Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The 100 Year War

With apologies to John Steinbeck, this has been the winter of our discontent.  The winter of 2017-18 has been an enormous challenge for all of us who live in upper Montana, and it continues to be winter as of the time of this writing, April 4th.  It's not just the cold and the record snowfall, it's the flooding and mud that comes and goes with the fluctuations in temperature.  Last fall, we saw mountain lions here on the farm, and last week, wolf tracks in the yard.  It struck me that we are slowly but surely receding into the wilderness, but in truth, this has been happening since 1918.


When my grandfather came here to Lonesome Prairie in 1911, the area was booming, and before long the prairie was dotted with homesteads, no further than a mile apart.  The above photo shows the isolation of my farmstead now.  The migration from area farms began in 1918, when crops failed and the winter killed most of the livestock.  Farmers left in droves, often in the middle of the night to avoid creditors.

My home town of Big Sandy, located 18 miles away, has lost half of it's population since I was a teenager in the 1970's.  Part of the reason for this exodus is the fact that the wheat price today, in 2018, is the same as it was in 1973.  While prices for everything else have ballooned in the last 45 years, the price of wheat is literally the same.  Larger farms with fewer laborers are the inevitable result.  But that is not the only reason people leave.  

Snow Load

The other reason is that the struggle against the elements takes its toll on people.  Last October, two poets from Seattle came to stay with me for a week.  Their visit  coincided with an early heavy snowstorm.  Since their little car could not navigate the roads to town, I drove them to and from Big Sandy most days.  On one trip the subject of the arts came up...specifically the relationship between the area's farmer populace to poetry and how we are not a people who generally read poetry.  The reason is simple--we spend a lot of our time and energy in survival mode.  It's hard to describe what that means...but examples are: making sure snow is cleared enough to get a generator placed in case of a power outage, making sure tractors will start, having enough food, knowing what to do if a furnace quits.  Like an old barn under a heavy snow load, we strain to withstand the constant pressure.  It's a full time job figuring out how to outwit an environment that seems intent on crushing us.  Thinking about artistic endeavors is a luxury we cannot usually afford.

The Bite of Winter

Winter will end soon, and with the emergence of spring, a new season of hope will begin as well.  Farmers will emerge from their repair shops and lender offices and will face a new season of challenges.  The long war against the wilderness will continue.  There will be rain and mud, relentless heat, a lot of wind, and probably some hail.  And possibly some sort of pestilence to be named later.  Growing crops in this semi arid region known as Lonesome Prairie is an exhausting endeavor.  My father once quipped that this land lost the best and the brightest to the cities, leaving only the dumbest and the dimmest.  Those who remain here won't dispute the characterization.  But they must also be characterized as persistent, resilient, and creative.

Golden Grain

I been involved in the arts and the creative community for most of my life and I have to say that my neighbors--my fellow farmers--are the most creative people I know.  What they do is not poetry or painting.  They will not be featured at an art show or celebrated as creative geniuses.  And yet, creativity is essential for their survival as farmers.  Whether it be manufacturing a repair part for an obsolete piece of machinery, figuring out how to design a septic system drain field, or surviving a long hard winter in a remote location, creativity is a tool forged from necessity.