Thanksgiving occupied a special place in the year on our Minnesota farm and marked the end of the crop year. During the eight months between April and November, we tended the fields; tilling planting, cultivating, harvesting and then plowing. Every day, we minded the sky for the perils of the season—late spring frost, heat waves and drought, cloud bursts and flood, hail storms and early snow. Any one of these could wipe out a season’s labors. Most years, we sprinted through two months of fickle autumn weather as it slid from summery to wintery, picking corn, plowing stubble and culling the livestock before freeze-up and snow. After Thanksgiving, we relaxed a while.
Our first on-farm Thanksgiving occurred in 1947 and the last one in 1997. I was four years old that first year when my mother roasted a goose and cooked the garden vegetables she raised. November snow fell early. Five acres of corn remained unpicked and the stubble stood plowed. Both must wait until spring. The cars didn’t start for several days. Yet, my urbanized New Jersey parents were grateful. They pulled up stakes that April to go farming in southern Minnesota despite the absence of agricultural experience. They were still in their twenties and still immortal.
We lived in a draughty house in need of paint. Rusty barbed wire fences kept livestock away from the house. Small hillside fields bordered with weeds ringed the slough in the center of things. A line of woods marked the winding river half a mile away. Nothing about this place predicted prosperity. But come it did. Drainage and tiling turned the slough into rich bottomland. Contoured fields arrested soil erosion, check dams formed small ponds and the woods improved under professional management. Wherever he could, dad planted trees and created niches for wildlife. Year by year, the farm became more productive of corn and wheat, deer and pheasants, songbirds and ducks.
My mother shone in glory on Thanksgiving amid the roasted turkey, green tomato mincemeat pies topped with hard sauce, roast carrots, mashed potatoes, silky gravy and cranberry sauce. Cousins and aunts from town joined our table and afterward the adults played bridge and children played Monopoly and Parcheesi. For many years in the 1950’s, the television station ran The Wizard of Oz on Thanksgiving. We loved the tornado scenes.
As my siblings and I grew up and married, our spouses and children replaced the cousins around the table. But some things didn’t change. November is still the grayest month in Minnesota—cloudy, cold and damp. At times, depressing. On Thanksgiving mornings, Dad and I still went outside to do some light chores, such as splitting and hauling firewood while mother, sister and wife finished preparing the food. Out came the good china, the monogrammed silver and crystal. These familiar roles and routines gave as much comfort as the food. A confirmation. We knew who we were, where we were and why we were thankful.
When all was ready, we bowed our heads and dad said a grace over the important things. Then the platters and bowls circled the table and our plates vanished under piles of mashed potatoes, slices of turkey, peas and smooth gravy. Looking out of the windows, I saw our newly plowed fields stretching to the river. Sometimes snow dusted the furrows and sometimes not. Yet the cloudiness never dampened our gratitude. We had the fields, the palpable connection, the umbilical between our livelihood and abundance.
We celebrated the last on-farm Thanksgiving in 1997. Mom and Dad were retired, no longer immortal but as lively as ever and wiser for their experiences. Arthritis crippled my mother at 80 but she was still a game chef. Dad and I still went outside to finish some chores, fewer now than in years past.
Thanksgiving, between helpings of turkey and pie, I realized this was the last time I would sit at this table and see the furrows, black and rich, awaiting spring. Gazing out and across the fields, I saw for last time the farm as it had formed me. Come spring, a crew would seed the fields with prairie grasses and plant clumps of oaks. This pleased dad but I felt melancholy—like the death of a friend—the permanent loss of intimacy with the living soil that had long sustained us.
Was I thankful? Yes, always! But I was more than thankful. I felt grateful and my gratitude grew from our intimate relationship with the soil. Dad thought of loam as magic stuff, a community of organisms that, with the sun, released life-building nutrients to produce fields of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. He held the soil as in a trust. Now, he was retiring the fields he retired.
Gratitude comes with humility and humility comes from recognizing you aren’t so self-sufficient that you don’t need the aid of anyone or anything. We are all part of an interdependent web of life. Our soil neither promised nor gave us a crop unless we collaborated with its organisms to produce it. We were married to the loam and tended it so it could tend, feed and sustain us.
