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BACHELOR'S SONG

Journal entry: May 4, 2010 (E-mail fragment)

Dear J:

I am an artist who believes in the citizenship of art, which is to say in the case of this place, in the role of art in the reclamation, restoration, and sustainability of the prairie. However, such a comprehensive complex process entails a new American persona. Thus, I am seeking a new way of being on the land. In addition, being a man whose only western masculine archetypes are the cowboy and the pioneer patriarch, the Christian paterfamilias, I am engaged in an ongoing research about men who live alone on the land. The literature of the region, fictional and factual, used to call them bachelor farmers.

Does solitude on the land generate an evolved American masculinity that is more sensitive, that listens more, that creates more, that is more compassionate; wise? I am seeking to have conversations with such men. The only difference is that, while I am an art nomad, a pilgrim of culture (a cultural migrant worker), the men I talk to are planted, rooted, embedded.

Therefore, I would like to listen to how you live, and the journey that took you there and keeps you there.

Gratefully,
E

 

4 men

4 generations of men (unknown author)

Journal entry: May 6, 2010

...and everywhere the friendly indescribable solitude of that sea of grass.
Conrad Richter, The Sea of Grass

At first, bachelor farmers seemed a thing of the past, of Willa Cather’s fiction (I first encountered them in My Antonia). However, when my partner in crime, octogenarian birder Marge Streckfus, like a veritable Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, began to poke around, they began to surface like grass after winter. Suddenly, almost everyone had known of one; many had them in their family tree. Uncle Harry, the neighbor down the road. But the living ones were much harder to access, because of their shyness (even antisocial stance), isolation, and constant labor. Running a farm on your own leaves you with no time for idle talk. Talking to a lazy artist is an unimaginable thing for busy men who farm alone. Therefore, my first offer was squarely turned down. And although I am crestfallen, it has made me even more determined. Because all I need is the voice of one. I still believe that one person can change the world. With much help I have gathered a list of nine, and I would be happy if the universe opened the mind of one, so that the world can hear him.

Journal entry: May 8, 2010

I suddenly realize that I have been projecting something onto this, namely, my own solitude on the land, as I travel far and wide to create site-specific art projects, painting community portraits. Because, although I am surrounded by people in these public gestures, I am alone, deeply alone. And even as I sometimes start the journey with someone waiting for me back home, that person is not always there when I return. Because the journey was too long, the feelings of abandonment grew to be overwhelming. Thus, a home, a family gets undone for the sake of portraying another one very far away. That is the secret price of this cultural journey. Therefore, these men are my peers, even as they think that I am an outsider. I understand them more than they will ever know.

 

bachelor1

 

Journal entry: May 10, 2010 (Driving through the rain with J, showing me the family fields)

His paternal great-grandfather was born in 1832 and came to Kansas in 1879. His maternal great-grandfather saw the train that carried Lincoln’s body while making his way to Salina. Too poor to buy a ticket, he arrived in the train’s cow catcher during spring 1869 and walked 8 miles west to his homestead. Eventually, both men had sons for whom they bought land, contributing the initial down payment; then the boys paid on. The girls got nothing. They were expected to marry money.

His father began to farm as a boy, almost 80 years ago. He’s now 89 and cannot farm anymore because of age and health, but he still knows what’s going on and makes suggestions. They don’t have the newest nor the best farming equipment, but they don’t owe anyone over 30 days cash. They do not receive government subsidies.

J has a boy’s smile. He’s a 57 year-old bachelor; neither he nor his sister married. He began to help his father farm in 1967, after his bachelor uncle died. The Boy Scouts found John dead in his kitchen by the kibble, sitting on the floor undisturbed. He suffered from Parkinson’s tremors. Johnnie must have suddenly fallen ill as he went to feed his dogs, sat down humbly like a child and died. (J’s voice cracks and he covers his mouth as he breaks down in tears.)

It was a difficult decision to farm the land. He has a degree in music education and plays in the Municipal and the German bands. He lived away from Salina for 2 years teaching in a school, was laid off and returned to farming. When asked about seeing the world, he replies, If I haven’t done it, it probably isn’t worth doing for me. He’s a devout Roman Catholic: a lector, cantor, and Eucharistic minister. He has strong opinions about prayer and the need to participate weekly in a community of believers. There is always an answer, it may not be what you want to hear, but it will nudge you along. Things go better with God. All of his farming friends believe in God and attend some sort of church, but their children do not.

