Raking It In

I was only in second grade. Approximately. Dad was going to teach me how to rake hay. We were on the International Harvester McCormick model “M” and an old iron wheeled ground driven side delivery rake. He drove the first round and the second too if I remember right. I rode on the rear axle right by his side to get the directions on what to do and what not to do as we went around the forty acre patch. Literally the north forty. Well the northeast forty to be exact. It was a rectangular field that ran straight north of the building site and as wide as the building site if you include the small three acre pasture directly east and south of most of the buildings. The field ran up the highest hill on the farm then on north down to another lower hill then on north all the way to the farms north line fence most of the way back down to the bottom. There were a couple grassed waterways that crossed it and a row of three pear trees.

Dad raked around the outside and turned around by the entry gate and went back alongside the windrow of hay he had just raked up to double rake up a bigger row. After turning around and pointing it down the second double raked row to rake he slid off the seat onto the other rear axle with it still going and had me slide onto the seat. He road until the first corner and after I had negotiated it successfully he told me not to tip the tractor over running the rear tire up the trees. He further told me to look where I was going, not to look back to where I’d been and I would do just fine. Then he hopped of to the side as the tractor kept going with me at the wheel. It felt both scary and kind of good to be finally raking hay on my own. I had driven tractor pulling the hay rack for a few years by then but that was only steering straight down a row of bale in low gear while the brothers walked along side picking them up onto the hay rack.

Other than pulling hay racks and the harrow with the old John Deere “B” I had never been cut loose on a “real” tractor before. (The B could only push a two row cultivator, the M could push a “real” four row one) But if I wasn’t looking back I wouldn’t be me. If I wasn’t looking back I wouldn’t be writing this either. I wasn’t sure exactly where Dad had said to drive vis a vis the edge of the yet to be raked hay and it looked different from the drivers seat. So I was still loooking back when my rear wheel started to ride up “Dad’s Tree” up near the top of the hill. I couldn’t react fast enough to turn forward and push in the clutch with my foot. Fortunately at the last second, just as I thought I was a goner, the motor cut out and the front wheels slid over and there I sat. All jihad but back on the ground with both rear wheels. Once I got the motor started and was able to back up and renegotiate the tree I looked back one more time. Against advice.

Only to see Dad had turned from his spot under a shade tree where he’d obviously been watching me to walk lumberingly back towards the house yard. I can only imagine the terror he’d just been through. Maybe not at the time but as a man who’s raised a boy on this same farm I now know it is terror. But what else can you do, if you forbid the kid a chance to drive the tractor he will take it for a ride by himself when you’re not there. It’s best to teach them while you’re watching. I know I did. So how do I cut down an old dead tree like that? It has more history than some of the buildings around here. All the dead pines do. The two left in the yard I’ll have no choice as they become unstable and a threat to the house and it’s occupants. But I don’t think I’ll be able to cut down Dad’s tree. I may have to wait until it blows down in a storm.

I’ll let you know when that is.

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Dad’s Tree

He’d said that when he died he wanted to be buried under it. The reason being he had already ‘died’ under it one hot afternoon back in ’56. He had just finished cultivating the field and had parked under it to look out over the valley. The whole farm actually. And a good part of a few more. There’s a reason the hawks and eagles like to perch up there. It was an exceptionally hot windy day and I can conjure up my own memories of how nice the breeze feels up on that hill in the shade of that pine. I have done it too many times to count. It’s one of the main reasons I keep the headlands sown down to grass so it’s always easily accessible. It stops erosion dead in it’s tracks too. If that five acres is the difference between making it and not I’m cutting the deck far too thin to win.

I call it Dad’s tree. When I’m talking to those brothers and sisters that know the tale they know which tree I’m talking about. The summer of 1956 western Iowa suffered a severe drouth. That afternoon after Dad had stopped to cool himself under the shade of the pine tree up on the hill north of the building site by close to a quarter mile he said the corn below him on the bottom by the creek pasture turned white before his very eyes. He said he saw his own life as a farmer slipping away with it. As corn dies from lack of moisture it tries to save itself by rolling it’s leaves up tight to preserve the moisture in the corn plant. The waxy hairy underside of the leaves is a shade or two lighter in appearance than the shiny deep green leaf top. As it further withers away and dies the plant will lose all of it’s green tint gradually turning white. Once it’s white even a rain can’t bring it all the way back to where it would have been.