I said a bittersweet goodbye to the farm that Thanksgiving. After 20 years, I still miss the palpable fulfillment of feasting in sight of newly plowed fields dusted with snow. I still miss feeling connected to a plot of soil I worked to produce corn, soybeans and wheat. I miss the spontaneous gratitude that comes when we were spared the worst of the weather. Or, if we were struck, gratitude for our recovery from it. Most of all, I miss the sense of life living with the land and not off the land. And with that, I miss the simple joy of life lived knowingly along the tenuous margins of security. Thanksgiving on the farm taught me humility that prepared me to be grateful. On this day, a slice of humble pie still satisfies the soul.
I park my car on the county road and stand next to the mail box. The brisk November wind wipes clean the azure sky, and the sun casts sepia light on the corn stubble, grass, and leaves. From the mailbox I can see our farm in a glance. This is where I first saw the farm as a child. We called the place home for 67 years. Now, with my back to the wind, I take a last, long look good-bye.
My arrival in Minnesota is an eidetic memory, a tenacious image of a passing moment. The rain had stopped but the yellowish clay road is boggy. After days on the road, Dad stops the gray 1940 Plymouth on the shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. The lane downhill to the farmhouse is a slick rut of black mud. I sit in the back seat with my infant sister. Low clouds and pewter puddles add to the day’s gloom surrounding the weathered farmhouse with peeling paint, and the slattern barn in need of boards. The moment we stop among the dark, loamy fields and soggy stubble comes back to me. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three years old, and this is my earliest memory of home.
My mother’s family followed the sea, and Dad’s pursued business but my parents threw off city life in New Jersey to go farming in Minnesota. Seeking an independent life, they ignored parental warnings about being broke within six months, and entered a partnership with Rob, Mom’s brother. With audacious courage, my young parents invested their life savings, our future, in a farm they had never seen. They couldn’t turn back.
Our place—the River Farm–consisted of a ‘T’-shaped tract totaling 280 acres. Three 40-acre parcels ran south from the county road and intersected 160 acres of bottomland forest and marsh running east to west along the LeSueur River. Sluggish in summer, the river flooded in spring and on this day its water covered half our fields. A low ridge snaked through the woods and ended a mile away at ‘Bunker Hill’ on our south line.
They bought the farm from John Jennison, my great-grandfather, a shrewd, self-educated, small-town banker. He wore dark suits, lived in a three-story Victorian house, and signed his name with a modest flourish. He loved poetry, and I recall him declaiming, ‘Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …’.
When Uncle Rob told him which farm we wanted to buy, grandfather asked, “Why do you want that one?”
“Because we like the view,” Uncle Rob replied.
“Rob … you can’t farm a view!”
Dad learned the practical tasks of farming by asking the neighbors ‘dumb questions’ and studying the bulletins published by the Agricultural Extension Service. By ones and twos, he bought cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. We had a small tractor but for years Dad made do with reworked horse-drawn equipment he bought at auctions. When they closed the books on 1947, the farm earned $2,300 and spent $13,000. “We are really in the red,” Dad said.
We were ‘foreigners’ for a time—Yankee Easterners. In our township of German immigrants and their children, we heard accented English in phrases like ‘come here once,’ and ‘so you did that already now.’ Like all newcomers, we stood out in unexpected ways. We milked the brown Guernsey cattle of the British Isles but our neighbors kept
herds of the black and white Holsteins from Germany. Our tractor, a gray Ford-Ferguson, seemed tiny next to the neighbors’ large green and yellow John Deere’s and crimson McCormick-Deering Farmall’s. Everyone shopped in Janesville at Wiste’s Red and White Grocery, bought feed at the Archer Daniel’s mill, and sold grain at the Huntington elevator. However, on Sundays the Mittelstaedt’s attended St. John Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), the Eustice’s went to St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and we attended St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Despite our peculiarities, we quickly folded into a closely knit rural neighborhood. During lean, post-war years, everyone swapped labor and equipment at planting and
harvest. This unspoken mutual assistance pact lasted until everyone owned all the equipment they needed. We lived securely, and no one locked his doors in case a neighbor needed to use the phone. Three years passed before our phone arrived, a wooden box with a crank. Eleven other parties shared the line and eaves-dropping was expected. Such neighborly intimacy lasted until the 1960s when private phone lines appeared.
