Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Pedal Perfect

 Late September is the superb time of year in the north, the time of color, harvest, apples, rich green grass under the lights on the football field, and crisp air morning and evening. 


Next week the sun will set directly at the end of the roads going west. Autumnal Equinox. The glare will strike you blind at about 6:45 p.m. Don't say you weren't warned. And look out for deer!


One pleasure seems unique to this season: It can be so breezelessly still and quiet in the cool of the mornings and evenings that you can hear for miles. 


One sunset last week, I rode bike out on the tar. No breeze. I pedaled as slowly as I could without falling over. One car came by in 45 minutes as the sun set. 


Crickets of all kinds oscillated in the ditch. A mile to the north, I heard my swans, who were forced to leave my pond for lack of water, flap and honk in their new home. 


As I passed Erickson Lake, our unofficial name for a forty-acre swamp on the DNR land across the road, a hoot owl cooed in the woods. 


The slightest breeze would have obscured most of the animal sounds. But in the stillness, the owl's hoot fanned out across the glassy water and dissolved like the last note of a hymn in a cathedral. 


Doves flew from the electric lines, their wings squeaking. A handful of ducks rose up out of the reeds in the ditch, whaaaack, whaaaack, whaaaack. Made me jump. 


So enamored was I with the scene that I got up before sunrise the next morning, jumped on the bike and got back on the tar to hear the morning sounds, too. 


Cattle ballered two miles to the east. The trumpeter swans ballered back from a mile away, in the same key. Possibly the cattle fooled the swans into thinking they had friends over the hill. Their ballering isn't that different. 


In a stubble field, some Sandhill cranes croaked their rubbery croaks. When they fly over, they look like tinker toy teradactyls. Stop to think of it, their ratchety croak sounds just like if you twist a tinker toy stick hard into one of those spools.  


No crickets on the morning ride. Must have been too damp. But as the sun rose, patches of fog settled in the ditch and quickly burned off. 


It is possible to enjoy all of this nature for one unnatural reason: Pavement. The tar road allows me to coast slowly on the bike, swooping back and forth between the yellow lines, lost in a perfectly idle idyll, silent but for an occasional pebble popping off from the side of the tire like a flicked marble. 


We're lucky in rural northwestern Minnesota: We have nice roads, most of which don't go anywhere important, so they aren't very busy. 


On these still autumn evenings, sound carries. You can hear a car coming from four miles off, which gives you time to hide in the ditch if you don't want to be noticed. 


I could walk down the road, but that's work. And even the little noises of walking can obscure nature's sounds and scare away the wildlife.


Biking real slow is ideal. It is effortless. And I have done it all of my life. Or at least since they tarred the road past the farm in 1976. 


People used to litter more than they do. For selfish reasons, I brought a garbage bag along on bike rides to collect aluminum and tin cans. The cans were going to make me rich, but I never got around to turning them in. 


The highlight of my collecting career came when I found an unopened can of Hamm's beer in the ditch. I had not yet tasted beer. Oh, the temptation. 


I pulled off the tab. Beer foamed all over me and stunk to high heaven and I thought it must be old. 


It wasn't old. It was just warm beer. Today, the smell would make me thirsty. Strange how that works. 


But one thing hasn't changed: my zest for riding bike real slow on the tar road on these rich, still fall evenings. 


After sunset, the air feels like cold clear water as you pedal home in the descending dark. When I step back in the house, it feels warm and cozy. Not hot chocolate cozy, but maybe warm cider cozy. 


The fly in the ointment? These gnats! They are everywhere! Is there a dead animal somewhere in the house where they breed? 


Am I the only one? Or is this just the indoor price we pay for the outdoor perfection of late September? 

 

Purslane

 The bane of gardeners, purslane is the most common and persistent weed afloat. 


The flat little succulent turns over easily with a hoe. Once uprooted, purslane lies there as helpless as an overturned turtle. 


Don't be fooled. Don't declare victory. The battle against purslane has just begin. 


Throw it out in the lawn. Mow over the wilting, uprooted plant. Purslane will simply use the mower experience to divide and replant itself. 


If you succeed in killing a single purslane plant, biologists have found, it will likely have already produced over 200,000 seeds the size of a grain of sand. The seeds remain viable in the ground for up to forty years, waiting for the right time to germinate. 


The right time comes when a seed finds itself at the surface of newly-crusted soil after a rain. 


A few days after tilled ground crusts, get down on your hands and knees and put your eye at ground level. You will detect an aura of pink given off by the millions of freshly germinated, barely visible purslane. 


