The Farmer at Eight-Eight
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
It’s cold. The ground is frozen now. A light snow has dusted it, which shall be some moisture if the weather relents and lets it melt before it simply evaporates. It’s winter, now, after a terrible season of heat and drought. Scientists surmise that we ourselves may be responsible for the enmity of the weather, that we have unbalanced its delicate, interdependent elements, the ordered exchange of energies. They suggest that headlong technology creates a waste, which the environment cannot process.
I am no scientist. I attend to the spirit of the people rather more than to their engineering skills, mechanical expertise. I weight and evaluate the spirit rather better than I can empirical phenomena.
Nevertheless, to the scientist, sadly I say, “Yes. It is possible.” Possible, and given the power, it is likely. The spirit of this race is fully capable of the sin that does not love its own environment, but makes of itself a god to be satisfied, and makes of the earth a sacrifice the gods devour. The spirit of this races is well able to justify the slaughter—first because it doesn’t confess that the earth is alive, so there was no slaughter in the first place second because it has made a morality of its economics, has made of its money a summon bonum, and is more concerned for the healthy flow of cash than the healthy, regenerative flow of rivers and streams.
The race, did I say? No, not all of the race. Those presently in power, perhaps but not everyone lacks humility and reverence. Therein is hope.
Chief Seattle might have laughed at the thought that anyone could buy or sell the earth. But because the fool who thought so also had the power to enforce his folly, Chief Seattle didn’t laugh. Rather, he grieved. And he wrote a letter.
He wrote: “If we sell you our land, you must keep it sacred, a place where even the white man can taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.” Did anyone who read his letter suppose that Chief Seattle was being merely poetical? Romantic, maybe? Irrelevant, surely, to the harder facts of life.
He wrote: “This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. You must teach your children that it is sacred. If we sell you our land, you must teach your children that the rivers are your brothers, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.” Does anyone who reads his letter today suppose that Chief Seattle is speaking merely symbolically? That his notions are primitive? That they are suspect, moreover, because they sound distinctly pagan? Does the following sound pagan—or anything but spiritually righteous and pragmatically self-evident?
He wrote: “The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth”—befalls the children of Adam, whose very name remembers that from which he was made: clay, dirt, soil, earth, ground. “If men spit on the earth,” wrote Chief Seattle of the Duwamish League of Puget Sound in 1854 to the United States Government in the Ease, “they spit on themselves. All things are connected.”
And what shall I say? That his prophecy frightens me?
I will say: His grieving gives me hope.
But what shall I say? That he lived too long ago? That his insights are estranged from us, being the vision of an Indian, another race, an alien and defeated nation?
No. I will say: The vision is living still, even in those who are near to me, yes, intimate to me and thee.
Therein is hope.
All the hot, dry summer long I’ve thought of my father-in-law, who was a farmer until he retired, who never owned the land he worked but who loved it. The soil was holy, and he knew it.
My wife remembers her childhood, when her father plowed behind two draft horses. They were steady beasts with hooves the size of her head. It frightened the little girl to lead them to water, to walk between these engines of bone and rolling hide, because the quicker she ran, the faster they took their giant strides, and she feared she couldn’t stop them when they came to the trough, however loud she shrieked.
But her father commanded them mutely and absolutely—a gesture, a cluck, a tap of the bridle. Silent farmer. Silent, stolid horses. He used them still when neighbors were driving tractors. They were a living companionable power. His was a holy union with them, and he knew it.
Martin Bohlmann was born with the century. He’s eighty-eight years old.
Horses pulled his mower. There was a time when horses pulled the rake that laid the alfalfa in windrows to dry—and then his fields were drawn in long, strong lines of a darker green, like emotion in an ancient face.
When the hay was dry, the horses pulled a flat wagon slowly down the windrows, and one man forked the hay to another standing on the wagon. The second man caught the bundles neatly with his won fork and flicked them down into an intricate cross-arrangement, building a pile of hay and climbing his work as he did, building the pile so tight, so high, hat when the horses pulled the wagon to the barn, the man on his haystack could stare dead-level into the second-story windows of the farmhouse.
