Tuesday, July 29, 2008



A Japanese relative once said to me: "Marie, you have so many places to call home. Aren't you lucky?"

At the time, I wasn't sure how to respond to this.

And now I realize, he is right.

I don't always feel so lucky. I envy people with family who are close by and who are always dependable (they are always dependable when they are close by, right?). I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be someone with one clear sense of place. Coming home would mean that everyone would speak the same language and that translation would not be the job of a select few. Is this a less lonely existence? In an emergency, someone would always be there to help me; I would never be on my own.

Then again, to have so much love for so many seemingly different places, and to have this love because I was taught it by my parents and my grandparents, seems like something to treasure. I'd rather have my father back than be forced to have the level of introspection I've been engaged in the past two months.

But on the whole, I'm glad to have been forced to think about the meaning of home and to have reclaimed a part of the country that I love dearly, and probably always will. (Now, if someone could please just lower the price of gas and/or airfare).

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Lessons Learned from Harvest

1. Whoever told me that one pair of jeans was sufficient during harvest time was either lying, or never tried to clean the inside of a bin hours before departing for the airport. I ended up spending the night at my Aunt's house, wandering around in my pajamas while the laundry spun, just so I would not reek on the plane back to California. Then again, I probably have overly sensitive olfactory senses.

2. Makeup is pointless on the prairie. Sunscreen is a necessity.

3. Hats with wide brims may make me look like a gardener, but they are functional.

4. Once upon a time we lived in a country where men read books and made things with their hands--think Thomas Jefferson. We have lost this element of our culture--or at least, there are very few who preserve it. People seem to fall into one camp or the other. I admire people who exercise both their brains and brawn.

More specifically; it is odd to go from a morning on the farm with men who make business with a handshake, and who must trust each other to conduct business, to an afternoon in the city where business is conducted with the "aid" of attorneys. No wonder my father could never entirely leave the prairie behind.

It is also strange to spend a morning on the farm with men who know how to fix things with wire and pliers, to an afternoon in the airport of a major city where men lug around Tumi luggage, while wearing some kind of overpriced sports-and-mesh high performance sandal and rely on a plethora of electronics. Can they fix anything?

Does it still matter if you know how "things" interlock? Does it matter if you know that old and rusted wire intended to keep a bin lid on a bin will fly off in the wind and knock over an augur and that the rain will wet the precious wheat inside the bin and that a crane must now pull the augur back up into place and that all this could have been avoided if the proper wire had been checked in the first place?

I'm old fashioned enough to think that it matters a great deal. I understand that we live in a world where abstract thinking is prized and highly paid and that it is acceptable to hire other people to do everything else. But we are still physical creatures who need to take care of the things that surround us--our homes, our food, our air--and it matters that boys and girls grow up learning how things work and that we are all interconnected. I actually think it effects the way the brain is wired--just a hunch, of course. But how can it not matter that some people know how to think systemically and others do not?

5. Farming is an act of faith. You cannot schedule when your crops will ripen. You are dependent on the weather. Personally, I think this is wonderful. It's very much an illusion in modern life that all can be controlled and slotted into a time frame. There is a reason why, as I keep quipping, the yellow pages in the Great Plains list more prosthetic limbs specialists than psychoanalysts. No wonder, then, that the Axial Age arose around the time that man figured out how to harvest crops. Farming is a delicious balance; it gives us enough food to allow us to pursue something other than worrying about food, but requires us to be trusting of nature.

6. Someone asked me if New Yorkers still had uneducated stereotypes of Nebraskans. I had to think about this. The truth is--and this was the answer I gave--I don't allow anyone to trash-talk Nebraska to me. It's too important to me. And then I got to thinking about the stereotypes we all hold about each other.

As simple as it sounds, I do really think that you will not know a people or a place until you go and see it and them for yourself. And I remembered again how important it is to me for people to really try and understand something and to think for themselves--and how much I want to live up to this standard I've set for others.

7. All farmers are handsome.



I drove from Kimball, Nebraska down to Denver with my wonderful Aunt Jane and cousin Brian. They both knew exactly what I needed after 10 days of beef 'n potatoes.