Contemporary technology keeps you in touch. But in the old days you were out there all by yourself. He admits that the solitude would drive some people nuts. But, he asks, are you really ever alone? There may not be a human being for miles, but there is an abundance of creatures, if you open yourself to it. The land has a voice: the wind through the grass, deer jumping, birds calling, insects, skunks, coyotes, badgers, possums. You may not see them but you hear them. Sometimes it’s very soft and sometimes very forceful.

To see a hawk 100-200 feet up in the air above you making a dive for a field mouse. There’ll be a cloud of dust and suddenly he rises with the mouse in his talons. He seldom misses. What eyesight and perception! That’s nature: life and death. You feel sorrow for the mouse, but some other will replace it, and the hawk will live for another day. Everything is provided for. People in towns don’t see this, the sunrise and the sunset.

The breadth of God... What this Higher Power has provided: rats, mice, ground squirrels. But we have damaged nature. The more we use chemical fertilizers, those things disappear: grub worms, centipedes, millipedes. Even the earthworms. You can’t find them anymore around the fields that have been farmed when you’re trying to fish. If you stop farming, they come back after a while, but never in the same quantities. But he considers chemical fertilizers a necessary evil, if we are going to live off wheat, even as they are seeping into the tap water. We are ruining ourselves. Wheat is our livelihood. We do not have enough cattle and horses to make manure. The soil has been so depleted over the years that it does not produce without chemical fertilizers. And most farmers do not let their land lie fallow. In the old days, farmers rotated their crops. But the demand for wheat makes it impossible. So, they farm from road ditch to road ditch. And yet, after all this, a storm can flatten your wheat. So you cry a bit and keep going.

At the turn of the century, Salina had 5 operating grain mills, but now it only has 1. The railroad abandoned us, he says. First, they gradually stopped sending crews to do track maintenance. Then, fewer trains came. And, eventually, they stopped altogether. Old train tracks still run through his property, and he’s trying to maintain them on his own, because of his love of history and genealogy.

 

 

He remembers the harvest when he was young. They would come together at lunchtime and during afternoon break. His mother would bring lunch, and a special dessert that she only made during harvest time. They would stop for their evening meal. His grandfather bought 320 acres of land with the help of his father, a half section, but left 12 acres unplowed. J’s dad did not farm them either. When asked why his grandfather and father did not farm them, J responds that these men were not the sort of people that did much asking or telling. They simply understood how things should be.

What is the future of this land, I ask? Perhaps more people will move out here from the city, he says. But it would be a shame. Prices do keep climbing, in spite of the recession. There will always be pastures.

Journal entry: May 12, 2010
(Two bachelors named J in a row. Visiting a second J’s homestead)

I’m a big fan of cows, he says. The prairie needs a grazer. The bison is beautiful, but without the ranching force, preservation is harder.

His 28 year-old, self-sustainable, homestead off-the-grid is thickly fenced like a compound envisioned by Hollywood for a post-apocalyptic thriller, complete with a heavy timber 50 foot high lookout he built with a friend. He explains that the tall fences are to keep white tailed deer, raccoons, and other predators out of his garden and poultry coops. He lives outside Hartford, bordering the Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge. The wooded trail beyond his gate is sided with the tallest poison ivy I have ever brushed up against; not a path for curious mountain bikers. Solar panels adorn the entrance, while 15 years supply of firewood is scattered by his shed.

J sports a long pony tail and a peace tattoo on his right hand. He got it back in 1969 at a party. He looks much younger than his 60 years of age. In fact, he recently had surgery to remove a giant benign tumor wrapped around major organs. He should have died but survived, he believes, because he was physically fit and grows all his food organically. He was expected to be on morphine for 60 days following the procedure, but never took an aspirin. He hunts deer and turkey with bow and arrow, processes his own catch, and has not bought meat in 40 years. He crafts the bows himself and was making a remarkable one as a gift for an old friend. He hosts bow jams in his tool shop.

