Thursday, August 12, 2004

AUGUST 5, 2004

It seemed we spent a fair part of the morning canoeing over and back, to find the portage we were looking for. It was hiding from us. Only someone wildly in love would think it a good portage - it was a mile long, so two trips with packs (over and back and over again) came to three miles, mostly uphill in the direction we were carrying the packs. Is that possible?

Mid-afternoon we landed on a lovely island with a well-shaded campsite. Of course there is nowhere you can drive in tent stakes, at least not far enough to do much good. This is the Exposed Canadian Shield, with the operative word being "exposed."

At both yesterday's campsite, and today's, white veins of crystalline material. Large crystals, very slowly formed.

Today has not been so windy as yesterday and has been plenty warm. I am still sweating now, nearly at bed-time.

The loons have called, haunting the stillness. Last night, sometime after midnight, we think the longer wail across the wilderness was a wolf call, far-off, repeated several times. It is good to know you are alive, and when the hair on the back of your neck stands up as you listen to that wail, you know you are alive.

In spite of the hard portage today, we are happy campers.



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.

"We've got about a hundred five head of cows this year," Dan said. "With no rain for the grass, that's about enough."

Brent and Dan just got into running cows to raise calves, just got out of the feeder cattle business. "The EPA was on us so bad, it wasn't worth it," Dan said. "Even if you meet today's specifications, if they change the specs, we have to meet the new ones. It was just easier to start running cows than to fight the EPA."

Dan got a little reflective: "People on the coasts don't realize the work we put in so they can have something to eat."

He remembered at college that "a kid from Kansas City showed up, who thought we still rode horses to school. He was looking for Indians. We all thought he was crazy."

Dan studied agri-business at Cloud County Community College in Concordia. "That was thirteen years ago," he said. "I don't know if anything from back then applies any more or not."

Dan was controlling the operation of the combine with a joy-stick in his right hand. He steered with his left hand. With the joy-stick, when you push forward, you go faster; when you pull back, you slow down. It's easy to adjust your speed to the changing conditions.

"This is the worst time of day to cut," Dan said. "Too many shadows. It's not so bad when you're going with the sun, but going the other way, with the sunlight and the dust, it's more difficult to see what you're cutting."

The field was terraced to control water run-off. "If the terraces are not too steep, you can cut across them," Dan said. "Most of the time, you go with them."

Some of the land the Jacobs farm is a little steeper than the field we were in. "The land around here is pretty good," Dan said. "It's got a roll to it. Up north of here they have to farm a lot more up and down. Here, looking up this draw, you can see half a mile. Up north they can't see nearly that far."

"We don't have a lot of land that isn't terraced," he said. "This ground doesn't lay too bad."

The combine was new; it had only three days of use; Steve had only three days' experience with it. The old combine had a thirty-foot head, so he was experienced with that. "The main difference is with the controls," Dan noted. "Some operate backwards from what I'm used to." Raising and lowering the header is one of those. A couple of times he caught himself lowering the header when he meant to be raising it. It was a matter of re-training his fingers from what they were used to. You don't want the header hitting the ground for you might break a blade in the cutting bar and lose machine time.

"Wind's out of the east," Dan pointed out. "It's blowing the dust right along with us.

Dan finished up the field he has been combining. Everything has to be moved to the next field now, a mile and a half east, a mile to the north. Dan had to take the long way around to get the combine to the new field because of some trees along the shorter route. "Thirty feet doesn't sound wide until you start driving down the road," he said, "then it's wide."

Brent took one truck over to the next field, I took my car over, Steve followed with tractor and wagon. Starr and Carrie were still out with us, to give Brent a ride back to get the other truck.

We had gotten readings of sixty to eighty bushels to the acre in the first field. Less than two miles away, the gauge was reading considerably worse than that - fifteen to twenty-five bushels to the acre some places, thirty-five to the acre sometimes, once in a great while sixty to the acre. "This upland will probably be pretty poor," Dan thought. "At the other end of the field there's a draw that should do pretty good."

Even in the high ground, yields shot up to fifty bushels to the acre in the terrace channel where water collected if the field got any moisture at all. Looking out at the wheat in front of you, it was not difficult to see which areas would have better yields, and which would be poorer. Even my untrained eye soon picked out the difference, even in the poor light.

The radio in the cab of the combine had been talking about bad weather. There had been a tornado sighted a mile north of La Crosse, Kansas, at 7:30 p.m. At 8:00 p.m. they were still saying "If you live in the city of La Crosse, you should be in your tornado shelter right now." There were clouds in the distance, in several directions, but nothing happening overhead. La Crosse is about 120 miles from Smith Center, mostly south and a little west.

Dan turned the combine into the sun. We couldn't see anything ahead of us with the light in our eyes and all the chaff flying in front of us instead of behind. "Wish that sun would hurry up and go down," Dan said. "I'd rather need to have my lights on than to look into that.

To be continued....



AUGUST 7, 1998

A single bird call, an upward turned whistle, repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated as I prepared to leave the house. I am not a bird watcher, so I don't know the call. Behind it, in the distance, the sound of an unhappy black bird.

Another grey, misty morning. The street is damp in places. It has been too cool and damp for this to be August. Out in the country, the fog is a dome a quarter of a mile distant - a circumscribed view. Around us the world has disappeared; the world around us has disappeared; the world has disappeared around us.

The sweet corn has been taken in both the field to the south and that to the north of Watson Road on the east side of Highway E. Cornstalks and rubble. The sadness of the spent field.

Moisture - dew or mist or fog - hangs from everything, from every stalk of rough grass in the ditch, every blossom, every corn tassel. If it were hot, this humidity would be unbearable. If you'd stand in it buck naked long enough, you'd sprout green tendrils, leaves, buds of flowers; perhaps you'd grow thorns.

She has stopped the car in the driveway coming out of the gas station. She has a puzzled look - is it that she has forgotten something, is it the mystery of life, is it ordinary quotidian confusion? I don't know. She bites down on her lower lip, still perplexed. I pass on, taking her question mark with me.


AUGUST 10, 1998
The difference between my "local" and your "local" is the difference between what's in my mind and what's in yours. Certainly, like one of Frost's hired men, we have to make allowances for each other's ignorance. I do not know your place so well as you do.

Perhaps, accordingly, I should shut up about everything but my piece of ground, my half acre. Away from the Iowa farm more than thirty years, perhaps I ought not speak of Iowa farms. Though, certainly, it should be okay to remember.

I should not speak, even, of or for these farmers, here. Should not criticize their lack of fence line, lack of cover for the pheasants, their propensity for cash crops bought and paid for by the canning factories. First of all, it's not my call - I have not invested in the land and equipment to earn the right to criticize, have I? And I do not know enough of their circumstances and conditions - how hard it is to make a living, these days, farming.

On the other hand, it is my earth, too. All these farm plots sold off for housing developments, suburbs set on good soil. It is my earth too - how can I not complain about the abuse of it.

Perhaps we need - each of us - to understand that the other has needs and has ignorances, and to listen with respect and together build sustainable places. If a farmer truly husbands, he will choose to build a sustainable land, for he will recognize this earth as the only one we have.

An American flag flies on the highestmost pipes of a complex of steel storage bins at a farm along my way. A respectable distance below the American flag flies the flag of the Green Bay Packers. Let us not forget where we are.

Farther on, a spray plane comes nose-to-nose with Five Corners, takes my breath away to see it up close and so personal. North of Five Corners, a field of sweet corn has been taken.

There is enough scent riding the humid air this morning to suggest that fall is not far off.

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