Thursday, October 22, 2009

This is a Love Letter

This is a love letter. It is early October here in Iowa; it’s just before dusk on an Indian summer autumn day, and the sky is a charged Halloween orange and scarlet red. I am driving west on Highway 30 just east of Mechanicsville where the train runs parallel to the road and where--when you’re lucky--you get to race a train that’s heading in the same direction. I am driving behind an old Studebaker, painted with a flat steel gray paint. Dappled sunlight filters through the rows of now dried cornstalks in the fields to the south and west. In the distance, I see a lone farmer clearing his field, a plume of chipped debris spraying straight up and then falling like a light rain back onto the field in his wake. Despite the size of the massive machine he operates, it is still dwarfed by the surrounding landscape--the brilliant sky and surrounding fields.
I am reminded of the picture of my great grandfather that hangs in my family’s home. My great grandfather was a farmer, as was my grandfather and my father. When I was growing up, the picture hung on the wall outside my father and mother’s room, just below a brass crucifix adorned with my grandmother’s rosary. In the photo, the lone silhouette of a male figure is seen--from a great distance. It is dusk, and the farmer is leaning his full weight into the plow pulled by a single Clydesdale. The man, my great grandfather, is dwarfed by the massive field and sky. His task, in proportion to his size, appears unbelievably daunting. Still, he works tirelessly, presumably long past dark.
I never met my great grandfather. He died when my father was a young man. However, I did know my grandfather, although he too died when I was just a little girl. I remember mostly his hands: large, strong, callused and dirty (no matter how hard or often he scrubbed them), and that he smelled like evergreen and mudpies. He was a truck farmer, fruit and vegetables. I asked my dad why they called them ‘truck farmers.’ He explained by describing how he and his father would wake before dawn on Saturday mornings and fill the back of their truck with freshly picked produce. Then they would drive into the city to the open markets, where they’d sell from the back of the old truck till sunset, and then drive back home.
Years after taking those early morning drives to market, my father continued the tradition, farming his own “back forty”--more as a pastime than for a living-- until the year before he died. He proudly cited the fact that he was the last official card-carrying farmer registered in Cook County, Illinois. He farmed the same land that his father and his grandfather farmed long before it became prime North Shore real estate. My father would often joke when we’d drive around my hometown of Wilmette that “the people that thought they were really something had no idea how much manure their fancy houses were built upon.” He helped me to understand through his love of planting--peas and beans, blackberries and eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini--the beauty of the land, the beauty of the farmer.
Before he died he sold his property to a Montessori school so that his “back forty” might be preserved for kids to wander through--maybe even for a garden.
So, this is a love letter to my great grandfather and grandfather and to my father. It’s also a love letter to all the local truck farmers here in Mount Vernon and Lisbon, named Krouse and Miller, Pavelka and Kroul, Knight and Walberg, Burkle and Thornton and Ciha and dozens of unnamed others. It’s also to the bakers like Sue and Ann and Carey and Pat and the two sisters who take the time to bake from scratch with only the freshest of ingredients. So, to all of you farmers, noted or not, praised or not, visible or not, thank you for the beans and broccoli, eggplant, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and sweet red onions.
Thank you for your tireless work behind your own plows. Thank you for loving the land and bringing us good and healthy and real food, for tending to the land, caring for the soil, and for reminding me of what my father taught me: the land that sustains us should never be taken for granted or squandered. The land is sacred. So is the farmer.

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