Bringing in the Sheaves--1931

I

IN all this great southwestern plains country the pale gold of the ripened wheat fields has day by day been changing to the duller brown of the cut-over stubble. Early and late, from all directions, has resounded the hum of tractors and combines. Trucks have been hasting over the roads, carrying piled-up loads of bright, hard, fullkerneled wheat to granaries or elevators. Toward nightfall in the sunset glow the air has been luminous with the incandescent dust rising in a cloud about each moving combine. I have never seen a more beautiful harvest.

Our own crew would seem at first thought hopelessly inadequate for our heavy task — a man and woman just past middle age and a young girl just graduated from a Middle-Western university. Yet, with the help of a small tractor and a twelve-foot combine, in a little less than four weeks we have harvested for ourselves or for other people six hundred and twenty-five acres of wheat and twenty acres of barley.

As I think back to childhood days in a Northern state, when we spent as much time laboriously harvesting our small fields of wheat, oats, and barley, I realize anew that we are indeed living in a different age. I well remember the fascination for us children of our old McCormick binder, the marvel of the tightly knotted bands, the knife that stood ready to cut the twine, the long sheaves heavy with the precious grain. Father was an old-fashioned farmer of Canadian training, and all the grain had to be set up in shocks built according to a definite pattern. After curing in the shock, the bundles were stacked in beehive-shaped stacks. Father was a good stacker and always did that work himself, kneeling on each separate bundle as it was placed in position. The slackness of stacking grain with a pitchfork was exceeded in his mind only by that of the farmer who threshed his grain from the shock. It was the tradition that wheat must ‘go through the sweat’ in the stack if it was to keep in storage.

What would my father think of our temerity in driving around our fields cutting and threshing all at one operation? Certainly he would expect retribution, and perhaps — in a sense — he would be right.

In our harvest crew the man was the only one able to shovel wheat into the granaries. The girl was already somewhat accustomed to handling the tractor, so it fell to me to manage the combine.

I might say, in the words of the old hymn, ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast’of any mechanical ability. No mature person could well have less. But I could tell if the combine motor for any reason began to play a different tune. I could see when a chain dropped, or a shaft stopped rolling, or the straw spreader ceased to whirl out its cloud of straw and chaff. I could hear the tremendous clatter, if by any chance we picked up a wire yoke dropped by some nonchalant cow that had pastured earlier on the green wheat. I could shout ‘Whoa!’ to the tractor girl, throw out the gear lever, and wait for expert aid if the trouble proved beyond feminine adjustment. Fortunately the little combine seemed as nearly foolproof as one could possibly expect, and such occurrences were not common. Most of my actual labor was spent in shifting the lever to raise or lower the sickle according to the height and thickness of the standing grain.

Before the harvest was over, I realized that more of each day’s weariness came from the constant need of alertness and from the heat and jar and deafening noise than from the physical work required. I felt a new sympathy for those whose daily toil involves the mere watching and tending of the swiftly moving mechanical servants of our modern industrial life.

II

The morning work was not unpleasant. We were up early, often eating breakfast by lamplight, and were in the field by six o’clock, fueling and oiling the machinery for the forenoon work. Sometimes when everything was quite ready we had to wait for the early morning dampness to pass away, since the wheat must be rattling dry if it is to beat out clean as the heads pass through the cylinder. It was always a real relief when at last we were started, and the sickle was flashing back and forth, shearing off smoothly the tall grain bending beneath the revolving reel.

When all was running well, it proved difficult for me in my inexperience to fix my attention upon the various chains and rollers which it was needful to watch. In spite of myself my mind would wander away into harvest fields of distant ages and places. I seemed to feel the kinship of a common task with the people of ancient Egypt gathering wheat to feed the Roman multitudes. I remembered the bent figures of Millet’s Gleaners and seemed to share the pride of Ruth, the Moabite maiden, as she beat out her measure of grain gleaned from the barley fields of Boaz. I could in some degree feel the elation of Russian peasants now beginning to straighten their bent backs, ‘bowed with the weight of centuries,’ and enter consciously into the world’s affairs.

My own people have for generations earned their bread from the soil. In our little family treasure box is a heavy bronze medal bearing my grandfather’s name. Away back in the time of the Crystal Palace Exposition he sent wheat from the island of Montreal to London as a part of that display of the products of the Empire. The medal, with its fine workmanship and symbolic figures of the far places of the earth bringing their offerings to the mother country, was sent to him across the stormy Atlantic — so much wider then than now — in recognition of the excellence of his wheat.

As I fancied his pride in the results of his effort and thought of his small fields tilled with painstaking care, of the grain cut with the cradle and beaten out on the barn floor with the flail, as I watched the little stream of our own high-quality wheat falling steadily from the elevator spout into the grain bin, something racial and primitive of pride and thankfulness stirred within me: —

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

From such reveries a sudden jolt or unwonted sound would rouse me into more active consciousness of my task, and I would find myself grateful for the strength in chains and bolts and keys that had kept everything moving while my mind had been woolgathering.

When the grain bin was full, the man’s hard work began. Hurrying with the old truck to the granary, he scooped the hot wheat in the hot sun through the high windows into the bins.

Often I wondered about the man and girl. What were they thinking about as the little tractor panted along over the sun-bright stubble, or the truck bumped over the rough road with the beautiful wheat? Of only two things could I feel very sure: first, that near as we have been together through more than a score of years, their ‘ streams of consciousness’ would not be like my own; and second, that as the shadows pointed more nearly straight north everybody would be growing more and more fiercely hungry, and more eager for the rest and relaxation that come with even plain food thankfully shared.

III

The afternoon work was much more trying than that of the morning. With temperatures ranging above 100 day after day, the platforms of tractor and combine burned our feet. Every bit of metal was too hot to handle comfortably, and the heat and odor from the exhaust pipes grew almost intolerable.

