Variations on an agricultural theme

BLUE shadows tinge contours in fields of unblemished snow. Trees stitch land to sky in the distant horizon, their branches attenuate to a filagree pattern stylized to echo the curves of landscape. Like weary travelers, their destination in sight, our eyes are drawn over these fields to the cluster of buildings. The tall silo, barn, out-buildings, and a house are weathered gray or dull red. Angularity is softened by a thick layer of white snow clinging to their roofs or buttressed high against their windward side. Smoke rises from the chimney of the house. Light can be seen in its windows, indicating life and warmth against the approaching night. My family had a lithograph of this scene when I was a child. It's a perennial theme portrayed in endless variations.

My father grew up in New York City, Mother, in a small town across the Hudson River in New Jersey. After marriage they lived in a small Jersey town, where my sister and I were born. Dad worked for an insurance company. I was about to enter high school when my father had a physical and emotional breakdown. After he recovered, he was unable to return to insurance, or the city.

It was for this reason that we bought a dairy farm in upstate New York. We had pored over catalogs of farm real estate. There were many farms for sale then. That was a clue. In our enthusiasm we ignored it. The catalogs had small pictures and captions: 60-acre dairy farm, hilltop meadow, woodlot, stream and pond; house with four bedrooms, spring-fed water, barn, milk house, woodshed; close to the village on unsur-faced road. The dreams we built on those indistinct pictures, those enchanting words! Throughout the Northeast small hill farms were going broke. We were not alone then, nor would we be now in our back-to-the-land illusions.

The farm was not like our lithograph nor any of the quaint pictures of farms I have seen since that time.

We bought a herd of cows and a team of horses, pigs, and chickens, and planted a garden. We learned to milk the cows, attend procreation and birth, and merged with the seasonal repetition common to all agricultural life. My sister and I boarded the bus after chores (helping milk the cows and clean the barn) to attend central school in town. We experienced life on a dairy farm for nearly five eventful years.

Illusions drove us, and the novelty of events. We made a pet of our first-born calf, against the advice of our neighboring farmer. She quickly matured into a high-spirited heifer and could not be kept behind a fence. One day I found her by the clothesline, the cuff of my only white shirt dangling out of her grass-slimed mouth. Her large, soft eyes returned none of the surprise nor other emotion I felt as I tugged my limp, wet garment back into existence. After washing, it bore the green-stained abrasions of her teeth and had to be abandoned.

There were moments when sheer force of imagination and the beauty of nature blunted and gave charm to the day-to-day subsistence of our lives. I feel, even now, the closeness of the blue sky as we were making hay in the high meadow. I had been reading Frost's poem ``The Tuft of Flowers'' at the time and did raise my chattering cutting bar to leave wildflowers standing, as my horse-drawn mower cut its swath beside the narrow brook that threaded through the meadow. Poetic moments came less and less frequently - then not at all.

Illusions were displaced by a narrowing sense of immutable reality. My father's illusions turned to frustration, seeing no alternative means of family support. Unending physical work was a severe challenge to a man who had worked many years at a desk. He found the scale of things daunting after suburban life and the cultivation of a small backyard garden. Learning new skills was not easy. I couldn't understand that at the time.

Under the spell of a popular book - ``The Egg and I,'' by Betty MacDonald - Mother's illusions were of the optimistic sort. She saw our experience through a cheerful, literary perspective, as the prelude to improvement. Yet with time even her cheer began to fail.

My sister's and my illusions resonated Mother's optimism and a spirit of adventure. I reveled in the physical work, quickly learning the myriad skills that skim the surface of the wisdom and commitment farming requires. I was eager to take on the responsibilities of a man's work. Time came when I resented the role grasped at so eagerly. A split developed between my father and me.

The day after graduation from the central high school I left the farm and hitchhiked to New York City.

Since leaving the farm, I've never milked a cow, harnessed, driven, nor shod a team of horses. I've never plowed a field or built, as I was meticulously taught, a wagonload of hay. ``Don't stand on the forkful you're tryin' to lift. Shingle it back,'' Dick, the old farmhand, instructed. He knew where every forkful was placed, so he could unload - without standing on the hay he was lifting. I have never thought to include these skills on my resum'e, they're vanishing techniques no longer marketable.

Although the farm experience seemed to have been - a word we use reluctantly - a failure, that was not its end. Though dreams and imagination are often dashed by what we call reality, they lead us where we could never go without their vision and promise. They guide us onto a dangerous, solitary battleground where the becoming of ourselves is accomplished.

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