Aozora means “blue sky” in Japanese, and she was indeed born on a clear autumn blue-sky day. She inherited the writing gene, and has been keeping journals most of her life. Much of her writing is grounded in the fertile fields and intense physical labor on her family's farm. When Aozora was in Tokyo for her final year of high school, she got caught in the rumbling shocks of the Fukushima earthquake, which she wrote about in the Chicago Tribune.
Below are excerpts from Aozora’s chapbooks “The Happiness of Dirt” (2011) and “Memory of a Girl” (2016). You can read more of Aozora’s poems, essays, and interviews in Catapult, Hermeneuitic Chaos, Poets.org, and on her website, where you may also order her books.
The Happiness of Dirt garnered critical acclaim from Kevin Stein, Poet Laureate of Illinois:
"In an era when most stand sorely distanced from the planting, tending, and harvesting of our food, Zoe Brockman reconnects us to the intimate pleasures and pure labor of growing things. Ms. Brockman conjures the seasons of the earth's body and of our own flesh, linking them in writing both limpid and lyrical. Doing so, she feeds the soul that feeds the body just as surely as her beloved garlic, sweet potatoes, and kale."
I used to think that my father was crazy.
Every night, he would come home completely and utterly dirty—proof of his exhausting work tending to the Earth. His hands were the color of a cloudless night, the stars being bits of perlite—the sparkly white mineral used in the greenhouse potting mix—stuck here and there in the creases of his palm and fingers. Brown stains remained even after he had washed up for dinner. I thought he was crazy because, covered in sweat and mud and dirt, he was the happiest man on Earth.
But I didn’t always think he was crazy. When I was little, I used to throw dirt into the air to feel it rain down on me, run around with bare feet just to feel the soft ground below me, and make black gloves out of mud and show them off to my brothers.
Then I started to go to school. It was a shock to know that now dirt was a bad thing. No one wanted to get dirty for fear of germs. Gradually, I began to stop touching the Earth with my hands unless it was absolutely necessary. After a long harvest at the farm, I would try to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, afraid of what would get said at school.
After years of not being happy, but not quite knowing why, I had an epiphany. Naturally, this occurred while I was pulling stubborn weeds out of the ground with only my thoughts to listen to one scalding, humid day. Such revelations often happened when I was weeding. So far I had figured out how I could help struggling people in Africa, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and right then, feeling the cool, moist soil underneath my hot, sweaty hands, I felt some of the happiness from my toddler years come rushing back. And I knew that dirt is the secret to happiness.
There is a liberating, freeing feeling when you bury your hands in dirt. It is difficult to explain, but the musky, fruity smell of the soil combined with the unique texture of the Earth makes you feel connected to Nature. When you close your eyes and feel the dirt teeming with life, it makes you feel alive too. But not all dirt is created equal. The fertile, black soil of my father’s Central Illinois farm is a kind of earth that not many people have experienced. I believe that dirt repeatedly damaged by poisonous chemicals or compacted and overfarmed will not give one the same exhilarating happiness.
Now, I am truly content. Some days I come to school with dirt under my fingernails, proud to display my closeness to the Earth. Some people send weird glances at my hands, probably thinking that I am crazy. Just like I used to think my father was crazy. I do not know why, but this thought makes me laugh.
“Is that thunder?” I wondered.
I was dazedly mulching underneath the clear blue sky and penetrating sun when a sudden ripping and crashing pounded out from the direction of the gravel hill up to the house. Val and I looked up, and so did everyone else—from their hand-weeding, mulching, and pushhoeing—to stare, all together, at the wooded hillside where the great sound had come from.
I did not spot the tree then, but later, driving up, sitting in the bed of the truck, the wind in my face, I saw the aged, giant tree, lying at rest in the woods.
Grandpa, puzzled, said, “I just don’t understand the physics of it—a great tree always seems to fall not during a wind storm, but when the air is hardly moving.”
I thought perhaps, after surviving tremulous wind and havoc and holding tight to life, that tree had chosen a peaceful, beautiful afternoon to finally let go and fall to the ground—to decompose and join the Earth once again.
Full moon? Kazami points
I smile, shake my head—not yet – and
Climb into the bed
Of the truck to ride down
Through the darkness
Wind in my curls
Flittering lightning bugs and
The planetarium of twinkling stars above
Replace the truck headlights and
Guide us to the long beds of
Kazami and I each take one dripping tape and then
We are sprinting—100 meter dash—
Down those beds, tape in hand
Moving them to the middle rows so that those seeds, too, will drink
We walk back, breathing hard, and then
Pick up another tape to race again
Until lungs and leg muscles ache and
I am smiling, saying goodnight
To all those thirsty seeds.
