…could the garden have said
to the gardener, I made you grow?
Before I was ten years old, I never thought of farms, nor of gardens. I was a typical white American boy living in Columbus, Ohio. My father was a stained glass artist who thought of himself as nothing more than a glazer—my mother, a homemaker who occasionally experimented with door-to-door sales of Tupperware, Westmorland Silver, insurance, and Highlights for Children.
In the city, my experience of open space was limited to occasional fishing and hunting trips with my uncle Jack. Otherwise, I had the big field off Clinton St., its wild apple tree and the top branches of the tall pine tree I climbed regularly, giving me the sense of flying and the quilted view of the rooftops and the concrete and gravel rivers of streets and alleys that flowed through my daily life.
Because my parents had friends named Whittington, who owned a farm in Galena, Ohio, I received a fortune that continues to serve me more than a half century later. I loved the Whittingtons’ farm—its seemingly vast and varied distances. The road to the farm tunneled through endless corridors of corn, interrupted only by dashes of houses and barns at the ends of long strings of driveways. They had ten acres each of oats or wheat, soy beans, and corn for the cattle. There were also three acres of corn for sale at grocery markets and the family’s consumption. The main house was large and sat back off the road about a hundred yards. To the left, a ten-acre field rotated from corn to alfalfa to soy beans, with a pasture for cows and a small barn beyond that. Another hundred yards back sat a large, classic red barn with a Dutch roof and a tall silo across the drive, with a long chicken coop one one side and a hog pen on the other. Far down the drive were the remaining fields, rotated between wheat, legumes like alfalfa and soy beans, and field corn.
In 1956 the population of Galena was about 400 residents, mostly farmers. Allen Whittington was one of them. He was an assembly worker for Ford Motor Company by day, and worked forty acres of farmland until dark. He was a man about my father’s height, 5 feet 11 inches, with thin, muscular arms and tremendous energy. When Allen wasn’t smiling, you knew something was seriously wrong. He never complained. He wasted no time. His wife Lillyann was the same, managing the household and tending to chickens, pigs and cows while caring for and raising three teenage daughters, Carolyn, Joyce, and Diane. Johnny was the only boy—he was five that first summer, happily following me everywhere and teaching me much about the chores of a farm. Dinner was ready when Allen arrived home each day. He chatted with his kids while he ate, all seven of us gathered around the long oak table he built.
Where can you learn what is most valuable in life in just three years? Where can you see your limitations made perfectly clear in a way that encourages, rather than threatens? What kinds of challenges forge in you a strength you never dreamed you had? Those summers on the farm led me into a world profoundly different than the one I knew.
Each day I helped Lillyann gather eggs, feed chickens, and slop hogs through the morning hours. Allen assigned me afternoon chores before he left for his job at Ford. A choir of animal voices filled my days there, a consonance that permeated the air as I moved from place to place; the bright and narrow nestling aisle of cornfields and their mesmerizing susurrations, and in them the surprise appearances of pheasant, foxes and quail, moving through the stalks. I found a peace in the golden sway of a wheat field. Many evenings I sat alone on the front porch or sat on the edge of the cistern wall listening to the calming, watery echoes as I watched the soft and sable settling of the day.
With Johnny’s help I began my tutelage suckering corn on those three acres. When corn grows, at some point it begins to put out new shoots on the main stalk. These are called suckers. In those days, farmers believed suckers diminish nutrients to the corn that will eventually emerge as the stalks grow higher. Suckering corn is breaking off these offshoots, stalk by stalk. It transformed my city back into that of a farmhand’s. It was clear that my idea of a farm would be adjusted, as would my appreciation for hard physical work. The suckered corn stalks we took to the hog pen for food.
One weekend not too long after I began my second summer, Johnny climbed the gate and fell in the pen with a sow nursing her piglets. Sows have powerful jaws, weigh about 500 pounds and stand waist high to an adult. And they are mean and protective. Johnny knew this. He cried out in absolute fear as the sow tore herself away from the suckling piglets and charged toward him. Without thinking I jumped the gate, landed on my feet, threw Johnny over, and jumped back just as the sow snapped, then snorted away back to her brood. We never spoke of the incident. Johnny was not allowed to climb on the gate. It remained our secret. We were fast friends from that day on.
In my second summer on the Whittingtons’ farm, I graduated to learning how wheat and oats were harvested. Many days I rode on the tractor as the harvester threshed the spikes and beards of wheat from their stalks and deposited kernels into a bin. As the harvester made its rounds, rabbits dashed out ahead of it and then scrambled back into the dense, standing field. Dozens ran free into the harvested field as the final rectangle was cut. The wheat was taken to the weigh station the next day, a price determined and the grain put into storage.