 

pony tail

 

He has one of the most beautiful little fruit and vegetable no-till gardens I have visited in years. I break and eat a sprig of tasty fresh asparagus off a raised bed. He has no time to can, so he freezes his produce, and maintains an unheated greenhouse over winter. He does not spray anything. If you got a bug problem, you got a soil problem. Real good soil is the best antidote against bugs. Prairie hay is his favorite mulch, because of its diversity.

J grew up as an army brat, but spent 7 formative years in Alaska, where many of his friends lived off the grid. It wasn’t an unusual choice. I enter a house built with salvage materials, and his living-room is magical, filled with books, bones, feathers, paintings, and other memorabilia. He has a stone desk with an amazing fossilized sand top from an old ocean floor. His bed on the second floor is covered by a beautiful quilt his mother made. She made them for every one of her five kids. A small piano sits by his bedroom window. He took lessons 15 years ago and hopes to pick them up again after his retirement, to keep his mind alert. For now, all his hobbies are very physical. He hopes to retire in two years. He needs to save a little bit more money to be comfortable in his old age.

In the old days, I would have been the member of the tribe who did the walkabout, exploring. I’m a rather independent person. I prefer not to be dependent on society. Nevertheless, I don’t do this to be ready for the collapse of American society. It’s about my quality of life. This lifestyle forces you to be healthy. I built this house with my own hands. I believe that when we get very far from using things we haven’t made, we cheat nature. It’s morally wrong to consume too much out of life that you cannot generate. I’m not a religious person, but life is a gift to be used sparingly.

J was married twice but has no children. I’m not a hermit. We think we’re in control of our lives, but we’re not. However, I do monitor who comes into my life. I need time to live like this. It takes time to live like this. It takes discipline. I don’t have superfluous friends. But I do like solitude. It takes a fair amount of solitude to think things through. Loneliness is the price of freedom. A lot of people move out of school, get a job, a wife, kids. They die and did not have much time to think and make right decisions. That lack of time leads to many wrong decisions.

J spent 320 days with a friend on a canoe exploring the Mississippi river, living out of a tent. The most shocking aspect of being back in society was the noise, how noisy we are. Recently, the doctor told him that he has bionic hearing; the best hearing of any man his age the doctor has ever witnessed. You are a better listener if you’re totally immersed in nature. It’s a truly auditory experience.

When asked about counseling young people, he responds: We don’t have an energy crisis, we have a brain crisis. Learn a little bit about nature. There’s a lot of nature deficit disorder. The average American is 5 or 6 generations away from the land. So they don’t recognize its value, the loss when it’s gone. It’s important to have a connection with dirt, with a living plant. A lot of things have intrinsic value beyond purchasing or selling them. And we need to be aware of the moment. We’re always bitching. But the moment is generally beautiful. Thank your blessings. We need to stop being so greedy.

J smiles and gives me a tuft of grisly bear hair as I’m about to leave. It’s long and red, surprisingly soft. He found the bear already dead and took some. For the road, he says. You can come back any time.

Journal entry: May 14, 2010
(The youngest of them all)

Hector, Homer, and Willa come out to greet me. 3 happy dogs down a green path. But only Willa is his, the two boys belong to the neighbors. He adopted her from the pound three weeks ago and she has not left his side ever since. She’s dark, so she hardly ever gets ticks. They favor lighter colors.

 

dog

 

He is 48 years old and originally grew up in northern Texas, but had no sense of that landscape. I was in the suburbs, and the suburbs look pretty much the same everywhere. He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from the early to mid-1990s, but he doesn’t remember having an inclination to live this way back then. It was certainly not conscious or developed, he says, though he rode his bike to school. He was drawn to a “back to the land” notion and read Walden in college, but was actually put off by its idealism. However, by the mid-90s he became attracted to living in the Midwest partly because of living expenses. He could not afford the Bay Area anymore on a young journalist’s salary.

He drove up here in 1999 for the Smoky Hill River Festival, and visited The Land Institute. But he hesitated moving here. So, he worked for a while with the US Park Service at the Homestead National Monument in Southeast Nebraska, as a way of testing the area. Eventually, he wrote to his current employers about coming here for a farming internship. They answered affirmatively, and that was 14 years ago. He now works for them as an editor.