Dad treated farm work like a form of play, a puzzle to solve, a game to win. Possessed of a Protestant’s belief in working out his salvation, he found spiritual contentment in tilling the soil. Farming was a kind of religious stewardship. I was about six when we planted the first of many thousands of trees. He told me about the idea of stewardship and leaving the world better than I found it. The earth was like gold to him—something miraculous to be treated as reverently as sacramental elements. Planting trees and preparing the ground for planting pleased him, and he stayed on the tractor until dusk. In the gloaming, on tranquil May evenings, I heard him whistling Broadway show tunes above the murmur of the tractor’s engine, a contented man.
I was not yet six years old when Dad, short-handed at haying, asked me to steer the tractor and hay wagon. ‘Oh boy!’ This was a rite of passage into becoming a ‘big boy.’ Although I had often steered the tractor while sitting on Dad’s lap, now I would do it on my own. After he hitched the tractor to the hay wagon and loader, I sat the tractor seat, he set the hand throttle, shifted it into gear, and I steered the rig across the field. While I looked through the steering wheel to align the radiator cap with the windrow of hay, Dad forked the hay onto the wagon. I drove
tractor after that a year before I went to school and learned to read. By the age of 10, my chores included feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs for sale, pulling weeds in soybean fields, and hauling manure, picking up bales, and plowing stubble. As ‘big boy’ chores mounted, I looked for ways out of them.
A creek from our neighbor’s pasture emptied into 50 acres of marshy ground at the center of the farm. The marsh lacked an outlet and the soil didn’t dry out until mid-summer. This struck Dad as a waste of good land and, like a missionary among heathens, he set out to ‘redeem’ it. During the summer I turned nine, soil conservation engineers peered through their transits and drove a line of stakes through our marshy ground. When the dragline arrived, I spent days mesmerized by its work as the huge bucket opened a mile of ditch to the river. After that, a bulldozer shaped the dirt into a levee to keep the river’s floods from our fields. Our project was but one of a greater change reshaping the face of southern Minnesota. In every township, draglines turned winding creeks into straight channels. Bulldozers erased oak groves, brush patches, potholes and sloughs to make way for more fields of corn and soybeans.
No one foresaw that adopting hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and newly reclaimed land would result in bumper crops that depressed prices for corn and wheat. To make up for lost income, farmers planted even more acres, further lowering prices. By the end of the 1950s, we and many others enrolled some of our fields in the Federal ‘Soil Bank’ program to cut surpluses. Ducks and geese changed their migration routes, bluebirds and plovers lost their nesting areas, and it’s been years since I have heard a meadowlark on the farm.
In this small corner of Waseca County, I lived among people whose varied origins and talents shaped my later life. My mother passed on many of her upper-class social graces. She had a college degree as a librarian, spoke French, and encouraged my artistic and literary efforts. Dad focused on teaching me practical skills on the farm in counterpoint to Uncle Rob, a charismatic artist whose idealism never matched Dad’s tenacious persistence. Rob left us after several years to pursue more quixotic adventures.
The Mittelstaedt’s became like a second family to us. Heinz, a German immigrant, had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, and his shrewd mind made good use of his limited education. Gertie, his generous, broad-hipped wife, set extra places for us at her table without a fuss. Once, she made room for my sister, uncle, and me at her Thanksgiving dinner when a sudden blizzard trapped my parents in town.
During adolescence, I became a disciple of Ed Iversen, a retired U.S. forest ranger and regular companion on fishing trips and pheasant hunts. He taught me woodcraft, fly-fishing, and introduced Dad and me to canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Opinionated and testy, I could only do things his way or the wrong way. Under his guidance, I learned the elements of ecology and forest conservation, an influence that later led me to write a book on wilderness protection.
Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Geza lived nearby. She had retired from medicine, and he retired from labor arbitration to be a gentleman farmer. A Hungarian Jew, he spoke five languages, played concert violin, and dabbled in writing history. He inspired me to think critically saying, “The mind is a wonderful place to play” over chess games. He was right.