He dug the hill out between the upper barn and the house to form one wall of a pit silo and he hung a few strands of snow fence on poles to form the other wall. Then he neighbored with everybody on the road to cut the shriveled crop into corn silage. He bought some drouthy cattle and put them in the cattle yard to feed them the silage. After a couple weeks they seemed to be doing worse and becoming lethargic so he asked his father to come out to the farm and have a look at the cattle and give him some advice. Grandpa took one look at the silage and told Dad he was starving the cattle, there was no corn grain in the corn silage. Fortunately Dad had some of the season before’s corn crop still in ear corn form in the crib. Once Dad had added some of that to the ration the cattle turned around at the same time the cattle market turned around and Dad said he made more money than if he’d had a good corn crop.

Dad didn’t get his wish as to where he was buried. No one but me thought much of the idea and I’ve never followed through with my threat to move his body there secretly some night. But he did get to die with the old tree. The pine trees all gradually died and when Dad’s tree was dead Dad didn’t make it much further. It was like the Pines were acknowledging the old man’s passing by jumping on the band wagon as it went by. Or was that the dead wagon. As he withered they withered. They still stand almost as grand as the years before they died. His memory still stands as grand as ever as long as I’m here to recall it. I was able to sneak a small dead branch from Dad’s tree about six to twelve inches long into Dad’s coffin on top of his chest so in essence he was buried beneath it if only a part. If he never knows it will never matter. I have a gut feeling someday he will know and I hope he appreciates the gesture for what it was.

Sleep easy Old Man. I will man the trees.

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Pining On

Third base died from being girdled by all those clothes lines. We sawed it off right above the wires. That was when I was in high school. Sometime when I was gone the stump rotted off and was replaced with a post. One summer night in 1989 or 1990 during a thunderstorm the old walnut was hit by a bolt of lightning. I remember the storm because it hit in the middle of the night. While the lightning struck I swear I was elevated a foot above the bed I was laying in from the shear fear it instilled in me. The longest, loudest lightning strike I had ever experienced I thought it wasn’t going to end. I remember commenting on it to the stay at gone mom who only grumbled and went back to sleep. I only wished I’d looked out the window directly above my head and had seen the scene. It must have been one hell of a show.

In the morning the trees told the tale. According to the missing bark, lightning had traveled down the side of the old walnut in three streaks. When it had arrived at the number nine wire only one steak finished on into the ground. The other two streaks followed the wire around the triangle to the second base pine and the third base post then on down into the ground. The passing current had exploded the post, splitting it lengthwise into three or four sticks with the wire the only thing holding the upper end together. The longest wire to the east pine was no longer attached for lack of use when the lightning made it’s rounds, saving the eastern pine and possibly saving me from levitating completely away that night. I have often wondered if that is what ultimately led to second base’s demise. Or was it my nails?

I know pine trees were not indigenous to the area so their demise may have been predetermined upon planting them here. That aside they certainly flourished here for what had to be a long time given the girth and height of the trunks they’ve left behind. I’ve personally known them for over fifty years. Not counting the third base pine that we’d determined was killed by being wire girdled years earlier the second base pine was the first to show the symptoms of whatever killed the pine trees on this farm. The needles on the lower branches started to turn brown during the course of the year. At first I thought the culprit was a swing rope girdling the one branch so I sawed it off beyond where the swing was attached. Then the next one up showed the same symptoms.

Within a couple years the whole tree had succumbed to the browning needles. About that time the pine east of the house was starting to show brown needles on it’s lower branches. As was Dad’s tree up north on the hill by the headlands. Within a couple more years they were all dead. Today not a needle is left on any of the pine trees’ branches. Most of the trunks are missing bark. Owls and red tailed hawks still love to perch on the¬†trees’ upper bows¬† even without the needles and maybe because the needles are missing. Occasionally I’ll see a turkey vulture or two on the one up north on the hill in the field, aka Dad’s tree. Last winter a couple of bald eagles were spotted more than once using that often utilized perch. One snow white on it’s head the other not so white.

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