Purslane is an annual. Frost kills them all. But billions of seeds remain, ready for next year. Or the next. Or forty years from now.


As purslane matures, it develops green, rubbery leaves. The stems mature to a deep red. It thrives in wet, it thrives in dry, hot or cool, shade and sun.



Last week was peak garden season. I grazed veggies planted by others. You want to leave the first few tomatoes for the actual gardener, but after that, nobody notices a few missing. 


Tomatoes, ground cherries, green peppers. A good raw breakfast. Or snack. Or dinner. Corn on the cob only requires a little boiling water and a stick of butter to be a meal unto itself. 


To get at the veggies, I trampled down a lot of purslane. 


Enthused by fresh vegetables, I picked up the book Food Rules by Michael Pollan. 


Pollan is a journalist who decided to get to the bottom of all the seemingly contradictory nutrition studies that tell us to eat fat, then not to eat fat, to eat spaghetti, then not to eat spaghetti. 


After years of study, Pollan came up with a list of simple rules upon which all nutritionists agree. 


Eat your greens. Eat small servings. Eat less meat. Eat more veggies and cook them less. Don't eat processed foods. Dark bread, not white. Grass-fed meat, not corn. 


About mid-way through the book, one paragraph grabbed my attention: One of the most nutritious vegetables in the world, Pollan said, almost in passing, is...purslane. 


Yes, the weed I trod down in the garden to get at the tomatoes is more healthy than the tomatoes. It is not even close. 


Purslane, it turns out, is a wonder vegetable. 


Do you take fish oil capsules to get your Omega 3 fatty acids? Eat purslane instead. Our creeping little weed has more Omega 3s than any edible plant ever tested. 


Purslane contains more iron and calcium than chard, many times more beta carotene than carrots, many times more Vitamin E than spinach, and 10 to 20 times more of the cancer-fighting antioxidant melatonin than any other plant. 


Skeptical of the taste, I decided to cook some up. I picked a few plants, rinsed off the soil, chopped them up and threw the results in an omlette. 


Delicious! Tangy. Firm and crunchy, even when cooked. Spinach without the slime and grit. 


So why don't humans gobble up this wonder plant? 


They did, and they do. We've just forgotten it in this part of the world. 


Thoreau ate purslane and declared it a complete and delicious meal. Hippocrates used it as a medicine. The Greeks and Romans used it as a staple. 


Pre-historic tribes in the desert southwest dried purslane leaves and stems for future use, and actually collected the tiny seeds to grind up into flour. 


Travel to the Mediterranean today and you are likely to encounter purslane in a salad, or at a farmer's market. For a premium price! 


So, I now have a new profession. I am a purslane picker. In the past week, I have proven that in the space of one hour, you can pick a 13-gallon garbage bag full of the stuff, rinse it off three times, cut it up, grind it in the food processor and pack away about 25 baggies full in the freezer. 


All through the winter (at least this is the plan) I am going to sprinkle pureed purslane on whatever dish I make. 


Thanks to this fully legal, fully edible wonder weed, I plan to live long and prosper. 













 

Lottery winnings

 What would you do if you won a billion dollars in the lottery? 


Although I don't play the lottery, the dream of unlimited wealth sometimes bounces around in my head as I drive across the prairie or try to fall asleep after too much coffee. 


First priority: Buy the Twins. Fire the competent but uninspired Gardenhire. Hire Ozzie Guillen. Bring up the spectacular young talent from the minors and let them learn on the job. 


Turn off the loud music at the games. Get rid of the contrived cheers led by the massive screens. Let the game proceed in an old, lazy, summer rhythm. 


No racing mascots between innings. No kiss cam. No AC/DC interludes to introduce Justin Morneau, especially when he's hitting like Emmy Lou Harris. 


Oh, and I will be the public address announcer.  Just because I can. You want to argue with me? I have a billion dollars, I can do whatever I want. And I have wanted that job since I realized I would never play third base. 


Another dream: Drive around the countryside and buy every old tractor with a for-sale sign on it. Every one. Build a massive building on the order of a hangar for the space shuttle to hold them all. 


Have company over for BBQ and take them out to the hangar to look over the tractors. 


A little more offbeat: Buy up farm land and plant trees in rows that spell out messages which can only be seen from space, or from jets passing overhead. 


Test the limits of freedom of speech. Spell out a controversial message with rows of poplar and see just who would try to shut you up with a lawsuit. NASA? The airlines? 


Why not have a semi-trailer open its endgate and dump 5,000 basketballs on the top of a long hill in a rocky gulch during rush hour somewhere in California? Video the results. 