Dad served 12 terms in the Minnesota Legislature while farming and improving higher education was his passion. To advance his goals, he hosted annual summer sweet corn parties for legislators, college officials, and others who wanted to improve Minnesota’s public colleges. Over buttery sweet corn from our field, the guests chewed on ideas, formed friendships, and built a coalition that state colleges into a system of state universities. Though I was then a disinterested teen, I absorbed many lessons in the art of coalition building I would one day need in my career.
I attended a vocational boarding school beginning at the age of 14. An indifferent student, I saw little point to the classes in agronomy, arc welding and carpentry, history, English, and biology. Years later, after college and graduate school, during a career at Cargill, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Second Harvest Heartland, I often drew on the practical lessons and insights learned from the neighbors, and the vocational classes. If nothing else, hours on the tractor seat made me tenacious.
Dad’s active farming ended in the fall of 1961. He rented the fields to a neighbor, took up selling life insurance, and had an auction shortly before I went to college. The stocky auctioneer stood on a wagon and pointed his cane at a plow parked nearby. “C’mon boys, $300,” he called in a rapid sing-song. He tapped the with his cane. “$300. Gimme three, gimme three, three … I see four! Who’ll gimme four-fifty, four-fifty, fifty, fifty …” One by one, the buyers claimed their prizes and we turned a page on the farm.
Many years later, in 1997, after Mom roasted the Thanksgiving turkey and my wife made the pies, the whole family sate table, and looked at the newly fallow fields stretching to the dark trees along the river. We had just finished our 50th harvest. Our last. My parents had managed to ‘farm a view’ that was now covered by a conservation easement. From now on, The River Farm would produce wild grass and trees, not corn and soybeans. The news filled me with unexpected melancholy. I feared the absence of the seasonal rhythms of planting, cultivating, and harvesting would severe a visceral link between the fields that had sustained us and an abiding sense of gratitude.
In the following decade, Dad breached the levees and tile lines, restored wetlands, and planted trees. Despite his good stewardship, I felt increasingly disconnected from the farm as it became something different from the childhood grange that had formed me. Mom and Dad stayed on the farm until the end of their lives. Now they rest across the river on the ridge near a granite boulder among the bloodroot and wild phlox where they used to camp and watch the migrating songbirds. There was a tenacious majesty to their persistence in ‘farming a view’ and bringing about a landscape that reflected their vision. They never described their intention concretely yet they worked at fulfilling it with silent determination.
I haven’t lived at The River Farm for nearly 50 years but I have never left home completely. None of us do. The farm I remember, the one that haunts me, is the farm of my youth where each field presented a distinct face, depending on the crop and the season. I still see the oats turning amber in July with thunderheads coasting along on the horizon. On long-shadowed August evenings with cricket songs, I see corn standing next to velveteen alfalfa hemmed by the woods lining the river. In this promised land of memory, the scene is more artistic than agricultural. This is the farm I where I grew up, and where I still grow up.
As a youth and young adult, I was too green to appreciate the dismal prospects of this soggy tract with its draughty house and battered barns. Now, 70 years later, I am amazed at my parents’ tenacious grit in bringing this run-down farm to a productive peak and then, after 50 years, expanding their vision to turn the fields and woods into a landscape wilder than it was when we arrived. It looks as if we had never farmed it. This morning I came to the farm to hand the keys to its new owners. After a brief history of the place, and a few minutes of small talk, I wish them well as I leave the house.
I get out of my car by the mailbox, the spot where Dad stopped the car in 1947. We held title to this land for 67 years but the land possessed us more than we ever possessed it. This tract of southern Minnesota soil belongs to someone else now but it is still my family’s home in the geography of my heart. My parents, neighbors, and friends still live there in memory. Their words point my way forward, like cairns on a trail across level plains. With my face to the sun and back to the wind, I need only close my eyes to see the farm again as a three year-old because time is fluid and memories flow easily between 1947 and now.
Do you write off a mythic account as an entertaining yarn, a bit of folklore or a campfire tale? In other words, does a mythic story lack truth? Minnesotans love to talk about their weather because it is truly mythic in its reality.
