I tried to paint the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat.
~Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Paul Gauguin
There is nothing here but wheat, no blade too slight for his attention: long swaying brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows, the hopefulness of early spring. All grass is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms, no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight. His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded into the underpainting. He let the wind play through the stems like a violin, turning the surface liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents. No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from Les Fauves
I come from this – these green-ripening-to-amber wheat fields.
My mother was born nearly a century ago in a house built in a swale of these Palouse hills, where grain rose prolific each year from the soil. Her father used horses and harvester over hill and dale to bring in the wheat, and piled it high in the local elevator until the train could pick it up.
My grandfather, grandmother, uncle and my mother are no more, now but dust, yet this land continues to produce and yield without their help.
When I return for a visit, I listen for what Van Gogh must have heard and seen in his own fertile land: the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat, the grain moving in waves across the landscape, the complexity of color of each individual stalk blending together to become an unending carpet undulating over the earth.
Yet to really take it in and not be overwhelmed, (to get out of the weeds, so to speak), I go high on the butte to see the world as wheat from above. I then can imagine God’s own view of our grassy flesh which withers and fades away, as we shrivel in the sun and fall – yet the harvest of His Word endures forever.
You wake wanting the dream you left behind in sleep, water washing through everything, clearing away sediment of years, uncovering the lost and forgotten. You hear the sun breaking on cold grass, on eaves, on stone steps outside. You see light igniting sparks of dust in the air. You feel for the first time in years the world electrified with morning.
You know something has changed in the night, something you thought gone from the world has come back: shooting stars in the pasture, sleeping beneath a field of daisies, wisteria climbing over fences, houses, trees.
This is a place that smells like childhood and old age. It is a limb you swung from, a field you go back to.
Returning to my mother’s Palouse country to meet again with my aunt and cousins:
(her brother’s widow, now 97, her nieces and nephews–those who still farm and those who wish they still could)
I know these wheat fields lie deep in my DNA and my heart is comforted by the familiarity of the tone and hue of the soil, the freshness of the breezes, the undulation of the grain over the hillsides, the lilt of the meadowlark’s song.
This is always a welcome return home as I feel my mother’s genes rise up within me to greet this family, and know that yes, to this too I belong.
My mother told many stories about growing up on a wheat farm in the rolling fertile Palouse hills of eastern Washington state during the Great Depression years. One was about the fabled Giant Palouse Earthworm, said to inhabit the deep soil of those lonely farms, and occasionally surfacing during cultivation with the horse drawn equipment.
This was no ordinary worm; this cream colored invertebrate, first described by a zoologist in 1897, could grow up to 3 feet long. It could move quickly through the loose topsoil, burrowing deep when threatened. When it was turned up to the sunlight by the plowshare, all work would cease in the marvel of such a hidden creature. This worm smelled like the essence of lilies but when handled, it defended itself through a release of fluid from its jawless mouth–the old farmers said it could “spit” a yard away.
I believed this was yet another of my mother’s “mythical” stories of life on the wheat farm and considered the “Giant Worm” a fairy tale sharing shelf space with Pegasus, dragons and centaurs, the stuff of Gary Larsen and “The Far Side”.
However, the Worm turneth “real”. It actually does exist…we think.
The last time a scientist (University of Idaho) found a Giant Palouse Worm was in 2010. There have only been a few sightings because the worm can move faster than a shovel, easily detecting the vibrations of humans disturbing the soil. So it has remained elusive, or more likely, adversely impacted due to intensive agricultural practices of the last century. Environmental conservationists asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to institute protections for the Worm by declaring it an endangered species but it was denied such status. Somehow the Federal Government is not eager to put resources into a Worm that prefers to stay 15 feet under. Perhaps the Worm shall one day have its day in court.
Actually this modern fable is only partially about saving a fantastical Worm that no one can find; it is also about ever-present environmental battling for preservation of land in its natural state versus development–even modern agricultural development in some of the most fertile soil in the world. Scientists have put electric shock waves into the ground in an effort to drive the Worms to the surface so we have actual specimens to study and admire and then to call truly endangered. If I was being shocked out of my comfy little dirt home, I think I’d dig deeper, rather than rise to the surface for poking, prodding, and photo ops. And I’d certainly feel like spitting.
