We spent some time over the last week opening up a corn field. That isn't something you see in industrialized agriculture where the monstrous combines rapidly blaze through a corn field, slowed mostly by the need to continually unload the corn or beans before returning to harvesting at speeds that would be incomprehensible to farmers a few generations ago. Opening up a corn field is an Amish thing, creating space on the ends and through the middle for the horses to walk while pulling the corn picker. As we worked as a family in the field in near silence from our surroundings other than the whispering rustle of corn in the autumn breeze, I was thinking about how the seasons of life parallel the seasons of the harvest. When I was younger and my children were as well I did the heavy lifting. Now as the years slowly take their toll on my body while hopefully doing the opposite for my wisdom I rely more and more on my children. My older kids are the strong arms to chop corn and the younger are the strong backs to bend over to pick up ears of corn again and again never seeming to weary. On a farm kids are more than decorative ornaments to adorn our Christmas cards and Facebook pages, they are an integral part of daily life. On many farms they are nothing less that indispensable. Were it not for my kids we wouldn't have fresh raw milk to drink. Most of the more demanding chores around the farm wouldn't get done. Each year that passes sees a subtle shifting from parents to children. It is a fascinating progression to watch once you get over the fact that you are the one getting older and the inevitable jolt to the ego that comes from having your son handle something that you probably could still do but really shouldn't. All is part of the Creator's grand design for life.
As October swiftly winds down here in Indiana I am reminded anew of the uniqueness of autumn in the Midwest. There is just something special when you live here out in the country that isn't replicated in other places we have lived around the nation . Sure New England has the fall colors and "Up North" Michigan has hunting season in the brilliant fall hues of seemingly endless forests. More southerly states have delightful weather, when we lived there the fall in Kentucky was a wonderful relief from the oppressive summer heat. I am sure other regions of our fair nation have their own charms in autumn but none match the Midwest for me. Perhaps it is just the natural affinity for the place one grew up. Whatever it is, nowhere we have lived can match autumn in the Midwest. It is something that is a part of what makes us who we are.
While suburbs mark the changing of the season from summer to fall with going back to school, curbside piles of leaves to picked up and the beginning of the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season (a shopping season that is starting to blur together into one massive frenzy of shopping and consumption), autumn in the Midwest means the harvest. Not the harvest in the sense of "Harvest festivals" and a few corn stalks in your yard. I mean real harvest. All around us for the past few weeks the quiet fields of corn and soybeans went from the passive state of green to a frenzy of activity. Combines mowed down acre after acre of crops while trucks and tractors hauled away what is estimated to be the largest corn harvest in American history. It is incredible to watch fields of beans and corn disappear into the maw of a combine and turn into rivers of golden corn and beige soybeans.
In a unique and jarring contrast we also have the local Amish harvesting their crops. In one field you have a state of the art John Deere combine, a machine that will set you back in excess of half a million dollars, with the ability to cut up to 18 rows of corn at a time sweeping through fields, casting the discarded husks and stalks behind before emptying into huge tractor trailer trucks, trucks often lined up three deep because a modern combine can fill a tractor trailer faster than they can get to the grain elevator to dump the crop before rushing back. It is the pinnacle of American agricultural progress and innovation on display, the one industry where America is still second to none. In the next field you might have a team of four Belgian draft horses plodding slowly but surely through a field of corn, pulling a corn picker that harvests two rows at a time. Instead of corn that has been plucked from the stalk, husk removed and shaken and sifted through screens leaving just the kernel behind, the Amish fill their wagons with corn still on the cob. Rather than ending up in giant concrete silos, their corn often ends up in corn cribs at their home. While they have some modern conveniences, they harvest their corps in much the same way that farmers did in those same fields 100 years ago. Reminiscent of an agricultural John Henry versus the steam powered hammer, the Amish thrive using methods that seem quaint to our eyes and yet they prosper, often beyond their "English" counterparts.
The harvest is a season of accomplishment and consummation but it is also a wistful and melancholy time. The promise of harvest, just a whisper and a hope in spring as bare fields sit seemingly dormant while the seeds beneath the soil stir and grow unseen, has come to fruition. In normal years all the worry and fretting of impotently watching the weather to catch a window between the time the crops are ready and the fall rains vanishes as the crops come off as they almost always do. Farming makes for a powerful dichotomy, on the one hand farmers today have unimaginable technology at their fingertips. Precision farming, super efficient machinery, hybrid crops that produce unnatural yields, chemicals of all sorts to increase productivity and eliminate weeds and pests, all work together to squeeze every possible bushel out of an acre of land. Yet in spite of all the technology the farmer still spends most of the year on the sidelines, completely helpless waiting on the weather. Is it warm enough to plant but dry enough to get in the field? Is it hot and sunny but not too dry in the summer? Are the crops mature and dry enough to harvest but has the rain held off so we can get those green, red and orange behemoth machines in the field to harvest? I can't think of another economic endeavor that is so critical to our national economic security, so ancient and yet driven by technology, that is still dependent on something as fickle and primal as the weather.
There is something sad about the vast fields bereft of crops. Where once there were acres of tall, green corn softly rustling in the wind there is now only stubble. In one field near our home the corn is all gone except for the solitary stalk standing all alone, sole sole survivor of the combine. I know that empty fields mean successful harvests and that those fields are testament to overflowing grain silos holding the American treasure from the breadbasket of our nation. I know that many farm families are smiling as they get their checks, the reward for a year of hard work and worrying. Still they make me sad. Empty bean and corn fields mean that winter is coming, just around the corner. The days will grow shorter and the extra darkness each day that I dread is also on the horizon. The joy of spring with new life in budding plants, fields being planted, lambs and foals being born, it all seems so far away, a distant and unattainable dream. I know that the winter is but a brief interlude and soon enough the horse drawn planters will be working the fields alongside massive tractors but that certainty is not enough to offset the melancholy that invariably settles on me each year at this time.
It is all part of the love-hate relationship so many of us have with the Midwest. Ours is a region that is sneered at by other parts of the country, derided as "fly over" country, an obstacle to fly over going from one fabulous place to another. It is a vast, flat landscape that is so awful to drive through but for many of us it is home, something deeply connected with who we are. So many of us strive for relevance and hipness but choose to live in a decidedly un-hip and in the eyes of many irrelevant region. In spite of the melancholy I feel in fall, the humid summers, muddy springs and freezing winters there is nowhere else that we feel so at home. This is where we belong, amid the generally simple people who make their living building stuff, moving stuff and of course farming. It is not glamorous, just like our football teams in the Big Ten are not glamorous (and not very good right now) but it is home.
Autumn in the Midwest. There is nothing else quite like it.