Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Wind Is Passing By

Brad abruptly pulled over to the side of the road, crushing waist-high, purple-headed thistles and a few scraggly Indian Blankets under the wheels of our van.

“Get out and pull it – see for yourself,” he chided.

I’d only asked if the crop we were passing was wheat. A yes or no answer would have satisfied my curiosity until the next time we passed a field growing with mysterious plants in perfect rows. Growing up in the city, I knew my garden plants. Living in Texas, I even knew my roadside wildflowers. But no matter how many car trips I’d taken across the Midwest, I still could only identify corn. Those floppy-eared stalks are hard to confuse. But the grains and low-growing vegetation were still mysteries of nature.

I got out of the car, careful to look for fire-ant mounds, and walked to the edge of the field. Glossy and tan, the stalks stood just past my knees, the long hair surrounding the kernels now visible at close range. They looked like the thin beards of old men, swaying in the wind. I had to yank hard to break one off its stem. Instead, the whole stalk came out of the ground with a clump of earth and my face flushed from the shame of thievery as I hurried to break it from its roots.
Back in the car, the girls squealed with delight. Hannah immediately smelled it, as she does everything, and declared it had no smell. Bethany waved it like a baton. I felt the fatness of the kernels and the rough shells that made my fingers stick and lose their way.

“So this is where bread comes from.”

I squeezed some of the kernels between my fingers and they turned into a pulpy, starchy mash. Brad said he hated harvesting wheat. He would itch like crazy as he walked through the fields in his hometown, the sickle rubbing blisters in his hand. I remembered the threshing floor for his village, just on the outskirts of his hometown. He had pointed it out during a winter visit when the snow dusted the dirt behind the mill.

“So if I dried this and crushed it, it would become flour?”

“It’s not that easy,” he said. He explained that after cutting it, you had to lay it on the dirt and dry it for a day or two, then walk on it to separate the kernels from the stalks. Then the thresher stood in the middle of the pile and threw the mess outward, with a pitchfork. If you did it right, the wind would catch the hulls and hairs and dirt and lay them in a circle around you. The heavier grain, now dried and separated, would travel further, forming an outer circle around the chaff.

The chaff pricked and itched and got in your sweaty clothes, rubbing you as you worked. The dust blew in your hair and eyes. Your shoulders ached from working the tools. Then you gathered up the outer band and pulled out the rocks before storing it in a bag. If you wanted, say, fifty pounds of flour, you removed the grain, picked out the smaller stones and washed off the mud and dirt. The kernels had to dry in the sun before you could take them to the miller. The miller would ask you, do you want it ground fine or coarse? And the miller would grind the kernels between the stones that had been there since the Qing dynasty.

The wind laid down the heads of the bearded ones as Brad steered the van back onto the road. Hannah tickled Bethany with the stalk of wheat as we drove south on the asphalt road in far north Dallas where the field became a suburb and the suburb became a city.


Lisa said...

Karen, I love this.

allison said...

This is lovely.

Can you have Brad bake us some bread?

Mike said...

When I worked at Ohio Foundation Seeds ("Where We're Oustanding in Our Field"), I walked through wheat fields every day for several weeks each summer. Our purpose was to find the "off type" wheat in what was supposed to be purebred seed wheat. We'd pull them out just like you did.

I learned a lot about certain parables working on a farm.

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