Friday, August 13, 2004

AUGUST 6, 2004

Oh, what a fine morning we woke to. It was textured with that "Canadian fog" I seem so fond of, out over the lake. When the sun took the fog away, we had blue sky, blue water, blueberries, Mary's blue eyes, all such loveliness.

As we were not moving camp today, we would have a big breakfast, our leader Susan said. It was a lovely big breakfast - bacon, eggs, pancakes, fruit compote.

As we ate, a wind from the east blew in a lake-hanging fog. Where fog touched lake, the water was rippled. We saw the fog coming, the rippled water with it; we saw it envelope us and then all was fog. And soon that same wind blew it all away to the west. As if something had marched across the lake. What?

This is how we pray; we say: O Great God of Canada, we thank you for this amazing day, this amazing place, these wonderful people to share it with.

We went off in search of the wily Quetico large-mouth bass, a favorite meal from these waters. But, alas, the fishing was not good. Tom caught the only fish catchable today - a big sucker, which got thrown back; and an 18" walleye, which encourged everyone to keep casting mightily, but to no avail.

A pound and a half of walleye does not make a meal for five adults and two youngsters, so we had our usual lunch of beef jerky and dried fruit, fresh apple, cheese, summer sausage, crackers, and so on. And we each got a piece of golden-fried walleye for dessert. Oh, it was lovely to taste.

O, Great God of Canada, we thank you for this small taste of the great walleye.

Reading and dozing and reading and dozing, not necessarily in that order. Some may think it a lazy man's pastime. To the unbelievers, I say: What do you think I'm gonna do in heaven?

It is a delicious point where what is read merges with what is dreamed.

And while I was dreaming, or reading, Mary and her brother went out fishing. They settled themselves over the same spot where I'd caught my walleye and brought back two more walleyes about the same size as mine had been, and a northern. We had all that fish for supper, plus the scheduled spaghetti which had already been re-hydrated.

Even in the wilds of Canada, we eat well, we eat very well indeed.



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'd just emptied a full bin and Dan was taking a wide sweep up onto another terrace. "I like to take advantage of having an empty bin to open another terrace up," he explained. "If I do it now, I don't have to short-dump when the bin is only half-full or three-quarters full." You don't want to round the tilt of a terrace with any higher center of gravity than you have to.

"You watch the ends of your header," Dan said, "you watch the middle to be sure it's feeding right. You don't want to get caught snoozing."

We're talking about the drought again. "Right now our grass looks like what it normally looks like in August," Dan said. "It should be like that in August, not June."

Running cows and raising calves will be a lot more labor-intensive "than throwing them thirty pounds of grain and watching them get fat." We were talking again about getting out of feeding beef. "Now it will be more work trying to keep the animals alive."

There had been a sprinkle of rain the previous night, so he got a later start in the field this morning. "Just what we've had since January, just a hint of rain," Dan said.

On a good day of combining, he said, he can harvest a hundred fifty acres. "We're probably up over a hundred for today."

We were listening again to storm news on the radio. How does he keep from getting caught out in bad weather? "You listen to the radio and watch the sky," Dan said. "The radio lets you know what might happen. The sky tells you when it's time to get out of the field."

"This is a lazy man's combine," Dan said. "You don't have to get out to change anything, you can do it from the cab. I don't know what all the new gauges are yet - I read the book and try it out and read the book some more."

He had been surprised the other day when the machine just up and shut down on him. It wouldn't start, it wouldn't run. The only clue to the problem had been a code on the digital display. He talked to the implement dealer to see what the code was about. It was a new combine, it ought to run. Well, it was the "tired butt" code. The machine is programmed to shut down automatically after six hours of non-stop operation. The guy driving the machine is supposed to get out and stretch his legs.

Dan admitted that the hardest thing about running the combine all the time during harvest was "getting used to sitting all the time. I'm used to being up and doing something."

In decent weather, he said, it'll take twelve to fourteen days to harvest the wheat. "If everything went perfect we maybe could get it done in ten days," he speculated. It never goes perfect.

The wind was starting to die some. "It's starting to get a little growly," Dan said of the work. "When the dust and the chaff hang in the air like that and the sun goes down, it starts getting a little tough."

Somehow he mentioned that it is about an hour and a half drive to Great Bend, Kansas. "Do you think that's very far?" I asked. "No," Dan said, "an hour and a half drive is not very far."

How far does Brent have to haul the wheat to get it to the storage bins? "It's about eight and a half miles from this field to the bin," Dan calculated.

I've run a mower with a ten or twelve foot cutting bar, so I know how easy it is to break a cutting knife, and how difficult it was to change it.

