Fermentations, Ruminations & Meditations
Weed and Seed: A Story of Landscape and Love
I will start the Farmwife Diaries with an explanation of how I came to marry a farmer. As a mostly urban girl I was raised by the mainstream culture to idolize male heroes like athletes, actors and rock stars (Yes, I loved David Lee Roth from Van Halen-- that long blonde hair and zebra-striped tights. Yes, I loved both the Hardy Boys from T.V.-- but especially the older, more mysterious one. Yes, I even loved a baseball player named Bucky Dent-- but only because the boys in my after-school activity group made me collect baseball cards). It was not in my romantic worldview to imagine marrying a farmer. Prince Charming did not ride a tractor! Nevertheless, when I found him, I knew Keith was a keeper. I account for much of his strength of character, his depth of soul, and his handy way with wood, wire, pipe, engines, crops and even diapers to his childhood on a farm.
I wrote the essay that follows just after Keith and I married and I called it, "Weed and Seed: A Story of Landscape and Love." The farm in the story is his family's wheat ranch in eastern Washington. This was before we came to Finnriver. Note that I do not call him "farmboy" anymore. Now that I have two little boys of my own, Keith has become just "Husband." I know I am darn lucky every time I say it...
Although my husband was not actually born in a barn, on a cold night in calving season, he was conceived in one. Relatives still call him “Beef,” in honor of the bovine herd who presided over his conception. I call him “farmboy,” for though he moved away from the family farm years ago, his character still has the sweet vigor of a potato just dug out of the earth. He is the real dirt, raised among fields in a cultivated country that I, as an urban child, had only glimpsed in the Agriculture chapter of my sixth grade geography textbook– wondering where on earth there was so much space. That space is not simply an external expanse. I find it reflected in the heart of the man born into it. Now I accompany my husband, Keith, when he returns every summer to help his brother harvest a thousand acres of wheat. At the farm, I discover earth’s surface and my husband’s depth.
I spent my formative years in the vertical world of New York City, hurdling from one urban high-rise to another with a mother who liked to move. An elevator carried me to my floor, a long corridor to my door, and always I could hear my neighbors on three sides. In one forty-second floor apartment, I played by peering out the window with binoculars at neighboring buildings, each lit window like a television screen. My perverse version of bird-watching. Thousands of lives were observable from this perch, and I searched for tenderness in those anonymous squares of light. In a slit of horizon between skyscrapers, I could even see the distant Statue of Liberty, whose pale green countenance seemed sickly. The streets were loud, with horns and slammed doors, and I often feel asleep to a chorus of sirens. While I was learning about this city world in the rumbling language of the subway, my husband was talking dirt in a wheat field.
The farm is a quiet, horizontal world. You can just make out the roofline of the nearest neighbors. Keith grew up here on the same piece of wide open land that had nourished four previous generations. The fingerprints of his ancestors still swirl on the steering wheels of old tractors and wrenches. His mother was born and raised ten miles from here and has lived on this particular spot for over forty years. We can stand on her doorstep and Keith can point out his memories. Over there is the mudtrack for his bigwheel obstacle course. There is where he shot his brother in the eye with a beebe gun. There is the runway for his dad’s model airplanes. There’s where his crazy aunt threatened his father with a pitchfork. There was where the neighbor’s wild dogs tried to eat his precious pet lamb. My husband’s early play involved mud and animals and gravel roads. And before he was even big enough to see over a steering wheel, he was sitting on a phone-book and doing chores in the beat-up farm truck that is still parked out front.
In considering how our geographical inheritance shaped my partner and me, I am tempted to glorify Keith’s childhood and denigrate my own. My early sky was crammed between buildings, the earth was buried in pavement. For my husband, sky and earth were naked. On the farm, season was the deliverer of life or death. For me, season was the invention of department store display windows on 5th Avenue. My horizon was a wall; his was an endless field planted in rows. My only chore was to walk down a dark hallway and dump the trash into a chute. The only furrow I knew as a girl was the one between the brows of rumpled pedestrians. At this summer’s harvest though, I realize that our gifts and deficits are complementary; that our varied past has led us to this unified present. I know I am not the first to realize that it is our differences that makes us good lovers and teachers to each other. Still, it astounds me.