On a family farm, I learned everything has an intention. The first summer I sensed a difference in that life than how we lived in the city. Each day, each person worked at their own job, went to school, and gathered for meals at day’s end, but there was a connectivity to their actions, even the idle time when Allen smoked his pipe and read Louis L’Amour, Lillyann wrote or knit, the girls practiced their songs for the next local performance, and Johnny busied himself with wandering in the yard. They rested. There was no anxiety in that house about the day past nor the day to come. They wanted no more than what each moment needed.
After the harvest, after the trip to the weigh station and payment, I would do something I do to this day after I’ve completed an arduous, physical task. Sometimes in the afternoon when the girls and Johnny were at school, I would walk to the freshly harvested field and look out at the straw piles waiting to be baled, the sounds of Bob White calling in the nearby distance and the occasional rabbit coming into view. At the far edge of the stacks of golden stems was a railroad track, eye level on its raised dirt and gravel platform. If I was lucky there would be a train passing, its whistle blowing for the intersection of approaching road. I know now, what I felt in those moments was the true reward of working a farm. With the same backward glance I realize that my own father’s work had, at its heart, a similar prize—the work itself.
Photo by Stiller Beobachter, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Richard Maxson.
Browse more Memoir Notebook
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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Donna Falcone says
Richard I really enjoyed reading this – you paint a very vivid picture, and your words about limitations stuck with me…. “Where can you see your limitations made perfectly clear in a way that encourages, rather than threatens?” I love that line – oh if only there could be more of this type of learning at the top of our priority list.
What a treasure to have those experiences!
Rick Maxson says
Thank you, Donna. I agree with you about the learning experience. For me it was beyond what I could have learned from school. I think programs like what Michelle Obama was doing with children and gardening would go a long way in the same vein of teaching stewardship toward what the earth can give us.
Laurie Klein says
Richard, you took me there. Thank you.
I am mentally cradling this implied invitation:
“… everything has an intention. … They rested. … They wanted no more than what each moment needed.”
I’m musing on your pivotal questions:
“Where can you see your limitations made perfectly clear in a way that encourages, rather than threatens? What kinds of challenges forge in you a strength you never dreamed you had?”
While absorbing breathtaking scenes:
“cornfields and their mesmerizing susurrations, and in them the surprise appearances of pheasant, foxes and quail, moving through the stalks. I found a peace in the golden sway of a wheat field. Many evenings I sat alone on the front porch or sat on the edge of the cistern wall listening to the calming, watery echoes as I watched the soft and sable settling of the day.”
Applauding your quiet heroism:
the rampaging sow rescue!
And nodding my head over the new view on your father’s work, as well as your own.
So much to savor and ponder here. Can’t wait for Part 2!
Rick Maxson says
Laurie, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I have to say that as a young boy I was not the level of precociousness my observations imply in this piece. But what remains from “the seed” stayed with me and grew into my retrospective. There are, of course, those moments that followed me intact as they occurred. You mention them.
What I think happened to me was many this is like that, the peace of a current experience (such as a field of timothy) with that of a wheat field. And perhaps most important the ever-growing recognition of my father’s art (something he was forced to abandon).
Part 2 will be finished this weekend.
L.L. Barkat says
I, too, love this line:
“Where can you see your limitations made perfectly clear in a way that encourages, rather than threatens?”
And I am wondering. Do you think that nature or agriculture (or both) can do this for a person? And, if so, what do you think is the dynamic there?
Beautiful piece, Rick. 🙂
Rick Maxson says
Thank you, LL.
That is an interesting question and one that set me to thinking yesterday. I was fortunate to have an uncle, a grandfather, and the monsignor of our parish who each was instrumental in introducing me to nature at an early age. Monsignor Donahey would send over to the school to have the nuns send me to the rectory (ostensibly for punishment for something I did as an altar boy—and I was guilty with the wafers and wine for the mass) where we would get in his car and go run his Irish Setter, Babe. My uncle and grandfather taught me fishing and hunting, the names of trees, ducks, snakes, the difference between a quail and a grouse and their songs and many minutia about nature.
That being said, I think nature is grand and beautiful and deserving of a holy respect. To me it is everything, including all of us (something we seem to forget when we speak of nature. New York City is as much nature as a forest of sequoia. Godfrey Reggio’s experimental film Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance) brings this home quite well, along with the truth we should bear in mind).
