Every few days I stand at the base of one of our front yard maples and push a fresh ear of field corn onto a squirrel feeder my friend Joe made for me a few years back.
For some reason, we don’t have many squirrels around our place, but we’re in no short supply of jabbering blue jays and territorial woodpeckers and space-sharing cardinals, and they thoroughly enjoy the bounty that we leave for them a few feet from our watchful eyes.
Our ear corn habit is supported not by runs into town to the local feed store or farm supply shop but from gleaning the fields near our home. My wife and I know we must look strange to passers-by as they blast past us in their cars and trucks, perhaps even appearing a little needy as we stoop and kneel in our old blue jeans and muddy boots to get our free harvest.
But where there’s corn, there’s a way, and we are determined to pick it up before the cold and the rain either ruin it or the marauding bands of itinerant deer that take over the fields at night gobble it up.
The rolling acreage near our home is farmed by a friend, Artie Yeargin. My wife and I have taught his children at the local schools, and my grandparents even worked for his grandparents when they were needed during the potato and strawberry seasons years and years ago. He is a good steward of his land, and I admire the way he mows along the roads that border his fields and how he works hard to prevent erosion and waste. I am also more than happy that he doesn’t care a bit that we walk his fields to kick up and pick up the corn for our feeders.
In what now seems a whole lifetime ago, I used to walk the fields around our home with my grandfather. We carried burlap feed sacks, and spent sunless afternoons gleaning for ear corn to feed his goats and sheep and my pony. We occasionally had a side of beef on the hoof, too, but I never really liked the idea of what eventual fate he usually faced and secretly hoped he’d remain a little too skinny to dispatch to the slaughterhouse. I also recall that I always wore a stocking cap and that my nose ran and that I wore brown Jersey gloves while we gleaned; my grandpa wore his green gum boots and a hunting cap that had flaps he could pull down over his ears. The cornpickers in those days weren’t nearly as efficient as they are now, so we’d come away with considerable loot, knowing that our labor was worth cold hands and a slightly sore back.
Just a week or so ago, Joanie and I were just under way on our customary walk when I spied a single, tantalizing ear of corn where Artie’s combine had merely mashed the stalks down, rather than clipping them off. It was a spot near a corner of his field where he’d had to make a turn.
“Let’s get that ear when we get back,” I told her. “Maybe we can find some more tonight before Artie chisel plows,” I said. I knew we would have a nice sunset to watch whether we found much corn or not, so 40 minutes or so later, we found ourselves in the field hunting for unburied treasure. Experienced gleaners know that you step on the shucks as they lie on the ground to see if they are empty or full, that rarely is a full ear of corn found lying in the sun as if it were tanning itself. The whole process simply involves stepping and stooping, an aerobic exercise that neither of us should avoid. In just a few minutes, we had harvested an unexpected bounty, and since it was warm enough, and we weren’t far from the house, we both pealed off our jackets and began tossing ears into them in hopes that we wouldn’t have to make an extra trip back home to grab a bucket or two.
The word “glean” dates back to the early 14th century and originally may have meant “he selects.” By late in that same period, the English were using the verb to literally mean “to gather grain left in the fields by reapers.” Of course, there are many Biblical references to the practice, the most obvious being the instance when Ruth caught Boaz’s eye as she gleaned his fields for grain. The Law of Moses forbade the corners of the fields to be harvested so they could be gleaned by those who needed it, and the practice is mentioned in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
So, who are the two of us to ignore Scripture and leave the corn to rot in the fields? It seems such a waste.
After a while in the field that day, we actually grew selective. At first, we picked up everything, even the ears whose hard, gold kernels were falling out like diseased teeth, even the ears that were less than half full or that held warped and oddly shaped rows of corn, as if the combine passed it by because it had no taste for imperfection. Eventually, we took only the best-beautiful, full ears — some nearly a foot long that otherwise would have gone to the field mice and mold.
We really have no good place to keep our corn once we pick it up, for it isn’t as simple as tossing it into a plastic trash can or cardboard box. Field corn needs to be dried — one reason why the roar of Artie’s grain bin dryers greets us each morning as we walk out to grab the newspaper or feed our begging cats. It is not, however, an unpleasant sound, for it signals another year gone, a harvest collected, and the return of clear, cold air from the north. If we leave our corn covered or wrapped in plastic for long, we’ll find it sopping wet. The tell-tale signs of rot and mold won’t be far behind.
We know we’ll be robbed of some of our plunder. The same armies of marauding mice that scurry across those nearby fields will attempt a full-scale invasion of our garage and barn to get what grub and warmth they can grab at our expense. The raccoons, before they go into their cold-weather daze, will raid our feeders, too.
But our time walking the fields is well-spent because we get so much more out of it than a bit of corn. But don’t tell our blue jays.
Mike Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be signing his newest book, “Sidelines: The Best of the Basketball Stories…” from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Vigo County Public Library and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 19 at Baesler’s Market. His first book, “The Off Season,” also will be available. Mike’s Web page can be found at www.mikelunsford.com.