Praise for Memory of a Girl:
“Reading the poems of Aozora Brockman, I realize what is possible when a sensitive soul is raised within a family close to the living earth, who has the genius to pay attention to her one precious life. These poems are startlingly beautiful, original not by being odd but by being more deeply loving, more keenly observed, more acutely alive in their language. They expand our notions of memory and pulse with truth and life as they introduce a brilliant young poet. Aozora Brockman’s work is rare and generous. She is writing the poems we need.”
— Rachel Jamison Webster, author of The Endless Unbegun and September
In the hottest part of the day
we sit in the shade of the shed
in a circle of square bins
peeling the Russian Reds,
each dirt-covered strip
revealing streaks the color of sky
in the last rumble before rain.
Under my right thumbnail
the juices push in and catch fire,
burning the nailbed bright pink.
A small gust slips under my shirt
to cool the sweat on my stomach,
then rustles the garlic skins
so that they stand and teeter
too fast, like whiplash,
before slamming back onto concrete.
Sitting in this circle one harvest
Aunt Beth looked up mid-peel to say,
You are made of the foods
your mother ate.
Her eyes were a startle of blue
and the words kept repeating
until a deep smile broke through my body.
I cup the garlic, heavy, in my palm:
could it be that my mother roasted
a head like this and swallowed,
and the particles dispersed—
and fused into the cells
that became me? That implanted
in me was the memory
of damp dirt, the twisting push out
and first meal of sunlight?
Yes—at birth, already
I remembered what made me
and still now, the earth pulls,
rooting me to this ground.
I remember the sticky sugar
chin and cheeks wet
with red watermelon
all to myself.
We’d crouch to pick Johnny Jump-ups,
part the round leaves to snap nasturtiums;
I’d sprinkle the mix onto mesclun,
feeling like a flower girl.
Once, the oat stalks were trees
but softer and lime green—
we trampled through until last light,
laughs mixing with heavy breath
I remember the baby white goat
splashed with speckles
soft flapping ears, eyes like marbles,
drinking from my bottle;
the stars dripping while we danced
by the bonfire in the field,
the way Daddy’s cheeks puffed,
drunk with it all;
how everything felt like a question
when Grandpa dug the fingerlings,
each dunk into the bucket
I remember flames:
looking at them licking and licking
until they ate themselves to ash.
My stomach weighed with wood.
I am hungry now
and this is not my home.
White light pinned my pupils
as I told the camera crowd:
“One day I wish to be
the blue sky that spreads
between Japan and America.”
My parents said for an eloquent lie
I was given 250 dollars and a microphone.
In their soft way, of course,
on the car-ride home
from the awards’ ceremony.
The words were too syrupy
and I wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr.
But was it a lie?
Japanese people and American people
don’t hate each other,
Okāsan was matter of fact.
We hurried home to the fields
to cover the greens from frost
with cloud cloth. And that was that.
Second grade, on the patched school bus, my best friend:
“your mom’s like this:” eyes stretched up and slanted into slits
“your dad’s like this:” untouched eyes, forefingers hovering
“and you’re like this:” an in-between distortion
My own laugh
was a boomerang.
Seventh grade, history, World War II.
The boys tease,
“Your evil people attacked us—remember Pearl Harbor?”
As I, screeching red, spat back:
“Remember the atomic bombs?”
the boy I danced shoo-fly-don’t-bother-me
by the Maypole in grade school
turned to me in class to say,
“If you hate America so much,
why don’t you go back to Japan?”
I fought, crackling
like butter on a hotplate,
tongue a leap of oil.
But it’s true that fifty years
after the Japs were drawn like rats
and the Americans long-nosed racists,
the Japanese loved America like Disneyworld.
Forbidden from learning English
in her youth, Obāchan let Otosan
take away her only daughter
to the land of the stars and stripes.
The collective minds of both nations
agreed to amnesia, an embrace
of stock shares and nuclear plants.
How did we forget what is still there?
On a Tokyo train a man stares transfixed
as if I were a rare animal at the zoo.
My host mother sighs
as we pass the imperial grounds,
“But we lost, and it’s a winner’s world.”
History is our selective memory
that blacks out the bloodshed
so that we may remember all that we buy
(the minivan, the flower-patterned dish, the onions frying for dinner)
as things, just things—
not things that were made with bony fingers
twitching with hunger,
or picked with blistering palms
withering in desert heat.
We forget to feel better,
but feel nothing at all.
Once, over the wide ocean Obāchan
sent me a red Hello Kitty case
with five perfect, matching pencils.
I fell in love with the big eyes,
that adorable, oversized bow,
and I longed to be that cute.