It is August, and we have come to the farm to do a job. I am prepared, I think, to get my hands dirty. But instead, I learn about the tools and duties of harvest from a distance. Keith leaves the house at dawn to drive a combine, and, though I came with romantic notions of oxen and plows, I am delighted by this display of mechanical prowess. A bulky machine the size of a small house, the combine cuts a close shave across the fields. Off goes the beard. (If you knew wheat, you’d recognize the pun). The yellow stubbles of the cut wheat bristle my ankles as I walk out to the combine to deliver my husband’s lunch, my only daylight foray outside his mother’s air conditioned house. He waits for the combine to fill up, then rumbles alongside a big truck to dump a load of wheat. Here I learn the meaning of the word auger. Here I learn about afternoon heat that burns your throat as you inhale, and how serene a sunset can be when the horizon is nothing but a broad golden mirror of light.
I tease my husband that the harvest is his meditation— this retreat into the fields and the repetitive hum of the combine cab. It could be stupefying but he must remain very aware, for the rumble and jangle of engine is a significant dictation. Each sound, each smell signifies peace or danger. He pays attention to so many things; though none of them are things that I have ever imagined. Like the height of the sickle bar above the ground or the thrashing speed. When I crowd into the combine cab, sitting on the armrest of his chair and interrupting the monotony of his ride for the time it takes to cut a few rows, I watch the reel spinning. It is mesmerizing; each row of wheat falling into the machine like a line of soldiers; not a massacre, more like a submission. The back of the combine spews out chaff in a dusty plume that serves as a flag. Later, from the kitchen window, I scan the endless horizon searching for this spout of straw that heralds my beloved.
In our modern, mobile world, the farm-boy and city-girl met a thousand miles from where either were born. We found each other as we were looking for ourselves. How unlikely. How ideal. I saw as an urban child that, like the cliché claims, it was only in the cracks of the cement that the flowers could grow. My sense of belonging in the city was always tenuous, like the wayward dandelion on the street corner. I was a weed. My husband, however, was seeded. He was planted firmly in the ground of farm and family. Acknowledging, and celebrating, the different terrain we walked into our lives, my partner and I sort through our memories, scars, lessons, triumphs; planting that which nourishes our partnership and pulling out what blocks our growth. We weed and seed our way through marriage.
I recall taking formal dance lessons as a little girl, white gloved with patent leather shoes shining. Little boys shuddered in suits. I was obedient, but uninspired by the sweaty hands and sullen faces of my partners. Far away in farm country, I imagine my husband on those same evenings, knee-high in mud puddles, being midwife to lambs. The city was not all gloom and cruelty. Life there was colorful, dynamic and full of cultural opportunity. I feel worldly when I recall hailing taxi-cabs as a girl. But when we come to the farm, I am humbled. Despite an expensive education and many evenings at the opera, I am useless here. While Keith works the fourteen hour farm day, I nestle inside, trying to help his mother with meals. She is generous and efficient. I am not a good farm wife; I can’t even cook a casserole. For the big thanksgiving-style meals every night, only to be served after it’s too dark to drive the combine, I chop vegetables. Otherwise, I read, watch t.v., paint pictures. Harvest is a lazy time for me, but only for me.
Not for my husband, his mother, brother and wife. The four of them do this epic thing every summer, a family devoted to each other and the continuing productivity of the farm. I am dumbfounded by the machinery of harvest, the hustle of human effort. The family tackles a constant cycle of variable weather, delivery deadlines, and broken down engines. Each person has a role and moves with direction and intensity through the harvest days. Keith started by driving tractor by the age of eight, now he spends all day in the cab of the combine, collecting the raw material of our daily bread, while I watch Oprah. And I still don't know how to drive a stick shift. When he returns one night, smelling like burnt toast, I ask him if he had any profound thoughts out there. He chuckles and replies, “They’re all profound.” I believe him.
