I know 2020 has been less than stellar, and I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but for all of you who thought Leaves of Grass would be the perfect gift for the farmer in your life, your gift is going to be a dud.
I ordered it a few months ago because farmers are always pestering me with questions about pasture grass identification, and I needed a good pocket manual, something that I could whip out of my back pocket and refer to in times of doubt. This manual had nearly a five-star rating on Amazon and was a slim volume, only 145 pages. I thought that’s just what I need.
Yikes! Do not, I repeat, DO NOT open and recite anything from this manual in the presence of a big-time cattle farmer, no matter how stumped you are by a strange grass clump. At best, if you live in an area with rocky topsoil, you’ll be quickly stoned to death. At worst, you’ll be left to wander the pasture alone, while the big-time cattle farmer hurries over the horizon to the nearest gas station grill, Lowry’s Country Corner, to insert into circulation the vicious rumor that the local soil conservationist likes poetry. Afterward, you’ll be forced to live the rest of your days as an agricultural outcast and farmers will point and snicker at you at the sale barn and ask you, derisively, if you’ve read lately at any open mic nights.
So, just FYI, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is not the authoritative source for species identification in the grass family. For a more accurate field guide, I suggest, “Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes: An Identification Guide” by Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman.
As a soil conservationist, one of my official job responsibilities is to walk farms and give farmers government-sanctioned advice on erosion issues. These days, most farmers have some sort of side by side, like a Gator or Mule, so walking is more just me holding on for dear life. I’m not sure if farmers are trying to impress me with their off-road driving skills or sling me into orbit, but a lot of times I would just rather walk.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like to put one-foot in front of another, repeatedly, in an ambulatory journey. My fondness for walking started in childhood when my parents, apparently unworried that serial killers might snatch me, let me walk home from school. It makes me feel old to think my parents let me walk home. A parent would get thrown in jail for that now. No cell phones and no adult supervision, it was just me and the open road, plus a couple of my friends and fellow walkers, hoping to find something neat on the roadside to examine, like a hubcab or, if we were lucky, roadkill.
But walking, even in friendly confines, isn’t without danger. Last year, a farmer and I were strolling through a pasture, when some little camouflage birds rocketed up from a clump of grass at our feet. “Well, I’ll be!” said the startled farmer, “I haven’t seen a covey of quail in ages.” We were both suddenly giddy with excitement, and as our heads caught up with and tracked the birds’ flight pattern–they went zooming into the woodline–the farmer noticed another strange sight: in the underbrush, a creature, which resembled a velociraptor, was pounding toward us.
Oh, to have been a cow grazing in that pasture, watching two full grown men flee for their lives. Weighed down by boots and a thick fescue sod, we were each trying to high-step and outrun the other and in so doing place the other closest to the enraged momma turkey. Had we had a moment to think, we would have known no self-respecting quail would be caught dead in a fescue pasture (which has about as much habitat for quail as a parking lot) and realized those little camouflage birds that streaked through the air into the woods were not quail, but baby turkeys. But, as it was, we were blind-sided by the momma turkey who, wings-flapping and cackling, pursued us halfway into the horizon.
If there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s charging mommas are to be feared and avoided. Not only have I been charged by a momma turkey, but I’ve been charged by momma cows twice. All three of those charging incidents were frightening. But the scariest charging I’ve ever witnessed was my own mom charging on my behalf. I cringe still thinking about it, as it pertains to my baseball career.
Basically, the highlight reel of my illustrious baseball career includes the line drive I caught by closing my eyes and sticking my glove straight up, my strikeout of the most far-sighted slugger in little league, and the pitch that plunked my knee. Strangely, the home-plate umpire thought my spin to try to avoid the pitch constituted a swing. He wouldn’t let me go to first base–not that I wanted to go to first base because my knee hurt. Mostly, I just wanted to flee the field because everybody was staring at me, and I may have been shedding a few tears while the third-base coach examined the stitch marks in my kneecap (that part of my memory is blurry, likely due to watery eyes).
As much as I’d like to forget the memory, what isn’t blurry is the sight of my mom (who is normally of a quiet and peaceful demeanor) charging through the dugout and onto the field to argue with the umpire. The crazy thing is my mom barely checked on my welfare; she just left me laying there with the third-base coach attending to my kneecap while she handled the threat. As she did her best Bobby Cox impersonation, I shed a few tears for the umpire.