ones you steer with, in the rear. The engine, somewhere below and behind us, gave out a throaty roar as it came to life.

Here you go. We were headed across the wheat stubble to the portion of the field where there were still about ten acres waiting to be harvested. Dan's a farmer, so I suppose he's not used to talking much. Having someone in the cab to talk to is a "luxury" he doesn't usually get to "enjoy." We were talking about the drought. There had been very little rain since last year, and this year's wheat crop had been suffering as a result.

Dan told me: "They say when Noah built his ark and it rained for forty days and forty nights, we got 20/100ths."

There was a swath of wheat near the waterway that was still too green to harvest. "With green wheat, you have to be careful," Dan said. "If you get a big wad of it, you slug the machine and that's not fun."

He took wide berth of the green wheat. "If I'm going to leave three or four acres here, I might as well leave five," he said. "We'll let this get ripe." He turned the machine away.

I asked about crop rotation, about the fields I'd seen that look as if they have stubble from last year's wheat.

"Sometimes after we harvest wheat, we'll plant the field to milo the next spring," Dan said. "Sometimes we put it back to wheat in the fall of the same year. And sometimes we leave it lay fallow - we don't put the wheat in this fall, but in fall a year from now."

I could see a bare field right alongside the one we were working. I wondered if that was a field they've left fallow. "That's not our field," Dan said. "Someone else farms that." There was no fence-line, no nothing out there to say "This is my land, that is yours."

"How do you know where the line is?"

"It's the honor system," Dan said. "There's a post set out at the road. You eyeball it. Most people are pretty good about that here. And in eight years out of ten, the two fields won't both be planted to wheat, so it's obvious where one field ends and the other begins."

When Dan had to turn the combine to head in the other direction, he was able to make a very tight turn. I observed that I'd like to have a lawn-mower that turned that tight.

"I don't know why I even have a lawn-mower," Dan said, "it doesn't rain here."

Brent hasn't been hauling wheat away to the elevator in town but was taking it to the Jacobs' bins. "You might get a little better price in the winter," Dan said of putting the wheat in storage, "and you don't have to sit in line at the elevator waiting to unload."

Then Dan had to put the auger of the combine out in the unload position, the signal for Steve to pull alongside. The young man drove tractor and wagon parallel to the combine, adjusting speed and direction as necessary to keep the wagon under the end of the auger. Unloading the wheat on the roll saves considerable time over the course of the harvest. When the bin of the combine was empty, Dan signaled Steve, who pulled away and headed for the truck up near the road.

We could see that Brent was back at the field now, having supper with Starr and Carrie, Brent & Starr's daughter.

Dan turned the combine around near the road. "That white post," he said, "can you see it through the dust?" That is set on the property line. You just farm to that marker."

How much do these Jacobs cousins farm?

"We farm about 3,000 acres," Dan said. "We own all but one of the places we farm. The place we rent, that's my aunt's farm. We have about 900 acres of grassland to run cows on."

What kind of cows?


GLUMPPPH! A small wad of greener stalks ran through the combine. The machine shook of it.

To be continued....


AUGUST 5, 1998

Again this morning, beads of moisture on the windshield. A grey Canadian mist rolling away from us. A mourning dove takes flight from the driveway - good luck today! Wind ruffles the surface of the pond down the hill.

I rose late today - I'd never succeed as farmer. I'll get to work on time, though, and that's good enough for today.

Just south of Watson Road, on the east side of Highway E, cockleburrs stand out much taller than the field of corn. The clumps of burrs are big as baseball mitts.


AUGUST 6, 1998
Serious rain this morning at 5:30 a.m. Serious moisture on the street at daylight. The rain has stopped, but a gray pall still hangs in the air, claiming the day as its own.

Some of us care about what the weather is going to be. I am not one of those. I am among the number who take interest in what the weather is now. Actually, "take interest" may be too strong a term - I notice, but for the most part I don't "care." I have a preference for sunshine, but I'll take the rain. I like blue sky, but clouds will do too. Where I do go off track is overload - too much twenty below zero, too much ninety eight degrees plus. A few days, OK. A week, two weeks, watch out. I could not live with rain every day, a la Seattle. I could not endure the daily smog of a city like Los Angeles. I could not - even - stand sun every day. Fortunately, too, within forty miles we have a wide variety of soils and landscapes - sands, pines, loam, oaks, prairie. Farm fields, low and wet ground, the Wisconsin rock and roll. If you want water, why we got water - being from Iowa, I barely know what that is. Swimming in Lake Okaboji on August 15 each year, that's about the extent of it.

The air is so full of moisture it is almost hard to breathe. Just south of Watson Road, to the east side of Highway E, the sweet corn is being harvested - or was. They may have stopped because of the rain. There'll be cockleburrs in with that corn. Would that be "mixed vegetables?"

Rain puddles in places on the road. You can smell the corn today, the vegetation, the musty green richness. I suppose the only song a plant can sing is its aroma.

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