The Planted Row: The secret ministry of frost

Stan Wise

by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

One thing you might not know about me is that I am a fan of poetry.

I know in South Dakota that cowboy poetry is popular, but my preference tends toward the classics. My favorites discuss our relationship with nature. Sometimes, something in real life will remind me of these classic poems.

This week’s snow flurries reminded me of “Frost at Midnight,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in 1798. In the poem, Coleridge recalls his unhappy childhood in which he was “reared in the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, and saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” He seeks a different life for his baby son who is sleeping next to him in a cottage in a country village. Coleridge remarks on how strangely quiet it is in the cottage on that frosty evening, despite the various happenings of life in the village.

It wasn’t until I was a young man living in Alaska, with a baby of my own, that I realized how snow can dampen sound and create a truly unnatural silence.

In this strange silence, which Coleridge calls “the secret ministry of frost,” he declares that his son will learn an entirely different kind of knowledge living in the countryside. He says his son “shalt wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds.” When I was a high school student, these lines touched me because I had grown up in the country, wandering free over my own family’s farm and neighbors’ farms. I learned the quiet, slow lessons nature had to teach me (even if there was rarely any frost).

What farming father doesn’t want that same kind of childhood for his children?

It’s a kind of life that is under threat, and the threat comes from many angles. Often, we think the threat comes from regulations and hipsters craving their organic, locally grown foods. However, the greater threat comes from the forces of ever increasing automation and downward pressure on prices through increased production at home and abroad.

Last weekend, as I was driving through the county, I saw a team of combines, grain carts and semi-trucks harvesting a cornfield at dusk. It was just dark enough that the combines and tractors had turned on their lights.

The scene reminded me of a line in Walt Whitman’s famous poem “Song of Myself,” first published in 1855. Whitman writes, “The last scud of day holds back for me, it flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds, it coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.”

What farmer doesn’t know that moment when the last bit of daylight casts the last shadow of himself for the day? It is a common moment for anyone who has worked the land. Yet, at the time the poem was written it was much more common than it is now because back then it took many, many more people working on farms to feed everyone else. Now, only a very small percentage of the population works on farms or ranches. For how many more generations will family farmers in this country know what the last light of daylight feels like when there’s still a field to harvest?

Decades ago there were many more farms dotting the South Dakota landscape than there are now. The many shrinking rural towns are testament to the fact that those farms once existed. Yet now, so many of those homesteads, those rural lives, those one-room schoolhouses are mere shadows in our history, mere vapor and dusk of memory. The forces that caused their dissolution are still active.

Whitman said that he bequeathed himself “to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” To me, that sounds like a kind of surrender. If you wish for the secret ministry of frost to work upon your children, what will you do? If you wish for your kids to know what the last moment of daylight looks like, what will you do?

Current events are helping the forces that seek to dissolve your farm. Recently, President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which would have helped livestock producers fight the forces of corporatization. The president wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which could ultimately affect commodity prices.

We’ve got a new farm bill debate coming up. Will you pressure Congress to include a supply management program that gives farmers a chance to respond effectively to falling prices? Will you ask for a revenue protection program that pays more when prices have been low for multiple years? Will you demand that something be done about the rising cost of production while prices stagnate?

What will you do so that your children and grandchildren can experience the same connection with nature that you have likely known your entire life? 

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