The heart of a dairy farm may be in the barn, but the soul is in the soil, and my ego is grounded in both. Status of a farm boy is embodied in chores, and mine included duties inside and outside our barn. Rites of passage became new chores requiring greater skill and more responsibility.
NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.
My dad was a dirt farmer. I say that with pride of the narrow meaning of the term: a man who farms his own soil, land he owns. That was a big deal in our family. Mom and dad only bought that farm a year or so before I was born. Before that, they were share croppers.
I never knew my Grandpa Barnes because he died when Dad was about fifteen. Being one of the younger children of a family of twelve, my dad went to live with older siblings until he was old enough to find a job as a hired man, a young man working on a farm for room and board plus a few dollars. It was many years before a WWII need for farmers provided opportunities for sharecroppers to buy farms with little money down.
Dad never let go of that land. He was still spending summers there and working on the farm when he was seventy-eight. One brother lives in the house and our other brother and I help out a little every summer. There is a spiritual umbilical cord none of us wishes to cut.
We grew up in that barn and on that land—we might as well grow old there, too. We learned to work, to take care of livestock, to till the land, and to care for each other on that farm. One fear I have never had is the thought of being homeless. And, when I think about how I became me, I think about that farm.
It was a proud moment the day I graduated from scraping the barn to sweeping it. Scraping then became the chore of the younger boy my mom cared for during the day while his widowed mother worked. I was no longer the baby. Soon, the two of us could scrape, sweep, and lime the barn. There is real pride in viewing a clean barn aisle you created.
I carried a soup can with kerosene through the garden, one of my earliest memories. My job was picking the potato bugs off our potato plants and dropping them into the can. Killing is a part of gardening, a part of farming, and I gave no thought to it. It was my job.
Planting was more fun. Mom would hoe a small fresh hole in the soil Dad had tilled, and I would drop in the seeds. We planted a lot of garden that way and I never tired of it. Many years later I did the same with my daughters. Once when they were teenagers, I kept them both busy at the same time running the hoe—a two row planter.
To this day soil calls me. I hurry home to our land in the north woods to plant garden in spring. It isn’t for the harvest, because we frequently leave before the season, but for the planting. It’s funny how those childhood things remain so important so long.
But, they were important. We lived on the products of that barn and garden. It was survival, but it was so much more. It was security and comfort and reality. When I was young, it was all I knew. When we wanted popcorn, we went to the back room and got some ears of popcorn, shelled them into a pan, winnowed them in the breeze on our porch, and then went to the stove. And before we could get that popcorn from the back room, we had to till the soil, plant the seeds, hoe the weeds, pick the corn, and dry, husk, and store it.
It was the same with almost everything we ate. Even the apples and peaches we bought were canned or pickled for winter. Maybe it seems like such a life is tenuous or even dangerous, depending upon your own hands to grow your own food, but I see the opposite. It is freedom: freedom from want, freedom from fear of scarcity, and freedom from dependence upon uncertain times.
Yes, I think that has a lot to do with my view of the world. “A country boy can survive.”
If he has land. And family. That is security.
I find no wonder that people without land and family get scared and angry, get mean and crazy. Especially when they cannot work to earn money to buy food they cannot hunt or grow. My heart and soul have never had to live that fear. I was a lucky boy.