A more serious dream, but probably not: 


I love pipe organs. Always have. In Minneapolis, one of the world's great pipe organs, a Kimball built for the old Minneapolis Auditorium in 1928, sits in storage. 


When the Auditorium was destroyed in 1987, an organization tried to save the organ and install it in the new convention center. 


Experts figured the cost of moving the organ would run into the millions, but one bidder came in very low and he was given the job. 


The company took the down payment, spent it in a dubious manner, and disappeared from the scene. 


The organ was disassembled and moved to the chambers built for it in the Minneapolis Convention Center, several train cars worth of pipes and blowers sitting in silence. 


Somebody with lottery money is needed to provide the millions necessary to make the monster roar again as it did in the 1920s, before the invention of big speakers made loud music cheap. 


With a billion in the bank, I would come to the rescue of the old Kimball. However, I would move it north and set it up in the same hangar I build for the tractors. 


Pipe organ concerts amongst old tractors? 


When you have a billion dollars, you can do whatever you want. 


Of course, none of these whimsical dreams do anything to improve the lot of humanity, which is what the better billionaires try to do with their money. 


Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, billionaires dozens of times over, devote more and more of their time and cash every year to help those less fortunate. 


So, what charity would I support with my billion dollars? 


Andrew Carnegie built hundreds of libraries, but I wouldn't build a thing, I would just save what we have. 


My dream would be to save and restore every old country church that's still standing. 


That might sound like a waste of money, but these old country churches were put up with the sweat and tears of our immigrant ancestors. They have soul. 


The primary structures popping up in the countryside right now are steel farm buildings which store new tractors. Oddly, the steel buildings are starting to sprout a few architectural niceties, like cupolas, but that is like putting lipstick on a pig. 


By preserving the old churches––and the old town halls, too, while we're at it––we would pay tribute to the hardworking immigrants who filled the prairie 100 years ago, determined to build a new society.


The beauty of their public buildings showed that even during their back-breaking labors, the impoverished newcomers maintained a taste for the finer things in life.


They didn't wait to win the lottery before they did something good. 




 

Tuile

 You know how when you bake a pizza and some of the cheese falls off and gets burnt to the tray and how if you scrape the burnt cheese off it is the best part? 


Well, French chefs create that burnt cheese deliberately. They sprinkle grated cheese on a pan with a little butter and take a propane torch to it until it gets nice and burnt. 


Then they scrape the burnt stuff off in the form of hard little crackers which they use to garnish other dishes. 


The result is "tuile," (pronounced "tweel") which is a French word for "shingle." 


I first experienced tuile last week at the HoDo restaurant in Fargo when I ordered carrot cake. 


In this case, the cake came with what looked like a piece of crumpled cellophane on top. 


When I sampled the cellophane, it brought back a memory of childhood, a memory so specific that I had to sit there and look at the ceiling for a while to identify it. 


The tuile was made of sugar burnt by a torch and scraped off in crinkled little caramelized chips. And it brought back a memory, if only I could think of what memory. 


Was it of the burnt sugar on the edge of the pan when neighbor Mildred made caramel rolls? I was getting close, but that wasn't it. 


Neighbors. Childhood. Burnt sugar. It was a pleasant memory. In the fall. A special event or something. I sat at the HoDo bar, ignoring the carrot cake, savoring the tuile, staring at the ceiling, paging through the folds of my brain. 


Boom! I had it. The tuile was the exact flavor of neighbor Mabel Nelson's popcorn balls which she made only for Halloween. Last time I ate one was  Halloween of 1976, a few months before Mabel passed away. 


Every now and then as you worked your way through Mabel's popcorn balls, you would come across a spot of burnt sugar and that was the highlight of the whole thing. 


I can imagine the blank stare I would have gotten from dear old Mabel if I had told her I liked her tuile. 


If I watched those food shows in cable, I probably would have known all about tuile already. As it was, I called the pastry chef out at the HoDo and asked her how she made the tuile. 


Armed with the correct spelling, I took out my phone and looked tuile up on Wikipedia. 


Mabel Nelson did not invent tuile, nor did she get credit for her popcorn balls, but it was good to know that I sampled tuile thirty-seven years before it appeared at the HoDo. 


Many great foods are the product of accidents which somebody tasted and liked enough to recreate the accident. 


Thomas Jefferson's favorite libation, madeira, was discovered after several casks of wine sat in the hold of a Portuguese ship for well over a year as the ship trolled the tropics. 


When the ship got back into port, somebody actually tasted the wine, which should have been destroyed by the heat of the tropics, and found that, wow, it had a unique flavor. And a bit of a kick! 


