May 14, 2009

For a Little While

A few years ago, my friend Brooke, with whom I share a deep love for literature and empty spaces in which to read it, told me I must read Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, but to do so in the spring.

"It's a delightful book for spring," she said -- or something to that effect. Brooke sometimes speaks like the heroine in one of the novels she's devoured. It's one of the many reasons I love her.

So, this week, I happened to find O Pioneers! in the one box of books I've brought in from the garage.

I read it fervently and tonight finished the final chapter, the beauty of which I always forget. It was, as it is every spring, gorgeous and complex.

But this year, now that we're farming, I brought an entirely new perspective to the book. And because of that, one passage in particular sang for me.

Last fall, when Jacob and I first started talking to David about leasing his land, he had a surprisingly unsentimental take on the future of the place. I don't mean dispassionate. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It was just a sense of practicality and no-nonsense. I can't remember exactly how he put it, but what he said had something to do with him not being the first one on the land, nor the last one. No one really owns their land in the first place, he said.

It's not a novel notion – but it is one I've heard mostly from the mouths of academics or environmentalists. Try it on a farmer who's been on his land for 50 years and his family for three generations and it's not going to fly. That's why coming from a farmer -- especially one staring down the reality of handing his land over to someone else – the idea held a tremendous weight.

I know a thing or two about the more sentimental approach to land ownership. For the better part of six years, I've cried every time we flash past my childhood farm on the interstate. The thought of another family there, of another farmer's plow in those fields … somehow, I felt robbed. Something that was mine was no longer.

David's place is 15 minutes from the that farm. I now pass the old place at least twice a week. When I remember, I glance over at the profile of the homestead – to see if the trees are still growing on the edges, if that depression near the turnoff is still sinking. But, I don't cry anymore.

Maybe it's that it's no longer “the farm” now that “the farm” is our farm, Jacob's and my farm. Or, maybe I am just finally able to intellectualize that the farm was never really mine to begin with, that what I was mourning was a childhood, innocence and an unscathed family, not a piece of ground.

Or, maybe I just knew it would be a waste of moisture – so very precious in this eastern front wind – if I had to cry every time we passed the farm.

Regardless, now that I'm digging in our dirt, which is actually owned by David, but technically still owned by the bank, and before that, owned by his parents and before that by someone whose name I don't even know, I see what David was talking about: It's about being able to see farther back than yourself or even your parents or grandparents and farther forward than your children or even their children.

Or, in more eloquent terms, it's about what Alexandra Bergson explains to Carl Lindstrum in that final chapter of O Pioneers!:

"Suppose I do will my land to their children, what difference will that make? The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will there be in fifty years? I might as well will the sunset over there to my brother's children. We come and go, the land is always here And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it -- for a little while."


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