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- GIVING TO LAKELAND
- ABOUT LAKELAND
I grew up in the dark of an Illinois farm. As a boy I loved and feared it, how it wrapped me tight no matter how fast I ran across the yard to one of the outbuildings to find the hammer or screwdriver my father had sent me to fetch. Around me, farm cats unfurled from sleep in the hayloft and dropped silent as shafts of straw to their prey. Deer, pheasants, quail, and coyotes bedded down in the tall grass of drainage ditches. Raccoons gorged themselves on dog food or garbage or the burgeoning ears of sweet corn in end-of-the-summer fields, their childlike paws pirating apart the husks to sample the soft meat. If I dared to close my eyes, I could hear my feet thump the hollow earth. I was a boy, cutting a path from the back porch to the machine shop in the black night, terrified, and smiling.
I followed the path that stenciled its way twenty-five yards northwest from our boxy farmhouse, traced the Flowering Quince bush, jogged the Crimson King Maple tree, and made a sharp left at the corner of the chickenless chicken coop where it turned into a gravel alley and led to the steel door of the large, tinned machine shop. The path was prominent because everyone used it to cross the lawn, and everyone used it to cross the lawn because it was prominent. In wind, over snow, under a humid sun in mid-July, I followed the same route to the "shop" every time I was sent to get a tool for my father, who fixed a pipe beneath the sink or tightened the pull of a dresser drawer or balanced on a kitchen chair in one of the bedrooms, lips pursed around a nail, arms outreached, adjusting a framed picture for my mother who stood back and eyeballed it level.
Just west of our house, beyond the backyard and across a small parking area, there is a dusk-to-dawn yardlight that shines down on a gas barrel at the end of a long Quonset building. I have always considered it our streetlight in the country. I spent innumerable hours of my young life under it filling gas tanks, from the time I was a little boy fascinated with the mechanism on the nozzle that clicked off when the tank had filled, to when I could reach the accelerator with my toes enough to pull the truck around and fill it up for my father, to the weekends in high school when I filled my own truck to go into town to hang out with friends. From the kitchen sink I could see the light casting down every night, and it took different forms in different weather. The rain would puddle its glare. On foggy nights the clouds muffled it, like a palm pressed over a flashlight. But I loved to look at it the most on numbly deaf nights when large flakes of snow sunk at the slowest and slightest of angles.
When I traveled the darkness alone, the light kept me on the path. I knew that I could be guided by its silent shine through the night. Once I rounded the corner, hammer in hand, its glow would spread before me, push the weight of night back to the fields and into the barns and bare me back home.
My father split his life between moments of light and darkness. I never once was up in the morning before him, and on most nights, except weekends in high school, he would still be up or still working when I went to bed—the headlights of tractors resolute and collecting moths in the fields' deep dark. During the planting and the harvest seasons, I would not see him for days because he would take naps at the moon's crest and be back in the field before it waned. He lived and still lives these seasons according to the rain, in the moments between the bank and cover of dark clouds.
Because it might rain tomorrow, he has to plant as much as possible today. Because the crop is ready one day and it needs to be harvested the next, before it rains, he runs the combine until his eyes no longer stay open and he goes home, where he checks the elevators and bins and workings of the grain operation before falling asleep on the couch in the living room. I imagine the soft cushions take in his narrow shoulders and relieve the pain in his lower back. His bent and bony knees outline the exhausted jeans he wears.
He is awakened several times in the night by a buzzer that signals the corn dryer has finished another load. Moving from the couch, he tucks in the tattered tails of his flannel. Maybe, as he pulls his pant legs over the top of his boots, he thinks of all the cold nights in life that have called to him—to mend fence, to pull a calf, to repair tractors in the field under the glow of headlights. Maybe he thinks of nothing but the corn in the bin.
He pulls on a sturdy coat, and a stocking cap if the ground shows crystallized signs of frost, then shuffles out into the black morning to shift another wet load of grain into the dryer. He's careful to quietly close the door behind him. Once under the towers and wires and chutes that are the nervous system of the grainbins, he untwists a latch of bailing wire and opens the control panel.