So, a wine maker on the Madeira Islands went about recreating the process without putting the wine in the hold of a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies. 


The casks spent a few months out in the sun, which isn't where casks of wine are supposed to be, and got swished around on a daily basis, as they would on a ship. The result was pleasing, at least to Thomas Jefferson, who ordered case after case of the stuff. 


People who eat tuile, drink madeira and enjoy the stories behind them are called "foodies" today. They watch those food shows on cable TV, shows I can't stand because you can't taste what they make.


What's worse, they turn these food shows into a competition where some poor girl gets mocked to tears if her tuile isn't just right. I can't stand it!


Mabel Nelson wasn't a foodie, and neither is the college student who goes after the cheese that fell off the late night frozen pizza and got burnt. 


But that's how most gourmet foods get invented: Accidents deliberately repeated. 


The results don't always serve the public good. 


That Norwegian king somebody tried to poison by putting lye in his cod fish? He should have just died. 


Instead, he loved the stuff and now we have vats of codfish rotting throughout the Upper Midwest, getting smellier and slimier just in time for fall church dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 


Uff da. I'll take the tuile. 











 

Rock on!

 There used to be a lot more rock shops forty years ago than there are today. 

We had a rock shop here locally, and I remember begging Mom and Dad to stop the station wagon on summer vacations at the many rock shops between here and the West Coast. 


The local rock shop polished agates and such using a cylindrical chamber turned by a small electric motor. Inside the urn were rocks, sand and water. After a month of churning, the rocks came out polished and smooth. 


I didn't have patience for the month of churning so I set up my own rock shop selling pre-polished rocks that I had carefully chosen from local fields. 


My rocks ranged in size from sparkly tiny stones, which sold for a quarter, up to the biggest rocks I could lift at that time, three cabbage-sized boulders from the rock pile at the edge of the field, which I figured were an obvious steal at $9. 


I priced them with masking tape and marker. I set up a box of change and waited for buyers. And waited. 


Finally, I sold one for a quarter to Kenny Johnson (the Kenny Johnson who was a carpenter up northeast of town, not the Kenny Johnson who farmed south of town, although he's also a great guy who would buy a rock from an second grader). 


Disgusted by the ignorance of the masses to the joy of rocks, I shut down the business, but continued to collect rocks. 


When we went to the North Shore one summer, oh man, there were all those perfect-sized polished rocks on the beach and I went wild hauling them to the station wagon. 


Mom had to invoke the Kantian imperative (now, Eric, if everybody did that, there would be no rocks left!) to avoid a station wagon full of wet rocks.


Grandma and Grandpa received an annual spinster visitor named Hannah Chalmers, a stern woman who I affectionately called Allis. Allis Chalmers and I hit it off over rocks. 


Allis was a poor traveling missionary, but a week after she left one summer, a box of rocks arrived in the mail. It was from Allis. The rocks were polished agates. The little box cost $6.49 to mail. Mom was appalled, both at the rocks and that a poor missionary woman was spending that much money to send a box of rocks to a kid. 


Then came the "pet rock" craze of the late 1970s, where department stores sold packaged rocks which came with a name and instructions. 


I thought it was pretty ridiculous at first, but it wasn't long before I realized that I could have my own pet just by going out and taming a wild rock. 


Oliver was his name. He was the size and shape of a pigeon egg and perfectly smooth. 


Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I boiled Oliver on the stove before bedtime during the winter months and then tucked him between my chin and collar bone where he provided warmth until I fell asleep. 


That was my childhood. I cuddled with rocks. 


Eventually, Oliver escaped back into the wild. I just hope he's happy. I wonder if he misses being boiled. 


A few years ago, I returned to the North Shore, now in my forties. Old habits die hard. I brought home at least twenty rocks the size of ostrich eggs, including one which looked exactly like a grown-up Oliver. 


The rock sits on the mantle, or my desk, or the bookshelf, or wherever it best provides inspiration. For about a month, it rolled around in the trunk of my car. 


That month came after I attended one of those retreats where you are told ahead of time to bring an object which has special significance to you. 


I brought the rock. 


When it came time to explain our objects, tears flowed as people placed their items in the middle of the circle and shared how the fuzzy scarf got them through a divorce, or how a goose feather symbolized hope, love and world peace. 


When my turn came, I just said that this rock reminded me of Oliver, my escaped pet rock. 


"Ohhhkay, let's hear from somebody else!" the nervous facilitator said, knowing she had a trouble-maker on her hands. 


As much emotional support as I have derived from rocks, I think it was the pet rock movement which killed small, independent rock retailers. 


