Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cycles


There is a symmetry to life on the plains – death gives life, and life ends in death. That is one constant that isn’t balanced out – everything dies in the end, no matter how strong the life force. Life on the prairie flows through cycles. Periods of draught, followed by rains. The season’s inexorable march to the next, year after year. Each season brings its own distinctive weather, snow and ice in the winter, rain, hail and tornadoes in the spring and summer. One constant is the wind. To live here, one must learn to yield to the incessant blowing. The trees know that secret. They lean to the north, having given in to the constant push of air. Properly designed houses shield their entryways. Tumbleweeds pile into an obstacle on the south side when the wind is out of the south, then the next day, leave for other parts when the wind is out of the north. Among the rock chips and bug smears are tumbleweed scars on the front of vehicles. Often, one will hang up under the car, and must be removed. Unless you enjoy the continuous scraping noise they make. The Great Plains Noisemaker. Now for a limited time only, free to the right customer.

Spring brings life to the flatlands. Wheat, planted last fall, begins to come alive and fill the fields with a carpet of green. The trees blossom. The flies that pester livestock and humans alike begin anew. I used to use fly traps. I’d have gallons of dead flies, and still had no relief. Cattle have long tails for a reason. Once a year, the millers come out in force. Some years are particularly bad – this old farmhouse has a lot of ways for them to seek sanctuary inside, and there might be hordes of them sharing my lamp while I’m reading. Chasing them down with a vacuum cleaner seems to work best.

Spring also brings the thunderstorms, with the attendant hailstorms, lightning and tornadoes. Hail can pound crops into diced salad in minutes, and turn the hood on a car into a moonscape. Lightning can start fires, split trees and knock the power out. When I was working in the field with an implement in the ground, the tractor was often the highest point in the area. With that in mind, balancing on the knife edge of continuing work versus the safety of going home would percolate through my thoughts. That is all we had, just our own thoughts. The tractor I grew up with did not have a radio, so there was a lot of philosophizing during the day. I would work until I saw lighting on three sides. It was time to quit if you knew you could be hit. But, you hung on until the last possible second.

Tornadoes deserve real respect. As a child, my parents hustled my sister and I to the neighbor’s house with a tornado shelter in the basement many plenty of “dark and stormy nights.” Most of the time, if one even set down, it would be in the middle of a field. Irrigation pipe, fencing and trees might suffer. However, sometimes a farm would get in the path. The next day, the local Mennonites would be there to help clean up, along with other close friends and neighbors. People all own weather alert radios, but when a warning is on, everyone stands outside to watch.

But in the evenings, when the air cools and the wind dies is the best. Breathing the air is like a cool drink of water, flavored with all the newly green things growing. Wheat has its own tang, distinct from the grasses of the pasture. You know you are alive and all is well with the universe, breathing in the chlorophyll. The fall crops are planted, and rain is always welcome.

Then, the temperatures start to rise. Rain stays away in droves. When it is over 100 and the wind isn’t blowing too badly, the air takes on a brassy smell and look. Sunsets are full of reds and yellows, and the sweat on your brow dries instantly. A fine film of dust gradually coats everything. When it does rain, the coolness is shocking. It’s generally a bad idea to be outside, because it usually is accompanied by lightning and hail. The storm front stirs up a cloud of dirt, like a huge tsunami, only this wave has flashes of lightning behind it. The smell of dust is heavy in the air. You pray that it has rain as well. You can smell the moisture, but that doesn’t mean it will rain. The wind backs, then veers. As the line arrives, the wind suddenly flashes by. If it does rain, it arrives in great windswept gouts, driving painful needles of chill into your clothing and skin. Hopefully, the drama abates and the rain starts to fall in a more leisurely fashion. Generally, it quits and that’s all for today in the rain department. The roads have a skin of mud with dust underneath. Cars get muddy wheelwells while kicking up dirt. The rain may fall so fast the parched ground sheds it like an oilskin. Water runs across the road, wasted.

Harvest arrives. Lone farmers, working by themselves in the fields, become an army waiting to pounce on the wheat. Combines stand at the ready, greased and full of fuel. Some are waxed to perfection. Test strips are cut, and moisture testers, waiting all year for this, are brought out of retirement and put to work. A load is cut, hauled to the elevator. Will it be too wet? Will they take it? The elevator is on speed dial. Bring it in, and we’ll look at it. If the news is good, forces are mobilized. The machine operators are called, and the race is on. Early mornings and late nights, even more than usual, are the order of the day. For it is a race, against the weather. Will rain ruin the wheat in the head? Will it hail the crop out? Will lightning start the dry straw on fire? Custom harvesters, from Texas to Canada, pepper the accents heard at the local diners and coops, joining in the fray. Is that a fleet of alien beings, lighting up the night? No, it’s just the combines, cutting late into the night. Sometimes, a dew comes up, and the moisture of the grain gets too high. Thrashing is more difficult – the “straw is too tough.” At some point, exhaustion kicks in, and everyone goes home or to the trailers hauled into the campgrounds. Supper, showers and not enough sleep make a routine complete.