The sound of the corn's shuffle is hypnotic, hard shells against metal, rush, sh, sh. As he waits, my father rubs his hands together and blows hot breath into them. This is his thirty-second autumn in this place, on this land under these same stars, listening to grain push through tin tunnels—the sound of birch leaves turning in an early fall wind. It's been almost thirty-five years since his father died and he took over the farm to support his mother and younger brother because there was no one else. As the last trickles of corn abandon the dryer, he pushes the green button atop the second column, shifting corn from the "wet" bin, the "straight from the field" bin, into the dryer, and the process begins again. And my father returns to the house and drops his boots at the door and pads through the dark house in stocking feet to the couch.
I know this method well because I asked my father to show it to me while we waited for graintrucks to empty on harvest days. I loved to sink the metal grain scoop into the dryer of corn, like cupping a handful of marbles, and watch the digitized numbers blink and bounce on the handle until they arrived at a percentage of dryness I could never guess or remember. I know each panel button's purpose because my father wrapped an arm around my belly and lifted me to the sun-soaked power box until I was tall enough to reach them myself. And though I could have been the one to go out at night and check the dryer, my father never woke me to do it.
This routine will last for three to five weeks, depending on the length of the harvest and the rain that will soak the plants and muddy the tracks of tractors in the fields. This routine will, and still does, take place every fall, without fail; my mother knows it is time when the space in the bed beside her at night is empty.
As a boy, I remember waiting to fall asleep in the upstairs bedroom my brothers once shared. There were carousel horses printed on the wallpaper, and a bedside lamp to match. One of my grandfather's sweat-stained cowboy hats hung from a hook near my dresser. This was after I no longer needed the security of a lamp, and I watched for the approach of cars on the highway headed south. As far as a mile off, their headlights flashed through my upstairs window and cast a bright replica of the paned glass that rotated around my room as the car moved closer to our house, picking up speed as the sound of the wind over the car intensified, shooting a splash of light into the room as it passed and then, after, only the echoing hush of tires as it moved back into the night.
If my father was still working, I would try to stay awake until I heard his pickup or tractor slow near our driveway and the lights moving across my bedroom wall were his. He was coming from his brother's farm twelve miles away or his partner's, eight the other direction—the three of them working together to lease extra land. I listened as my father drove to the back of the farm, pictured his progress past my mother's garden near the highway, to my playhouse that stored toy miniatures of my father's machines and my Big Wheel, at the two concrete silos and cow bunk, and the Quonset shed across from them, between the old white hay barn and huddle of fifty-thousand-bushel grainbins, then beyond the pen of bawling sheep and into the farthest shed on the farm where he parked all of the implements. In the time that it would take him to slide the massive shed doors closed, walk the black night back toward the house, I had fallen asleep.
Everything on a farm is larger than a young boy. Tractor tires. Tool cabinets. Work. Hay bales. Corn stalks in early August. The knowledge that he is expected to absorb and grow into.
Between our farm and my uncle's, or on the way to the local Farm N' Fleet for supplies, my father would hold one hand to the wheel, gesture with the other. "By rotating the crops," he would start, pointing to the passing field out the truck window, "the soybeans planted this year in this field will replace the nitrogen that was sucked out of the soil from the corn last year. Okay?" Because I asked him why he hadn't planted corn again here, I acknowledged kindly with a nod and a finger toward the highway we were traveling on. He turned his attention back to the road just as the truck tires skittered along the shoulder and doused the ditch with gravel. He smiled wide and exclaimed, "Whoa. Close, huh?"
Other days in the truck together we would move down the road in silence, only the whir of tires on asphalt coming from underneath us and field rows out the window falling against one another like a string of dominoes. The silence would hold us there, as if we were a snapshot of ourselves, the arrangement and position of the objects to one another providing the meaning and substance of the moment: a father and a son together in the cab of a pickup. That simply being together in that space was more meaningful than what we could ever express to each other in words. But there were times my father would interrupt these long frames of silence with a single repeated sentence, always the same: You know, I wouldn't discourage you from being a farmer, but I want you to know that you don't have to if you don't want to. And that was all. No more words or explanation. Maybe a nod or an "O.K." from me beside him. But then more silence and fields passing by the window, as if he put those words there to be photographed and kept close, justified by their giving, rather than their reasons.
Whenever he spoke he used two fingers to comb his hair—the color of mineral rich soil—from his forehead. I learned to watch and mimic my father's hands until I used mine the same. Until I could work pliers with one hand. I learned to drive expensive machinery before I learned to drive a car: hydraulics and loaders and levers and throttles. I learned to match metric wrenches to standard, to sort heavy feeder pigs from a bunch to send to be butchered—they were hauled away covered in shit and squealing. I turned and shut the gate.