And even now I slip back into that self
until I remember that to be
Hello Kitty is to have
Henry is a man of many talents, two of which are writing and farming. He says that if something happens to him physically so that he's unable to farm, he'll write.
And if something happens to his brain so he can't write, he'll farm. Luckily, there is winter, when he sometimes finds time to write.
The Solstices and Equinoxes are four cornerstones of the year, points when the sun briefly stands still (sol-stice = sun-stop) before moving to longer days (after the winter solstice) or shorter days (after the summer solstice). Midway between the solstices are the equinoxes, (equi-nox = equal-night) when the length of the day matches roughly the length of the night. The changes in day-length, and the changes in temperature caused by the earth's 23.5 degree tilt on its axis as it orbits the sun, result in the seasons, times to sow and times to reap, times to work and to rest. Henry writes about what he's doing and thinking at these key points of the year, "crystallizations of energy and time . . . when one's body slips securely into the rhythm of the universe."
It is September 23, the Autumnal Equinox, and I lie, dripping, on the banks of the river of the seasons. Each year on the day of the Spring Equinox, when light finally overcomes night and day and night are equal in length, I launch my bark into the moving stream of the new season. And each year on the day of the Autumnal Equinox, today, when night finally overcomes light and night and day are equal in length, I pull my bark back upon the bank and catch my breath.
I am lying in the warm grass at the edge of the bottomland field watching clouds float against the rich blue of the autumn sky. It is just past six in the evening. The kids are busy now with after-school activities, Matt and the apprentices have gone home for the day, and I lie alone near the quiet sunny field. A month ago, lying in the sun would have been torture even this late in the day, but now the sun's warming rays are a perfect complement to the cooling air. The sun rose this morning at 6:40 due east and will soon set due west at 6:40 for a perfect 12-hour day, now easing into a 12-hour night.
For me this day marks the beginning of the end, or at least as close to an end as the perpetual motion machine called farming ever gets. Just as there is an ebb and flow of day length over a season, there is an ebb and flow in fieldwork. Outdoor work begins in late February in the greenhouse, but fieldwork generally begins right around the Vernal Equinox, March 23, when the soil is finally warm enough to begin planting potatoes, onion sets and peas, and to begin sowing the first lettuce and spinach seed. Each seed placed in the soil marks a departure, the beginning of a line stretching into the future, a line of growth for the plant and a line of work for me.
Remember in junior high when the science teacher placed a ball at the top of an inclined plane? You just wanted him to let it roll but he insisted on droning on and on about potential energy. That ball held nothing compared to the amount of potential energy held in a single dormant seed. Once placed in the warm, moist soil, the seed imbibes deeply on water and breaks dormancy. Enzymes are released that begin to break down the seed's store of proteins into amino acids and its starch into sugars. These are conveyed to the embryo where they initiate respiration and growth. With its mysteriously assured sense of which way is up and which is down, the embryo sends its primary root deeper into the soil and its primary shoot up toward the surface. The embryonic root forms side branches and begins pulling water and nutrients from the soil. The embryonic shoot hoists the cotyledon leaves from the soil, where they open and begin harvesting energy from the sun and CO2 from the air. The seed's endosperm—the angiosperm's equivalent to the mammal's placenta—has fulfilled its role and sloughs away. The baby plant is feeding itself now. A tiny cabbage seed has the potential to grow into a 10-pound head, a carrot seed becomes a plant with a foot-long root. One cucumber seed can produce a half-bushel of fruit.
Each seed in each row of each bed also holds an enormous amount of potential work for the farmer. As the season flows along, the work flows as well in a massive swell. The first job is sowing the seed itself and as the crop grows, the jobs proliferate. Every crop is different, but almost every crop needs to be weeded at least once during its lifespan, whether with the push hoe, with slicer or scuffle hoes, with hand hoes or with fingers. Some crops are thinned. Some are mulched. Some are hilled. Others must be trellised many times throughout the season. During severe droughts some crops must be watered, and during severe pest outbreaks we pick insects from the plants. Finally, we harvest the crops. After harvest, we till in any weeds or crop residues and replant the bed to the next vegetable crop or to cover crops. From the Vernal Equinox until the Autumnal Equinox, each week we plant new seeds, new rows, new beds, weather permitting. Each planting sets a new ball of twine a-rolling, with a new string of jobs inexorably flowing from it. We race along behind trying to keep up with all the balls and their lengths of string, without getting tripped up or hopelessly entangled.
People often think of the farmer as the one who grows things, but really Nature is the one who does the growing. Nature is the ultimate master gardener. The farmer merely initiates the process by working the soil and planting the seeds. Nature—the felicitous combination of rain, air, soil and sun—does the rest. To paraphrase the 19th century playwright Douglas Jerrold, 'Tickle the Earth with a hoe and she laughs a harvest." Of course, it often takes a bit more tickling than he might have imagined to get her to laugh.