By making a mass-market mockery of the whole rock phenomenon, pet rock sellers turned the love of rocks into a fad. Fads die quickly, and so did the rock shops. 


But rocks have good shelf-life. 


When the next rock fad hits, they'll be ready.




 

GMOs

 There should be more than enough corn to go around this fall. According to USDA statistics, ninety-seven million acres of corn were planted this year, more than any season since 1936. 


The massive 1936 planting didn't produce so well. The year was the hottest on record, and crops just plain burned up. 


The jury's still out on this year's corn crop. 


I worry somebody is going to get hurt at one of the many country intersections where 10-foot walls of corn block the view in every direction. 


Three years ago, I nearly took out our rural mail carrier at a corn-obstructed corner. She was more aware than I, having had several corn-related close calls already that summer. 


It was an election year, so that would have been a real mess, political fliers everywhere, and two Norwegians wandering around in a daze. 


But she slammed on her brakes, and I locked up mine. Gravel flew, wheels skidded, and before the dust had a chance to settle, we looked at each other with a neighborly "let's just forget this little event ever happened" smile and went about our business. 


Last year, corn in this area produced a good, even above-average crop on a restricted water diet of only one good rain all summer. 


If it had been 1936, there would have been no crop. Corn genetics have come so far that pretty soon you should be able to grow a decent crop on a parking lot. 


There is a lot of controversy over modern GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as well there might be. 


However, genetic manipulation has been a human habit for centuries. Low-tech breeding of plants and animals has been going on since the beginning of recorded history. 


The results haven't always been good. 


Do you think packs of poodles ever roamed the wild? Of course not. Poodles were bred into their present prissy form in France out of breeds used in Germany to find truffles, a rare mushroom, in the wild. 


During the 1700s, the English shrunk breed into toy poodles, creating one of many dog breeds which simply cannot survive in the wild without being snatched up by raptors. 


Think of pugs, cute little dogs bred for their wrinkly faces and stub nose. The poor things are subject to all kinds of facial disorders, and if you've ever shared a night in the same house with one, you know they snore like a chain saw as they try to breathe through those flaps of flesh. 


In 1959 in Russia, a breeding farm started to select fox breeds for their friendliness with humans. The result is a domesticated silver fox available on the market for a very, very high price. 


Oddly, as the breed developed, its ears got floppy. It seems that whatever genes make a fox friendly also make its ears flop. Figure that one out. 


Although he hoped I would keep this dirty fact under my hat, my grandfather helped introduce the Siberian Elm to this area as a windbreak in the 1930s. He sold them by the million. 


Well! Any farmer will tell you today that the fast-growing, hardy Siberian Elm is no longer a favorite. Its seeds fly everywhere and germinate everywhere, including in cracks in the sidewalk. 


The pristine genetic climate of New Zealand was altered forever when humans arrived only 1200 years ago. First, Maori immigrants killed all of the moa, a gigantic, gentle ostrich-like bird, each of which could feed a small army. 


Then the British arrived in their rat-infested ships. Rats, at the time the only mammal in New Zealand larger than a bat, quickly multiplied and drove most of the territory's many flightless birds into extinction. 


Then the humans brought deer. We all know what damage they do. And gorse, a thick shrub used for hedges. The plant thrived in New Zealand, became a weed, and today, despite millions spent to eradicate it, covers 5% of the nation's land surface. 


Yes, the controversy over injecting rat DNA into our food is real. But genetic manipulation by man is not new, and the results have often been disastrous in the past. 


The governing force: Money. If the rich demand poodles, they will get poodles. If the market demands corn that will grow on a parking lot, some scientist somewhere on a big salary with a big research budget will eventually create it. 


Humans have been messing with plant and animal genes for centuries, sometimes with great benefits, but always with unintended and often unpleasant consequences.  


One wonders when our scientific thinking will advance far enough so we know what we can create, but out of prudence choose not to. 


 

Summer School

 Education reformers frequently propose that the school year should be extended and summer vacation eliminated.


The latest argument for formal summer learning comes from a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who demonstrated that kids from lower income households fall behind during the summer months. 


C'mon. Should school really intrude into the holy and sacred three months of unstructured vacation bliss which the Founding Fathers, after a thorough study of scripture, declared should run from Memorial Day to Labor Day?


We're not Japan. We're not China. If those countries want to work their kids to the bone, fine. 


For sixty years now, reformers have scared us about how the USA needs to keep our kids in school longer or we'll lose some sort of contest to the Soviet Union. Or Japan. Or China. Or India. 


What happened? 