I want to live as light as I can in this society. That is why I have decided to live in the country, to raise a fair amount of my food, and do without a lot of things that people today think about as needs, but which are really conveniences, not truly necessary. Of course, I do recognize that I am single, that I have no dependents, so I can indulge in the luxury of this poverty. Although I spend less time gathering firewood than people do watching TV. The same with getting water. Of course, if I were using 150 gallons of water daily, like the average American, then it would take longer, but I don’t.

He owns 40 acres, 26 of which he keeps for cool-season pasture grasses, 14 of which he dedicates to prairie, which may be used as pasture too. His house has a toilet because the health department required him to put in a septic tank. But he admits that it will help when his parents visit. He has no electricity, no solar power. It doesn’t seem to fit here, he says. He uses candles at night.

When I ask about what he does with his mind during his free time, he replies that there are moments when he empties his mind of all thought. Those are the best moments in his experience, he admits. But I’m a ruminator, he states. I have a higher than average level of rumination than most people. I consider meditation to be a chosen state. So when I say that I’m ruminating, I mean that I wake up in the middle of the night with a thought in my head and I consider it for hours.

I do read in my spare time. But there is not much opportunity for that during this time of year. For example, I have been building a fence around my vegetable garden and it took several trials to finally get it right. I poked myself to succeed. There are so many chores to do, like maintaining the chicken coops I keep in two different locations. I have more time to read in winter. Initially, I was an art major. And I still enjoy the process of making an image more than of setting down words. I love an intuitive visual engagement. The writing that is best for me is a kind of journal writing that takes you places. Again, a kind of rumination.

What do you ruminate about, I ask. Being alone occupies much of my rumination. It’s not natural for a human being to live alone, although solitude is good. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy going to work in an office, to be with people. Otherwise, I’m not very good at meeting people.

He once announced the lifestyle choices that he was planning to make in the midst of a family gathering. His otherwise calm conventional father, an engineer by trade who early on in this process knew where his son was headed, suddenly lost his temper and remarked that no woman would want to join him. Indeed, the greatest challenge has been to find a partner who wants to live this way. I ask what he does to meet this great challenge. His face suddenly lights up, his blue eyes widen and he produces a big smile. Well, I’m always looking!

I live alone as the byproduct of decisions I have made. I also live this way because I have an artistic temperament. Solitude is the physical description of where you are. Loneliness is a feeling. Being lonesome means that you are in solitude. Being lonely means feeling hurt about being alone. I feel less lonely than I used to. I suspect that I feel less lonely here than in other places because this is the first place that feels like my own, as opposed to renting. But it also has to do with the quality of rural solitude.

I intentionally put my house here as opposed to the road because I wanted this much solitude. I do like to know that there are people around me, but I like a certain amount of space to myself. I like it when people visit me but I want a certain amount of space my way. Living in solitude allows you to do things the way you want to. This home is fairly uncompromising, considering how most Americans live.

Nevertheless, during the process of building my dream house, I have compromised. I would have built a smaller house where it just for myself. But I built it this big hoping to share it with a partner and visitors one day. Of course, I built it once, and I could do it again. However, I’ve not made the compromise of getting electricity. His new house’s beautiful, textured whitewashed walls are very thick, built with straw bails sealed with a mixture of clay, sand, and horse manure. The foundation consists of limestone salvaged from an old torn down grocery store. The structural timber was salvaged from the military.

The house still has a lose dirt floor, so dust covers much, including his kitchen shelves. An assortment of second hand dishes fill them. He cooks out of a wood burning black stove. During summer, he cooks on a camp fire. He hopes to lay down a floor of bricks on sand, but it’s hard to do all this alone. He sometimes procrastinates, but once he gets going, it’s not so bad.

 

shoes

 

When I ask him about the best of all possible futures, he returns to the notion of partnership and working his land much more. My pasture would be healthy and have animals on it. The trees that I planted would grow and become magnificent before I die. You cannot make a living as a farmer with only 40 acres. So I would still want to keep my job for the social contact, and its editorial environmental goals. I would also like to see the world either forced to get off its fossil fuel addiction, or give it up on its own, soon.

I’d like to see the beginning of the end of what we used to call progress in my lifetime. I’d like to get to see that things are going to be better. But I don’t want to see blood running on the streets. It sounds horrendous, unbelievable. But what would happen if our resources suddenly plummeted? My father thinks that they’ll figure something out by then. I understand his response, partly because no one alive today in the West has known it any different.