Brian had apparently long been wanting to take me to a restaurant called Domo, which has an unprepossessing exterior. But on the inside, it's a dojo-meets-restaurant-meets-museum. It was a taste of home.

Nonetheless, I confess to being sad to leave the plains behind. I have so many good feelings and memories about that part of our country.

The plane bounced nearly all the way. With clouds like this, it's not hard to imagine why. I just wish some of them would dump some rain on Western Nebraska.

From the plane, I could see that the Big Sur wildfire was still active. Look at how the smoke is just pouring, cauldron-like, over the hillside. The air was a sick reddish-yellow. It looked like a wound.

Ahoy there, McMansionites. How does it feel to have your palace directly in a flight path?

The Monterey Airport has an observation deck, and I always try to go up there to watch the planes take off or land. I would so like to learn to fly a plane.

In the past, my parents were always on this deck waiting and waving to me. I don't know why it took me so many years to try to snap a photo of the deck while landing. I can make out my mother because I know where she was standing. She's the blurry black dot in the middle, relieved to see me home.

We went straight to the beach for the sunset. The sands were filled with parties and people playing games and eating and enjoying each other. I was in a daze.

My mother told me how, the day before, she'd come across a man fishing off the beach just for fun. He'd catch a fish, then throw it back in the surf. She couldn't stand it any more, and managed to talk him into giving her some fish for free. He was happy to share.

Over the phone, my mother had asked me what I wanted for dinner.

"Please make it fish," I had said.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Nebraskan Odds and Ends

I was originally going to include a somewhat humorous and somewhat serious series of pictures demonstrating the hazards of farming. The genesis of the idea goes back some ten years when I was in Nebraska and noticed that the yellow pages listed more entries for prosthetic limbs than psychoanalysts; the reverse, of course, would be true in New York. But as I was actually trying to get work done during harvest, I didn't take the number of pictures I would have had I been a mere spectator.

At any rate, I did manage to get a picture of this stubble fire.

I overheard Eric advising someone to not drive on the stubble for fear of starting a fire. He didn't say this to me directly, but to my cousin, Paul, and I had to ask later if I had heard correctly that a vehicle can start a fire, which it turns out, it can. In matters like this, I'm generally happy to err on the side of caution--which does not explain why we all ended up driving on the stubble anyway (?!?). We were lucky not to start any fires, but I did see this one out of the car window, and took a picture to post. It is so dry and hot in Nebraska, I don't see the point of ever tempting fate.

Gordon asked me to post this picture of "Suds and Mugs," which, as far as I was able to tell from my investigation, is a laundry/bar/video game establishment. I forgot to take photos of the signs which make clear which tubs are to be used for "greasers" and which may be used by regular folk like me. Presumably a greaser is not someone still trapped in the 50s with a comb stuck in a pocket.

I'd forgotten about this photo of a windmill, which should demonstrate even more clearly the scale of these things. I had a lot of fun driving the truck in the photo. It was enormous, but then again, anything large just gets swallowed up in the prairie.

Paul Jr. took us to an abandoned gas station located on the Nebraska and Wyoming border. There were apparently once two sets of gas pumps--one set for each state, and the price varied accordingly. People actually went from side to side in search of the cheapest price. Now the whole thing is abandoned, as though some sort of bomb hit it. As one of the combine drivers pointed out to me, things just sit outside, abandoned and preserved because of the dry air.

The abandoned office.

The boys found a bike and turned it upright. Tyler demonstrated his best grimacing biker face.

Mark was a more contemplative looking biker.

We end harvest with a steak dinner, which we initially intended to eat at the nearby reservoir. It rained that evening, however, and so we cooked the steaks just outside the quonset. I've learned that the vacuum cleaner has many uses. It can vacuum spilled wheat off of the ground, and assist in cleaning up the inside of a bin. When used in reverse, it is also good for getting coals to fire up in a hurry.

Uncle Mark made a chandelier by hanging a light bulb off of a large metal hook in the middle of the quonset. We'd saved this picnic table from my grandmother's house, and managed to fit the eight of us side by side.

Before I left Nebraska, I visited the grain elevator one more time to discover that it was completely full. Excess wheat was being dumped onto the ground (!) outside. Over the course of a few days, the pile grew and grew.