Mythic comes from mythos, a Greek word for allegory, narrative, and parable. In ancient times, mythos was used to explain complex, unknowable aspects of life—truths that defied explanation solely by logos—the Greek word for reasoned discourse, an account or an opinion. Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for its weather is truthful when recounted as both logos and mythos.
My state lies in the crosshairs of three major climate systems: moisture streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico, cold fronts barreling southeast out of the Canadian Arctic, and a gentle Pacific flow off the Rocky Mountains. At any moment, any two of them may collide over the state. Non-Minnesotans think our weather is hyped, a fairy tale, like unicorns or Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. It’s true, we brag about our weather to non-Minnesotans, especially around the benighted hot-house souls living in warmer climates. We do it for effect. Our reality inhabits our mythic weather stories.
Today—November 18—is a perfect example. I woke at 7 a.m. to the loud rumble of thunder and strings of cloud to ground lightning, then a heavy downpour that swept floating islands of oak leaves down the street. When the rain stopped, hail plinked against the windowpanes and rattled on the wooden deck like peas in a can. The sun almost shone for a few minutes before heavy mist wrapped us in gray droplets. Sleet hissed as it fell on the leaves. An hour later, the snow began; first as a light flurry, then a heavier fall driven by the wind.
At this time yesterday (2:00 p.m.), the temperature stood at 58° F., the sun shone in a clear sky, and I mowed the lawn for the second time this November. Now, the lawn lies under a pallid sheet of snow, the temperature hovers at 34° F., the northwest wind howls at 35 mph with a wind chill of 21° F.
Today’s storm, like so many November storms , follows the southwest to northeast track of its many predecessors. As the Gulf moisture glides north, it is shunted northeast when frigid Canadian air slams into it over western Minnesota. As I write this, a blizzard with eight inches of snow, and counting, pummels the farms and villages west of Minneapolis. Roads are closed and the plows have pulled back. The plume of heavy snowfall is shifting northeast toward Duluth. For there, it will drift up the North Shore of Lake Superior and bury my cabin under a foot or more. This snow may last the winter. There is a stark magnificence in the North Country’s first snowfall. How I wish I could see it!
We cherish our blizzards because they test us and we survive them! They’re terrifying if we’re caught on the highway but we feel especially cozy and blessed in our homes. Blizzards leave us with eidetic memories. My favorites are those of my childhood on the farm. Heavy snow meant no school and no chores. I was 10 the year we had six blizzards in succession. They all started the same way. Mild temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, then light snow on Wednesday, heavy snow on Thursday, and white-outs on Friday. Drifts of four-five-and six feet piled up in the windbreak behind the house. They rose across the roads like mountain ranges. No one moved.
The county plow struggled to clear a lane by Saturday or Sunday. When it cleared the road, Mom raced to town for a week’s worth of groceries. I went to school on Monday, and things went back to normal until Wednesday, when the snow began again. This pattern repeated itself all of February and into March. We had so much snow the county hired bulldozers to buck the drifts rising eight and 10 feet. Dad hired a ‘Cat’ to clear our 400 feet of driveway—only to have it drift in again. I wondered at a world reshaped by the night wind—and I loved it!
The elderly of the ‘Greatest Generation’ still remember the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. The day began clear with temperatures in the 60’s. Hundreds of men went out hunting ducks and pheasants in their shirt-sleeves and light jackets. Temperatures plummeted, from the 60’s on the 11th to the single digits by the next morning. Without warning, heavy snow—at least 16 inches in Minneapolis—moved in driven by 60 mph winds. When the storm blew out, 49 people lay dead, many of them hunters. This isn’t a myth.
Fast forward a half-century to the Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991. It followed today’s storm track. That evening, I took my girls trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. We left in a snow flurry and came home an hour later, scuffing through leaves and an inch of snow. How novel! We woke the next morning with 18 inches of snow on the ground, and a total of 28 inches by the time the storm ended two days later. Hardly anything moved for days, and the snow stayed until April. This is a memory, not a tall tale.
Is Minnesota weather mythic? Yes! But it’s not a legend or a fiction. It’s our reality. We don’t create myths to describe the weather of our state. That is isn’t necessary. All need to do is look out our windows and report on what we see. That’s mythic enough.
