THE small American farm is disappearing, undermined by an increasingly technological society. Many Americans have forgotten what it means to work the land to survive, and the pleasure and tribulation in that experience.
In "Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass," Gary Paulsen poetically captures this way of life, so common only 50 years ago. He illustrates the beauty of farm life but manages not to idealize it. Paulsen describes farming at its best and worst - from the relief of finally bringing in the crops to the tragedy of farming accidents. Through his descriptions of ceaseless labor, he conveys a feeling of goodness and simplicity that gives readers an appreciation of sun, sweat, earth, and the satisfaction of doing a good day's work.
Complementing his writing are eight oil paintings by his wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, which add color and warmth to the pages.
The book is divided into sections corresponding with the four seasons. Paulsen begins with "Spring": "Calves come early in the spring.... An air, a new air would be in the barn, coming out, a new air of life," he writes. With the new season, the work commences: plowing, disc harrowing until the earth is "crumbled and rich like loamy black cake batter," then planting, and waiting. The farmer is exhausted, but Paulsen shows it is a contented tiredness.
The arrival of summer marks the start of the real labor, he says: "Milking, chores until eleven, midnight, then up at two-thirty to hook the horses to the old wooden-wheeled seed drill."
Paulsen, who is best known for his award-winning children's books, writes with texture and solidity, yet his prose is light and flowing. He describes with intensity the farmer's tired muscles, thirst, and the heat of the kitchen during canning. The descriptions of droning machinery and the humidity of high summer are balanced with scenes of swimming in the creek, tasting the first berries, and occasional dancing in town on Saturday nights.
The ever-full days now build toward fall harvest. Now more than ever, the farmer waits and hopes for good weather, because "if this fails then everything for the spring and summer is for nothing," Paulsen writes. The threshing and gathering begin, and the farming community labors together, moving from farm to farm to get all the work done.
Each day ends with a huge feast of bread, potatoes, and pies, barely devoured before the next day's work in the field and kitchen. Women, men, and children - old and young - push toward the day when crops will be in, the fruit and vegetables canned, and the food set aside for the farm animals. As the weather cools, there is a feeling of urgency to keep enough jars filled, meat preserved, and corn in the silage pit for the months ahead.
"Winter is a time for the farm to rest ... for the soil to lie beneath the snow and ice and get ready for the next year," he says. He describes the short lull: Bodies and minds rest, gathering strength for the spring. There is time for sitting by the fire while stories are told, time for snowball fights, and for the jars of meat and preserves to be opened. The work is still not done, though: Farmers often cut wood to sell to paper mills, because selling their crops doesn't provide enough money for machine parts, Christmas presents, or school clothes.
The prose is realistic and down-to-earth, completely involving the reader with the smell, taste, and feel of the American farm. Ruth Wright Paulsen's paintings are an invitation to pause and imagine the green lushness of summer, the cool excitement of skinny-dipping in the creek, and the warmth of a barn full of hay and cows. Ethereal yet earthy, "Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass" is a delight. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30131.