 

socks

 

Journal entry: May 16, 2010
(Surrendering to the humbling aspects of time)

I have not finished reading Sod-House Days, Letters from a Kansas Homesteader, 1877-78, the epistles of Howard Ruede, edited by John Ise. I am a very slow reader. Like my third bachelor, I ruminate every phrase, sentence, and paragraph. I stop over individual words like potholes of wisdom, to ponder them for days. Sometimes it takes me years (yes, plural) to read a truly good book. Maybe it comes from my earlier formative training as a cloistered monk.

Time is running out. I ended up with a short list of 9 men who live alone on the land, by choice or by destiny, from confirmed and unwilling bachelors, to widowers. The youngest was in his late 40s, the oldest in his early 80s. Nevertheless, I was only able to interview 3 during the past few weeks, only a third, because of other project responsibilities. Talking with them meant traveling next door or 140 miles, a few hours or a full day. A pilgrimage to a different American heartland; to a different expression of masculinity. I would like to come back and pick it up again one day soon, before some die, before threads vanish. These solo voices have something to teach us, something both gentle and fierce.

 

farmer-horse

Anonymous photographer, 1918. Penciled handwriting reads:
Arthur holding the colt, King, and the other is King’s mother, Lady.

And then, almost a year later...

Journal entry: March 17, 2011
A body like a tool...

An old black dog greets us. I arrive very early, so I find him wearing sunglasses during an unseasonably bright, warm, early spring afternoon, standing framed by his garage doors, fingers stained with ink, trying to fix a tattoo gun for branding cattle on their ears. The silver implement, big handle with intimidating needles protruding from a hammerhead, rests all taken apart on the back of his muddy pickup truck.

He lives alone with his 88 year-old mother in the family home, 10 miles east of Salina. She is still very alert and active, looking much younger. One of her daughters took her to Europe: 3 days in London, 3 days in Paris, and 3 days in Rome. He takes off his muddy shoes when he comes into the carpeted farmhouse, showing clean white tube socks.

He is of average height, stocky and strong, the youngest of four boys. He has three brothers and three sisters, all living. He studied agricultural economics at Kansas State University in Manhattan for four years but came home on weekends and every summer to help with the farming.

His father wanted him to get a job because he thought that, with two sons already farming, the farm could not produce enough income for a third son to make a living at it. But he came back anyway and the old man died of lung cancer at 67. In the end, all three brothers work the land, though he is the only one living there. They farm mostly wheat, corn, soybeans, barlow, and a little bit of alfalfa.

 

young wheat

 

No sooner have I stepped out of the car that he asks me What do you want to know? I ask him about the set of decisions that make a man chose this lifestyle. I like the independence, he says. Just don’t overextend yourself.

I ask about the future of the farm beyond his lifespan. Some guys retire and their land gets absorbed into other farms. Since I don’t have any children, I would like to see a nephew take it on..., or a niece, and he laughs. But the family has not had that conversation. None of the nieces or nephews are yet being nurtured for it. But, he says, I don’t think this is something that you can nurture. Either you do [it] or you don’t. It’s pretty much “natural selection,” though I don’t know if that is the right way of putting it.

The farm is 2,000 acres, with a big cattle operation, but he can see growing the property some more. It has already increased during his stewardship. If you don’t enjoy this business, you don’t survive in this business. You won’t do a good job, specially taking care of cattle. It gives you satisfaction to grow crops. You’re using resources to create resources.

Is the lifestyle isolating; is the life solitary? [During] certain times of the year, it’s solitary. But it’s only as solitary as you want it to be. I take no vacations. But I do know a lot of farmers who take their families on vacation for one week or so. The economy is good right now. They’re using corn for ethanol. Good or bad; I don’t know. But it’s raising the price [of corn].

Any thoughts on global warming? Our temperature has changed. [But] climate changes forever. It never stays the same. We’re here for such a short time. We used to have more snow in the wintertime, when I was growing up. Suddenly in the last two years we have it again. Maybe we’re back into that cycle. Who knows.

