August 15, 2007

NONFICTION

By D. CAMERON LAWRENCE

On a day when the air is so humid it holds moisture like clay, so hot mirages dance on the road—the kind of day when most people stay inside for the air conditioning—my husband John and I drive to the family farm, 60 miles southeast of our home in Louisville, Kentucky. We leave our car in the driveway and walk past the big farmhouse where my mother-in-law used to live, looking for Hank, John’s older brother, who wants us to see the crops. It’s been a dry summer. No rain for weeks. The corn and soybeans are hurting, Hank says, although the tobacco, a hot weather plant, is holding up.

Since my mother-in-law died a year ago, Hank, a bachelor, has overseen the farm’s 303 acres solo. My husband tries to watch over his brother now; John insists Hank call us every night so we know he’s okay. A few weeks ago, he didn’t call and, at 11 o’clock, John and I got dressed to drive to the farm. Just before we left our house, the phone rang. It was Hank, who’d gotten hung up tending a cow.

Hank emerges from one of the barns and joins us. Even though he’s wearing the lightweight khaki shirt and pants he always wears in the summer, he’s sweating heavily in the 103 degree heat. He’s got on his heavy boots, too. I have on sandals and my feet are hot.

The three of us cut across a large rolling pasture, past one of several small ponds on the land. Where usually the pond is full, now it’s mucky above a low water line, and, at the top of the depression, the mud is dry and cracked.

“Are there still a lot of frogs in there?” I ask Hank.

“Yeah, they manage,” he replies. “I hear them in the evening.” He means from the big house—the one that’s empty now—where he still eats his lunch and dinner. There’s no air conditioning in the house—my mother-in-law never wanted it because she liked the fresh air that blew through—and in the summer, Hank can hear the farm’s sounds through the open windows. He lives in a smaller house on the property but still takes his meals in the big house. He says it’s because the kitchen is better equipped, but really it comforts his heart.

We stride up a rise and then down a rutted path, littered with pieces of limestone that come up out of the ground like an animal’s shedding skin. The woods on the hill offer a canopy and, in the shade, the sweat dripping off my face onto my shoulders finally begins to dry.

Members of my husband’s family have walked this path for a very long time. The Beech Fork River forms the property’s west boundary. Over thousands of years, its seasonal flooding has created rich loamy bottomland topsoil, part of the inheritance the farm passes to each generation. John and Hank’s forebears were attracted to the region’s fertility and have been working the land here since the late 1700s.

If you move slowly enough, you can learn the farm’s history through your senses. Spot an arrowhead turned up in a tractor’s furrow. Smell on the wind the ancestors of the deer Hank sees watering at the river. Run your hand over a stone wall and feel the limestone chalk left on the clothes of the men, women and children who moved the rocks to clear the fields. Sit in the woods, uncover an old musket ball in the dirt, roll it in your fingers and among the dry leaves, hear the footfall of Civil War soldiers marching south. Smell a summer storm and feel assured a hundred times for all the people who waited for rain.

We walk quietly, Hank, John and me, and emerge from the woods. Fields open before us, 80 acres planted in crops that Hank tends each year then rotates. Tobacco stands tall and yellow, big-leaved and beautiful. Too beautiful maybe for such a difficult crop, what farmers here call “the noxious weed” because it ends up in cigarettes. At the same time, they call it “the golden leaf’ because historically it made enough money for people to hold onto their farms and send their children to college.

Hank has expanded his soybean crop and isn’t sure he’ll keep growing tobacco. He’s always had conflicted feelings about it; the market’s changed with the federal tobacco buy-out, and maybe it’s time to quit. As we slip among the tall, imposing plants, he mentions that, in a week, if the sunny weather holds, he and a team of helpers will begin cutting. It’s the way it is: the tobacco harvest often hits in a late summer swelter, and you’d swear everybody cutting the plants and heaving them onto a wagon is going to drop over dead from the heat.

The three of us walk on, past the corn, its stalks brown and wrinkled. And acres of soybeans, still green but hinting at yellow, the bean pods surprisingly hard and hairy. Hank says he saw a wild turkey with her chicks here a few days ago. As we move toward the river, its banks wooded and protected, the dry grass rustles under our feet and a red-tailed hawk screeches overhead. At the corner of the field, Hank points out a drainage tile, an old clay pipe installed a long time ago to help drain the field.

“Who put this in, Hank, do you know?”

He shrugs. “Maybe granddaddy. Maybe farther back than that.” He points to other places in the field where someone had dug and placed other tiles. He knows exactly where each one is located. I’ve learned over time, in fact, that he knows every inch of this farm. Every dip, every wet spot, every tree. This is the intimacy that has allowed generations of my husband’s family to tend this farm in a way that it has tended them back. After all this time, the soil remains fertile and the river runs clear.

Farms like this one have also passed an inheritance to those of us who have never farmed, protecting from development vast tracts of open land. But for the first time in more than 200 years, there are pressures these farms may not survive. John says that when he was a boy, you saw one or two house lights at night from the farm’s hills. Now there are dozens, as the suburbs press in, marching south in a rippling sprawl out of Louisville. A farmer can be tempted by the money. And while no one knows if climate change is causing this summer’s drought, people are nervous about it. One farmer says a spring that has offered water since his family can remember—back to the 1930s—has gone dry.

Jokes about planting banana trees and pineapple plants don’t assuage anyone’s disquietude. August in Kentucky is already so hot it can feel like your enemy. What happens if it gets even hotter—and these are the good old days?

After we check the crops, we turn to climb the hill back to the main house. Hank is ahead of us, moving through the tall grass in his measured way, lanky frame and blond hair golden in the slanting sun. Everything in its time, his walk seems to say, a slow and steady gait suited to covering the ground that he must each day.

As John and Hank walk up the hill, I hang back. The lowering sun casts a gold hue over the fields. The Beech Fork River looks like bends and loops of silver ribbon. Soon from neighboring hills will come the yipping and howling of coyotes.

In an hour, up at the main house, my husband and I will get in our car to head back to the city. Hank will stand in the yard, waving to us as we leave. His wave will be familiar and, like his walk, it will comfort me. But across his face, and my husband’s, rests a shadow of worry. The worry of Hank being alone, of changing land use patterns, of 103 degree days and disappearing rivers. The worry of a generation caught between a deeply rooted past and a future no longer tempered or certain.

A native of Connecticut, D. Cameron Lawrence is a writer and producer whose essays and features have appeared in The Washington Post, Health, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Hartford Courant, Notre Dame Magazine and NPR’s Kitchen Window. She is a recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

Editor’s Note: This essay was a finalist in the 2008 New Southerner Literary Contest.


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