I recently read John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland, which I had to order from the UK since it’s unavailable here in the former colonies. A Herefordshire farmer and historian, Lewis-Stempel gives us a year in the life of an ancient hedge-ringed meadow, with all its flora, fauna, and meteorological visitations. If this sounds to you like a dull sort of book, you’re mistaken. All the dramas and wonders of human and animal life play themselves out in this space.
Farming runs in my blood, though I am no farmer. Putting my hands into damp soil or coaxing even the most willing plant to fruit gives me an ache of longing. My father was the last of us born on a farm. Tracing the generations back, we farmed in Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Prior to claiming his little territory of New World wilderness in the early 1600s, my tenth great-grandfather farmed in the west of England, in Somerset near Chew Magna, among fields and meadows that might have been very like those Lewis-Stempel tends today.
Every third year when I was a boy we drove to a family reunion in Iowa. My grandfather and his seven brothers and sisters and all their children and grandchildren would gather on my great-uncle’s farm. A hay barn was set aside for us kids, but we were free to roam. We came back to dinner so covered in dirt and hayseeds that we had to be sprayed down with a hose. Occasionally we were put to work in the field or moving hogs, but most of our time was spent playing, eating, fishing, planning pranks, telling jokes, and listening to our elders reminisce. This gave me, perhaps, no very realistic impression of farm life.
For an image of the reality I looked to my great-grandfather, born in 1891, who farmed a plot in Iowa until he was more than ninety years old. Thin, sinewy and weather-worn, he seemed as much a natural growth from the soil as the tree near his house that had swallowed up a wagon wheel in its slow decades of growth. He was about as talkative as that tree, too. “Tell us what things were like when you were a boy?” we would ask him. He would think for a minute and slowly reply: “Well, it was different.”
My grandfather, however, supplied the words. He quit farming in his forties when worries for his son’s health drove him to sell and find a happier climate. But he wrote a fifty-page autobiography and spared few details when it came to the trials of life on the farm, the desperate economics of it, the back-breaking labor and long hours, the sudden or the lingering deaths of family members in the fields or in houses snowed-in for a bitter winter. When grandpa himself died, after rousing momentarily from a week-long coma to sit up and lift his arms (like wheat stalks or sunflowers) toward the sky, he was buried by his request in a little country cemetery back in Iowa. There his first-born daughter, who had preceded him in her infancy, was already planted in the soil – like a seed, or the memory of a former life.