By Chip Prehn
I write from Sassafras Farm in Augusta County, Virginia. August has just turned into September. There is — even on these hot days — a hint of autumn in the air. The light is changing a little. The days are a bit shorter. I was astonished today, when I got up at the usual hour to make coffee, to discover that the dawn’s rosy fingers had not yet appeared in the east.
The sun is now rising over fields and woods that need more rain. It has been a hot, somewhat dry summer in the Shenandoah Valley. How Vermont faces flooding while my orchard grass and fescue suffers into a golden brown cause me to wonder about climate change. The apple trees — full of growing fruit — looked stressed. The feed corn will not be harvested for many weeks. It is alive, well, and standing tall, but the dearth of rain surely affected its confidence.
For lack of moisture in August, I expect we are done with haying this year. Perhaps the heat will trick the hay grass into a fourth-quarter surge, but we need a few more good rains if we are to have a double production as usual. Most farmers have done two cuttings already. Even though the Shenandoah Valley is a thousand feet higher than the other side of the Blue Ridge to the east, and the fall comes sooner here than it does in Albemarle County, we like to get another hay cut on this farm before the end of October. We’ll see about that. The farmer to whom we lease our hay meadows also works full time at the county jail.
Beef prices are high this year. For this reason, our farmer is likely to increase the size of his herd a little. Over the winter, when there is virtually no edible grass, one six-foot round bale of hay will feed four cows per diem. This is why you and I, as we race down the interstate across America, see all those bales of hay lying in neat rows in the fields. The cattle eat that hay all winter long. The average herd is 44 head, according to the Department of Agriculture, so the typical American herd will eat no less than four round bales of hay every winter day. If this feed is needed from Thanksgiving through St. George’s Day (or longer), that means approximately 600 bales are used for that average-sized herd of beef cattle.
Our cattleman got a whopping $3.30 per pound for the “sixes steers” he sold in early April. This nomenclature denotes castrated male calves that have reached 600 pounds plus. This is extraordinary. I remember when a fellow I knew was elated when he got $1.80 per pound. Naturally, when I mention the high price of beef to the farmers I know (including a cousin in Louisiana), they all reply pretty much along the following lines: “You don’t know how much I spent this year to produce that beef. Just buying fertilizer for the meadows nearly killed me.” This is true. With the government trying to shut down domestic oil and gas production, the price of fertilizer — natural gas is required to make it — will continue to rise.
Hay yield is very important under these circumstances of bigger herds. When the rains cease for a while, everything else is pressured. Uncertainty grows. A cattleman must ponder the future. The commodities market is the most fluctuating phenomenon in the world. To sell cattle or not to sell; that is the question. When beef prices are low, most farmers will grow lots of grain — corn, wheat, oats, soybeans. When beef prices are high, the corn is valuable but the hay is priceless. No one knows if beef prices will remain high. The year of our Lord 2023 will be remembered by cattlemen everywhere, but we so need rain!
Perhaps due to the lack of rainfall, the sweet corn arrived a bit late this year. It was available in the big supermarkets in July, even in June, but the local roadside markets had little of the just-pulled, top-quality sweet corn until August. It’s been worth the wait. This is the best-tasting, most flavorful sweet corn we’ve had in several years. I am reminded of something my father told me once about good red wine. He said that perfect weather has a great deal to do with a great vintage. The rains need to come at just the right time. You do not want too much rain at the right time, nor do you want rain at all at the wrong time. Just as the temperatures need to form a certain pattern of warm and cool, so the moisture level must vary as the vines come out and the fruit ripens. When I remarked without understanding that every crop needs plenty of water, especially those juicy grapes, Dad rebuked me, saying, “Oh no. For the richest flavor, grapes need to suffer. You don’t want too much rain leading up to the harvest. Spring rains, autumn dry and cool.”
I look around this farm and see a lot of suffering right now. Not only our lawn but the red oak and the maple we planted are showing their thirst. Watching the wildlife around the farm, I know that the berries in the woods and the seeds in the meadows are about gone. We have more creatures than meet the eye. The other day I saw a brilliant red fox with a jet-black brush (tail) tipped in bright white. Marvelous! Thanks to my wife, the groundhogs are less numerous. She traps them and releases them down the road. Her catch count is up to about 15 per year, I believe. We heard the other day that releasing groundhogs is illegal in Virginia. In fact, people around here used to eat them. The old cavalier who sold us this farm told me that his family roasted the meat when he was a boy. “It was delicious!” Their flesh ought to be very good, indeed; for, like a canvasback duck, a teal, a Canada goose, or a fat young doe, the diet of a groundhog is almost exclusively vegetation, just like a cow. Celia trapped a possum the other day that seemed to know his life was not in danger. His only annoyance was probably that he — a decidedly nocturnal operator — was delivered into the wilderness during the brightness of the afternoon.