Well, we're so smart that we hire the hyper-educated Asians for cheap to design our cars and televisions, manufacture our computers and nearly everything else, answer our call lines, all while we spend summer out at the lake going in circles on the jet ski and mowing the lawn every now and then. With mowers made in Korea!


Isn't that the way it should be? 


The trouble is, nobody anymore, I mean nobody in the whole wide world, has the sort of summer vacation that my neighbor kids and I had when I was a kid. 


One-hundred and sixty acres of playground! Woods! Swamps! Old cars! Old tractors! A dump pit! Old buildings filled with small engines that were too good to throw that I could tear apart and leave in pieces!


Trails! A BB gun! Squirrels! Turtles! Rabbits! A .22 rifle! 


One summer, I devoted endless hours to building ever more elaborate pinball machines with a jig saw, plywood, nails, rubber bands and magic markers. I was not interfered with once, not even when I liberated a perfectly good sheet of plywood from the shop for the project.


The final machine, which I completed in August, was a masterpiece. The peak of my summer was when I scored 265,000 points on a pinball machine I built myself. 


The pinball machines then sat in the granary for ten years behind a Briggs and Stratton that had been removed from a hovercraft mower that was a bad patent. 


I declared my pinball machines patented by writing twenty-digit patent numbers on them in permanent marker, although I don't know if you can just do that and have it stick. 


Another summer, or maybe it was the same one, I set up a scientific research station out behind the corn crib on a hay wagon that hadn't been used in three years. 


My research, like my small engine studies, consisted of ripping apart things and never putting them back together again. 


I once tore apart an rusty old lantern. Useless thing. Might as well figure out how it works. 


Two weeks later, Grandpa was looking everywhere for the lantern he used once per year to melt the wax to seal the wounds when he grafted apple trees. 


I did not fess up. The lantern was out at the hay wagon research station in many, many pieces. To see what was inside, I had shattered the glass. It was beyond repair. 


No, Grandpa, haven't seen it, I said, never thinking that Grandpa probably had been past the hay wagon. 


Another summer, I did historic research in the attic of the granary, the floor of which amounted to loose boards thrown across the rafters. I could have fallen to my death at any moment, but back then nobody cared. 


Treasure! Old business records, old letters, old newspapers, old yearbooks with mushy writing in the back, old atlases and, in a rare find, full-color flip charts dated 1895 depicting the pernicious effects of alcohol and tobacco on the body. 


The true bonanza, however, was finding the grade books from the one-room school which used to be on the corner of the farm. From those books, I found out the grades of all the elderly neighbors. Blackmail!


Mervin Theodocious Olson got a D in grammar in 1918, I'll have you know. I can say that because he's dead and has no descendants. 


I wasn't in school during the summer months, but as you can see, I was learning, learning, learning the whole time. 


Instead of keeping kids in school all summer in hopes they'll turn into computer geniuses, can't we just find an old farm somewhere and turn them loose with the agreement that they'll be home by dark? 

 

That's how it used to work, and we haven't lost a war to the Russians yet. 















 

Liberate the Lawn

 If we all just took a pill about our lawns, the world would be better off. 


A lawn need not consist of all grass just because that's how it is at the golf course. A little clover, a patch of creeping charlie or a few dandelions never hurt anybody. 


When the grass dries out in August, the clover with its deeper roots grows on, giving one something substantial to mow. 


Creeping charlie smells spicy when mowed, as do the many mints that we have dismissed as weeds.


Bird's-foot trefoil, a legume which blooms in patches of yellow in late summer, provides nice color when the dandelions quit blooming. 


Sadly, just to conform to an unnatural ideal, people call these plants "weeds" and angrily purge them from their yard. 


Is it really worth pouring chemicals on the lawn to get rid of the impurities?


Do we really want our genetically-altered great-great-grandchildren to hop around without limbs, all so the neighbors can't whisper that we have clover in our lawn?


And moss. What's wrong with moss? It grows where grass won't. Just imagine you are in a rainforest somewhere. Put an elf or a gnome out there on the moss. The first dry spell, moss will disappear and you will wish for it back. 


The quest for the perfect lawn is a waste of time, gas and chemicals. But it has deep roots in the human psyche. 


Let's face facts: The perfect lawn is a gender thing. A perfect lawn is a sign that there's a male on the premises trying to emulate the golf course. 


A perfect lawn oozes responsibility, virility and a successful conquest of nature. Man stuff. 


Meanwhile, the manly chemicals drift over on the chaotic but lovable flower bed planted by the Mrs. and kills the flowers dead, which she suspects was part of the plan from the beginning.


