April 4, 2011
Its been a dreary winter here. Visiting our son on Marylands Eastern Shore, where he recently graduated from Salisbury University, weve traveled through gray and frozen farmlands. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore is flat, interrupted only occasionally by rivers and inlets. But when spring comes, the farms come alive again. This weekend, we visited the Mount Hermon Plow Days. Driving to Salisbury, we passed through emerald fields that reminded my wife and me of the western part of Ireland.
Spring plowing is an ancient ritual in farm country, but what makes this event unusual is that its still done with horse- and mule teams. With the notable exception of Amish country, American farms were long ago mechanized. I asked farmer Gaylon Adkins about this. It was Gaylons farm that was the location for Plow Days. He joked, saying if diesel fuel goes much higherits at an historic peakmore American farms may have to resort to mules. A bale of hay is still a lot cheaper than a diesel at $4 a gallon.
Weather for this farmeras for all farmerswas the biggest concern this Saturday. This was the fifth annual Plow Days event. Only once, at the first one, Gaylon tells me, did they have to postpone. There were snow flurries earlier in the week. And cold rain was predicted. Happily, all that held off for this years Plow Days and the sun even peeked through scudding clouds. Perfect weather, actually, for plowing.
The event opened with a prayer from Rev. Carlo Leto, of the local Salisbury Baptist Temple. Participants and nearly a thousand attendees applauded The Star-Spangled Banner, Marylands gift to the nation, soon to be two hundred years old. And all pledged allegiance to the flag. Plow Days President Oren Perdue introduced organizers and special guests
If you can judge by the ball caps worn by young men and old, its a pretty patriotic crowd. Retired Navy and Army hats, NRA hats. Lots of Plow Days hats. There was even one International Ice Patrol hat (mine). My wife, a retired Navy captain, got a chance to share experiences with a retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer as we sat at a picnic table enjoying oyster fritters, a specialty of the Eastern Shore.
Vendors celebrated farm country lore. Whats that, I heard someone ask, pointing to a pile of rust-colored stuff. It was sheeps wool, with a young farm girl skillfully working a spinning wheel turning the pile into yarn.
At one booth, a church-run summer camp invited signups and offered this unusual message: Large families welcomed. Any parents with more than four children could have their fifth, sixth, and other children attend free of charge. Now, thats pro-family.
A blacksmith was working his small forge, fashioning beautiful knives from high quality steel. He was telling all who came about old processes of fashioning rims for wooden wagon wheels. I paged through the blacksmiths neatly catalogued three-ring binder, marveling at the large Bowie knives he displayed. I hope youre writing all these things down, I told him, realizing that his skills are a not-to-be-lost resource. The blacksmith carefully explained how his trade used to be divided into specialtiesincluding farriers, who worked almost exclusively shoeing horses and mules.
The children, especially, delighted in stagecoach rides and in seeing the baby goats and calves that were penned for petting. A llama named Cowboy was shown off. Our son Jim asked where Cowboys eyes were, since it seemed the llama was sporting an Elvis Costello hairdo. Cowboys owner lifted his curls to reveal surprisingly large, intelligent brown eyes. Sometimes llamas get so mad at humans, Cowboys owner said, that they spit. And when a llama spits at you, you know youve been spat on.
The horses hitched up for plowing were Belgians, with furry fetlocks. These handsome animals were rewarded for their labors by Farmers & Planters Co, which donated 25 bags of horse feed. Wicomico County Young Farmers pitched in, as well, to make the day a success.
Once upon a time in America, everyone felt close to the farm and sensed our connections with spring plowing. For four hundred years, we have been blessed with bounty in this country. For most of that time, we all understood our dependence upon the farms for our very lives. Farmers were the first ones to feel the nations distress. A full decade before the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americas farms were stricken, especially in the Dust Bowl.
Its important for us to get back to the soil, if only to visit on occasion. We need to appreciate what our countrys farmers do for all of us. And traveling through farm country is a good way to be reminded of what Martin Luther wrote long, long ago: Our Lord has written the promise of the Resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime. Nowhere is this message more keenly appreciated than in farm country.