When I venture out into nature it is an act of taking. Even if I struggle to leave no footprint behind me, I cannot do so, because of the fact that I too am nature. Where I have been is every bit the same as an abandoned bird’s nest. The extent to which what I leave behind is disruptive is my legacy of a natural creature.
Farming is an act of giving within the act of taking. Crop rotation, the mindful use of fertilization as in organic farming, give back to the soil from which we took a crop. We take corn, for instance, we plant soy beans afterward and they impart nitrogen back into the soil through nitrogen fixation. Alfalfa, used to feed cattle, does the same.
The dynamic comes from the awareness of where our food comes from and how we obtain it. We hear the term give back all the time. One way to do this with regards to farming is by purchasing organic foods (and knowing how to tell the real ones from the ones that use the term organic merely as a marketing tool). Organic farmers need the business. Currently their products cost a little more (although that has decreased in recent years) because of supply and demand.
Sorry I’ve rambled. To finish, there is an important book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. It is prophetic and practical, and like a good verbal thrashing from our grandpa. The inspiration for this piece of mine came from your suggestion in response to my comment from a Gary Snyder poem we ran in EDP today, Hay for the Horses.
Bethany R. says
“They rested. There was no anxiety in that house about the day past nor the day to come. They wanted no more than what each moment needed.”
What a touching reflection. Thank you for taking us there, Rick.
Rick Maxson says
Thank you, Bethany. Yes, and being there imparted much of that peace. Glad you enjoyed the trip.
Megan Willome says
Thanks for this, Rick.
Like you, I did not grow up on a farm, but my dad did. Although I didn’t get the in-the-field experience you did, our yearly visits to see the family who still farmed impacted me in ways I didn’t begin to appreciate until we moved to an agricultural community, 12 years ago.
My biggest takeaway is that despite drought and hail and pests and economics and government, farmers are the most optimistic people in the world. They have to be. They do what they have to do regardless of the date on the calendar or the forecast. Their work is their hope. My dad says his father had four good harvests in 60-plus years of farming. I call that optimism at the highest level.
Richard Maxson says
Thank you, Megan. What you say about your grandfather is something I observed or more accurately sensed in the time I spent on a farm. I was a child and many real, adult things like hope and faith in their routines and how the Whittingtons dealt with interruptions to their routines and expectations, were not fully understood. In a city world where groceries seemed to be the same price day to day, it was difficult for my child mind to understand the importance and dynamics behind the price of wheat, oats, or soybeans when taken to market.
I tried not to let my sense of wonder recalled in this memoir overshadow the fact that amidst all my fascination with the farm their was a business to be managed.
Learning Farming, Learning Life
never thought of farms nor gardens
in the city, concrete and gravel rivers
of streets and alleys flowed through my daily life
received a fortune that still serves me well to this day
vast and varied distances
endless corridors of corn, acres of wheat
a field rotated from corn to alfalfa to soy beans
red barn, tall silo
chicken coop, hog pen
about four hundred residents, mostly farmers
Allen was one of them,
he never complained, he wasted no time
dinner was ready when he got home
thanks to his wife Lillyann
He chatted with his kids
gathered around the long oak table he built
summers on the farm led me into
a world profoundly different than the one I knew
a choir of animal voices
bright and narrow nestling aisle of cornfields
pheasant, foxes and quail moving through the stalks
suckering corn, breaking off new shoots, stalk by stalk
transformed my city boy’s back into that of a farmhand’s
my idea of a farm would be adjusted, as would my appreciation for hard work
I graduated to learning how wheat was harvested
wheat was taken to the weigh station
and grain put into storage
everything on a farm has an intention
each person worked at their own job, went to school,
gathered for meals at day’s end
there was no anxiety in that house
about the day past nor the day to come
They wanted no more than what each moment needed –
the true reward of working a farm – the work itself.
(Rick, I sincerely hope that I have not committed a poetic faux pas in trying my hand at Blackout Poetry on your Memoir Notebook: Three Summers, Part One)
After experimenting with Blackout Poetry over at Callie’s post I wanted to try it with your piece.
I did not grow up on a farm either. My mother did and we still visit the land from time to time.
We live near Amish farmers and I’m always drawn to looking at their fields and houses, horses and wagons. Driving in the country has always been a relaxing experience for me.
You have an extraordinary skill at writing both prose and poetry. I look forward to Part Two of Three Summers.
Richard Maxson says
Poetry, yes. Faux pas, no. I’m honored that you wrote this. You captured the essence well.
I love Amish farms. They are farming as poetry.
Thank you. I am so relieved to read your reply.
Indeed, my aim was to honor your memoir and the good work of farmers.
Megan said it so well in her comment of 8/12: “Their work is their hope.”