One of the pleasures of visiting Mom at the Farm includes sleeping on the couch in the parlor, facing the Big Window. We’ve always called it the Big Window. The Big Window faces East, so that I can lie comfortably and watch the eastern sky as it slowly lights up. Often the sky is streaked with clouds and the sun bounces shades of pink and salmon off them. The pink combines with the grays and blues of the early morning clouds to make muddy mauve streaks in the sky. The clouds move slowly merging and pulling apart like cotton candy in the hands of an idle fair goer.
The Big Window is special because it was a gift, not a necessity. My parents moved into a 1864 brick house in 1946. The bricks were cast on the property. The walls are three bricks thick. The original house had two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs. There were two windows to the north in each room and one window to the south in the west room.. In the room we call the parlor, there was a door to the south. By the time my grandfather purchased the farm, a frame kitchen had been added to the south. That portion now houses the kitchen, bathroom and back porch, as well as the entrance to the basement. My mom wanted a picture window added to what first served as her dining room and now is the parlor. That meant cutting a big rectangle out of the brick wall. A big hole, to put in a big window to give more light to the room, which besides having only two windows, was also shaded by three 40’ cedar trees. How she ever convinced my Dad and my Grandfather to put in the extra window, I’ll never know, but for me, it’s always been there, a natural part of the architecture of the house.
From this window, depending on where you’re sitting, you can see the corn crib and the barn, two of the four outbuildings on the property. The corn crib and the barn are a perfect barn—red, because one of the family priorities is maintenance. One time my mom suggested that the forty-year old carpet in the house be replaced. My dad thought that was too expensive, too extravagant. She judiciously did NOT point out that the barn had been painted twice since that carpet had been laid.
Now the salmons and pinks are intensifying and in contrast the mauves and blues are paling. It takes careful watching to see any movement in the clouds in the still dawn. Only by marking their place behind the corncrib is any movement discernible.
Subtlety is one of the gifts of Mother Nature, Creator God. We are so entertained by the violence of nature, the winds, the storms, the floods, the blizzards, that we take for granted the slow, deliberate changes, molecule by molecule, cell by cell, drop by drop.
The three lightning rods, evenly spaced across the peak of the corn crib, stand like sentinels, straight up, simply observing. Perhaps they are waiting for lightening. Perhaps they are simply reminders, leftovers, from a time of different technology. Now they are more artistic than functional, with their perfect glass globes.
The geometry of the view is noticeable. The window itself has four right angles. The corn crib from my two-dimensional view is an intersection of two rectangles and a triangle, set atop another intersecting body of rectangles, four of which slide back and fourth perpendicular to the earth. The clouds are broad swipes of color at a 10 degree angle above the peak of the corn crib, not quite parallel from my perspective in the former dining room, now the parlor.
Now the pinks have thinned out, but the broadest is still the color—and the shape—of a salmon. In fact, there are fins running at angles, a blue gray, at the bottom of the cloud.
Why is it so natural for us to see the shape of solid objects in the clouds?
Suddenly, the salmon color has disappeared and the gray we call “gloomy” has taken over. Still, streaks of pink remain closer to the horizon.
This quiet observation time is a comfort to me. It means that my mother is sleeping soundly in her bed, receiving the rest that an aging body needs. Even though she lives here alone, she claims that she never feels alone. Some people are afraid to live alone, especially in a big house some distance from a next door neighbor. But she has lived here for over seventy years, making a very modern home in a very old house. There have been many visitors over the years, some known only by a blanket left unfolded in the haymow or the glimpse of a face through a window. Still, she remains unafraid. Most visitors, though, have been drawn by the warm welcome they receive, and by the love that has grown in their hearts for this family and this place. Sometimes, the welcome was initiated by the need for fresh eggs, freshly butchered roosters and hens, lambs to be butchered onsite according to ethnic tradition. Also welcomed on the farm is help, like the high school boys who came to help bale hay and like, nowadays, Gary and Dale, who plant and harvest, who mow and bale.
Beyond that is the nostalgia and the romanticism of the farm. And the beauty. Picnics in the timber. Picking up hickory nuts and walnuts and hedge balls. Getting firewood. The farm, even when it lies fallow, has much to offer.
The clouds are mostly covering the sky, a streaky gray, but a bit of blue is waiting for the clouds to move on.
The quiet is accompanied by, not interrupted by, the cars and trucks zooming by on the high way. Various pitches of wheels on pavement, of engines and mufflers, provide a unique harmony to this accompaniment.
Soon we will eat a breakfast of toast and jelly and juice and a handful of pills. We don’t take chances.
But Mom and Dad did take chances. Farming is risky business. This farm is located in a a good place, not prone to flooding. Dad always said the front of the farm drains to the Cedar River and the back of the farm drains to the Mississippi. In other words, the farm is high above the flood plains. Dad hated mud. In fact, he chose his burial plot in a spot that would not be prone to mud.
The risks of farming, despite the improvement in methods, in conservation, in machinery, have not lessoned. Perhaps they have increased. My dad and my uncle could fix their own machinery. They could even have raised their own seed corn, if they’d wanted to. Dad worked for a farmer who did; Dad’s job was to sort the seeds by size. There is a special tool for that. I have two of those seed corn sorters.
I will never use them for anything other than as a tool to recall a certain time in farming history.
The risks in farming come unbidden, due 90% of the time not to the farmer’s judgement but to the weather and the market. The weather is a pure phenomenon, but the market is artificial and not so much a tool as a weapon. The weather provides the sun and the rain and the wind that is needed; the risk comes in that the weather does not proportion its gifts out perfectly. Too much rain, too little rain. Too much wind. The market also provides too much or too little. But there is something crass, not beautiful or majestic or awe-inspiring or nurturing, about the market. But the market is necessary, because the farmer by nature shares his produce and the market provides the outlet for the farmer’s generous predilection. So the risk.
Every day I see an article about the number of farm bankruptcies. The thing is, that land won’t go out of production. It is not the land that is bankrupt (although there is rightful concern about that among some), but it is the farmers, their families, their lifestyles, their existence that is demolished, crushed between nature and the market.
I have not been a farmer since about 1972. Even then, I only fed chickens and hogs, drove the baler, loaded bales. I did not make decisions. The farm was simply where I belonged. But there was not a place for me as a full-fledged farmer.
As is often the case, I found other places where I also belonged. But the farm, the concept of farming, that concept that is as big as the universe and as small as a seed, has never left me.
I spend a few minutes between services on Sunday at a small town tavern, talking to card players and coffee drinkers. I always summon all my farm vocabulary and they humor me and let me ask questions and give opinions about what’s happening in the fields. It is one tether that keeps me grounded to the ground.
The sun is up, almost to the peak of the corn crib. The day looks gray. But always behind the clouds, that foolish optimism about blue skies makes me put my feet on the floor, walk through the house and peek in on Mom.
That is the beauty of creation. Hope, we call it. Hope is what separates us from all other living creatures. Hope is what helps us survive in the vilest of conditions, under the wickedest of rulers.
Hope is what I have as I look through the Big Window.