LittleField Notes: Seed Irony
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Seeds are little miracles of potential, waiting as if in cryogenic suspension until the moment when the collected influences of water, soil temperature and light are aligned just so; then begins the journey from seed, to leaf, to flower, to fruit and back to seed again.
They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there (or someplace where the compost was spread) the next summer? It never ceases to amaze me that a tomato can fall off the vine in August, lay pulverized and rotting on the ground, be exposed to three season’s worth of rains and frosts and perhaps even (like this year) an early hot spell — and still germinate. Come spring, baby plants from last years crops will be seen growing hither and thither all by themselves, without the slightest help or encouragement from me. Just this week I’ve noted the sprouts of mangels, cilantro, dill and tomatoes, all from last year’s flowering plants, seeds of which I neither harvested, threshed, winnowed, stored nor planted. And yet there they are, carving out a nice home for themselves in a quiet corner of the garden, the wrong corner of course, since I try to practice decent crop rotations by not planting the same thing in the same plot year after year. And though it pains me, these little volunteer progeny must be hoed out, for at this point they are little better than ordinary weeds.
Why then, when left to their own devices are seeds so hardy, yet become so fragile under our care? I know that if I accidentally left a seed packet out in a bucket for even a couple of hours and a surprise rain shower sprinkled them I’d be lucky to get 15% germination. I would cuss myself for my carelessness and maybe have to replant, or risk suffering a poor, thin crop. There are two sets of rules at play here: one for us, and one for Nature. Our rules are strict and narrowly defined, while Nature’s are broad and flexible. Mother Nature does her work remarkably well. Our best efforts are but feeble attempts at imitation that at times seem more like mockery.
Time was a farmer wouldn’t have been seen without a practical hat on his head, “a good lid,” as my Dad likes to say. In the summer it would likely have been a wide brimmed straw hat providing shade from the hot summer sun. When dipped in the water trough before going back to the field it functioned like a human radiator, cooling through evaporation. In the winter he would don a good wool cap, perhaps with earflaps that could be folded up when his labors produced an internal warmth exceeding that of the chill in the air. For in-between seasons, on cooler summer days, and certainly for going to town, a good felt hat would answer, always a good bet for both sun and rain and general purpose wear. Or perhaps in certain conditions, especially cool, but not cold weather, the classic Irish wool flat cap or fisherman’s cap would answer. I find this to be a particularly appropriate type of hat for our cloudy cool maritime climate (not unlike Ireland) on days when there is neither steady rain nor blazing sun.
Before automobiles, garages and office jobs were invented, people used to work out in the elements more than they do nowadays. Perhaps that is why everyone, men especially, used to wear hats when outdoors. It is said of my wife’s grand-father that he would not step out onto the porch to get the paper without first putting on his hat.
It is true that most farmers still wear hats, but the modern hat of choice defies all logic. The ubiquitous mesh ball cap with the John Deere logo, or the logo of the local feed mill has become standard issue. It’s as if you took all the design elements and materials that are most functional, did away with them, and instead chose an impractical design utilizing impractical materials. To do away with straw, felt and wool and replace it with plastic and polyester, or even cheap cotton and eliminate three quarters of the brim just doesn’t make sense. I know because I myself have stood in a ball cap while the rain dribbled miserably down my neck. I’ve also nursed sunburned ears and neck because I lacked proper headwear. I’ve laughed heartily (inwardly, mind you) at some dude standing there shading his eyes from intense summer sun with his cap on backwards, the brim 180 degrees from useful. But never mind — he was COOL! I guess nowadays it’s Non-function follows form, or form at all costs.
I suppose enclosed, air-conditioned cabs on large tractors, and the elimination of diversity and livestock from most farms has only hastened the shift away from brimmed hats. If this seems like too big a leap in logic, just compare the differing labor requirements of the small, diversified farm with those of the large mono- culture farm and you can easily see the connection. Fixing fence, hoeing corn, checking cows, and picking kale and cucumbers in all weather and in all seasons requires direct contact with the elements, dictating the need for a proper hat. Commodity crop farming, on the other hand, has become largely an indoor activity, making what you put on your head much less important. In fact, a skullcap would be perfectly adequate headgear for sitting for days on end in a sealed, air- conditioned tractor cab planting 5,000 acres of soybeans. Now imagine taking the cream cans five miles to town in the buckboard through a steady rain with a mesh feed store hat on your head. You’d only do that once!
Most of the hats I dislike have advertising on the front. Along with the selling of bottled water while perfectly good, perfectly free water flows endlessly out of the tap, one of the greatest advertising coupes the world has ever seen is that of businesses getting people to pay good money to walk about with a tiny billboard on their forehead. It would be like CBS paying Budweiser to run its Clydesdale beer commercials during the Super Bowl instead of the other way around. If I decide to parade somebody’s logo around town for all to see, I expect to be paid by the company for services rendered.
It’s true that ball caps are inexpensive and in some cases free; can’t complain about that. And actually there are some nice wool and waxed cotton ones available now that are actually quite nice. I like the caps from Ebbets Field Flannels, which makes high quality, wool flannel reproductions of hats worn by long gone minor league baseball teams. I’m also partial to the logoless, American-made caps being sold in wool and waxed cotton from FairEnds, of Missoula, Montana.
I realize that times and styles have changed — the fedora is out, and the feed store cap is in. And I’m sure I have just offended half of my ball-cap-wearing readers, many of whom are my friends and relatives. Please forgive me and chalk it up to the ravings of a Luddite loony trapped in a century he doesn’t claim as his own.
Keeping livestock always presents interesting challenges and surprises. We have a red-tailed hawk that has developed a taste for chicken and has on more than one occasion swooped right down into the barnyard to grab an unwary bird. The hawks seem for the most part to have moved on, it being nesting season, and I, feeling bad for the cooped up chickens, have begun letting them out in the afternoon to scratch around in the barnyard for bugs and grubs and to nibble on fresh grass. Yesterday morning I counted the chickens and came up one short. I have five Buff Orpington pullets just beginning to lay and they are easy to count against the backdrop of black and white Barred Rocks which make up the rest of the flock. I only counted four. I looked carefully around the pen; I looked in the coop, the nesting boxes; nothing. Nowhere did I see the fifth buff colored hen. I figured the hawk had struck again and I’d better keep them locked in. In late afternoon after unharnessing the team and turning the horses out to pasture, I glanced in the chicken yard and wouldn’t you know it — there were all five birds scratching and pecking happily. Where she had been hiding in the morning I’ll never know, but there she was, as pretty as you please. I’m a big pushover for the longing, sideways glass-eyed stare of a chicken in want, so I’ll probably take my chances and let them out for an afternoon dust bath.