Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Loss of the Family Farm

Looking back on my life, from the hustle and bustle of today, back to the cool breezes cavorting through the elm trees that lined both sides of our farm lane in a living, almost-breathing, tall, graceful, fragrant, green flickering canopy, when I was a wonder-filled 5 year old boy, I can't help but feel melancholy.

Life was so much easier back then. Yes, I was a just a kid, but farm kids had chores to do, too, you know, and we were a busy little 200 acre diversified farm. Physical toil was a way of life, and we didn't bemoan or begrudge or complain--we just worked, because survival depended on it.

My goodness, we were healthy; adults had no need of treadmills, stationary bikes, or elliptical exercisers. They were in top physical condition. Very little money meant very little junk food, but lots of garden-fresh vegetables, and farm-raised beef, pork, and poultry. A diet like that, coupled with hard physical work, equalled strong, healthy bodies.

We had no internet, ipods, or blackberries... 'blackberries' to us meant a delicious bowl of succulent fruit covered in table cream. We had no idea what was coming, nor did we look forward to it, nor did we dread it; ignorance is bliss. The Waltons played on TV, and their lives were even more simple than ours, and the older generations longed for those times, minus the Depression.

Spring was filled with anticipation of cropping. We waited for the plowing to show dry crests, like the whitecaps in the tossing of the waves on a windswept lake. Then it was on; a lengthways pass with the disc to cut up the sod, a crossways pass to level, and then round and round to ready the soil for the seed drill. Our Massey-Harris 44, the stalwart old girl she was, did all the tillage, her big, full crown fenders protecting from the dust and dirt. Our little Cockshutt 60 Row Crop, reliable, responsive, and oh-so-nimble, handled the seed drill, making impossible turns at the corners. Then it was maybe a pass with the 60 and a roller, if a dry summer was expected. The garden was put in concurrently, with a couple of passes of the disc and then the cultivator, to make easy-to-follow rows. Corn, green beans, yellow beans, carrots, parsnips, peas, cabbage, lettuce, beets and turnips, all went in orderly rows. Potatoes went in uniformly-gridded hills, and cucumber seeds were planted in what would become a patch. Pumpkins were sown in the compost of the pig's manure from two year's before. Yellow, downy, goslings and chicks arrived from the hatchery in hungry, peeping batches, to be very carefully nurtured and protected from copious, cunning, and opportunistic predators of all name and description. And self-inflicted disasters and calamities that only folk that have raised them could ever imagine. Nothing could be left to chance. They were my responsibility, and a withering responsibility they were.

Spring turned into summer, and the crop sprouted, and grew, and the rows filled in. The garden required constant hoeing, and the callouses grew on my hands, and the skin burned and thickened on my back. The hay grew right along with the garden and the grain. July rolled around, and the biggest part of the year was upon us: haying. The 60 cut the hay, with a converted Cockshutt #6 horse mower, making its impossible square turns, Dad handling it like it was a kitten. Beforehand, sitting on a stool in the cool, damp machine shed, he sharpened every sickle on the cutterbar by hand with a whetstone, in a rhythmetic pattern, the stone setting each sickle section to singing in a familiar song that still calls out to me after all these years.

The swaths dried, and then Dad on the 60 raked them with a Cockshutt 4 wheel side delivery rake. These two passes must have been pretty relaxing for Dad, as the real work was right around the next corner. The hay set in the windrows to 'snapping dry', in the heat of the summer. The 44 pulled the New Holland Super Hayliner 69 baler out of its space at the back of the 44's bay, where it sat patiently protected for 11 months of the year, and it was serviced and adjusted, and headed to the field, with a wooden reach wagon behind. I was too small to drive the 44, so it was usually my Uncle Charlie who drove it, while Dad built the loads under the scorching summer sun. Every now and then they would stop, and have a drink of initially cold, but now-warming water, and then set to again.

