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From the Heat-Land

Lee Martin

...the scorched land belongs to all of us.

This is the land of my blood, this prairie land, this farm land, this land now scorched with heat, this land thirsty for rain.

I’m talking about Lawrence County, Illinois, particularly Lukin Township, but I could just as easily be talking about so much of the Midwest this summer, a summer of sizzling temperatures and dry conditions. I’m talking about the land where the corn crop is in danger; already some farmers have cut fields prematurely, opting to salvage the fired and stunted plants for silage.

I’m talking about the land of my family, so often a land of loss. My father lost his hands in a corn picker in early November, 1956. After that, my mother lost what was left of her youth. She lost it by crawling under combines to grease fittings, by driving grain trucks to the elevator on sweltering days, by milking cows in freezing weather, by helping my father herd hogs and cattle into pens, by working the substantial vegetable garden all summer long, by putting up quart after quart of tomato juice, green beans, pickles, corn. My mother lost her youth by being who she was, a farm wife who so often had to be the hands her husband lacked. I never heard her utter a single word of complaint. There were many lessons my parents tried to teach me that wouldn’t set root until I was older, but the one thing I always knew from them was this: when your life is hard and when it doesn’t seem that you can get through it, all you can do is put your head down and push. All you can do is keep going.

It’s been years since I’ve lived on the eighty acres my father owned in Lukin Township, but my muscle memory still retains the strain of working that land: the weight of hay bales, brought to the knee and bucked up to stack on the wagon or in the mow; the heat of the tractor exhaust blowing into my face as I made pass after pass, plowing or disking a field; the blisters on my palms from walking the beans and swinging a hoe to cut down jimpson weed and poke berry; the stumble of my steps over the hard clay clods.  I remember afternoons when clouds gathered over the fields and the air smelled like rain, and my father finally said, “C’mon.” He drove the tractor into the machine shed. I parked the truck in the farmyard and made sure the windows were up. We met on the front porch of the house, and my father told me to fetch us Pepsi-Colas. We sat in folding lawn chairs and drank, watching the rain come across the fields, moving up our lane, until finally it was upon us and we had to scoot our chairs a little farther back on the porch. I remember how the rain dripped from the leaves of the giant oak in our front yard. The wind came up and the air cooled, and we had nothing to do but to sit and watch as the rain kept falling. I remember the ecstasy of it. I remember the release from labor. I remember my father saying, “Just look at it come down.” And that’s what we did; we sat there and watched it rain.

May it come soon now for the sake of all those farmers in the Midwest. May it come soon for all our sakes, those of us dependent on those farmers and the vagaries of weather for much of our food and the ethanol in the gasoline we buy. When the crops fail, the prices we pay in the grocery and at the pump go up. It’s as simple as that, but so many people don’t stop to think about how their lives are connected to what’s going on in the land of my family, the land where my father worked until his heart gave out, the land where so many others to this day keep pushing their bodies against the odds. There’s a lesson here for those who write, and the lesson is this: you’ve failed before you ever put pen to paper or keystroke to computer if you think there are people in this world whose lives don’t matter. Look at this picture of one of the doors on my father’s old pickup truck left behind for over sixty years on the eighty acres that another man now owns:

Notice my father’s name painted on the door along with Sumner, ILL.  Apparently he bought the truck after it had been used at the ice house in Lawrenceville because you can see those words as well. I like the way the years of exposure in a wooded area on what was once our farm have eroded the paint until that double ownership shows the ancestry of labor this pickup performed. I like to see my father’s name, the rust beginning to cover it as if it’s trying to rise from blood.

Look at this other picture of the truck and see whether it touches anything inside you. See if these two photographs, no matter how distant from your own experience, hook in somehow with your own life. Think about everything we leave behind, everything we strive to achieve, every disappointment we suffer, every dry season that leaves us wanting for rain.

When we write, we practice the art of empathy. We try to imagine what it is to be the people we put on the page. No matter how unlike ourselves, we find something to bind us together, something human to

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remind us we’re all connected. This summer’s heat and drought connect us in ways we might not fully appreciate, but the scorched land belongs to all of us. A pickup truck gone to ruin sits among trees and vines on an eighty-acre parcel of land in southeastern Illinois. You’d never even know it was there. A pickup truck that still bears my father’s name.

I remember how sometimes in the field, he’d lift his head and look off toward the horizon. “Hear them?” he’d say, and I’d listen to the mournful call of yellow-billed cuckoos. “Rain crows,” he’d say and then he’d be still and in his silence, I’d feel his hope, his longing. They’d become mine as well.

Maybe, if I tell this story well enough, I can make them yours, too. Maybe you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, when I say we all matter to one another. Surely you know, as my father did, as I do, what it is to want.

“Just listen to them calling for rain,” he’d say in a whisper. “Mercy, just listen.”

3 Comments »

 

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Lynn sanford says on December 3rd, 2012 at 4:20 am:

Dear Lee,
Empathy is everything isn’t it! The older I get the more it becomes a consolation and a divide—something like a river. Some people are able to feel it and others just can’t. Even the ones you think might most of all can suddenly depart from understanding, as a person can sometimes abandon himself.
I loved your essay; it’s helping me through a sleepless night as my heart goes out to you. What a wonder filled, evocative piece of writing this is! The use of photographs—more than a thousand words. . .thank you. Lynn

Duff Brenna says on December 4th, 2012 at 1:30 pm:

Lee, you’ve got a kindred spirit living in the heat of inland southern California. Much of my background has to do with farming as well. I’ve written two novels and several short stories about it. Not that many years ago I was you bucking hay bales up with my knee, walking the rows with a hoe, milking cows at dawn and dusk. You captured the farm life beautifully. Makes me want to read more. Terrific stuff, Lee.

Lee Martin says on March 2nd, 2013 at 8:56 pm:

Dear Lynn and Duff,

Please forgive me for not noticing your kind comments earlier. I just now happened upon them, and I want you to know how much they warmed me. Blessing to both of you.

Lee