There is a disconnect from the food source. They need more education about how their food is produced. A lot think it comes from the grocery store. To do outdoor sports is not to be in nature. He speaks about a sense of entitlement. Where is America’s attention, I ask. It’s on whatever happens tomorrow; whatever the newsfeed tells them.

He belongs to a couple of farmers’ associations, but chuckles as he confesses that he doesn’t go to the meetings. This is a man who takes no vacations, after all. You have to keep the equipment updated. If you have a good year, you do. You make a list of priorities. If you have a tough year, you make do with what you have. You are always learning something new, it’s not predictable. [And] everybody has their own quirks. You check out what they do and incorporate it into what you’re doing, or not. He travelled to Iowa three or four years ago with a neighbor and met a bunch of guys, corn farmers. It was interesting to hear them.

He does not feel threatened by corporate farming. Most of the farms around him are family owned. Most of his competitors are Salina-based lawyers and doctors who have been buying land as investment ever since the stock market went bad. Their land does not turn fast enough. Will there be a return to the land? I don’t think it will happen. It’s not good enough living for most people. There are not enough parcels for everyone.

Once again, we return to the topic of his independence. I like making my own decisions. [I] don’t like anyone second-guessing me. If it doesn’t work, I pay for it. During the wheat harvest, I hire one extra person, a nephew. He has employed three nephews over time, but as they get older they have moved on.

You can’t get over emotional in this business. It’s not like people who live in town and have a set paycheck. Your crops could be wiped out by a freeze. There are bad years. It could tear you apart.

I guess him to be in his 40s, with premature grey short hair. We conclude the interview inside the family home, where I meet his mother and reunite with my dear octogenarian friend Marge Streckfus, my tireless driver in all these adventures. Of the men I have interviewed, he is the least articulate.

He tries to look at me straight in the eye, eyeing me up and down. His answers are short, uncomplicated, pragmatic, to the point, like bullets. But there is no aggression, just a sense of distance, like talking to a man across a field. We spent most of the interview in the garage, facing each other, with the back of the pick up truck between us, both leaning on it, as if a deep river ran through it.

Finally, wanting to honor his ways, I speak about my sense of how this life choice comes with a personality that is quiet, reserved, private. I tell him that I respect that. His body suddenly responds to my statement, his head and torso arching backwards, in a full upper-body nod. Yes, that is not our strength. Most of us just want to do our work.

We say goodbye and he does not walk us to the door. The old farm dog peers at us all curled up from under the house. We drive away through fields of young wheat.

 

marge driving

 

Journal entry: March 18, 2011
Since 1874…

He was born on Saint Patrick’s Day and turned 78 years-old yesterday. He seems carved from the same timeless material as the younger bachelor I interviewed yesterday, fast-forwarded 40 years later. Both wore the same cap, plaid short, faded blue jeans and tight belt. He used to be tall but is a little bent and walks slowly over to greet us while his old dog sniffs us after some barking. He has not seen my driver friend Marge Streckfus in 15 years, so it is a bit of a reunion.

We sit and talk in the kitchen, on vintage green chairs. This is the house where he was born and grew up. The interior is frozen in time. He took care of his parents in their old age. They did not want to go to a nursing home. They were six brothers and one sister, but four of the brothers have passed away. His paternal grandparents and three unmarried great-aunts lived with them as an extended family under one roof.

His nephew farms for him. The farm is eight miles southeast of Salina. It is 1,100 acres, if you count the pastures, he says. He grew up farming, except for the two years he served in the army during peace time. When you got out of the service, you were broke. So you came back home to living with your mom and dad. I had free room and board. And they needed farmers to support the war effort.

He worked making cattle feed in town, from midnight to eight am, farming during the day. He was trying to save to buy some land of his own, using his father’s machinery. I just wanted to farm, he says.

What does that mean, I ask? What does it mean that you want to farm?

You are kind of your own boss. If you want to take a day off, a few days, you can do it. I belonged to the Knights of Columbus. We farmers could take time off any time somebody died to be pallbearers. Sometimes we were the only ones at the funeral.

When you’re raised in a farm you want to be a farmer, he states emphatically. It’s all we knew; it’s all you know. But the fact is that some of his brothers did not become farmers. The farm did not produce enough income to sustain them all. So he admits that some got married, needed money, and had to seek another livelihood.