There were some blessed days when the wind blew at such an angle as to carry the dust past us and away. On other days there seemed no chance to escape the irritation of the prickly chaff and dust which surrounded us in a moving cloud and adhered to our clothing and sweat-damp skin. On such days all one could do was just to endure, to long for nightfall and the evening coolness, to reflect with sympathy upon Rupert Brooke’s expression, ‘the benison of hot water,’ and eagerly to anticipate that benison at the close of the long day.

One afternoon just before sunset I was faint with heat and weariness, when all at once this extreme fatigue was lightened by a sight so unusual as to create an entirely new interest. At one edge of the field there suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere, a group of five almost fully grown skunks, out for an evening ramble. They paid us not the least attention, but went on playing ‘follow’ the leader,’ moving through or over the high stubble, a succession of black waves rising and falling, a bit of free wild life, untroubled by the fear of the morrow or the price of wheat.

So the days passed, full of effort, each adding to our accumulating weariness, even though we made the most of each diversion; enjoyed to the full the beauty of the pink bush morning-glories growing here and there among the wheat; appreciated the pungent odor as we cut through an occasional patch of mountain sage; loved the small rabbits hopping away to safety, and the pair of little mourning doves which I saved from destruction when, warned by their mother’s quick flight, I climbed down from the combine and held them for an instant, pin-feathered and hot in my hand, while the combine roared over the tiny hollow which was their home.

When the last day came, the nervous tension increased and the anxiety grew deeper lest some oversight or accident should cause delay and prevent, the completion of our task. But all went well. The loads moved regularly to the barn loft where we were storing the last of our crop. The patch of uncut wheat in the centre of the field grew steadily smaller and narrowed to a thin wedge, and, as we made the last turn and cut back toward home, disappeared entirely. Our harvest was over.

IV

I was relieved to see that the tractor girl in her blue overalls had enough excess energy left to turn a few handsprings in celebration of the event. The man shoveled the last load into the loft while I brought a broom and swept up the scatterings for chicken feed.

It certainly seemed that ‘something attempted, something done’ ought to have earned at least ‘a night’s repose.’ Yet repose is just about the last thing any of us has gained from one of the best wheat crops this country has ever produced in our twenty-four years of farming, beginning with the early days of homesteading.

Bewilderment, distraction, despair, would come nearer to suggesting the common state of mind as people are forced into selling their most important means of livelihood for less than the cost of production. Wheat has been going out of our community by the trainload, 162 carloads in two days from a little siding on our new railroad, at around 25 cents a bushel. It has been as low as 21 cents, is lo-day 24. One neighbor, whose wheat did n’t test out quite sixty pounds to the bushel, had to take 19 cents!

It is safest to talk of what one actually knows, and our own crop will do for an example, though in some respects our report is too favorable to be thoroughly typical. We were farming our own land, were free from indebtedness on land or machinery, used home-grown seed, hired no outside help, and were fortunate enough to produce a crop somewhat above the average — 4500 bushels from 294 acres. I believe the ten-year average for wheat in our state is a little over twelve bushels to the acre.

Yet, with these advantages, the report of our year’s work reminds one of the boy’s stone bruise. We are too big to cry about it and it hurts us too much to laugh.

Allowing 6 per cent on the value of the actual wheat acreage, figuring in the value of the seed wheat at 50 cents a bushel, and adding the actual cash outlay for fuel and oil for preparing the ground, drilling the wheat, and harvesting and marketing the crop, if, like many others, we had been forced to sell our wheat at 21 cents, we should have had, out of our 4500 bushels, a margin of $130 to pay for everybody’s time and work, to say nothing of the depreciation of machinery or the wear and tear of bones and nerves and muscles.

Of course we hope to pull through somehow, though we hate to think about taxes, which will be around $200 this year. We are grinding our own wheat for breakfast cereal; sifting out the finest meal for muffins and brown bread; trying to keep our grocery bills within the limits of our weekly case of eggs at 7 or 8 cents a dozen; buying nothing that we can do without and still maintain any sort of standard of health and decency.

Yet some things we must buy or go out of business, and here is where we suffer. For example, we had to have repairs on our plough. Three little oil cups and an axle as long as my arm and thick as my wrist cost us yesterday $12.60 — fifty-two bushels of wheat. Apparently the infant industries are receiving the usual tender care and solicitous protection.

We shall, I think, keep on some way.

But what of the people who are paying rent, who are in debt for legitimate expenditures, who have the expense of illness or larger families to provide for and educate? How is the man to keep on who has no important reserve, who must sell his wheat for 25 cents or less to pay his harvest expenses, and has n’t enough left to take care of the inevitably increasing taxes?

It might perhaps be easier for us all to take our bitter medicine if we felt that we had been guilty of fault or folly, if we knew that there was really too much wheat to satisfy the world’s hunger and sow the fields again. We should n’t mourn over the losses of a man who persisted in establishing hairpin factories in a bobbed-haired world. But we can’t see the wheat situation that way, no matter what we hear or read about it. We can’t be condemned for producing the one crop which is by all means best adapted to our own climatic conditions, while at the same time maintaining a reasonable diversity with cattle, poultry, and feed crops.

People naturally react to such a wholesale calamity according to their own understanding and disposition. There is unquestionably much bitterness, a feeling that farming interests have been willfully sacrificed. It is not reassuring to remember that four times in as many weeks, here in our quiet neighborhood, I have heard talk of war, — of all tragic things! — a war of the poor against the rich, suggested as a remedy for present conditions.

Surely there must be some better way than this to realize the ideal of contented, productive effort — the ideal which was so well put by one in olden times: ‘And to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.’