I always am struck by the abruptly early daybreaks of May in a slightly absurd way. I feel I am seeing it for the first time. This is absurd because I am sixty-six years old, and logic tells me I have seen it many times before. But perhaps it is made wonderful because northern winters are so lasting, and their nights are so long, and their sunrises are so late, that one especially appreciates the sun so suddenly arising so early. At northern latitudes days get longer with astonishing speed; one week you are driving to work with your headlights on, and a week later you don’t need to turn them on. The transformation is so abrupt that it is hard to be jaded about it. Even an old codger like myself displays a little bit of the wonder children have every day all year.
If your livelihood has anything to do with vegetation, (formerly this involved farming, but now it tends to involve being a “landscaper” and cutting grass), then, hand in hand with the wonder of the abruptly longer days, one is hit by a frenzy, because the same frenzy is felt by vegetation.
Northern plants are very wise, considering they lack brains. They know the growing season is short, and their growth is explosive. Even a non-native plant, transplanted north, demonstrates explosive growth. I once knew a oil worker who had the whim to grow cabbage on the north slope of Alaska. He scraped together a small square of thawed muck from a section of permafrost, planted some cabbage seeds, and then was astounded by how swiftly he had full heads of cabbages. Cabbage is not native to Alaska, but it apparently does well when the sun shines 24 hours a day.
Northern people who deal with plants are made frenetic because they have to deal with frenetic plants. I call it “Farmers Frenzy”, though I have seen it in rich ladies who want to grow roses. It is a state of mind between ordinary ambition and total panic. The northern sunshine seems to state, “Plant now, or forever hold your peace.”
Back in my days as a drifter I once met a fellow-drifter, an old Kansas farmer who, most of the year, was a garrulous old coot who told great tales but preferred the retirement of being a bum to the hard work of farming.
The old farmer deserves more than this synopsis, and I hope to someday write a longer version of this brief biography: He was a fellow who had paid his dues. He had done so in two ways. First, he grew up during the Dust Bowl, part of a tough, tenacious farming-family that refused to let the bank foreclose on their land. Then, as his brothers all gained glory by going off to fight in World War Two, he got stuck back on the farm in Kansas, growing the food that fed the nation. Somewhat accidentally, he made a fortune, but I think he was a little ashamed of making money as his brothers fought fascism. In any case, once his six children were raised, he lost interest in growing wheat, and became a drifter. Likely he was a cause of concern to his family, but he was a blessing to me, because he told the truth about what the Dust Bowl was like. (The media, in calling our current times “the hottest ever”, obviously never took the time to interview such farmers, or to study the temperature records of the 1930’s.)
I knew the fellow for roughly 40 months, and for the most part he was very disinterested in farming, beyond farming being a subject for his reminiscences. In the present tense, he was interested in his retirement. But I did witness him during three springs, and each spring, against his will (it seemed to me) he was hit by Farmer Frenzy. In a situation where, as a drifter, he had no tractor, no seed, and no land, he paced and fretted midst a peculiar urgency, his eyes roaming over the landscape in a hungering way.
For example, on one occasion I saw the old coot, about five-foot-five, take a bunch of far larger Navajo to task. Quite out of the blue he berated their sloth, like a sergeant jawing privates, and stated they should get off their butts and start plowing up some nearby desert sand and plant wheat. The Navajo laughed at him, stating the sand was so dry it couldn’t grow cactus, but he stated the sand was wetter than the dust his family had raised wheat upon in Kansas, during the Dust Bowl, and he then went on to state some rude things about the industry of the Navajo. I cringed, and judged the Kansas fellow’s life-expectancy would be swiftly shortened, but rather than killing the old farmer, the Navajo found him entertaining.
What I took from this experience is that “Farmer Frenzy” is a very real thing, but a thing which one needs to take pains to tame.
On the other hand, “Farmer Frenzy” can be a good thing. It produced the wheat, during World War Two, that defeated Hitler. Yes, guns were important, and troops were important, but if those troops were not fed the guns would have been useless. Kansas farmers deserve credit. Maybe even a monument.
Now I am the age that old farmer was, when I met him on the roadside in 1985, and I remember him as I see myself now experiencing a touch of Farmer Frenzy.
DOUBLE-SONNET: LONGEST DAYS
The sixty longest days are like treasure
Slipping through my fingers. My greed can’t grip
These mercies no man’s muscles can measure
With his farming, though he resolves to whip
Every bean and radish to suck up sunshine,
To command corn to bask in every ray,
Demand bumpers make reaping a fun time,
And stays awake all hours of each long day,
And scorns vacations, snubs all thought of leisure,
Sternly seeks to seize the moment’s value;
To with miser-fingers fondle treasure;
To tell the summer, “I’ll corral you”,
Too soon it passes, like lovely lasses
Getting old, and makes us wind up asses.
But this year I’ll be different. I’ll work
As hard in the hot summer days, but I’ll
Not be such a crab, nor be such a jerk,
And I’ll greet every ache with a smile.
I’ll not care so much about the weighed results
Nor rue the way time goes scooting by.
Even if my harvest is but insults
I’ll give my new philosophy a try.
You see, it seems to me I’ve been too prone
To seeing harvest as a sort of cement.
I wished to freeze joy, make her be my own,
But then I groaned and wondered where joy went.
Now I’m content to watch summer slip by.
My days too grow short. Where joy goes, go I.