"Now you can change the cutting blades right in place," Dan said. "The blades are bolted on, instead of riveted. And you don't have to take the blade out to do it."

"All of a sudden it has gotten orange, didn't it," Dan noticed. The sun had dropped behind a cloud and the air was suffused with light, honey-colored, thick.

Then he was remembering a hail-storm. He had been in the old combine at the other end of this same half-section. The hail stones had been about the size of a half-dollar. "When the first one hit," Dan said, "I thought the engine blew up. When they all started pounding, I thought the combine was going to come apart."

As it gets dark in the field, you start to lose your depth perception. It was getting harder to tell how much of the wheat stalk you were cutting, how far the header was from the ground. It was 9:15 p.m. when Dan turned the lights on. The flood of brightness illuminated the header and the area in front of it. Dan drove into the growing darkness at a speed he maintained between 3.8 and 4.0 miles per hour most of the time. Dust in the combine's lights was as blinding as blizzard in a car's headlights.

Dan greases the combine every morning. He checks the tightness of all the chains. He washes the windows.

In the pitch darkness, you have no sense of speed. "You'll be doing two-and-a-half miles an hour," Dan told me, "and it feels like you're doing five miles an hour."

We talked about the price of wheat. "I've given up trying to figure out these commodity guys," Dan said. "If they want the price to go up, they go up; if they want the price to go down, they go down. I'll tell you, prices go down a lot faster than they go up."

To be continued....


AUGUST 11, 1998

Last evening the sunlight was like a bucket of thick, orange paint spilled on the black asphalt of Washington Street. This morning, it rests more subtly on the concrete driveway across the street - more watercolor, today, than oil paint, more burnished than embossed. An orangeness to the light still, but with rose petals ground up and added to it.

The village seems to stir only slightly between 5:00 a.m. when I rise and 7:30 a.m. when I leave for work. I cannot believe that everyone in town is still abed, but generally there are only a few cars passing on Washington Street in those early hours - well, I would say two cars, one heading east, the other heading west. Other than that, this part of the village is quiet.

Perhaps it is as simple as this: there's nowhere to go, nothing to do at that hour on my end of town.

By the time I reach downtown, of course, I will see that things are astir. Work will be starting at the lumberyard, the flag will be up at the post office, I may have to wait for an old man to finish crossing the street in front of me.

Today as I head to work there is the sound of an airplane in the distance. It is working hard enough to be a spray plane.

There is a layer of moisture on the windshield - the pick-up sits in the shadow of the neighbor's house and the sun has not reached it to burn off the dew. A very slight haze mars the blue sky above. You - you'd probably have a song in your heart on a day like this. Me - I'm not allowed to sing.

Out in the country, haze in the distance shrouds the far farmsteads and banks of trees. The fields of beans where peas were taken earlier are thick and amazing green. Where I had said they had started to harvest part of a field of beans, however, there are wagons of beets sitting at the headlands. Can you not tell beets from beans, Tom? No - I cannot - at this distance, even now, I cannot say they are not beans.

North of Five Corners there are two sweet corn pickers and a tractor and wagon coming toward me - taking their half of the road out of the middle as they must. I drive on the shoulder, my tires sounding on gravel.

In Ripon, I see dew running on the hoods of a couple vans and cars - looks almost as if someone is writing home from another dimension. Or am I the one who's writing home from the other dimension?


AUGUST 12, 1998
My, my, August in Wisconsin has been cool and green - at least as much as I remember of it, on this cool morning of sun and blue sky. I suppose I should not take this loveliness for granted but give thanks for each cup of beauty offered us.

She's a lovely lass now, but later the day may be scorcher; later the month may be a scorcher. You wish you could wrestle her in the grass of a sun-lit meadow, to possess her, to have her as a warm memory for a cold winter day, for a grey old age. Augusta, ah, we love ya!

Again this morning there is dew on the windshield, on the grass. There are secret messages scratched into the hood of the pick-up. The sun kisses the east side of our house from a low angle, making it appear barn red. Later the color will be raspberry, will be almost pink at times, will be barn-red again in the late afternoon sun.

The pond is still. The pond is still green with algae. A man who would put a dock out into such a body of water would be a fool, no? There is one such, at least.

It is Wednesday. Garbage has been set out in the village for weekly pick-up. Bright red containers hold the materials for recycling - paper and aluminum, glass and plastic. A sustainable earth? Not yet, but a gesture in that direction. If Fairwater won't do it, who will?

The Sina barn which had burned partially in the fire last month is being repaired. Charred rafters have been removed. I expect new ones will soon be hammered into place. I suppose we think there's no sense in doing more than is needed to make it right - in repairing barns, or whatever.

Half my ideas go to sleep with me, and half of those don't get up.

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