Down-to-Earth Lessons Learned on the Farm

For a snot-nosed kid like me, my Grandfather’s farm was a magical place. Shutting my eyes, I can still see him plowing that rich Oklahoma dirt with his mule. While pulling the plow up and around for the next row, he flicked the reins with a master’s deftness. His hardworking life filled me with wild-eyed wonder.

When the first raindrops strike the earth as I’m hiking in the wilds, alone and away from civilization’s distractions, the primal smell of the soil still brings flashbacks in short video segments. The scent of upturned earth connects me in a way that cannot be severed by the passing of time.

With each flashback comes memories of life experienced in the simple, direct, powerful ways of childhood: There was my first time picking raspberries. Proudly placing a full bucket on the kitchen counter as mason jars rattled in the boiling water on the old combination wood-and-gas stove. Time seemed to slow as I watched Grandmother canning raspberry jam.

Then there was slopping the hogs—not my favorite chore because of the stink that rose from the half-fermented kitchen scraps that I poured from the slop bucket into the trough. And because escaping through the gate before the pigs ate me made my heart pound.

My attempt to milk Bessie the cow provided a week’s worth of humor for Grandpa. Although I finally learned how to pull the tit between thumb and index finger to start the milk flowing, it was always a race to make it from the barn back to the house. A drake named Donald always chased me, and it was hard to run without spilling the milk.

Learning to adapt to nature’s unmerciful ways was part of farm reality. To feed ourselves, we spent time and money feeding chickens. It wasn’t too hard to steal some of their eggs for the dinner table. But learning to wring their necks did not come easy. You have to do it quickly, then pour boiling water over the carcass. That makes plucking the feathers go faster.

Digging up potatoes was fun. At first I was impatient and cut into the spuds with my spade. Grandpa rebuked me. Once he showed me how he did it, everything fell into place. I got down and dirty pulling the huge clods of earth apart with my hands. It was like finding treasure.

One hot summer night, while we were seeking relief in a cool, outdoor evening breeze, a blood-curdling scream came out of the dark woods beyond the farm. In the west, we know them as mountain lions or cougars, but in the south they are called panthers. It was then I realized that wildness is ever our neighbor.

My grandfather’s bees made the strongest impressions upon my young mind. I was amazed to see how thousands of them coexisted.

Grandfather never wore protective clothing. By carefully observing the bee’s behavior, he knew if they were agitated and he did one of two things: He might use his smoker. Lighting the piece of cloth inside and working the bellows around the hives, the smoker would provide, at best, a temporary quick-fix. The other option was to simply back off and wait. The bees might calm down and get used to your presence. Or, you might have to go away and came back another time. The backing-off technique worked best.

Because I watched and learned to emulate my Grandfather’s behavior, I was never stung, even when taking the honey.

The hives taught me an important life lesson: If the people you are working with get agitated, you can put up a smoke screen. That’s a quick-fix, a sweet-spot attempt to gain cooperation. Or, you can back off and wait until the time is right for true connection.

After all, it’s about connections.

The ones we make in our snot-nosed years may be the most valuable. Those bonds with the earth, and with my grandparents’ wisdom, have served me well. I have learned that it’s up to each of us to find our own alignments. If we nurture those connections, make new ones, and in some cases re-connect with down-to-earth values, they will ground us and help when needed most.

Bill Kight recently retired after 38 years of managing America’s public lands. He writes a monthly column, “Common Ground,” for the Sopris Sun. He also hosts “For Land’s Sake,” a KDNK public affairs program that is live-streamed at 4:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month.