The loads built, the last wagon was unhooked from the baler, and the 60 struggled with the creaking, loaded wagons back to the barn, with Dad driving, and Uncle Charlie standing relaxedly with one foot on the drawbar, and the other up on the exposed rear axle housing, his one hand and arm on the fender, while him and Dad shot the breeze. The intoxicating canopy of the mighty elms brushed over me as I lay as prone as I could on top of the back load so I wasn't swept off by the stronger branches as they closed in overhead, meeting from one side of the lane to the other. Sometimes I liked to follow on foot behind (usually barefoot), and watch the clay dust, powdered by the weight and repeated passes of the loads, squelch out from the bald, bulging, and overloaded wagon tires. I was always fascinated as the tires squished and squatted, shifting side-to-side on their balloon of enslaved air, never quite able to understand why they didn't blow--and likely envelop me in a sudden, billowing cloud of fine, grey clay dust from the loud explosion. It never happened, though, much to my amazement. I loved to listen while I padded along behind at a trot, the dust coming up between my toes, as the plain, tapered cone bearings of the wagon wheels made their signature, mild, muffled, thunking sounds, as the wheels moved ever so slightly back and forth in the available end play of their bearings, in response to the load gently and lazily shifting and tilting above.

These were real crossover wagon wheels; caught in the rapidly-evolving technology of mechanized transport, from wooden spoked wheels, to steel spoked wheels, to rubber tires. They bridged the transition to simple, automotive one piece, five lugnut, dished steel wheels, tapered roller bearings, and rubber tires, by having the now-bizarre, mixed and mottled combination of rubber tires on steel rims on square wooden spokes, on turned wooden hubs, with their simple, hardened steel, tapered cone bearings shrunk over a wooden axle. The final result was much more eloquent in execution and presentation than the sum of its parts, but it would have taken much time, and, moreover, much skilled and practiced craft and care to produce as elegant and durable a final product as they were.

Those wooden reach, fifth wheel wagons used true axle grease, that came in large tin cans much like large coffee cans. Our brand was Shell, in a yellow can with the familiar and trusted seashell logo. The grease inside was golden, thick, and very sticky, with a strong, pungent, but slightly sweet smelling odour, and you scooped it out with a wooden stick and slathered it onto the axle shaft after the wheel was removed by its solitary, large, square nut. It was so sticky, that, when you pulled the stick out, it stood up vertically in slippery, glistening, translucent reams, capped in gracefully curled, transparent wisps that captured and refracted the dancing rays of the midsummer sun.

The wagons were unloaded, Uncle Charlie feeding the elevator, and my powerhouse Dad mowing the bales back in the sweltering loft, under a roof so hot you couldn't hold your hand to it. He never faltered, and really and truly revelled in his physical domination of the task at hand. Another drink and a discussion of how things were going, and it was back to the field. The wagons loaded again, they came back in, and it was supper time. They washed chaff and dust and sweat off, and sat down to supper, which usually consisted of re-fried potatoes, and pink, sliced pork roast, with fresh vegetables and berries from the garden, and washed down with a couple of cups of tea, my Uncle Charlie's "Tuss suss suss!" in response to one of Dad's always good-natured jokes.

Now, Uncle Charlie wasn't Dad's or Mom's brother or brother-in-law, he was 'just' 'our neighbour down the road', but he never married and of course had no children of his own, so Dad had us start calling him "Uncle", and it stuck, and it was right. He was more my sister's and my uncle than any of our real ones. Dad and Uncle Charlie had a wonderful relationship of mutual respect and friendship; a seamless and exceedingly comfortable cameraderie; the kind you usually only read in downhome fiction, but this was real and it was our life, and we loved it.

I sat there eagerly munching down on my own supper, happily listening to my two favorite role models in the whole wide world, and savouring the sweetness of the roast pork, which I considered as good as any candy.

Supper done, Dad and Uncle Charlie retired to their after-meal seats; Dad to his rocking chair, and Uncle Charlie sideways on my chair at the table, facing Dad. They'd talk for a while, and then maybe watch some of the news, and with a "Welllll..." from one of them, they'd get up and head out to the comparative cool of the evening to unload the last wagons in relative comfort. Uncle Charlie would then get in his jet black two door 1960 Plymouth Fury, with its contrasting red tufted interior, and head home to milk on his own farm one lot down from ours and across the road. Uncle Charlie lived with his dear, and very elderly mother, a stereotypical little old lady, who kept a spotless farmhouse. I used to love going over there at milking time, and seeing Uncle Charlie's beautiful Guernseys, filling the cowbyre in two relaxed, comfortable, uniform lines down the length of both sides of the simple, but clean and tidy operation. Their barn was as well kept for a barn as their home was for a home. Nothing was fancy, but it was immaculate. The only break in the uniformity of size and type in their herd was the random fawn and white blotches of the individual. Standing patiently there at milking time, they'd burp up and chew their cud in idle detachment, and swish flies with expert flicks of their long, tassled tails over their straight backs. They were very calm and docile, with huge doe eyes, and long, dark lashes, and seemed to have genuine affection for Uncle Charlie, and it was obviously likewise. Milking time was busy, and yet very calm. The feeling of practiced, structured, generations-old routine on all parts and levels permeated the atmosphere. It was a family farm, too. And a well-kept and run one at that.