Horses pulled the rope that, over a metal wheel, hoisted hay to the barn loft. They made hayricks of the overflow and covered the ricks with tarpaulins staked to the ground, or else they thatched the tops of the ricks. The work caused a dust, and the dust caused a fearful itch and put grit in his teeth on a sweating summer’s day. But the work and the hay—the fodder for fall and the winter to come—were holy. Martin Bohlmann knew that.
He milked the cows before sunrise. There was time when he sat on a stool with his cheek against a warm flank in the winter and the scent in his nostrils was richer than soil, was pungent with the life of beasts; and he heard, in the caverns of the cow, wind, the deeper roaring of her breathing. The cow would swing her head around to gaze at him with one brown eye, luxuriant lashes. He pinched the teats in the joint of his thumb and squeezed with the rest of his hand: a ringing spritz hit the pail between his feet. Then tug by tub, with needle-shots of a blue-white milk, he filled the pail, and the sound of squirts was plunking. Sometimes he aimed a squirt at the cat who lived in the barn. Then he rose and sloshed the milk from pail to can. Then he carried the cans outside.
The winter air had a marvelous bite after the warmth of the barn. The farmer’s boots would squeak on the snow as he lugged full cans to the milk house. The dawn was grey at the eastern horizon, so the sky seemed huge and deep, and the white earth ghostly still. Crack went the ice in the distance. Crack when the great limbs of the trees. Someone might say that the farmer alone in his yard must be lonely—by he wasn’t. His boots still steamed and smelled of manure, and his cheek kept the scent of the cattle’s flank. These things attend him unconsciously. The milk and the work and the morning—all were holy. Martin Bohlmann knew this.
At eighty-eight he doesn’t talk much, nor did he ever. He gives his weight to a cane when he walks abroad theses days. One of his eyes is blind, so it wanders sideways seeing nothing, or seeing invisible things. His hair is cantankerous, stubborn, unrepentant his eyebrows are thick as briars; his nose is a plowshare; he is old, my father-in-law, and almost as mute with me as he was with his horses. But his spirit knows the holiness of God’s creation, and though he doesn’t say it, I can see it in that single sighted eye and in the stop with which he walks a field: This farmer stands upon the earth with reverence.
Reverence: he gives honor to God who first gave earth to him, and him unto the earth, to keep it.
Reverence: that precisely is the stance I saw some twenty-one-years ago when I found him alone on an early summer’s eve in a field of seedling corn. He did not know I was there. He stood stock-still beneath a deepening amethyst sky, his hands inside the bib of his overalls, elbows folded like wings at this sides, his one-eyed gaze gone roaming over the corn to the far horizon. For thirty minutes I watched him watch the earth, in mute communion, until he grew into a solitary figure, black and motionless on the land. Humbly he loved what he was looking at. He, with the Lord and the soil, stood in a steadfast union. All was holy. And when I beheld this farmer’s reverence, I knew the holiness too.
This summer past I’ve thought about my father-in-law. He and the farmers like him are my hope. They preserve in their very beings the truth that we, in sinful ignorance, have forgotten: that we belong to the earth, and the earth belongs to God. These are holy and living dependencies, as necessary as blood to flesh, as intimate as Martin Bohlmann and his horses. Surely I don’t suppose that we shall live by the horse again; but I plead that we live on this earth with reverence.
Or what do we think it means that God gave us “dominion” over creation? That we possess it? That we can bend it to our own desires? That the earth is no more than a resource by which we support and satisfy ourselves? No! In the beginning, because we were created in God’s image, our dominion was meant to image God’s sovereignty over creation, God’s personal and complete dominion, not our own. We were God’s emblem within the universe, God’s signature upon the work he had accomplished and then called “Good,” God’s stewards here below. We were placed here to serve God by serving the earth and so to be served by it. These are the intended relationships by the Lord of all. This is righteousness.
The earth is alive: thus Chief Seattle, Indian.
The living earth is holy: thus Martin Bohlmann, farmer.
And by his reverential stance the farmer calls again for honor to God and kindness to creation, that we dress and till and keep it rightly.
Look: we’ve shocked the earth by our colossal selfishness; and then when it fails in its rhythms, we are inconvenienced. But the farmer grieves. He looks at the heat and the drought as symptoms: a living, beloved thing is sickening.
Chief Seattle is dead.
Martin Bohlmann gazes across the fields that he kept for God for a while, and his single eye is sad.