Jerrold was a writer, not a farmer, but in principle he is right. Having set the ball rolling, the good farmer should be able to poke Nature at just the right moments along the ball's path to keep it rolling in the desired direction. When weeds threaten to swamp out the carrot seedlings—poke!—we tickle the earth with slicer hoes. When the lettuce is at the size where the little plants need more room to develop into nice, big heads—poke!—we thin them. When the potatoes need to be mulched to hold moisture in the soil during the hot, dry summer—poke!—we are there with bales of hay to spread.
If I miss any of these crucial tickling points, the ball rolls down a track that leads to, at best, a poor crop or, at worst, a total crop loss, in which case the farmer, at least, is not laughing.
You may have seen studies that find that organic produce is no more nutritious than produce bombarded with all the agri-chemicals known to man. But the samples that were used in these comparative studies of organic and conventional produce came straight out of the wholesale market pipeline. These studies tested the products of large-scale organic farms—which supply the bulk of organic produce on the store shelves—against the products of large-scale conventional farms.
It comes at no surprise to me that these studies rarely find any statistical difference between vitamin and mineral levels in the two types of produce. The samples of both types were grown under farming practices that are detrimental to nutrient levels, such as heavy use of water and nitrogen. All samples arrived in the researcher’s lab after a long journey through the same packing and transportation infrastructure, which bumped and banged these tender nutrient packages along yards of conveyor belts and along miles of roads. They all sat in trucks and warehouses days and weeks before reaching the laboratory. Finally, both the organic and conventional produce were cultivars bred for uniform size and shape, a pretty appearance and transportability — not flavor or nutritional content.
So organic produce sitting in Whole Foods, Jewel, or Kroger may not be more nutritious than its conventional cousins. But our small-scale, locally grown, locally sold organic produce raised on rich and healthy soil under natural conditions is. And that’s not just good for you (and your taste buds), it’s good for the planet.
The farming and harvesting practices that favor more nutritious produce are all related to the idea that highly ~nutritious food comes from a healthy soil that is part of a healthy farm that is part of a healthy environment. This circle of health is generated by farming practices that are based on the goal of protecting and enhancing all life. Unfortunately, a grower may strictly adhere to a list of agricultural practices mandated by an organic certification agency (and therefore, earn the certified organic label) without setting this circle of health a-spinning. Farming without chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers isn’t enough.
One way that mainstream agriculture manages to grow nutrient-poor produce is the way it fertilizes the crops. The fertility practices of large-scale organic agribusinessmen are not all that different from those of large-scale conventional agribusinessmen. Granted, large-scale certified organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers—and that is definitely a good thing. Like chemical farmers, however, large-scale organic growers concentrate mainly on providing their crops with the Big Three essential plant nutrients, since as long as there is a plentiful supply of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium plants grow big and they grow fast.
I believe that plants grown in most large-scale organic and conventional farming operations are fed a diet that is too rich, particularly in nitrogen, and consequently grow too big too fast, causing their nutritional value to plummet. The work of many scientists to back this up. Studies have found that when plants are given too much nitrogen, protein and acorbic acid (Vitamin C) quality declines, and that while higher nitrogen fertilization produced larger cabbage heads, those heads contained proportionally more water and proportionally less ascorbic acid and dietary fiber than cabbage grown with less nitrogen fertilizer.
The high nitrogen regimes used on most farms radically pumps up the size and rate of growth of vegetables. I am convinced that plants that grow naturally and at their own pace—working to extract the nutrients they need from a rich and healthy soil rather than being force-fed an overly rich diet of nitrogen—are healthier and thus more nutritious.
In addition to heavy inputs of readily-available nitrogen, vegetables grown by the big growers also get heavy inputs of water. The produce you see in supermarkets—whether organic or conventional—was almost invariably grown with irrigation. Crops grown with plenty of water grow fast and large, but as scientists have found, more water can mean less nutrients and fiber.
Simple genetic variation is perhaps the most widely overlooked preharvest factor behind variation in nutrient levels of vegetables and fruits. Different varieties of the same vegetable vary widely in the amount of nutrients they contain. When scientists looked at the nutrient composition of different cultivars of apples, peaches and other fruit, for example, they found variation in Vitamin A levels as high as 20 times. They also found that carotene levels in any given vegetable often vary by a factor of 10, depending on the cultivar.