As a boy the motions of the farm enthralled me, especially on sun-drenched days of harvest. Massive trucks full of golden kernels of corn or black-eyed soybeans came and went; the drone of their oil-leaking diesel motors bounced between the steel elevators and bins. The red and brown and yellow and orange mosaic floated against a backdrop of clean blue, aloft from trees that lined the driveway, and clung to the cracked windshields of veteran two-ton graintrucks. The air felt as crisp as dry leaves under foot. When the trucks had backed into place and their small grain chute doors opened above the elevator's auger, the kernels sounded like rain pelting the tin roof of the gold machine shop as they fell. I'd plunge my small hands into the cool and damp cascade as it spilled out of the truck and into the auger that pushed it into one of the cavernous storage bins—careful of where I put my toes—and the ribbons of corn would pool and pour over my opened palms.
In the light of days I played in this place, scaling the ladders to two and three-story platforms, jogging nervously along the criss-crossing catwalks, and setting up obstacle courses over the pits through the maze of augers and grainlegs between the giant gathering of bins. But on days working with my father, I became his apprentice. I followed him close and he indulged me. He would grab a bushel scoop shovel and hand me a broad floor broom, and together we moved the errant kernels that spilled out of the auger back into it. "That's good," he said. And once we stemmed the overflow, he leaned my broom against the elevator's control box and hauled me up in his hands to look over the rim of the truck's hopper. Below me, in the basin, the corn fell toward the open chutes like water circling and picking up speed around a drain, and I imagined myself wading into it waist-deep, legs heavy, pockets filling with the corn's currency.
My father told me at an early age that "money doesn't grow on trees," and I knew he meant this literally. I knew it grew on the backs of feeder pigs and in the wool of the Suffolk sheep that lived in the low wooden shed at the back of the farm. It grew in the corn and soybean fields and was harvested when pumpkins sprouted on porches. It was the gold that filled our grainbins every October and November. And as the next year advanced our pot of gold diminished, filed down the rounded walls of the bin, until it reached the rotten layer that had long amassed at the base.
In junior high I became old enough to be told to put on a filtering mask, carry a shovel into the base of the bin, and remove the seasoned mold to make room for the new crop. It took a long day to clean one bin. My father paid me to do it. As I heaved shovelfuls of the brown cake out a small door in the echoing bin, cornhusks from the fields where my father harvested that day swirled outside in the autumn breeze. During breaks I lifted the shovel out the door and onto the ground and ducked my head out of the bin and leaned on the shovel's handle in the cool electric stirring of air. I stood there, half in, half out, the mask pulled to my forehead, the mold's heat trapped under my clothes, and watched millions of tiny "reds," iridescent flakes dislodged from the corncob by the combine, whirl in the air like tiny tornadoes and then collect in feathery piles. And though I wasn't with my father, running the giant machines in the dusty fields, I felt connected to the work of that season. I felt needed.
"Make sure you take breaks from standing in that mold," my father told me, as he handed me the shovel before heading for the field. He would hand me shovels and sledges to help for several more years while I lived on the farm, but he knew, always, that there would be a time when I would no longer be there to take them. He understood, better than I, that I would live a different life than his. But when I finished that afternoon I simply rested the shovel against the outside of the grainbin and walked to the house. I imagine my father walked out of the field that night, a dusting of reds across his shoulders, and came to the work I had finished. He tipped chunks of mold with the toe of his boot. And with the moon for light, he scanned the clean spacious floor through the bin's hatch door. I'm not able to tell you if he was satisfied, but he thanked me the next day. What I know is that when I left the farm for college years later my father took up the shovel where I had left it, and continues the work without me.
I remember one night helping my father and brother unload a hayrack of straw bales that we had brought from my uncle's farm. I can see again a sky of ember holding my brother, a blonde, flat-topped high school boy balancing atop the swaying rack. And though the memory is merely color and the outlines of men, it is one of the only times I remember clearly the three of us working together.
Chad would leave for college at the end of that summer, following in the steps of my oldest brother, who had left the year before. In seven more years, I would be the third son to move from the farm to college, and then my sister, the last of us, would leave too. It was a pattern that my siblings and I use to define us now: we grew up on a farm, but we are not farmers. We find comfort in both the experience of that life and a physical separation from it. In the contradiction is where we find our place, our path. But that evening tossing bales with my brother and father, leaving the farm for college was the farthest thing from my mind.
