Every artist has to paint a landscape now and then.
Fall in the heartland is a season of ripening. As I negotiate my way across the canvas there is a feeling that the air is heavier. No breeze, a clear light blue sky and nothing to stop the atmosphere from pressing down on the dark musky soil.
Elderberry bushes hang their purple fruit over fence wire. Giant hardwood trees thick with shadows cast black shade in creek bottoms. Kudzu covers corpses of trees, its smothering vines turning them into ominous figures wearing dark hoods and capes.
A raccoon dead on the highway, a wary whitetail, a skein of geese crossing my trajectory, all appear at the edge of my vision as I roll by. Ponds still as molten lead, algae claiming the fringes. The occasional tractor putts along as if farmers were sending players onto the field before the game starts. Grape-shaped political faces ripening on signs remind us of the season.
Then you pass through a tunnel of shady creek bottom and run up against an army of cornstalks en mass, a wall that towers over you. On top you continue alongside mile after mile of battalions, divisions, plateaus of corn stalks, shoulder to shoulder, in tight formation. They stand at attention up against the road as precipitous as Manhattan skyscrapers at the edge of the water.
The landscape becomes patched with huge tracts of corn stubble as even as a boot camp haircut. Interspersed are fields of the quiet elephant of the food chain, soybeans. Lush and penetrating green when growing, they do not age attractively. The yellow comes. Not the pretty yellow of aspen trees but a more sickly, banana-peel yellow. In this season of harvest they look like weeds. Yet one only has to peel the pod to see the small perfect light gold round seeds. Joined together by the trillions these seeds form the foundation for America’s and much of the world’s daily bread.
The rolling hills often limit the vast agricultural horizon until you pass through a glacial valley or river bottom, and the distance opens up and you see fields and trees, hazy through the heavy air. It could be the day before D Day. As soon as tomorrow the game will begin. Then the roar of trucks, combines, machinery, the buzz of activity, and a sense of urgency will replace the gestational quietude. The smell of dust, chaff, rubber tires, diesel, oil and gas, even ethanol, will fill the air that zephyrs the roadside as grain bearing semis fly by!
Everything seems to be in anticipation of the moment the farmer strips the corn cob, bites a kernel, looks at the sky, kicks the soil and says, “It’s time.”
If you ever wonder where food comes from, one trip through the heart of the country when it’s ripening will paint you a picture of America’s pregnant horn of plenty. Think of us when you eat… we think of you when we farm.
Baxter Black is a cowboy, poet, humorist, and former large animal veterinarian based in Benson, Arizona