I never considered the birthplace of the bread that was the standard breakfast of my family. This summer, at the farm, I climb into the back of the old Ford truck loaded with heaps of smooth wheat berries. I immerse myself into the cool mound of kernels; they slide into my shoes and down my shorts. I am wallowing in tomorrow’s food-- wheat to bread, bread to mouth after mouth. Little will they know, those who come to chew this, that this wheat has caressed my flesh, clung to the sweat on my legs. The people will swallow the harvest, oblivious to this intimate encounter, to its origin in my husband’s daydreams as he maneuvers the combine back and forth across the field. I long to bathe in bread again; it could become a fetish, this wheat orgy in the bed of the Ford.
We go to sleep late during harvest and Keith is always exhausted. Occasionally though, after I’ve done the dinner dishes, we will walk through a field to star-gaze and whisper. On a clear night on the farm, the only prominent bump on the surface of the planet is the silhouette of Mt. Rainier. It looms above the distant ridge of the Cascades. As a child, my husband wondered about those mountains. At the age of ten, he waded through the ash of Mt. St. Helens, after it erupted with a series of booms he thought were supersonic jets. This did not scare him. He is not a fearful man. I believe his courage comes from his childhood on the farm, where he grew up with work to do, the work that feeds people, that puts out fires and keeps motors running-- a process that tested and proved his abilities. My mate grew up, donned crampons, and climbed Rainier, waving back to the farm from the highest peak in the state.
Keith takes his first trip east of the Rocky mountains when I bring him to New York the year before we marry. I explain that encountering this frenetic, brazen city will give him crucial insight into my neuroses. I point up to my various homes. The place still feels familiar although I stand like a tourist at the street corners, watching the locals who proceed with disregard for on-coming traffic, and waiting for the WALK signal. We take the crowded elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. From this vantage point we can see the whole city, like a steel maze. Later, in Central Park I am stunned by how small the trees seem. In my childhood this was a wilderness of squirrels.
Now I think the farm is wild. Ironic that this cultivated land holds such primitive force for me. I even think farmers are exotic. The weather is not a cosmetic issue for them. Yield is not a road sign. They speak a language I do not know and when they do something it is because it is necessary. Keith is not frivolous. He is comfortable with himself, works hard and happily when he must and likes to wander when he can. I never imagined my Prince Charming wearing over-alls and wielding a crescent wrench, riding a John Deere.
My husband first became a hero when he was in kindergarten. He stepped off the school bus only to find his family sullenly gathered around the grain elevator. The family dog, Chipper, had fallen down a long pipe that lead from the bottom of the tank to the surface, a distance of fifteen or so feet. Fifteen feet of steep, slick darkness. Keith was the only one who could fit so they tied a rope around his ankles. The little boy slid down the pipe, head first, towards the whimpering creature. His arms out, reaching for fur, grabbing a paw, muffling a yell to the folks on the other end of the rope. I figure that loving me is like that pipe sometimes, and so he is my hero, navigating the darkness of the heart when I am stranded and whimpering.
Experience is the heir of opportunity, bequeathed by place. And who we are is counseled by that experience. Keith and I were molded by land. But the contours of our imaginations were drawn by two contrary hands, one sun-wrinkled and calloused by work, one with fingernails too long to tie a shoe. The places we played, mud-pile or apartment lobby, influenced what is possible for us to dream and do. And yet we, with our disparate geographical and cultural heritage, still find ourselves at home together. Keith is less afraid of things than I. I am, however, no less amazed by stars. While I initially felt foreign and useless on the farm, this summer I found I belonged.
My husband teases that cows are Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings returned to teach us how to chew slowly and thoughtfully. That his birth was sanctified by these creatures might explain his quiet heart and deep spirit. I thank the farm for teaching my husband to walk with confidence and sensitivity across the earth. I thank the combine, big combustion tank that it is, for teaching him to quiet his mind and listen to the lay of the land and the whispers of wheat. Then I thank him, the famboy, for sharing this cultivated wisdom with me. The harvest is in. Time to spread the butter and dig in.