Every few days I stand at the base of one of our front yard maples and push a fresh ear of field corn onto a squirrel feeder my friend Joe made for me a few years back.
- Mike Lunsford
A walk in the woods
I went for a walk in the woods one day last week after work. It was a warm and green afternoon, and a fresh blue breeze blew in from the west like a new spring friend.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Dowsers’ provide hope more than science
My grandfather was a man of God. Many times I saw him, his right hand held high in the air at his Wednesday night “prayer meeting,” praising the Lord before weeping at the altar on his knees. And yet, he was a “dowser,” a “diviner,” a “witcher” who, as a favor, would grab a forked sassafras stick and find water for some poor unfortunate whose well had gone dry.
MIKE LUNSFORD: As of today, it’s unofficially spring
Despite the calendar telling us not to rush things, I think it is all right to go ahead and say spring is here. The Ides of March has passed, Easter is coming soon, and I have already been out in my yard with a rake, getting my boots muddy. It looks like spring to me.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Twain’s Sawyer helps us yearn for ‘wilderness of childhood’
My cousin, Roger, stopped in one day last summer for a glass of tea and a little conversation. Rog has lived an hour’s drive away for years and now, and besides summer reunions, I don’t see him nearly often enough. He’s a good man who has raised a good family, and he owns a healthy sense of appreciation for not only the life he has now, but also the lives we had years ago as kids.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Cheerful green of wheat fights winter blahs
There is a light drizzle of freezing rain tapping at the door of my cabin today. It is little more than a week before the words I am writing are due to appear on your breakfast table or work desk with your morning coffee and scrambled eggs. But I write when I can, and today, despite a full schedule of televised football games, and the stacks of ungraded papers in my briefcase, and a good book lying open on my nightstand, I am clacking away on a keyboard to the whir of a heater and the steady drip of my gutters.
MIKE LUNSFORD: On the simple joys of watching it snow ...
It began to snow about 20 minutes ago, as I write this, light, wind-driven flakes that fall silently into my woods as I watch from a window.
MIKE LUNSFORD: On this day above all, ‘Peace on earth, good will to men’
More than a year after his wife’s death, the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in his diary on Christmas Day.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Remembering a Lefty Frizzell-kind of Christmas ...
My brother and sister and I sat around a Thanksgiving dinner table a month ago, shifting in our seats just enough to make our yet-to-be digested turkey sit a little more easily, and, as we often do when we get together, we reminisced about our childhoods for a while.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The wonders of wading in ‘The Iridescence of a Shallow Stream’
I have no idea how many times I have written a story that begins with the wistful phrase, “When I was a boy. ...”
MIKE LUNSFORD: Little man who came to dinner changes feel of household
My 7-year-old nephew, Carson, came to visit us last week. That in itself isn’t earth-shattering news, for he often drops by with one of his parents or the other, the last time dressed as a ghoul for Halloween. But for a couple like Joanie and me, whose youngest child is now nearly two decades past Carson’s age, having a little guy like him in the house, even for a few hours, takes a bit of adjusting.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Reflections: a bit of red glass and our daily thanksgivings
I sat in the half-light of my old desk lamp a few nights ago, a chilly wind blowing in from the northwest that made me appreciative of my long-sleeved shirt and purring heater.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Growing up — and ‘old’ — with many mouths to feed
At our family reunion last summer, I asked my brother if I could borrow a pair of photo albums he had put together. Over the past couple of years, I have committed quite a few of our family’s old yellowing snapshots to newly cropped and digitalized lives, and I wanted to do the same with some of the pictures John has collected for himself.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Violets in October – a pleasant surprise
I guess I don’t pay much attention to the weather forecasts these days because it surprised me a bit when our furnace kicked on a few nights ago.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A library is a good thing — even a little, homegrown one
I grew up with libraries, and I can’t imagine there ever being a time when I won’t want to wander one exploring it like some bookworm-Balboa, finding an author or title that I never really knew existed before. Creating those “Eureka” moments seems to be a dying interest now that so many of us download and digest books electronically without ever really considering that there just might be some hidden gem we’d have liked even more had we simply stumbled upon it on a shelf by accident. I think those moments of discovery are not unlike kicking up lost treasure a mile from where X marks the spot.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The ‘soothsayer’ who came to dinner
I’ve had a good time opening my mail these past few weeks. Sure, I still received the usual junk about lower credit card rates and satellite television packages, but the genuine letters made me smile; most were about a story I wrote in late August.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The agony of de‘feet’ has this writer on his heels
I don’t know if I can electrocute myself by using a computer and soaking my feet in a pan of warm water at the same time, but I am contemplating taking the risk. My feet, particularly the right foot, have staged a 10-digit rebellion over the past few months. After a half-century of commendable service, my pods are screaming to be taken in for repairs, a big inconvenience for a guy who works on his feet all day and whose “sole” form of serious exercise is putting one foot in front of another walking the local roadways.