We have plenty of deer and at least one bear. Everyone but we have seen the bear hightailing it across Creek Meadow. We’re reasonably sure the black bear lives in what we call Old Woods. We are anxious to see him or her. “He’s a big one, I’ll tell you that.” So a neighbor tells me. It could very well be that The Bear is a mythic creature, the alleged sightings intended by the local folk to put the new neighbors on nervous alert. We do know for sure from the wildlife people that Virginia has “too many” bears.
Bird life is extraordinary on this place. One forester told me that he’s never seen so many red-headed woodpeckers. There are several other species of peckers and flickers. I once watched a handsome pileated woodpecker land on the wood pile down in in the cabin yard. He or she stabbed away at the rotting logs. The pileated looks a good bit like the ivory-billed. Besides the fact that the ivory-billed is entirely extinct in the mid-Atlantic region, and possibly everywhere, the two huge birds are distinguishable. While both have bright-red crowns and are basically black and white birds, the ivory-billed has the striking white bill and much more white on the body. I was thrilled to see the pileated bird on my place. I don’t know where the bird lives, but there is plenty of old rotting hardwood for the family. Watching this bird made me think I was living 500,000 years ago.
All sorts of raptors sound off almost every day. We have great-horned, screech, and barn owls. We had bats but flatter ourselves that we’ve gotten rid of them by leaving the barn doors open all summer. The greater light in that space seems to have driven the bats away, but in the vacuum the barn swallows see their opportunity for more nesting choices. We prefer the swallow mess to the bat droppings, even though bat guano — toxic when raw — makes superb fertilizer when mixed with good soil. Kestrels are happy to help themselves to any sort of small bird and to field mice. The other day, a red-shouldered hawk made a nice dinner of a mourning dove drinking at the spring creek. We have a bald eagle that lives nearby. Nothing moves when that huge hunter is circling overhead. Though these eagles prefer fish, they will eat small mammals with relish.
We have many different sorts of flycatchers. Earlier in the summer we watched a gang of vermillion flycatchers enjoying supper in our front yard. They were not eating flying things; best I could tell they were eating wild cherries off the tree in front of the house. Goldfinches come and go. I wish there were more mockingbirds. Hundreds of starlings move over and light in our meadows. Great flocks of mourning doves hang out on our farm. They are nowhere to be found when dove season begins.
All the animals, birds, and bugs on our farm are preparing for the winter. You can tell. They are making up stores. I detect that the squirrels are on the verge of growing thicker coats and tails. All of the animals know that the nuts, berries, and seeds will soon be altogether gone. It is difficult to determine or describe how irritated the creatures must be when the fields are mown. High grass provides food and safety for most of them.
I love the creatures of the farm. I love the trees, too. We have new growth and old. We lost a 400-year-old white oak three years ago. It was seven feet across at the trunk. We have old red oaks, black oaks, and hickory trees. Black walnut trees thrive in this Shenandoah clay-loam soil. The nuts are abundant late in the fall, but beware: Wild walnuts are as a laxative in most human bellies.
I hail all of these trees quite often. I ask them how they are getting along. I ask them what they think I ought to know about them and the soil in which they prosper. I ask God to bless them. I want to learn from them. Since they certainly bear many ups and downs over the years, they must be wise.
I was thinking the other day, as I looked around the creation as I see it on this farm, watching the various animals, birds, bugs, trees, and shrubs, which seem to be quite happy and fulfilled: Is it not the case that our Creator intends his creatures to have just enough to live on but not too much? Does happiness have something to do with not being too well-fed or well-equipped or well-sheltered? If this is true of the rest of creation, why would it not be true of human beings? God generously gave us our natural life, but we are taught in the gospel that what matters even more is the eternal life in Christ. Is it not the higher life that that sheds light upon and reveals the meaning of the natural life? Mortal life has a meaning that must be interpreted sub specie aeternitatis. This natural life is so precious! Yet it is just the beginning.