Although the Mrs. realizes the lawn must be mowed, she has a soft spot for the blooming stuff and secretly wishes more of it would be spared.


We also mow way more than necessary. Both genders are guilty on this count, perhaps because we mow to stay sane. 


Oh, to be busy, immune to the phone, immune to pestering, undeniably productive but busy at a task which requires no thinking and actually encourages day-dreaming. 


As a contemplative activity, mowing is up there with sitting in a deer stand, recreational tillage, singing in the shower, or a late-night pitcher's duel on the West Coast.  


Businesses fail because the boss uses his or her authority to keep busy with repetitive but meditative tasks, like mowing, which he or she loves to perform while neglecting the tangled, nagging, easily-postponed tasks of management. 


It is much more fun to sit on the combine and go in circles than to manage the schedules and quirks of the three people you should hire to sit in the combines while you answer the phone. 


Many people don't realize the joy of meditative tasks until they retire. They give up control of the whole enterprise at age 62, utterly shot, only to come back and drive truck at age 70 and enjoy themselves like they never did at age 50 when they were trying to get rich. 


They may or may not have gotten rich, but now they know that true happiness lies in mowing. Or combining. Or driving truck for harvest. 


For seventeen years, I was in management. I did very little mowing. Now, I have backed away from bossing and am mowing again. Happiness! 


People don't realize that their yard reveals more of their personality than an ink-blot test. A perfect yard with round shrubs and a weedless lawn at Ma and Pa's means some poor offspring down in Anoka is deep in therapy working to accept their own imperfections. 


To avoid even the appearance of neurosis, I have decided to limit my mowing. 


No conquering of new territory in the ditch bank. There's no limit to where that could lead. 


No perpendicular mowing in a weave pattern to stand up the grass trod down by the wheels from the first pass. 


Don't mow the whole yard when only one third of it needs it. 


Forget the fertilizer, it just makes for more mowing. 


Instead of complaining about a weedy lawn, celebrate its eco-diversity. 


Learn which lawn plants you can allow to grow and use in gluten-free, non-GMO, chemically-free salads. 


Liberating your lawn will do more to save the earth than using your towel over again at the hotel. 


If nothing else, do it to avoid three-eyed great-great grandchildren.



 

Making Hay

 

If I ever tried to farm, I would want to raise hay. Hay appeals to multiple senses. 

Sight: hay fields are beautiful green, sometime crowned with lavender alfalfa blooms. 


Across the American continent, hay fields grace the most beautiful locations. Early in life, I watched a farmer behind my uncle's home in the Cache Valley of Utah bale an irrigated crop of hay so heavy it choked the baler twice per round. 


Smell: Hay is probably the most aromatic crop in the entire Upper Midwest. It smells great when it is mowed, and smells even better in the bale. 


Taste: Yes, hay tastes good, too. Alfalfa right off the mower is too astringent, but let it mellow a while and you understand why cows like it. I used to walk out to the field just to pull a strand of lightly-aged alfalfa out of a bale and chew it into a cud. 


Grandpa ordered alfalfa capsules from Shaklee which he gulped down by the handful for health purposes. I figured, why buy pills when you can have the real thing? 


I'll have you know I pulled the hay for eating purposes from bales higher up on the stack in case there were dogs around. 


To make the fantasy complete, I would have to turn the clock back forty years and get rid of modern haying innovations like swathers and round balers. 


An essential part of the joy of haying is watching the crop collapse neatly is it is undercut by the sickle mower. The only visible evidence of the chattering blade is the falling hay. 


The ability of the mower to lay that hay down so neatly and fast frightened me as a kid. What would that thing do to my ankles? I imagined the sickle mower as a jump rope with consequences. 


I would rake the hay into windrows with an old-fashioned wheel rake pulled behind a drab, greasy Farmall tractor. If there is anything more satisfying than laying the hay flat with a mower, it is puffing it up again into windrows. 


Today, mowing and raking is done in one motion with a swather, which ruins the fun. You can't even see it happen.


Sense of touch: as a kid, I would run out into the hayfield and hurdle the windrows until I could hurdle no more. When one of those sharp stubs of alfalfa stubble penetrated my tennis shoe, I felt it. 


Sense of sound: First, there are the dragonflies, butterflies and chirping birds that fly up when you wade through a hayfield before it is cut. 


Then, because we have traveled back in time forty years, we have the charming clatter of the old clackety-clack bailer with 2,634 moving parts, 100 of which need to be replaced at even intervals each season, which requires trips to town for parts, which creates the occasion to stop at the cafe for pie and coffee. More taste!


