The Farm

Once upon a time, any given lad had two sets of grandparents. When divorce became more acceptable and common, this number could easily double … at least. But when I went through my childhood, there were two, the paternal set and their maternal counterpart. Nice people all. As the first of the grandchildren to come along, I was treated like royalty by all four of them. Love enough for a regiment was my happy lot. (So much so that I often wonder – how did I get so screwed up, anyway?)

But I digress.

Back then, if you had offered me a week with either pair of grandparents, and I was given the right to choose, the one on the maternal side would nearly always win. And there was a reason for this.

The farm.

The farm was only 120 acres, with perhaps only slightly more than half of it arable, but to a child from the city it was a mythic place. A place where many of the rules of city life were suspended. For one thing, there were no fleets of cars or trucks to be dodged. For another there were no parents to natter at you all day long.

The domestic animals on the farm included draft horses, cows, the occasional fearsome bull, chickens, hogs, sheep, ducks, myriad cats, and geese. A small child could feel quite important if he were given the chore of assisting in the feeding and care of any one of these groups.

There was a traditional barn, with a big haymow. Anyone of you who has ever had the chance to play in one of these will remember the mountains of loose alfalfa and timothy hay with their sweet/dry aromas, as well as occasional litters of half-wild kittens to be discovered tucked away in shaded places.

We went barefoot all summer, which meant the bottoms of our feet were more like hooves by August. We walked behind the machines as the men plowed fields, the plow leaving a smooth area about a foot wide as it carved the furrow, smooth and cool and damp even on the warmest summer day.

When it came time to harvest the grain, there were the rituals of cutting and binding the grain into bundles, which were then stacked into shocks. On threshing day, the shocks were tossed with pitchforks into wagons and hauled to the threshing machine, which was a metallic version of a dragon if there ever was one. We climbed onto the machine and watched the newly separated grain flow into a hopper that emptied itself periodically into an auger system that piped the grain into the high-sided box of a waiting truck.

Potential child-gobbling machine in action

Thinking back, I can picture dozens of places for a child to be injured on a threshing machine. But we kids climbed up and walked on the top of this pitching and jumping beast without a command from any adult to “Get down.”

It was not at all unusual for farmers to be missing parts of themselves that had been lost to machines at a time when safety guards were often a novelty. Most of those losses were fingers. My former father-in-law got his bib overalls caught in a gear one day on a harvesting machine. Fortunately he was wearing an old and threadbare pair of overalls because the clothing was ripped from his body, leaving him standing there in his underwear but with his corpus intact.

There were animal birthings galore to watch and sometimes participate in. There were slaughterings we were allowed to observe, usually involving chickens on their way to becoming Sunday’s dinner, and there were others of a grimmer variety that we were not invited to attend.

Do you get the idea that we weren’t being closely supervised? You are exactly right. Most of our days on the farm we wandered where we wished, only coming indoors for meals. Speaking as a former kid it was a great thing to be on your own in this way . That is, for those of us who survived childhood.

Now if you were to ask my opinion as to whether the not-always-so-benign neglect in those days was inferior to the hovering by many of today’s parents, my answer would be no, I don’t think it was.

For instance, we were never taught to be afraid of the world, but instead learned how to cope with it. To accept that there were hazards and avoid them when we could. To learn to walk on uneven ground wherever we found it.

It wasn’t fair that my mom’s side of the family got more attention from me just because they lived in the rural. Not fair at all. But it was the way that it was.

These Are The Days, by Van Morrison

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President Biden said the other day that the pandemic was over. That may be so, even though hundreds of our citizens are still perishing of Covid every day. It’s all definitional, isn’t it?

Perhaps I should feel more comforted by what the President said, but Joe doesn’t always know what he’s talking about. Nor does he always know when to talk and when to be be silent. So I will wait for confirmation from a more authoritative source, thank you very much.

And then I will still go and get the latest booster shot available to me. Be a shame to be the last person in the U.S.A. to kick the bucket Covid-style.

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Our tomatoes are done for the year. Those bright green and florid vines that grew into a miniature jungle have gone to a stringiness and a yellow-brown color. This was a good year for them. The sun was nowhere near as punishing as last summer, when gardeners despaired all over Paradise as the plants grew tortured fruit with inedible burns.

So we feasted for nearly two months on BLT sandwiches, homemade pasta sauces, caprese salads … anything that would put the flavor of the tomatoes front and center. A friend gave us a couple of plants which produced a bright yellow fruit half the size of a golf ball that had an intense and pungent flavor like nothing I’d ever tasted before.

The famous vineyards label their products (and price them) by year, knowing that each year’s fruit will have its own flavors which have a little to do with the name of the variety but everything to do with the unique combination of sun and rain and soil that came together that year. The same thing happens in our gardens – a less exalted venue, perhaps, but a place where something special and un-reproduceable happens nevertheless.

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Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil Department

Hilary Mantel was only 70 when she passed away this week. She wrote a great many books, among them a very popular trilogy dealing with Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and Anne Boleyn. Two of them won Booker prizes. Two were made into an excellent television series starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell.

There are apparently a whole lot of people like myself who find this chunk of English history fascinating, and gobble up literature and dramas about it by the carload. To me Mantel’s writings were the best of the lot.

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Wikipedia has a rather long entry about her life, but I particularly liked this paragraph.

The long novel Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim. The book won that year’s  Booker Prize and, upon winning the award, Mantel said, “I can tell you at this moment I am happily flying through the air”.  Judges voted three to two in favour of Wolf Hall for the prize. Mantel was presented with a trophy and a £50,000 cash prize during an evening ceremony at the  Guildhall, London. The panel of judges, led by the broadcaster James Naughtie, described Wolf Hall as an “extraordinary piece of storytelling”.  Leading up to the award, the book was backed as the favourite by bookmakers and accounted for 45% of the sales of all the nominated books. 

It was the first favourite since 2002 to win the award.  On receiving the prize, Mantel said that she would spend the prize money on “sex and drugs and rock’ n’ roll”.

Hilary Mantel, Wikipedia

The old girl had spirit, no?

I’m Henry the VIII, I Am, by Peter Noone

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