When I was growing up, I spent most all of every summer on my mother’s family farm in Mississippi. After incredible boyish adventures — horses, working with livestock, hoeing corn and other vegetables in the garden for the kitchen (and sometimes out in the big fields), mowing, raking, bailing, and hauling hay, mending fences, avoiding angry hogs, shooting, fishing, and so on — I would go back to suburban Houston to begin another drab year void of the excitement of the farm. I knew as a little boy that there was something “not real” about suburban existence. What people seemed to value the most, I did not particularly value at all. I was out of step, that’s for sure. When some years later I read Wordsworth’s great sonnet for the first time, the first few lines spoke to my situation in flourishing, affluent suburban Texas.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
What I did not realize at the time but see more clearly now is that there was something deeply alive about the country people I lived with in the summers. They were living an authentic life. They had extraordinary standards about some things; for example, they could not abide an insincere or crafty person. From 50 yards away they could tell if a person was interested in other persons or in things. Their pleasures were rather simple. But they knew the difference between fresh and well-prepared food and food that was a fraud, and they expressed themselves about it with fire, and still do. Those were very different times, I realize, but the cooking was extraordinary in those days, and only the freshest ingredients were used — all local and/or homegrown.
In truth, we were virtually vegetarians in the summertime: such a plethora of fresh vegetables, plus incredible cornbread (made with lard, I’m afraid), and watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe. On Sundays, there was meat. Usually a big joint of roast beef or ham (farm-produced), with the most perfectly cooked rice I’ve ever had, or potatoes. Often enough there was fried fish, usually fresh-caught and rolled in cornmeal. Fried okra. Fresh peas. Fresh beans. Butter beans. Fresh shoe-peg white corn. Vine-ripened tomatoes. Homemade mayonnaise. Eggplant and squash. Bread-and-butter sweet pickles. The cucumbers that eluded us in the garden and grew massively large were put in a five-gallon jar and converted into dill pickles. Plums, peaches, and cherries became ice cream, pies, cobbler, and tarts.
None in this rural hamlet community had much cash money in the bank. Most were what is called “land poor.” They owned quite a lot of land that had been in their families since the 1830s, but their bank accounts were not large. (Most looked upon credit cards as a wicked development. I had a great-great-uncle who still cursed Hamilton when prompted by a glance at his wall picture of Thomas Jefferson.) During the Great Depression in the 1930s, my great-grandfather sold many acres of timber to the company that later sold the land to Weyerhaeuser. He needed cash to pay the taxes owed on his cultivated farm.
These people were remarkably happy and content a good bit of the time. Busy as they were, they loved children and paid a lot of attention to their grandchildren. This was true of just about every family for miles around. Why were they — on most days — so fulfilled and happy? Jesus said,
I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Be ye not anxious,” Jesus said, “Do not be anxious. Does not your heavenly Father know that you need all these things and provides them?
Isn’t enough enough? The question is a most important one for those who want the eternal life to be the way this present life is illuminated and understood. The question is one I shall think on.
Homemade Cream Corn Recipe
You want to find the freshest sweet corn you can. If you can get ahold of some white shoe-peg corn, it is even better. For four or five people, get six to eight ears of corn. Shuck the corn and remove all the silk. With the very sharpest (smaller) knife in your kitchen, move down the ear of corn, cutting off the “tops” of every kernel on the cob. Go back over that cob of corn with a second cutting, this time deeper. Your corn will fall into a wide pan, a big plate, or the skillet you will use to cook it. The third operation is to turn your knife around so that you can use the dull side of the blade to press down on the cob and thoroughly scrape it of all loose matter: This is where the “cream” comes from. It will slowly but surely begin to pool up in your pan. Repeat this process for all ears of corn. In fact, it does not take long.
In a large skillet, heat up four tablespoons of salted butter. Add the entire contents of your pan of corn (if you have not already used the skillet to prepare the corn). Add a little salt and a good tablespoon of freshly ground black pepper. Using thumb and forefinger, drop a tiny pinch of raw or refined sugar around the contents. Let your pan be good and hot at first, then turn it down to low or medium-low. Stir the corn occasionally. Let it cook for a good seven to nine minutes. When you’re not stirring, put the top on the skillet. After ten minutes at the most, turn the heat off and put the top on the skillet. You are ready to serve this dish with the rest of your meal.
This is authentic cream corn. Except for the butter, there is no dairy product within a mile of it, and you’ve not put any water in your skillet. There is almost no sugar added. There are no large kernels of corn in the dish, because your preparation with the sharp knife yielded something finer. The crucial ingredient is, of course, fresh sweet corn. Search for the best corn. It will have fat, shiny kernels. When you have found such fine corn, it is worthy of buying and taking home with you!