Timothy Collins, of two minds, detects the first signs of fall in rural Illinois: the myths of audible corn and the realities of government-led soil conservation.
The first week of August marked, as always, the peak of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. For those of us who strive to stay close to the land and perhaps hold onto a bit of romanticism, this time represents the fullness of the season. The aerial spraying is done and the crops are maturing. Farmers are about to cut hay for the third time. Harvest of the grain crops is not far off. Everyone else’s vegetable garden looks better than ours.
For some reason, midsummer was a noticeable and pleasant intrusion into my consciousness this year. The “first” day of fall came on an early August morning as I was leaving for work. The light from the sun felt different, not as intense, golden instead of intense white. That evening, the sky was cloudless, with a cool breeze shaking the drying leaves on the trees.
About this time a summer Canadian cool front, less common in recent years, broke the heat wave that had antagonized the Upper Midwest for several weeks. The front brought flooding and storms to some places. We got a sprinkle, cooler temperatures, and a harbinger of fall. Our mini-drought was not broken, however.
Pagans call this midseason time Lammas, the cross-quarter celebration of harvest beginning, a recognition of the Earth in constant change.
Whether or not there is more closeness with the spirit world at these times is beyond my ken. But changing patterns of sunlight and shadow do suggest summer is not a single season of endless heat. It is more than that, a process of rapid, then slowing growth for plant and animal life, sometimes punctuated by storms and rain and cooler spells, sometimes not.
Summer really is a series of transitions. With early August come telltale signs of fall. The sun has moved across the horizon, heading from the northwest toward the west, with a lower angle and days shortening noticeably. Even now, the light captures shadows and casts them more dramatically early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Sometimes, the night’s cooling air over the warm Earth spawns ground fog. It casts strange reflections under the moon and stars and heralds the dawn in shimmering pink, orange, and violet shades across the flat areas of our landscape. The gradual changes of fleeting summer all lead toward the death and decay that marks autumn, which goes out in a blaze of glory, leaping headlong into the seeming grave of winter.
The corn is no longer getting taller. The ears are maturing. The tassels that held the pollen to fertilize the ears have changed from a golden tone toward tan. In the bright light of the first half of summer, the corn shimmers in the heat of day, a human-created biological factory crowned with tassels that glisten in the breeze. The distinct smell of fresh corn lingers in the humid air along our backroads. Whether it’s myth or not, I do not know: I have never heard corn growing but fast as it grows, I’ll bet it does make a noise.
Besides changes in the tassels, corn stalks are yellowing and browning from the bottom up as the plant dries and the natural processes of wind and sun evaporate moisture, making the stalks and ears ready for harvest. In a few short weeks, this will be a totally different landscape, ready for the shearing. The sun will move farther west and south, moving down on the horizon. Weather permitting – something that can vary widely from year to year – the corn will come down quickly, followed by the soybeans. The soil will be laid bare for the winter to await the spring and planting that surely will come.
So it goes. The cyclical procession of seasons that moves across our landscape follows the course of the annual calendar marked by the Earth’s turning around the sun. It is the differences from year to year, captured in some ethereal place called memory, that make all of the difference. Early fall, late fall, damp fall, dry fall: It’s always similar, but never quite the same.
At some level, the beauty of the Midwest as a garden spot certainly represents what is best about the human experience, the efforts to cultivate the land to provide food and energy for the U.S. and the world. This experience, like the changing seasons on the landscape, mixes memory, romanticism, and myth with the hardcore realities of global markets, life’s work of individuals and their families, and the environmental impacts of agriculture.
The beauty of the myths is the possibility that they can spur us toward appreciation of the land and the people who work it. Now, more than ever, we need to not only conserve the land, but make environmentally sound decisions about the ways we use it.
The burden of land stewardship falls on individual farmers who claim ownership of their property during their lifetimes. But they need not be alone in this. The government’s role in conserving and preserving land needs to increase along with demands on the land and farming operations.
No matter how far we move technologically, culturally, or by any other measure of human existence, the quality of working land is of ultimate importance. Several generations of government leaders wisely broadened our government’s role in conservation. Soil is the basis of our life, the source of our daily bread.
Unlike fleeting perceptions about farming and the beauty of changing seasons and rural landscapes, soil conservation is not the stuff of myths or random thoughts. Just as landowners have an obligation to protect their soil, government has an obligation to help them protect it as part of our natural, national commonwealth.
The need for soil conservation is fact, as real as our need for food, as real as the changing seasons. For government, this means adhering to politics for a future that is sustainable for generations to come, not short-term expediencies and ideological wrangling of the present.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.