As more and more studies show the importance to health of the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in food crops, seed companies are beginning to develop varieties with elevated levels of vitamins and minerals. I now grow a variety of carrots called Sugarsnax, for example, which is said to contain much more beta-carotene than other varieties. You will not find Sugarsnax carrots in either the conventional or certified organic aisle in your grocery store, however, because the variety is not as productive or as pretty or as easy to transport as the mainstream commercial varieties.
Plants extract the nutrients they require for growth and development from the soil. Thus, vegetables that are chock full of nutrients must be grown in soil that is chock full of nutrients. As far back as 1938, soil scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned of the rapid depletion of soil nutrients in this country due to unsustainable farming practices. Thus, even turnip greens—rated as the best vegetable source of iron—grown on a soil from which the iron has been mined out over years and years of intensive row-crop agriculture with no fallow time for rejuvenation, will not have high iron levels no matter whether they were grown organically or conventionally.
In biology, organic means "of, relating to, or deriving from living organisms." What I do in my fields is deal with life and living things in all their complexity, all their inscrutability, all their sublimity, all their unpredictability.
These are things that industrial agriculture continually seeks to eliminate, control, or beat into submission. Complexity, unpredictability, inscrutability—these are more than irritating to the conventional farmer. They get in the way of maximum productivity and they make him feel insecure. Conventional agriculture is all about domination and control. Organic agriculture as I practice it is about cooperation and acceptance.
My fields are full of life, brimming with life, overflowing with life. You see not only crops, but weeds. On the plants are insects, some of them considered beneficial, some of them considered pests. The soil is stirring with worms, sowbugs, mites, ants, and other life.
My way of farming not only enhances the lives of the crops and those who eat them, but enhances all life, from the lives of the insects, worms, and arthropods of the vegetable field to the lives of the wildlife and domesticated life (that includes us) who inhabit the environment around the field. And on a grander scale, organic farming enhances the very life of the planet by protecting a piece of it and by not polluting the planet’s water and air.
The basic tenet of this kind of organic farming is to protect and enhance the tiny lives of the microorganisms of the soil. The teeming bacteria, fungi and single-celled organisms are what give the soil its health and fertility. Without a healthy soil, there are no healthy plants. Without healthy plants, there are no healthy plant-eaters, be they insects or rabbits, cattle or humans. Without healthy herbivores, there are no healthy flesh-eaters either. Without healthy animals, there can be no healthy ecosystems and without healthy ecosystems, there can be no healthy planet.
I must ensure the health and fertility of my soil in order to ensure that those who eat the produce from that soil get healthy, nutritious fare. That responsibility, however, is only incidental to the farmer’s greater responsibility. The farmer—the steward of a patch of the Earth’s soil—must sustain the health of the soil to ensure the health and welfare of all life, today and tomorrow.
One of the purposes of the sabbatical I took in 2015 was to get some perspective, to exit the cycle of the seasons, to free myself for a time from the intense concentration on the ground beneath my feet and the tasks immediately at hand. I wanted the time to look back at my past half-century of life and quarter century of farming, and look ahead to and plan for my next half-century of life and next quarter century of farming.
I guess what I expected, in a vague sort of way, was that I would think about and make decisions about how to shrink the farm to a smaller, more manageable size with the goals of making it more environmentally sustainable while also reducing the physical burden on me, so that as my body aged I would be able to work more slowly, less intensely, and perhaps even fewer hours.
What I didn’t realize was that in those initial musings I was still stuck in the same head-down, locked-in-the-present view of the world that I was trying to step out of. I was still in the cyclical mindset of the farmer, where one day follows the next and one season follows the next and one year follows the next, mostly unchanged. I do today based on what I did, what I saw, what I experienced the day before, making tiny adjustments for changes in rainfall, temperature, incidence of the sun in the sky, etc. I act in the summer based on what happened in the spring. Was it drier than usual, wetter, hotter, cooler? Did I get such-and-such planted on time, such-and-such weeded, mulched, etc. etc.? And I’ll do what I do next year based on what I learned and experienced this year in much the same way.
This is all fine and good. This is the Way of the Farmer. A farmer is a scientist constantly testing assumptions, recording the results of changing variables and trying to draw conclusions about cause and effect, patterns and trends, and then adapting, calibrating and shifting behaviors slightly in response to the data.
This is all fine and good, I said . . . but actually, no. This was all fine and good, was for the entire 10,000-year history of agriculture on this planet. But the world, the planet, has changed, has been changed and is being changing (by man) at a rate unprecedented in both human history and perhaps the entire history of life itself.
It is human nature, the nature of all living things probably, to expect tomorrow to be pretty much like today and to live accordingly. But we now live in a New Age. Today is no longer like yesterday and tomorrow is not going to be like today.