I want to believe there must be a whole vital civilization of Giant Worms way down deep, dancing the night away in lily perfume and laughing at all the antics up under the sun. Some day they’ll rise to make their grand appearance, and like a cross between protected prairie dog towns and a child’s bedroom ant farm, humans in all our wisdom and protective instincts might create Giant Palouse Worm colonies in the soil with underground viewing chambers.
Then we can stare at the underground cream colored marvels, and they can stare… and spit… back at us.
Now that summer’s ripen’d bloom Frolics where the winter frow n’d, Stretch’d upon these banks of broom, We command the landscape round.
Nature in the prospect yields Humble dales and mountains bold, Meadows, woodlands, heaths-and fields Yellow’d o’er with waving gold.
On the uplands ev’ry glade Brightens in the blaze of day; O’er the vales the sober shade Softens to an ev’ning gray.
~John Cunningham from “The Landscape”
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me—a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow rang out, metallic—or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
~Denise Levertov “Variations on a Theme of Rilke”
Yesterday we visited my mother’s childhood home in Spring Valley, Washington in Palouse country, where at the turn of the century a thriving small village sat at a crossroads in the rolling wheat fields. Where the grain elevators now stand tall against the horizon, a train depot for the electric powered train running north-south once drew Teddy Roosevelt on his whistle-stop tour. The foundation still exists, broken in pieces, of the one room schoolhouse where my mother and uncle attended school until age 13. My aunt is still vital and strong in her mid-nineties and my cousins still steward the land, training up the next generation to take over.
Walking the old poplar-lined driveway again, seeing the willows where moose come to graze, walking through the old farmhouse where my mother and uncle were born and I spent summer visits, I was a bell rung. If the people I come from could do this, this hard life, I can do my calling too. I can wave gold, like the grain of these fields, readying for harvest.
... The Amish have maintained what I like to think is a proper scale, largely by staying with the horse. The horse has restricted unlimited expansion. Not only does working with horses limit farm size, but horses are ideally suited to family life. With horses you unhitch at noon to water and feed the teams and then the family eats what we still call dinner. While the teams rest there is usually time for a short nap. And because God didn’t create the horse with headlights, we don’t work nights. Amish farmer David Kline in Great Possessions
Nearing 58, I am old enough to have parents who grew up on farms worked by horses, one raising wheat and lentils in the Palouse country of eastern Washington and the other logging in the woodlands of Fidalgo Island of western Washington. The horses were crucial to my grandfathers’ success in caring for and tilling the land, seeding and harvesting the crops and bringing supplies from town miles away. Theirs was a hardscrabble life in the early 20th century with few conveniences. Work was year round from dawn to dusk; caring for the animals came before any human comforts. Once night fell, work ceased and sleep was welcome respite for man and beast.
You can’t have the family farm without the family.–G.K. Chesterton
In the rural countryside where we live now, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past. Watching a good team work with no diesel motor running means hearing bird calls from the field, the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day. There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of engines are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing.It is time to stop and take a breather, it is time to start back up do a few more rows, it is time to water, it is time for a meal, it is time for a nap, it is time for a rest in a shady spot. This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before.
When we stop working with our hands, we cease to understand how the world really works. — Clive Thompson
Our modern agribusiness megafarm fossil-fuel-powered approach to food production has bypassed the small family farm which was so dependent on the muscle power of humans and animals. In our move away from horses worked by skilled teamsters, what has been gained in high production values has meant loss of self-sufficiency and dedicated stewardship of a particular plot of ground. Draft breeds, including the Haflinger horses we raise, now are bred for higher energy with lighter refined bone structure meant more for eye appeal and floating movement, rather than the sturdy conformation and unflappable low maintenance mindset needed for pulling work. Modern children are bred for different purpose as well, no longer raised to work together with other family members for a common purpose of daily survival. Their focus at school is waning as they have no morning farm chores when they get up, too little physical work to do before they arrive at their desks in the morning. Their physical energy, if directed at all, is directed to competitive sports, engaged in fantasy combat rather than winning a very real victory over hunger.
I am encouraged when young people still reach for horse collars and bridles, hitch up their horses and do the work as it used to be done. All is not lost if we can still make incremental daily progress, harnessed together as a team with our horses, tilling for truth and harvesting hope.
I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. –Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor