“I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” he would say after telling me stories of hardship and trials.
My grandfather post-scripted it on all his recounts – barns blown “from here to kingdom come” or tales of lumber camps where evening entertainment featured comparative wood-tick-killing methodologies.
One of my grandfather’s favorite stories was of riding the rails of a freight train to Beardsley, Minnesota, to find work during threshing season. I’m guessing circa 1917. When he arrived he spent his last quarter for a bologna sandwich and cup of coffee.
“I didn’t know what to do; I sat on the steps of the grocery and ate,” he said. “Pretty soon a fellow came along and hooked me up with a crew and I was earning my keep far from home.
“I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
The phrase always resonated with me. It seems like something everyone would aspire to say in their later years but I haven’t heard anyone say it as often or earnestly as my grandfather did. His voice would often trail off and he’d have a far-off look after recalling his experiences. I confess to a bias in his favor regarding things philosophic. I’m happy to share a quarter of his DNA.
There’s a few things I’d have done differently on the farm. Plant trees and learn to weld are high on my list. Not immediately having my eyes glaze over every time “cash flow projection” was mentioned is another. Listening to more classical music on the tractor radio is working its way to the top of the list. What better than to pull in to a mown hayfield in June while Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 Pastorale is playing on the radio?
How much better my mood and temperament may have been when faced with a long day of haymaking if I’d been listening to the opening movement in F major titled “Awakening of Happy Feelings on Arrival in the Country.” I can see now in my mind’s eye pulling my baler into the shade of a tall oak to grease bearings and adjust pickup tines before baling a field while woodwinds and violins emanate from the tractor-cab radio. The pensive tone of a bassoon would guide me as I lay in the summer stubble reaching for an elusive grease fitting that I’d otherwise skip.
Suddenly the tone changes to a sub-dominant B flat and inexplicably I’m drawn to a babbling brook that courses through a nearby woodlot. Normally I’d be all business with 30 acres of hay waiting to be baled. Even the dark clouds in the west couldn’t stop me from my musically driven distraction explained by the transition to the second movement, “Scene by the Brook.” It’s as though the flutes and oboes had an inexplicable power over me.
But my light-hearted distraction wouldn’t last when a return to F major for the scherzo – a sprightly instrumental movement in triple time titled “The Merry Gathering of Peasants” – had me quickening my pace. I’d return to my task of weaving my baler across a tapestry of hay rows while swallows swoop and dive, taking advantage of insect life I’d stirred from the hay. Even as dark clouds slowly crept their way from the west toward my prime field of hay I’d have been in a good place mentally while Beethoven guided me across the field. High in the sky eagles would ride thermals while kestrels plotted the demise of field mice from the branches of a lone bleached-white dead elm along the roadside.
Suddenly as the dark clouds reached the field’s edge the music would transition to F minor. I’d have the presence of mind to stop baling and silence the engine. As the music transitioned to the fourth movement, known as “The Tempest Storm,” the nearby woodlot would ring with birdcalls and pattering raindrops. The birdcalls, raindrops, double basses and cellos would signal my baling progress was ended for the day. With rain coming straight down I’d prop my feet up on the steering wheel and doze while the symphony transitions to the final “Shepherds’ Hymn – Happy and Thankful Feelings After the Storm.”
In one of Beethoven’s letters from 1810 he wrote, “How delighted I will be to ramble for a while through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees and rocks produce the echoes man desires to hear.”
I wholly concur. Beethoven’s words explain my sense that I’d have been better off listening to classical music from my tractor cab. But it’s not really a big regret of mine. You can’t beat a nine-inning pitcher’s duel either. I’m enjoying a little Beethoven with my Vivaldi these days while I plan my spring tree plantings at the woodlot.
Carry on friend, here comes March.
Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.