As I have really, truly, slowly raised my head and lifted my eyes, I have finally come to realize the obvious. The 10,000-year era of gradual and relatively minute fluctuations in the global environment and global climate that has existed since the end of the last great Ice Age and thus since the dawn of agriculture and human civilization has come to an end. That Earth no longer exists. We now live on a different Earth, a vastly different Earth, one where that steady-state of climate and environment is no more. When I finally truly looked up the road to the Henry’s Farm of a quarter century in the future, what I saw looked nothing like the Henry’s Farm of today.
If you walk down to the bottom fields in 2050, you won’t see much vegetable production down there. Even though the springs and summers are drier than they used to be, paradoxically Walnut Creek floods more often and more violently than it used to, because when the rains do come they tend to come in heavy, intense storms that dump buckets of water on the dry ground in a few minutes. We were losing too much topsoil and having too many crop losses to take the chance on working and planting the rich bottomland fields. Even when the creek didn’t top its banks, sheets of water pouring off the hillsides and out of the surrounding ravines was washing too much soil from the field into the creek. We are working on terracing the edges of the fields above the floodplain to catch and hold the water and soil. At the top of the slope, there is a pond that we use to store water for the dry periods and water vegetables grown on the terraces. Most of our vegetables are now grown in a field up by the road that we bought as protection from flooding.
The flood-prone parts of the bottom fields are in perennial grasses and we can graze our cows, goats, and sheep there, and harvest hay if we need it. We interplanted hazelnuts, walnuts, and some other food-bearing trees, shrubs and brambles that can survive the frequent flooding. The sod holds the soil and even traps silt from the flood waters, so we are rebuilding rather than losing soil.
The farm is more like a homestead now, in that our top priority is to grow all of our own food rather than earn cash. So in addition to the vegetables, we raise our own grains, meat, eggs, nuts, fruits and even sorghum to make our own syrup so we don’t have to buy sugar. And we’ll do our best to maintain beehives for honey and pollination. We have sheep for wool and grow some cotton and hemp for fiber.
We still do sell produce, but mainly just here to people in Congerville, Goodfield, and Eureka. Our peak season is now fall through spring, when we have dependable moisture. We can grow cold-hardy roots and greens throughout the winter now, since it rarely gets much below zero. The lightest work-load now comes in August. It is usually so hot and dry then that we don’t even try to do much then except keep harvesting the summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash that got well-established earlier in the season. Often even those crops die out from lack of water. But it is nice to have a lighter work-load during this season, anyway, since the heat is truly brutal and you don’t want to spend much time out in the sun.
The farms around us have changed too. Our conventional corn and soybean farming neighbors are facing huge cuts in yields due to the higher temperatures and the fact that the synthetic, petroleum-dependent fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are either no longer available, or no longer available at a price that makes economic sense to use. Some farmers keep their old diesel tractors, combines, and pick up trucks under wraps in their machine sheds, waiting for the day of resurrection, when fuel will flow again and they will fire them up and roar out to their fields, but you see a lot of old machinery just parked in the elements, rusting away.
Our organic grain farmer neighbors—the Wettsteins and Weigands--are doing all right, but even for them the heat and droughts, increased pest pressures as insects survive the milder winters and hatch more generations in the longer growing seasons, and greater weed pressures are taking their toll. They were able to adapt their livestock operations to the new reality fairly easily, converting most of their grain fields to pasture lands. The old confinement hog and poultry operations went bust long ago because of their huge demands on electricity and the impossibility of keeping the hogs and birds cool enough through the summers without massive cooling bills. Even outdoor hog and cattle operations are difficult because of the toll of the summer heat and the drying up of pastures in most summers. Dry and hot summers have severely cut into hay productivity and even though not as much hay is needed for the shorter winters, in most summers, farmers have to feed hay to get through dry periods when the pastures aren’t growing enough to keep the cattle fed.
For a while, there was a big push by the Farm Bureau and Ag Department to get the grain farmers to go into large pivot-irrigation systems to combat the droughts and continue to get high yields of corn and soybeans. Well-drillers and irrigation companies made a lot of money for a while. Luckily, it became too expensive to run the systems and pump the water so the irrigation works stand idle now. Luckily, I say, because for a while there, they were pumping our local aquifer dry. We had to extend our well down another 50 feet to stay in water.
We are producing enough electricity through a combination of solar and wind to run the well pump, use some electric lighting and even run electric vehicles and machines when we absolutely have to. Who knows how long we will be able to buy replacement batteries and other components of our system, so we continue to try to cut our electricity use. We continue to experiment with producing our own biofuels from oilseed crops, biomass, and waste digesters.
All in all, we are managing okay, certainly better than most in this country and around the world.