That final hayrack was one among a dozen we had bailed, loaded, and unloaded during the day under a heavy July sun. The more summer days I spent helping to harvest and bale fields of straw at my uncle's farm, the more I learned the satisfaction of the process. As the sun broke above the horizon that morning, the straw lay drying in mounded rows as we bounced and balanced on hayracks hitched behind the feeding baler in fields. Grasshoppers popped themselves up in a flutter of dust from the dry straw as we approached. We shed our long-sleeves when the sun peaked, a few riding the racks and loading the freshly twined bales, a few at the barn unloading and restacking inside. By late afternoon the bailer had traversed three fields and made enough bales to fill a dozen racks, and the straw that once grew in the sun and rain was now cut, dried, bailed, and hauled to the dim-lit barn to be squarely stacked, and sheltered from the elements. Eventually, when twilight frosts started to come in the fall, the bales would be busted and pushed through holes in the loft floor, and the hogs would root and walk and sleep in the added warmth.
One winter day, a year or two after I have left for college, my father wakes just before the sun and pulls on jeans and a flannel shirt bulleted with holes and ambles down the stairs, the route so familiar he no longer needs light to find his way. His fingers trace the plastered walls and the varnish of the staircase banister as he passes through the living room and its doorway to the kitchen, where he finds the coarse wood paneling and moves into the back hallway, dimly illuminated by the shine of the yardlight over the gas barrel.
He pulls up his pant legs to step into his work boots, glances out the hallway window that looks out onto the barn and lot where several hundred feeder pigs are always kept, the steam from their bodies rising like curls from a mug of coffee. The previous night's snow has left a fresh dusting on the trampled mud.
My father stands dumbfounded, one foot half in its boot. The hogs are gone.
He remembers, then, the stock trailer and semi-tractor backed to the chute, the cadence of wet hooves over steel, the men in padded overalls swinging gates, voices and whistles and arms suspended in the air. He remembers that the sheep have been gone for a decade, the cattle for two. The fields beyond the stockyard and barns, snow highlighting the dormant stubbled rows, will not be worked for several more months. Until that time, there is nothing for him to do.
My father slowly lowers his pant cuffs, repositions his boots near the door, and walks back upstairs, the plaster's coolness lingering on his fingertips, to where my mother still sleeps. Under the covers again he pushes his toes to the warmth at the bottom. Maybe, before he falls to sleep he thinks of the wedding ring he lost while pulling a calf. Or the fatally cold nights he walked with hammer to all of the stockyard water tanks to free the water underneath. He stares at the blank ceiling, tries to think of the small chores he can take up, the upkeep that might be needed in the basement, the bedrooms. He feels the warmth rise into his arms, his chest, the softness of his wife. He whispers to himself out of a kind of wonder, words he will repeat to me: I can't believe I walked through the cold and the dark for so many years.
Some days, I step off the cement sidewalks in this small college town I have come to and I set myself down in the grass. If I concentrate enough on the play of birds or the shiver of a tree's branches in the breeze, it blocks out the honking cars on the street and the chatter of students walking by. Even the simplicity of watching ants crawl through the damp grass, marching their economy on their backs, places me back in childhood.
If my father has been stunned by the literal movement of his days and nights, through darkness, through light, the corn in his fist, the plump ripeness of wheat between his fingers, the marbled rib of an animal tested beneath his palm, I find myself undone by the weight of memory and nostalgia, as though I am once again finding my way through the dark, testing my direction by the light of my father's life. I am bundled up and following him to the farthest shed on the farm, where he shows me, under a heat lamp in a bed of straw, how to cradle an orphaned lamb's head in my arm and tip a warm bottle of milk to its mouth each night for weeks until it can eat on its own. I am behind the wheel of his pickup and looking over my shoulder, trying to follow his hands guiding the fickle hayrack to its place in the barn, but instead, jackknifed.
I am once again a boy covered in the grit and dirt of the earth, and it is spring, and I am hunched down, arms wrapped around knees, watching my father kneel and reach into the black ground. He digs with two fingers in the moist soil, it collects under his nails, until he finds the pearl of his search: a seed, cracked open and showing signs of life in a knuckled stem. It is a moment of observation; nothing needs saying. A breeze lifts a small swirl of dust. A killdeer calls in the distance. He is satisfied. I mimic my father as he rises, wipes his hands on his jeans, and walks back to the pickup at the field's deepening edge.