The pile of wheat bothered me. Looking at this, you would not think we were engaged in any kind of world wide food shortage.

I asked the manager of the elevator why the wheat was outside, and he told me: "A train'll be along August 1st." Of course, the wheat is subject to rain when piled up like this, but I was assured that the shape of the pile would mean that most rain would simply roll off of the top and into the ground. Nonetheless, it strikes me as very wasteful. Eric pointed out that the wheat would also mix a bit with rocks--this, when the elevator is so very stern about the number of rocks that enter into the elevator in the first place.

Though the pile of grain was an awesome sight, I hope this does not happen again next year. It is said that an accident of planning meant that the elevators were all full of grain, but the whiteboard inside the elevator seems to indicate that at least two of the tall bins (or are they called elevators? I have no idea) were full of "blended wheat." The wheat outside in the pile was perfectly good wheat. Why, then, was the elevator's storage used for blended wheat, while the nice wheat had to sit outside? This seems like an error in planning. If I were a farmer who did not get my grain to the elevator early in the harvest, I would be upset.

Once again, I found myself thinking that in another life, I would have turned all of this into some kind of logic game to be used on a standardized test.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Primary Colors


Uncle Mark's Dairy Queen Paradise

In Steinbeck's Cannery Row, the character Doc muses on the potential of a beer milkshake. In Kimball, Nebraska, young Paul Mockett settled on a dilly bar and a beer. Sweet and bitter do go well together.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


How We Live

I asked Tyler what his favorite thing was about the farm this year. He replied that he liked visiting the wind farm, which we did this past Sunday as our "day of rest" activity.

The turbines are enormous and it's difficult to appreciate their full scale just from these photos; the land itself is so flat and vast that anything tends to get swallowed up by distance. This video of a man jumping off of a blade should give you some sense of the size and height of these behemoths in the plains.

Land out here is not just used for grain and wind, but for oil as well. I like this photo of an oil well, with the wind farms off in the distance.

Our day in the country included a visit to this vista where Tyler snuck up on me and took another of his secret portraits. I think he learned to do this from his father who has the disconcerting ability to capture private and contemplative moments.

We were all hoping to find arrowheads here, but the best we could do were some fossils. The white line you see in this photo is a road stretching all the way to the horizon. When I see a road like this, I just want to drive it.

It became apparent that it might rain back at the bins, and so the men climbed up the ladders to put the lids on the steel storage units.

I did not go all the way to the very top.

Fortunately Tyler took a photo of the view for me.

I've been trying to explain to people what my life is like out here. The environment is so different, that I think some of my city friends can't begin to imagine what I am referring to when I mention the "bunkhouse" or the "quonset." Here, then, is a photo of two of our steel bins (off to the left) and our quonset (off to the right). The latter is a semi-circular storage building which used to house grain and equipment. Now it mostly holds equipment and a small bunkhouse built against a wall.

The inside of the bunkhouse has 3 rooms connected by a hallway. In New York, we would consider this a railroad apartment. We have an office, a bathroom and kitchen/sleeping area. I, however, have been sleeping outside in a trailer.

As rustic as all this seems, we do have a wireless connection, thanks to my cousin Paul. With wireless, we do not miss television at all, and certainly the kids (and the truck-drivers dumping wheat just outside) are able to keep themselves completely occupied with computers. I wonder sometimes what we ever did before the internet. Now it is possible to constantly watch for storms, monitor the price of wheat, look up a plumber and driving directions without picking up the phone or suffering through television commercials.

Kids all learn to drive early out here.

Very early.

Our quonset, as I've mentioned, comes equipped with a kitchen. Every night so far we have eaten some combination of meat and potatoes. Here is a photo of my dinner: a patty melt, specially assembled by my cousin Paul, Tyler's hash browns, and a salad. I probably made the salad. Vegetables seem to be my contribution. Next year I plan to arrive with some corn-starch and soy sauce.

Sunsets anywhere in the world are beautiful. I've always been partial to the sun setting on the water, of course.

I think the sun setting over the prairie with a wind farm in the background is quite pretty too, and fairly exotic, depending on your point of view.

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