As we should have guessed, it turns out it is a lot easier to deal with the changing weather and climate than it is to deal with people—who have generally been unable to cope with the changing world and continue to try to hold on to lifestyles, or dreams of lifestyles, that are no longer possible. But that is a story for another time . . .
Herman wrote lectures, exams, scientific papers, and grants for most of his career as a professor of genetics as Illinois State University.
After he retired in 1998, he began writing down his memories of growing up on his family’s farm in Iroquois County, IL, and a broad range of both personal and scientific essays for the weekly Food & Farm Notes.
In 2012, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the building of the Brockman Family Barn, we collected some of Herman's essays in A Celebration of Family Farming. The pieces range over some 75 years of Herman’s life, from memories of growing up on a diverse, organic farm (before anyone even thought to use those words!), to the stories behind some of his favorite trees, to his conclusions about the best ways to farm.
When we moved to "The Land" in 1971, one of my earliest jobs was to "make fence." And once fences are made, the need to "fix fence" quickly follows. These are the expressions that Dad used. Not "build a fence" or "construct a fence," but "make fence." Not "repair a fence" or "maintain a fence," but "fix fence." Why did he use these expressions? Were they used by his father, who died when Dad was only 12? By his farmer neighbors? I do not know.
I do know that for about 20 years – since leaving the farm for college in 1952 until moving to The Land in 1971—I did not make fence or fix fence. Nevertheless, the first time I made fence in 1971, or shortly thereafter, I used a fencing pail—just as Dad did whenever he needed to make fence or fix fence. I do not recall putting together my first fencing pail in 1971, nor do I remember what it looked like. But I do know what was in it—all the things needed to make fence or fix fence that were small enough to fit in that pail.
Dad would go to the old 2-door garage, or in later years to the new tool shed, reach under the work bench, and grab his fencing pail—an old 5-gallon metal pail—not bought new, but rather a pail that once held paint or grease.
"Get the fencing pail." When I was very young, I could barely lug it to Dad. He would reach for the pail and throw it up into the 2-wheel trailer he pulled with the tractor for a big or back-field fencing job. Or, if it was a small or close job, he would carry the pail as he walked along the fence. Later, I could lift the pail into the trailer myself, and even later, on a small job, I would carry the pail along the fence, but never with the ease and purpose that came with Dad's strength and experience. The fencing pail seemed to be an extension of his body and personality—an integral part of being a farmer.
I would love to see again that fencing pail—dented metal with a wooden handle grip worn smooth by the sweat penetrating through his leather gloves. Oh, to look inside that pail again, with the wonder of my young boy's eyes, and see all those things needed to make fence and fix fence—always a fencing pliers, claw hammer, regular pliers (and in later years a vice-grips), fencing staples, assorted kinds and sizes of nails, and for electric fences, insulators of various kinds. And as he worked on a fence, he threw into the pail pieces of wire, bent nails, broken insulators—anything discarded that would fit in the pail. The fencing pail was always at Dad's side or close at hand as items needed and used went in and out.
And on a rainy day, Dad would clear off a place on the tool bench, take all the tools out of the fencing pail, oil them if needed, organize all the usable nails and insulators, and finally throw all the wire scraps and bent nails into an old wooden nail keg under the work bench. Then everything else went back into the pail until it was needed again—perhaps that same day, but almost certainly soon—until the last time.
Whenever I grab my fencing pail and head out to make fence, or more often to fix fence, I sense Dad's genes and farm experience within me—until I too will reach for that pail the last time.
This cold January morning I saw, as I do sporadically each winter, a pair of turtle doves timidly pecking at spilled feed under the bird feeder outside our front windows. I say “timidly” because this is a trait I have long associated with these gentle birds—so unlike the quarrelsome blue jays. The pair yield their space willingly to the other ground-feeding bird species. To my eyes, although rather plain, these plump birds are beautiful.
As was common, and many thought essential, on the windswept central Illinois farms of my youth, Dad’s father planted a hedgerow. That is the only descriptor I remember; if one grew alone, it was called a hedge tree—never by the correct name of osage-orange.
My grandfather Herman, who died when Dad was only twelve, must have planted his hedgerow shortly after he bought his quarter-section in 1892. It grew on the west edge, along the north-south road, of the southwest corner of the farm—providing a windbreak from the prevailing westerlies, thus offering some protection for the house, farm buildings, and farm animals.
The closely spaced hedge trees with their thorny low branches were intended to be a “living fence,” but Dad built a fence to hold the livestock in on the road side of the hedge row. The fence was woven wire on the bottom and barbed wire on the top of hedge fence posts. That was the major use of that hedgerow—to provide fence posts that are almost impervious to rot. There are still a few sturdy former hedge corner posts on the farm that must have been there since Grandpa Herman set them, or before—at least 100 years ago.