Sometimes the storms march in, and combines cut until the last possible second. They race to the trucks, hurrying across the fields before it gets too muddy. They unload the valuable cargo onto the trucks, water streaming in the hopper bottoms. The trucks have to be tarped, fighting the winds. Then, they must be driven out on a field road, turning into a morass of slop, but hopefully getting to the road. The machinery is parked away from the stubble, in case of a fire. It is lightning out, after all.

Eventually, the harvest is finished. The mud holes that were cut around dry out, and cut at leisure. The custom harvesters all tear down their machines for transport, and move to the north. Fleets of trucks pulling combines, headers and camping trailers clog the highways.

Life returns to normal. Weeds must be killed by tilling or spraying. The days get shorter, and the temperature starts to ease downwards. The sunflowers, following the sun every day, stop looking at the sun and wither. The air takes on a different tang. This is my favorite time to breath in the country. The taste is thinner than spring’s, and more subtle. Fall harvests are hectic, but not as much as summer’s heyday. The kids that ran the machines for wheat are all in school now.

As fall turns to winter, the temperatures drop slightly. It is not unusual to have plenty of warm days, but equally possible are days when it never gets above freezing. The continual wind finds its way under houses and through foundations, freezing water pipes. This is a dry country, so snows are generally less than six inches. However, when it does snow, it cannot seem to do so without drama, so blizzard conditions aren’t unusual. Accumulation may not be that much, but visibility and safe travel? Not so much. At least once a year, we get an ice storm. Last winter was bad around here. I was without power for nine days. The area had thousands of utility poles snapped. High voltage transmission towers were pulled down. The wheat crop is dormant, but it can suffocate under an icy cover, so winters are not worry free for the wheat farmer. Eventually, the days get longer and warmer. Spring arrives again, and the cycle begins anew.

The creatures know the seasons. Cattle must be tended accordingly. Calves come in the middle of the night, some not easily. Some cows need help – stalwart people inserting arms into private places, turning the calf and helping it out. Herds are turned out on wheat fields for pasture, and calves kick up their heels. Single wire electric fences mean nothing to the ornery devils, so mothers cry plaintively at their recalcitrant youngsters to come back to safety. A smart person does not come between the mother and child, if one appreciates the order of one’s anatomy. Water must be hauled to many of these locations daily. Old, tired grain trucks fitted with a large tank meet the need. No longer reliable enough to run with the big dogs in harvest, but not completely worn out yet, they soldier on, often not starting regularly, stubborn in their resistance to work. The water freezes in the winter, and must be broken so your charges can drink. Cattle must be doctored, worry creasing the faces of the stockman. Sometimes, they make it. Other times, the used cow dealer has to be called. They turn their backs to the wind, huddling and keeping the calves in the middle. Much like circling the wagons in the Old West, the bulls patrol the perimeter, vigilant and ready to defend their charges. Eventually the calves must be separated from the mothers. Much mourning at the top of their lungs, the mothers don the sackcloth and ashes of pain and worry. For the calves, it is a new adventure.

The birds follow the seasons. Ducks and geese traverse the skies, going north or south depending on the time of year. Pheasants are cocky and bold, until hunting season starts. Songbirds ebb and flow, springtime a cacophony of calls, squawks and songs. Hawks patrol the upper reaches, their shadows still on the ground until suddenly, the shadow moves rapidly. The shadow and hawk meet, and a mouse meets its fate. I’d have ten or fifteen hawks following the tractor, hunting for the mice or younger rabbits turned up. Hawks also stand like sentinels on watch, on top of utility poles, or even fenceposts if that is the highest perch in the neighborhood. Insulated from them on the tractor, you still feel some kinship with these bright eyed hunters, soaring effortlessly in the hot air. Of course, they feel the shame when some lesser bird picks at them, driving the predator away from the nest. The little birds dive at the hawks, fighters to the lumbering bombers that the hawks resemble. Size isn’t everything, even on the prairie. Years ago, some herons from eastern Kansas found their way out here. They were white, bold and fearless. We were pulling a sweep plow with rotary harrows attached at the rear. The herons would dart in front of the harrows to snatch mice, scrambling out from certain impalement with inches to spare.