Mike Lunsford: Summer’s hidden beauty worth the wait
The great naturalist John Burroughs once said that nature teaches more than she preaches. I can’t recall a summer where that rings true more than this one, for that old sun of ours truly taught us a thing or two these past three months.
MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s time to redefine the concept of ‘assisted living’
Although it has been nearly two months now, I can’t forget the few afternoon hours I spent on a hot June day this summer at a local “assisted living” facility in town. I had been asked to speak to a group of men there about Father’s Day, but for most part, the wonderful old guys who came to listen certainly made my day more memorable than I did theirs.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Observations on smooth stones and blue-green water…
It was raining when I began to write this. Although no one could rightfully call what we got this afternoon a “downpour,” it was nice to have my windows open to hear the steady drops of a passing shower tapping on my dry-as-dust deck and hard-as-concrete yard.
MIKE LUNSFORD: This summer has us recalling the heat of ’36
It was “only” 99 degrees one afternoon last week when I decided to work on a backyard deck. With a jack and a drill and a little more sweat than I wanted to invest in the project, I went about the business of leveling its sags and dips a bit. The sun pounded down on my head and shoulders like a thug’s blackjack, but as I packed my tools and drank a glass of cool water under a big maple tree a few hours later, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I’ve been these past few dusty and drought-stricken weeks. I have worked under this summer’s heat lamp for only a few hours at a time, but God help the roofers and utility linesmen and firemen, and so many others, who are out in it day after long hot day.
MIKE LUNSFORD: We had no better friend than Andy Taylor
The world is a sadder place now that Andy Griffith has died, but at least we still have Andy Taylor.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Wading deeper into the subject of Blue Herons
Like a relative who has worn out his welcome, the hot, parched weather of this young summer has already overstayed its visit with us, so my wife and I have found ourselves walking our road later in the evenings to keep our feet cool and our backs dry.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Thanking two dads whose gifts have never stopped coming…
It is nearly a week until Father’s Day, but I have had my dad, and my father-in-law — a second dad to me — on my mind today. I wrote about both men just a few weeks ago, but I have set my mind to write about them again anyway. I don’t want this story to be sad; they both loved to laugh and wouldn’t want that. No, I just wanted to tell them hello, and to thank them again for what they still do for me.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Raising a flag for my father, veteran or not
My daughter, Ellen, and I stood at my parents’ graves on Mother’s Day a few weeks back and talked about how it couldn’t possibly have been so long since we lost them. My dad, for instance, has been gone for 16 years, and that is nearly unimaginable
MIKE LUNSFORD: Time to become one of the boys of summer again …
Besides writing for a living, I teach school, and I’m not ashamed to tell people that I still love my classroom. I’ve been a teacher for 33 years, all of them in the same school district, and virtually all of them in the same building. But I also have to tell you that if the next few weeks don’t slide by pretty quickly, I may just let loose of the last thread of sanity from which I have been dangling for a while now. There are a lot of teachers out there who feel the same way.
MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s time for us to get the real lowdown on dirt…
I have had my hands in the soil as of late. Two Fridays ago, I planted a viburnum bush, three chrysanthemums and a yellow poplar, not because it happened to be Earth Day, but because it was sunny and warm, and I had the whole afternoon to myself. The dirt I scraped out of and back into the shallow holes I dug near a backyard picket fence smelled good, and when dampened with a few sprinkles of water, it soon found its way into the deep wrinkles of my knuckles and under my fingernails. For the most part, I have nothing but good things to say about dirt.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Make big money: Raise worms at home for fun and profit…
When I think about all of the crazy things my brother and sister and I did just to make a few dollars when we were kids, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for teens this summer as they try to find jobs in what is supposed to be a very tight market. Money, to say the least, was a rare commodity when we were growing up, but you have to at least give us credit for trying.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…’
Had white lace curtains been hanging in the west window of my cabin, I would have had a perfect Wyeth painting to watch last Thursday. A gentle breeze was wafting through my screens, and the sunlight of a warm late March day was fractured by the window sill as it poured onto my legs and feet. I could catch the scent of lilacs as it was carried in by that wind, and it and the subtle melody of the chimes that hang just outside made me as lazy as an old cat.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A report from the country as a new season brings sense of renewal
Regardless of what the calendar may yet say, spring has happened. It couldn’t have come too soon, and it wasn’t just last week and its windy 70s that have convinced me. I have been keeping a journal of sorts in my head for a fortnight now, stashing away reports of birds and buds and sounds in the crammed cabinets of my mind, all in a file marked, “The New Season.”
MIKE LUNSFORD: Feeding time at the homestead draws a host of new guests
I stepped outside into the warmth of an unusually mild early March morning last week to do what I always do just before I grab my briefcase and book bag and lunch bag and head off to work. It’s nearly always dark when I leave, even as the sun gets up earlier and earlier in the late winter, so I often go about the business of feeding our cats with porch lights on and a flashlight in hand.
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- A walk in the woods