One of Dad’s winter jobs was to “trim” the hedgerow. He would prune out some of the smaller branches and a few larger ones—the purpose of which was to shape the main trunk to grow as upright as possible to produce straight fence posts.
After a year or more of “curing” the trimmings, Dad cut the pruned-out branches into small pieces. He burned these in the old cast-iron heater partially submerged in the round cement livestock water tank—thus making it possible for the horses, cattle, and sheep to drink every day all winter long. He said that the hedge burned as hot as coal, and did it ever pop and crackle, sending a shower of sparks out the top of the short metal smoke pipe of the water heater. That was a spectacular sight from my upstairs bedroom window on a cold, dark winter morning.
But I have digressed from turtle doves, which is what Mother always called them. I never thought to ask her why. Our Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds gives their common name as mourning dove, with no mention of turtle dove. I suspect that it is one of those regional words, perhaps even smaller, as in Mother’s family. But “turtle doves” they were to me, and still are.
As a young lad, Mother would take me in the summer for a walk in the permanent pasture bordered on the west edge by the hedge row in order to check on the hogs or weaned calves there—but mainly, I think because Mother loved to walk on the farm. She would put her index finger to her lips, say “Shhh,” and point to a nesting turtle dove—pointing out the unbelievably sparse, insecure-looking nest constructed of criss-crossed small dead twigs where densely-spaced, thorned branches provided a nest platform of sorts.
When older, I would walk there alone and inspect the turtle dove nests more closely than Mother would permit. I was amazed that the eggs and later the hatchlings could possibly not fall through or over the edges of such a nest.
In the late fall, a dozen or more turtle doves would arrange themselves on the electrical line wire along the road—so obviously they had made those nests work. I remember thinking at that time that the hedges with their dense and thorny twigs were the best trees for turtle doves. Indeed, I do not recall seeing their nests in any other trees.
Teresa has been writing about life on her fruit and herb farm in the weekly Food & Farm Notes for many years.
One of these days she’ll get around to publishing some of her writing, but for now read the eulogy below, and subscribe to the weekly Food & Farm Notes to read more.
Yusef came to us via Rebecca and Brian (interns for me and Henry in 2011) from a farm in Wisconsin. He was a fine specimen, a Rhode Island Red, already in his prime, with dark brown feathers, a perfect red comb, and a black, shiny tail. He came with his name and it was perfect. Yusef is the Arabic form of Joseph and it means “God shall multiply”.
I’ve had a lot of roosters over the years, beginning with Crooked Beak and Little One when I was just nine years old. I loved those roosters too. Little One had some congenital problems and he died young. I haven’t cried for an animal like I cried for Little One since. Crooked Beak looked a lot like Yusef except his top beak was curved over and down to one side. He liked me, but he was a holy terror to others. My Mom would take a broom with her to get the mail so she could fend him off.
We had another rooster several years ago, who won Grand Champion for Kira at the county fair. Kira had told him that if he won, he wouldn’t have to go in the soup pot and so I honored that and he lived a long life. But he was an ungrateful wretch; if he’d see Kira anywhere, he’d come running and would attack her.
But Yusef, he was the perfect rooster in every way. First and foremost, he took good care of his hens. He was a leader and an organizer and a protector. When we’d feed the chickens grain or scraps from the kitchen, he’d call them over with his special call, pick up the pieces of food and drop them. I swear I never saw him eat! I’m sure he did because he was a big strong rooster, but it was always after the hens had finished.
Many roosters are mean to their hens, but while Yusef definitely enjoyed his hens, he didn’t abuse them. In fact he protected them. I once saw him attack a sparrow hawk that landed in the chicken pasture, and whenever a dog came close to the fence, he would run over to try to fend it off. Even bikes and roller skaters would get chased down the trail next to our pasture. And he was good to us. I could pick him up and gaze at his beautiful orange eyes, stroke his silky feathers, and marvel at his two inch long spurs. He wasn’t crazy about it, but he put up with it.
Yusef died protecting his hens from what we think probably was a fox. We came home from harvesting aronia all day to find five dead hens spread all over the pasture with hardly a mark on them. Two more were injured, and Yusef was standing next to a dead hen with his head hanging all the way to the ground. We carried him to the shed with the other two injured birds and set them on a soft bed of hay, hoping that it was just shock and that they’d be okay in the morning.
Somehow Yusef made it to the roost that evening, but by morning he was worse. We put all three out of their misery that evening and I buried him by the grape arbor, where God shall multiply him into lovely fruit in coming years.
The chicken yard is too quiet now. Jill is going to give us one of her young roosters, but I’ll always remember Yusef.