Another great thing about hay: most people keep it to feed their own livestock. Where else today do you actually use the commodity you raise? 


With haying, there is a sense of putting up stores, sort of like canning tomatoes, freezing corn and cutting firewood. Humans are always always happiest when we are engaged in survival-oriented tasks. Putting up hay feels responsible.


Hay needs no refinement. It will not be made into corn syrup, white flour, ethanol, or noodles. It is what it is and that's that. They tried pelletizing it a while back, but that's about the most hay has been industrialized. 


Now, reality: that clackety-clack bailer eventually requires that somebody with a good back stack the square bales. That means going back thirty years to when I was 19. It also sounds like work. 


In addition, I can barely change batteries on the TV remote, much less repair rickety sickle mowers, rusty hay rakes and clackety-clack balers.


I could handle the driving-to-town for parts thing, as well as the coffee and pie at the cafe, but people who emphasize those parts of farming generally end up holding an auction. 


So we'll stick to reality, keep my hay farming dream a dream, and keep my back intact. Some times good sense has to prevail over the other five. 

 

Fair food

 The local county fair closed last night. Although my plan was to hide under bed for the duration, I did just the opposite. 


The big draw is the food. How can you sit at home when there are forty food options in town, options that won't be there next week?


Who cares if those options are almost all deep-fried, don't we owe it to ourselves to expand our culinary palette when we have the opportunity?


At the Polk County Fair, one very popular option is the Concordia Food Stand where since the Great Depression, the big local Lutheran church has served hearty, home-style meals to help pay the minister.


The Concordia stand was my first stop. They had meatballs the size of baseballs, as many as you wanted up to five, and a dollop of mashed potatoes the size of a softball, all of it covered by a river of gravy. 


Then come the add-ons down the line such as fruit cups for those who want to retain the appearance of good health. For the rest of us, a selection of home-made pies awaited.


This year, somebody made my favorite: Custard pie. Oh, do I love custard pie. So, my tray piled up. 


I ate every last crumb. 


However, you don't just go to the fair to eat, as I had intended to. You have to get in and out of the fair, and that involves visiting. 


People like to talk. As it turns out, so do I. Getting caught up usually means exchanging stories. Every story they tell suggests one I need to tell, and this ping-pong game can go into extra innings before somebody or something interrupts, at which time the person who got in the last story is apparently declared the winner and you move on to the quarter-finals of the visiting competition, which will start over by the merry-go-round in three minutes. 


The real winner of this year's visiting competition, I decided, was an underclassmen who went on to be a minister far away. 


Minister, indeed! The good reverend had the gift of drawing out your life issues in the first minute, solving them in the next, and it wasn't until he left that a bunch of us discussed the matter and realized that all of us had bared our souls to the class nerd in the past hour. 


Nerd no more! He has our secrets!


Back to the Concordia food stand, where I happened to sit next to Emil Nelson who introduced me to his wife Elaine. They live in Maple Grove, but were born up here. Emil is brother to Ellis Nelson, who used to have the blacksmith shop. His wife was a Stephenson. They were raised out on the Peterson farm, where the Olsons now live. Sad that they had to tear down that old barn, so many memories. 


Anyway, Emil knew my Grandpa through Farm Bureau and Elaine roomed with my aunt at the Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle. Oh, they had so much fun, especially that pillow fight on April Fools when feathers filled the hall. 


To top it all off, their son Lynn works with Orville and Marie Bjorndahl's boy Larry down at Conglomerated Materials in Bloomington. 


The story gets even more incredible: Believe it or not, Larry's lake place is in Brainerd and it took he and his wife Jean two full years to realize that their next door neighbors were related to the Omar Finkendoodles from north of town through marriage. If you remember, Marilyn Finkendoodle was originally a Stephenson who was raised out on the Peterson farm. 


Well now their daughter, I forget her name, has gotten married to Mervin Overstad's boy Neil, who is coaching down in Golden Prairie. Believe it or not, the guard on his basketball team last year, which got third in the state in Class AAAA or AAA, they've got so many divisions now you can't keep it straight, is the grandson of Gene and Becky Fingletwerp who you remember got married out at Salem, that church over towards the lake that just left the ELCA. 


Got it? 


It really is a small world!


Time to get home. 


But right outside the stand stood old Howard Felstad who was going to call me but never got around to it but anyway, he had been on a cruise in Alaska and got to know this nice couple from Missoula that it turns out had gone to college with my Aunt Mavis before Mavis got married to Alden, who then took a job with Boeing out in Seattle. 


It was three hours before I made it to my car. 


That's the price of a meatball dinner at the county fair!