The deer seem to know about hunting seasons as well. Whitetails in particular are keenly aware of human presence. Undisturbed, hundreds of yards away, they will take flight when spotted, white flags upright and flowing in their wake. Mule deer jump like springs released from their catches, not necessarily in a hurry or all that concerned.

The ghosts of the prairie are the coyotes. Their keening at night reminds one of banshees. They join in song, understandable only to themselves. But, they are mostly invisible during the day. I’d see one, once in a great while, on the tractor. He (or she) would be on a mission, heading for some unseen place. But they always took time to sit on a terrace and contemplate the nature of me and the tractor. They would just park there, resting and panting, watching expectantly to see what I’d do. Of course, I just continued on my path through the field, the work being the reason for my presence. They’d start again, moving at a seemingly slow trot that apparently ate up the miles, because they would disappear over the horizon in short order.

It is hard not to be in the flow of life out here. Bumps on a log might avoid it, but a sensible person pays attention and lives with the conditions, bending like the trees in the wind. There is a kinship with the creatures, and the plants. I am part of the ebb and flow, and will spend my days aware of the joys of nature here on the plains. For it is bred in me, and like Sampson shorn of his locks, I require this for my life and would not survive without. I am the last of a long line of farmers and stockmen. I pass the knowledge of this feeling to you, my reader, so that this is not lost. May you enjoy your life as I have mine. It will be with joy that I return to the soil, to meet my maker. For I know there is a Maker, who’s ways are in some tiny fashion revealed in this cycle of renewal and death. I’m certainly not ready yet, but when the day comes, I will be. Will you?

14 comments:

threecollie said...

What beautiful writing. I thank you and hope you don't mind if I link to this so friends can share!

RT said...

Very nice. :)

I pass by a lot of fields and some farms throughout my drive to and from work. I think that's why spring is so hopeful to me. The winter is so barren and I get to see things come to life in the spring.

Jinglebob said...

Great blog!

I tried to add the little box at the bottom you have, with it's interesting message, but evidently I am too stupid to make it work on my blog. Oh well, it's too scary for most people to think about anyway! :)

nita said...

Found you on threecollie - perfectly said! Thank you

Mrs. Mecomber said...

Wonderful Kansas. Thank you for sharing this. So good to read a blog from a great gun-toting, constitutionalist American! Wooooooo! There ARE a few here in New York State, too. ;) In case you were wondering...

Jerry said...

Jeffro,
That is a beautiful description of farm living. I don't know how I've missed your blogs all these years. I'll have some catching up to do.

I live on a farm in Indiana. My brother and Dad are farmers. I'm back here to take care of my folks who are both in their 90s. Dad's antics provide a good deal of my blog fodder.

You need to read my friend Cliff's blog. He's a farmer in Nebraska. http://cliffmorrow.blogspot.com/.

Take care. Keep up the good writing!

Jeffro said...

threecollie: Thanks so much!

rt: You betcha!

jinglebob: The one I chose has five different messages you insert. They appear at random. The site will generate the code so you can copy and paste it into your blog software. And, thanks for dropping by, plus we kinda go by your area hauling oilfield tanks on 85 on the way to western ND and eastern MT.

nita: Wow, 180 acres is just enough to turn a tractor around out here. Trees are here because someone planted them.

mrs. mecomber: While I have no great desire to see NYC I sure wouldn't mind checking out your neck o' the woods - always heard its beautiful.

jerry: Thanks for dropping by. I've been north of Indy a couple times. It always blows me away how much more moisture y'all get and how it radically changes farming practices.

Dadgum said...

Most eloquently said, Jeffro.

Tam said...

Day-umn.

I feel like I was there.

Nice piece of writing!

Anonymous said...

My mother is from Sabetha, Kansas, up in the northeast corner. Much of what you said reminded me of the conversation around my grandparents dinner table. Back here on the farm in Indiana we have a totally different cycle, but we pay attention to the same things; wind, smell, taste and whether or not it's going to rain and how much?

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Matt G said...

Greetings from the southern edge of your prairie.

It's beautiful, and sometimes lonesome.

And you've presented it in grand scale, sir. A fine job.

Earl said...

And some folks don't know why anyone would farm for a living. They should read your life...

Chris Byrne said...

Best thing you've ever written Jeff.

Anonymous said...

... beautifully written.....

Eric