Prairie View

Friday, May 12, 2006

You Can't Know Wheat

If you're not from the prairie, you can't know wheat.

This morning as I motored along on my way to work at finishing things up at school, I passed between fields of wheat bordering both sides of the road. In the two and one-fourth miles between our home and US 50, the wheat fields of at least five different landowners ran together or were sharply bisected by section lines. (These are the roads that carve up the landscape into squares precisely one mile long on each side.)

Several fields of alfalfa, one pasture of native prairie grasses, and one fallow field being prepared for planting milo gave some variety to the scene along my travel route, but the wheat was ubiquitous.

Earlier this spring, after a winter-long drought, the winter wheat traced very thin lines on the surface of the fields, fading to nothing on the slight rises in the terrain. The plants looked dark and cold and miserable and hesitant to grow. And then, after the first rain, the narrow drilled rows muscled themselves into full and robust lines, and the color lightened and brightened. A luscious shag carpet gradually grew, as warm sunny weather arrived and more rain fell.

One day I noticed with pleasure that our gusty spring winds brushed and slightly roiled the wheat that had grown tall enough to bend and sway. Its color was darker green again except in low spots where growth was inhibited by standing water, causing the lime green to prevail. It's probably beginning to joint I thought. "God, please spare us any more freezes," I prayed. Low temperatures would kill the heads forming inside the elongating stalk, and the crop would be worthless for harvesting as grain.

I'm not sure when it happened, but long-awned heads emerged from those rippling fields, and now they sport a silver cast. The wind can still excite movement, but the crop is growing up and does not undulate as sensuously as in the past. It behaves quite circumspectly, and the heads stand tall. But the stems are shamefully short--not much good for anyone hoping for a nice crop of straw to put in the barn after the grain harvest is over. Drought does that to wheat.

The next changes in store for these fields will be hard to catch from the confines of my 55 miles-per-hour-traveling vehicle. I will need to pull over and stop, or walk somewhere along a field. A soft rustling sound as the drying awns and the now-plump heads rub together will reach my ears.

The heavy heads will begin to bend over and a subtle wash of gold will brush the fields.

And then one day on my way to the mailbox I will know that now it is TIME. The fields will be a uniformly sunny gold. The breeze will evoke the rattling sound of completely dry awns brushing their neighbors. If the sun is bright and diappearing dew accentuates it, I will breathe in the clean smell of warm straw.

The road will fill with lumbering harvesting-machine behemoths on a mission. Support vehicles will accompany them, wives or daughters or young sons often operating them.

A few preliminary bites from the combines will produce enough "test" wheat to get a moisture reading. Between 13 and 14%, it's just right. The "harvest mentality" kicks in, and woe to the ignoramus who operates from any other mentality.

One small patch of stubble at the edge of the wheat fields will fill up with fuel/service trucks, grain trucks, tractors with tow chains if it's a wet year, run-about vehicles, and perhaps a small travel trailer pressed into service as a cook shack. If the field is lucky enough to know children, the back of the grain truck will boast laughter and happy shouts as it shivers occasionally with the grain-dulled bounces of children at play. Warm fresh wheat will provide a chewy any-time snack and lemonade will be taken in swigs from the jug when the combine arrives to unload, and grow the pile in the truck bed. All the adults will wear wide smiles unless a cloud bank in the west or an equipment breakdown intrudes, and tension mounts. Then the harvest mentality assumes a grim aspect and threatens to become an obsession.

Even if it looks like rain though, quitting at 12:00 on Saturday nights has always been a ritual carefully observed in our family. On other weeknights, if the wind is up, cutting wheat may extend into the early moring hours.

Thinking about it all stirs my anticipation.

I don't know corn or soybeans or cotton. But I know wheat. And that's because I'm from the prairie.

(Apologies to the author of the wonderful book If You're Not From the Prairie.)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The End of School

During yesterday's covered dish picnic dinner, I suddenly sighed with relief. The end-of-school deadlines were over. Report cards had gone out, the graduation ceremony and following celebration party was history, the speeches from each staff member and the awards earned had been duly delivered and applauded, and best of all, our principal's wife had safely delivered a baby girl two days before, and they were hidden away at their home one quarter of a mile down the road from school.

Once before, more than 25 years ago, the principal I taught under was absent on the day of the picnic. His wife gave birth to their first children that day--twin girls. Our principal's two other children were born on the first day of the second semester of his college career, and on the first day of a school year in which he was teaching. A grandmother from church whose husband used to teach told me that she went into labor right after they got home from the last day picnic one year. Another child was born very shortly after school closed two years earlier.

What is it with teachers? It must be that all of life for teachers is divided into segments called "school" and "summer" and important life events must be fitted in before or after those segments--or precisely in the middle.

In 2004, the principal I was teaching under called me at home on a November Sunday afternoon to tell me that he was talking to Miriam on the phone and looking at Miriam in his home. "A baby Miriam?" I squealed. Indeed. For that timing departure from the teacher norm, the name choice compensated very nicely.

On my way home from the picnic yesterday I stopped in to see and hold tiny Maya Linn Schmucker. When I left, her father, Andrew, our principal, was holding her, looking more relaxed than I've seen him for days. Because of the urgent events of the past few days, he wasn't as free as he would have liked to be to concentrate on the really important things, and now, finally, the urgent and the important could both be tended to in his own home.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Filly Named Flash

Flash was the name my brothers chose for the beautiful little filly born on our farm. As I recall she had a white diamond-shaped spot on her forehead and white-stockinged legs. Otherwise she was a solid bronzish red. Flash became very tame, and we all had high hopes for a great riding companion when she got old enough to break to ride. Then disaster struck.

On a bright morning after an overnight rain, we found her dead near the pasture fence. She had not been torn by animals, and she had not been sick. We concluded that she must have been struck by lightening, although no one remembered hearing thunder the night before.

We left the carcass where it lay in the far corner of the pasture. Many months later, after the bones had become bare and bleached, my brothers found a clean bullet hole in the forehead of the skull bones.

Knowing that Flash's death was caused either by malicious intent or carelessness was not a happy discovery.

Acts of God are sometimes hard to come to terms with, but senseless destruction by man is even more difficult to fathom.