As a boy, I waited eagerly for many things. Waiting generated anticipation, hope, and impatience for time to pass swiftly. Waiting tested my self-control, and I learned to distract myself from the object of my attention. When you are a boy, and you think a day of waiting is an eternity, it helps to have something else to do.
Despite summer’s many delights on our farm, I longed for mid-October. Nothing delighted me like the shorter days, colder nights, the half-harvested fields of corn, the frost on the grass, and the pastel sunsets. Why? Because the seasons for hunting pheasants and ducks began in October. At the age of 13 or 14, I had no qualms about taking the lives of sentient creatures. I waited for glorious day when I could blast them out of the sky with a single shot.
Pheasant season opened in mid-October, and on that day my mother prepared lunch for the usual gang of hunters. Besides my father, there was John, our banker; Irv, who ran the feed mill, and his son Buddy; Doc, our dentist; Ed, the retired forest ranger, and me. We gathered in the house about 11 a.m., filled our plates with sloppy Joes on a bun, potato chips, a pickle, and a soda or coffee—the traditional opening day lunch. The dogs—two Weimaraners, and a setter—waited outside.
Our clock struck noon. Time to go. We heard muffled ‘booms’ in the distance where other hunters shot at birds. Each of us shrugged into our canvas hunting jacket, picked up our shotgun and stepped outside to start the ‘drive’ or sweep across the fields. Dad organized everyone so two men walked the sides of the cornfields and the rest of us spread out between them with the dogs.
State law limited each hunter to killing three rooster per day, and no hens. Holding our shotguns across our chest at port arms, we crashed our way into the cornfield. I heard the flutter of wings, followed by ‘Hen!” No shots. Then another flutter and the ‘BOOOM!’ of someone’s 12 gauge. And so it went all one opening afternoon in the mid-1950s. We spent hours working through each cornfield and weed patch where pheasants hunkered close to the ground.
I was about 15, and our gang had hunted most of the farm, and were walking back toward the house for coffee and cookies. We walked seven abreast across a hayfield, each man about 50 feet from the next. Easy walking there because the alfalfa was barely ankle height and offered no real cover to hide a bird. The afternoon was about spent, and so were we. We walked along, talking, with our guns slung casually over our shoulders. Suddenly, a rustle of wings. Cackling. A rooster shot out of the alfalfa at the far left end of our line. It flew six feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of us. The pheasant’s wings beat frantically, its neck stretched straight out, and its bronze feathers gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Pheasants always appear easy to kill on the wing.
“I got ‘em!” Ed yelled. BOOM! but the bird kept flying. As the rooster flew along our line, each of yelled, “I got ‘em!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! As the terrified bird flew faster. One by one we fired until the cock reached the right end of our line, soared upward a few feet, cleared the top of some brush, and vanished in our woods. Nary a feather did we touch. We stood in place, mouths agape. No one said anything. Then Ed laughed, a sneezy, nasal laugh. A laugh of self-mockery. We caught it and laughed until we wept, laughed until we gasped for air. The bird made a fool of us all. It was worth waiting for.
Besides pheasants, I waited for the ducks. Waterfowl fascinated me until I was obsessed with them. When I could, I stalked the riverbank in hopes of flushing a mallard, or went over the ridge to a pothole hoping to bag at least a blue-winged teal. The greatest prize, however, would be downing a Canada goose.
At that time, the Canada geese were non-existent in our area. The only ones we saw were the northerners migrating south ahead of the Canadian winter. Some men I knew spent a lot of money to hunt them farther west. That was out of my boyish league. Someday, if I waited, I might afford it.
I bagged all the geese I could ever want one November day in the late 1950s. A steel gray overcast covered the sky and the chilly north wind foretold wintry weather ahead. Dad and I were picking the last of the corn when I heard something and looked up. High above us, I saw a skein of geese winging south. Then another line of geese, and another.
All day, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of geese passed over our heads. I wanted to hunt, then and there, but they flew too high to reach them with my shotgun. Hour after hour, they moved in long undulant lines, in skeins of rippling birds honking, cackling, and muttering as they rode the the hard north wind. They traveled in large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, blue geese, and the smaller brants.
I had never seen so many geese before, nor have I seen that many in the years since. Each year I waited and hoped I might see such a migration again. Before going to bed that night, I stepped outside in the windy darkness. They were still there, high up, calling, cackling, honking on ahead of the winter gales. It was a moment of wonder that has lasted a lifetime.
Have you noticed that seeds and grains possess identical appearances? Wheat planted as a seed is identical to the grain harvested later in the season. If so, why do we distinguish seed from grain when they are the same object? In the answer to the question lies what I believe is part of the mystery in the human story.
A seed planted produces a plant that reproduces itself as a seed. Grain, however, is a seed transformed by human intention when put in the service for other purposes. Further, I believe the cultivation of grain lies at the heart of civilization. Communal life as we know it, and the cultural elaboration that followed from it was, and remains, impossible without the cultivation of grain. Deep beneath the material aspects of grain cultivation lies a bit of cosmic mystery.
A grain appears identical to a seed but it isn’t. Grain’s destiny isn’t as a means of plant reproduction but as an agent of human transformation. It’s subtle but bear with me. Growing up on a farm, I participated in the differentiation of seeds and grains. Each spring we planted seeds to produce a crop in order to harvest the grains. Seeds were the means to the end, which was the harvest—the surplus production and sale of seeds beyond those needed for planting.
Planting corn or wheat each spring was our act of faith because we couldn’t control the weather, prevent infestations of wheat rust or cut worms, or changes in the price at market. Everyone depends on agriculture—grain—but few of us are directly connected to it. Nowadays we know grains indirectly and invisibly through their by-products: flour, grits, pasta and ethanol. Culturally, we think of ‘harvest’ and Thanksgiving as wrapping up a season in hoped for abundance and material security. It’s a warm, cozy idea but farmers are less sentimental. Harvest is do-or-die; the yield of grain per acre is a judgment on their management of resources and risks. The yield is the fulcrum for debt or surplus.
Grain underlies the larger mystery of settled human populations and the civilizations arising from them. Settled populations anchored themselves around and through the cultivation of wild grasses to harvest their seeds as food. Emmer and einkorn are the Middle Eastern ancestors of the modern wheat. Teosinte, a wild grass of Mesoamerica, became the mother of maize in all its forms, and is no longer a wild plant but depends on humans to reproduce.
Careful observation and selection over centuries produced plants able to produce greater yields of grain per acre, withstand droughts, winds, or blights. Humans chose grains with particular traits to maximize production on various soils and environments. Just as our ancestors domesticated or shaped the evolution of wild plants, in like manner the plants and their needs influenced and domesticated the shape and structure of human communities and cultures.
Dry grains, easily stored and transported, and densely nutritious, made it possible to amass surpluses to support larger communities and specialists, like potters, weavers, warriors, priests, and doctors. Cultivation accentuated the division of labor, the creation of classes, and defined gender roles. The particular needs of each grain—wheat, maize, sorghum, oats or barley—distinctly shaped the labor, lives, idioms, customs, and celebrations of the people who depended them. The relations between grains and humans is a symbiotic one. Neither modern civilization nor contemporary grains came into existence without the other.
Before the ‘Big Bang,’ our universe is believed to be compressed into something the size of a grain. Yet, within its cosmic hull lay everything that was, is, and will be. In a nano-second, this proto-universe hurled toward eternity the myriad potentialities that have and still interact, combine, and recombine as suns are born and die, galaxies form and disappear into black holes, civilizations rise and fall, and people are born, nourished and die.
Like the universe before the ‘Big Bang,’ a seed contains all the potentialities of the plant that grows from it and, by extension, the grain contains human intentions whose use will have primary, secondary and tertiary effects on human lives and civilizations. Grain is transformational in the human story. Although grain retains the outer form of a seed, the reason for its existence—its purpose—is altered, as if in a secular version of transubstantiation.
It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.
During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.
Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.
For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.
By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.
All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.
Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time. I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.
Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.
While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.
My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.
This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.
I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.
County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.
Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.
Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.
A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.
The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.
After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.
They name it The River Farm.
Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.
He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.
I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.
But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.