Summer ended, fall was around the corner, and the much-dreaded return to school became a reality. The grain ripened, and shimmered golden in the breeze, undulating in waves sweeping the field, imparting visibility to the eddies and currents playing otherwise invisibly in the air. The combine came, and the grain flowed in a smooth, fan-shaped, golden cascade from the gravity box into the elevator, and spilled seamlessly back over the paddles, as the elevator struggled against timeless natural forces to deliver the grain to the bin. The sumacs turned from green to red, and it was time to harvest the garden as well.

My first chore each evening after I thankfully got off the bus, was to head out to the garden and pick and bag the several sacks of potatoes Dad had spudded up first thing in the morning, and left to dry in the sun all day. The dry, dusty clay was easy to clean off with a counter-rotating rub of my hands, or maybe a thunk or two against each other for more stubborn ones, and then Dad loaded the sacks on a light wooden platform that fitted on the 60's drawbar frame, and we took them in to the stable. The beans had mostly been picked over the latter part of the summer, and then some of the young carrots, so now it was the mature carrots, and they were laying there ready for me one or two afternoons after school, and then it was the beets. I hated beets, and everything about them, but they had to be grown and harvested for some unearthly reason, so I just silently and obediently did what I was told. I hated the look, the smell, the sound, the feel, and the taste of beets. The turnips came last, after a few good, solid frosts, and I loved them, and everything about them. I happily cleaned the soil off and sacked the turnips in jute grain bags, and had them proudly sitting there waiting for Dad when he came in from plowing. I loved the look, the smell, the sound, the feel, and the taste of turnips. All beets should have been born turnips.

The meat chickens and geese were butchered, plucked, cleaned, and put in the freezer, in one unpleasant, but necessary, cool Autumn day. A hog and a steir were killed and butchered, and half of the meat delivered all around to family, and the rest stored away in the freezer.

Fall mornings dawned dark, foggy and frosty, and the misery of the sickening dread of school each weekday was only heightened and added to by standing by the side of the road with my teeth chattering uncontrollably as I solemnly and subjectively waited for the bus. While it's five o'clock that sometimes can't come fast enough these days, it was 3:30 that couldn't come fast enough then.

October wisened and matured, and sometimes there was a snowfall before Halloween. Dad's usual methodic nature became more urgent, as he went about finalizing the myriad tasks that had to be seen to before the cold, unforgiving winter set in. The 60 was turned sideways on her nimble axis in back of her bay in the machine shed to make room for the car. The barn floor bifold doors were lowered from their summer storage position up against the ceiling, allowing cool breezes and shade for the cattle, to now stop the bitter west wind from blowing through, and helping to keep the cowbyre warmer. In the horse stable, by light, in the evenings after supper, Dad and my sister, Polly, and I topped and trimmed the horrible beets, and topped and trimmed the wonderful turnips, and the carrots and parsnips, and gave the potatoes a final cleaning, as our dog lay there on grain bags and watched us in the rapt admiration and last-drop-of-blood loyalty only a dog can possess, while the cats thrilled and delighted us with their squirrely 'catrobatics' in the barn beams above. The task finally completed, all the produce was put into cold storage in the basement, to feed us in health, wholesomeness, security, and economy, for the long, cold winter ahead.

The hay was in the loft, the grain in the granary, the geese, chickens, beef, and pork in the freezer, and the garden in the basement. Dad noticably relaxed; the annual race against time somehow completed in the nick of time. Sleep swept over the land once again, in the age-old way God had created and arranged it to be. The white blanket once again tucked in the earth, and all was quiet, save the lowing of the cows at milking time.

The cowbyre smelled of the wonderful warm dampness of dairy cows; a comforting and security-encouraging aroma of Providence. It wafted over and enveloped you in a moist, warm wall of welcome belonging as you walked into barn at supper chore time, the final and daily harvest: that of milk, making complete the circle of life.

Nothing but a feeling of 'all is well' could prevail, and dwell deep, soothingly and comfortingly, in your soul, in such simple times and atmospheres. I long desperately, achingly, for such a feeling, in this age and era of 'modern convenience', so many years later.