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1208 PD: A visit to find myself

Mike Gangwer Published on 15 August 2008

When our fields are green, I enter them and search for myself. In 16 years of writing this column, I am often drawn to write about my field visits.

And so I do again.

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The cornfield is northwest of our home in Alma, Michigan. A 40-acre field that is nearly flat, the field has patterned tile at a 1-meter depth. The drainage tiles empty into a man-made surface ditch on the western edge of the field.

The landowner has removed the row of trees sitting along the ditch. This early spring, while the last remnants of snow made certain low areas white, an excavator and small crawler tractor removed the trees in one afternoon. One day they stood naked against the dark grey March; the next, gone. The larger trees were sawed for firewood. The smaller ones piled and burned. The smell of burning green wood came all the way into our house.

I am wondering now about the fate of all those critters living here. Certainly rabbits and ground hogs and mice did. So did smaller animals. I lived here, too, if as a runner marking the spot laterally as a quarter-mile mark in the mile-long gravel roads. What of birds, too? Where are they landing now that summer is here? What do deer find for cover when all that is growing is winter wheat, now turning to burnt brown as maturity nears?

The excavator cleaned everything out of the ditch. The side walls now a gentle curve from the bottom to top. No vegetation. No ecology. Only the structure of curvature, made uniform along the entire cavity.

I am thinking now about what life once lived here. The juxtaposition of water and earth just millimeters apart. A frog or turtle having the best of life here. Even in winter the burrowness of soil cavities while the water, frozen and still, slept in January.

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There are several depressional areas in the field. The current crop – corn – is but a meter high now. And in these depressional areas the corn is a lighter green and shorter. The fact is corn does not like a wet soil for very long. Plant roots must respire, and oxygen flow through water is at least a thousand times slower than through air. This relationship matches the density rule, too: That the air is about a thousand times less dense than the same volume of water.

In these depressional areas, the subsurface drains are not performing. The landowner is thinking about installing another set of tiles in between the current pattern. With commodity prices in dream land, this will likely happen next fall or winter.

The corn plants themselves are amazing. The drop is so uniform you would think that someone installed the plants on a ruler or tape measure. Every 6.5 inches is a corn plant. I can find only a few skips, and these are just a single plant.

The height is so uniform you would have imagined someone mowed the tops. The entire field is consistently uniform (except for the depressional areas). There are no weeds. I mean no weeds anywhere. The field is clean, uniform and splendid.

The other three field borders do not have ditches. They abut against a soybean field on the south, a wheat field on the east and a county gravel road on the north. These adjacent fields appear just like this one. Weed-free and a crop that is at one height.

The right mix of soil fertility, heat units, Round-up Ready corn and rainfall in the rain-fed system yields a crop that feeds us and much of the world.

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The field is an amazing place. I am recalling a visit nearly two years ago in the Fertile Crest, the birthplace of agriculture. There in the north-south road from Damascus to Aleppo, Syria, I found the same thing – fields of corn in rows like these. They were weed-free, except the field was irrigated. Farmers in Syria can grow crops just like those in Michigan.

I am a farm boy. Darn near everything I know about life was learned on the farm. Everything learned in academia has been mere refinement. At times when I am thinking too hard about something, I once again enter a cornfield. I am looking, of course, for myself. And being one with the field is a healthy mind set.

I do not suggest that this way of thinking fits everyone. But for me, I was born out of the earth and will return to just the kind of cornfield this is.

Most people have no connection with the earth, or certainly a cornfield. While walking in many cornfields during my Afghanistan assignment, I found myself home in them. Even though, of course, I was 11 time zones away from Michigan.

In my long journey of writing this column, I have often made the case for finding that sacred place where something greater than oneself can be found and where there is no meaning so we must, absolutely must, bring meaning to this place. So it becomes sacred.

For those of us from farms, we know that a cornfield, as a sacred place, is the same whether in Michigan, Syria or Afghanistan.

By the way, I found my pheasant hen, too. She is my grounding bit of life. She struts through the cornrows until she decides that she must fly. She lifts her wings, and with the sound of changing air pressures, she empties herself into the blue sky. My visit is complete. DP

Mike Gangwer
USDA Adviser

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