Did you enjoy any particular aspect of it? I enjoyed all of it. There were struggles a lot of times, when it was muddy, when there were floods.

In his day, he farmed wheat, milo, and alfalfa. He planted soybeans a few times but quit it. We had years of good crops, years of flood. Lot’s of years floods came through the creeks. At the end of the year, if you owed a little less money to the bank, you felt good.

How do you spend your days now? I’m retired, he says. I had a knee replaced and I knew I was done. Now my doctor tells me to walk and not eat friend foods. His cholesterol is dangerously high. He used to eat two fried hamburgers for lunch and two fried hamburgers for dinner. But the doctor switched him to boiled chicken, which he actually likes.

 

old chair

 

There used to be [more] neighbors in the area. You met them all the time. [But] many have left. There are lots of vacant homes in the country. Now, I have neighbors that I don’t know. They are not farmers.

This place was homesteaded by my great-grandad. They lived in a dugout on the bank of Gypsum Creek until they could build something. We all get up and walk into the living-room. A rocking chair sits in the middle of the carpeted room. He points at three framed pictures on the south wall facing curtained windows.

There are two black and white photos. The first is a close-up of a log cabin. The second shows a house with an annex dwarfing the log cabin, now looking much older. Their first homestead was followed by the log cabin, then followed by the current large house, to which they added sections over time. The third frame encases the original Homestead Certificate #614, dated April 1, 1874, signed by president Ulysses S. Grant.

We return to sit in the kitchen and suddenly hear some noise outside the window. The nephew and his youngest son walk in, seeking a lunch of leftovers for the boy, who is hungry. I am unexpectedly confronted by three generations of Kansas farmers in one room.

The nephew has a daughter plus an older son in college who wants to be an art teacher. He is studying ceramics. We greet each other, they reheat mash potatoes and chicken. The boy eats quietly, and we continue talking. I ask the nephew, a friendly man in his 40s, why he took up farming.

I knew how to do it, because I grew up in a farm. And I had one chance to do it. Our dad was going to quit, to sell out. I was going to join the marine corps, but my brother and I took it on.

It’s always a struggle. The standard of living is so much higher that you have a hard time trying to reach it from farm income. There are really good years, and years when you have to get a job.

My wife and I always try to farm together. She too comes from a farming family. But health insurance is so high. [And] every few years the farming operation changes a lot. We were almost all-wheat when we started. [But] we got more diverse, more like uncle always farmed, [with] several crops and cattle. Machinery expenses are the worst thing. Old machinery breaks and costs to repair. But it’s cheaper than making payments [for new machinery].

I return to my bachelor farmer, who has been listening to his more eloquent nephew. I ask him one more time about his love of open space.

My sister wanted me to move to town as I got older. [But] I don’t want someone living next to me, 14 feet away. How can you stand to live so close? I said that I’m going to stay here as long as I can.

We shake hands and say goodbye. He remains sitting on a kitchen chair, leaning against the wall, looking tired. We walk back to our car. Neither the uncle nor the nephew see us to the door. The dog has disappeared. We look down into the deep creek by the house. The water level is very low, but it is full of large dead trees torn by past raging currents. We drive away past flood signs.

 

flood sign

 

Journal entry: March 19, 2011
Last thought for now...

I have decided to make this an ongoing project. But I must put it to rest for now. I came back almost a year later, but I do not know when I will be back again to pursue some more interviews.

These men are admirable. They are loyal brothers and uncles, devoted sons. They are part of large families, farmers associations, hunting groups, and church communities, even as they all share a bit of the medieval hermit. Some are philosophical, poetic and even prophetic. Some are terse. Trying to make them amply describe their lives can be like conjuring rain in August. There are those who yearn in the raw, and those who seem to have peacefully put away pieces of themselves. As my friend poet Lori Brack describes much more subtly, some are men who only chose to pay attention to parts of themselves. As one man said, you cannot be emotional about farming, because it can tear you apart. But for me, their rich quiet lives are so incredibly framed by the seasons, by birds singing, sprouts springing, big sky, heavy rains, strong winds, and muddy mounds of soil, that I want to believe that even those who have sacrificed vital aspects of themselves for the sake of their families and their work, nevertheless feel intensely, even if privately. Maybe for some it is the epic price of living and farming in Kansas for a century.