At Home for A Heavenly Harvest

I return each autumn to Iowa, to my parents' farm. I cannot miss its transformation. The air turns brisk. Field after field becomes barren. Black ground appears for the first time in three months. And I get to do what I love most in the fall: ride the combine at night.

To have never combined underneath the stars is like never having attended a musical or a ballet. The night combine lures me - a farmer's daughter living in New York City - into a once-a-year performance. It not only pulls me into an enchanting nocturnal realm, it twists me back into my preferred world of farming.

I look forward to saying "hey" to people I've always known when I bump into them at the Chrome cafe; to catching talk about yields, moisture content, and prices; and even to taking guff from my neighbor Dean about my seeming-destined spinsterhood.

When I was 4 or 5, my mother would drive me out to the field where Dean was combining. I'd crawl up the ladder of the snubbed-nose tractor with its mammoth fork tines - the snoot - jutting out in front. Like tusks of an elephant, I had thought. All afternoon I rode with him, round after round in the sea of straggly stalks.

Only a few years ago did I venture for the first time on a combine at night. I never thought to do so when I lived at home, but, as I was no longer surrounded by space, views 10 miles deep, and pragmatic farmers, I wanted to.

I wanted to capture what I hadn't known, take part again in a ritual that set the small group of farmers apart from everyone else. Harvesters of the world's food. While I was home from the city for a visit, my mother and father dropped me off at the edge of one of their cornfields, and I waited for Marv. Retired from a seed-corn company, he ran a combine in the fall - a part-time job he loved.

It was 9 o'clock. The combine's headlights bored a tunnel through the darkness, and I ran out to flag him down. The tires were as tall as I was. I climbed up the machine and slid onto a miniature seat next to Marv's. A plaid flannel shirt kept his plump belly snapped in. The seats sat 10 feet off the ground, and the front end was flat like a city bus: I could see straight down into the field.

The combine's snoot glided in between the flagging rows of corn - what every farmer worked toward the whole year. Marv and I rode high above the dry stalks that reminded me of scarecrows. Surrounded by darkness, I sat alert, taking it all in.

The wheels jostled over uneven ground, shaking the machine, Marv, and me. With seeming ease and secrecy - since much of the work is performed inside the machine - the combine's snapping rollers broke off the corn, whirled it into the machine, magically separated grain from ear and plant, and sorted out the chaff.

Out of nowhere, a tractor pulling a chaser wagon drove up beside us. Marv flipped a switch, and the unloading auger, a long pipe that looked like an upside down toothbrush, swung to the side. He hit another button, and shelled corn rushed into the wagon - while he maintained a high speed. Marv didn't think to slow down. "Wastes time," he told me. He made it look easy.

AFTER several rotations, he let me out. The performance had ended, the curtains closed. I opened the cab's door and breathed in the mixture of diesel fumes, dried-out husks, and chilled air: the harvest's sweat, the smells of my home. I felt privileged to have been raised on a farm, to know farmers like Marv, and to have access to one of the oldest of all professions. Somewhere in the darkness, a grain-drying bin hummed.

My mother had said, "You'll never forget it," and I haven't. Those evenings are tucked away in a pocket that I escape to from time to time in New York City. I smell the dirt, I see the stars, I hear a chaser wagon clattering down the road. Bring on the harvest. Behold the farmer, the combine at night.

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