Today I saw a swather laying down a heavy windrow of barley and felt the old pull of harvest. Memories of dust hanging in windless air, the puffed-wheat smell of chaff and broken straw, white hills of oats above a truck box and a combine roaring toward a horizon.
It’s a life I’ve left behind, having grown up in it on the Saskatchewan prairie, having been on harvest crews through midwestern states, having worked for a dozen years as a grain buyer, I was once intimate with prairie harvests.
My harvests are of the garden variety these days. A tomato picked this evening for tomorrow’s breakfast with toast. A delight which suits.
But I confess to a blood connection with a ripening field of bearded barley—the twisting of a fist-full of oat straw to determine dampness, dry heads of wheat rubbed out in my hand, a kernel between my teeth to test the readiness, fat windrows of canola running around a dry slough, a stubble field, dirt on my face and chaff in my hair, a trail to a steel bin, an auger motor, the squeal of the v-belt, a hopper and shovel and hot September days lying still and dry through the night; a radio on the dash playing Credence Clearwater, the truck’s warm hood beneath my back, the falling dusk, the flashing lights on the combine, the timed race to catch it and the drive beside with a stream of durum hitting exactly one foot from the end-gate moving slow toward the cab; an all-night restaurant and a Tammy Wynette song coming from the kitchen, the smell of grease and fuel after breakfast, a fresh t-shirt and a new sun shining on a rust-red swath, the pick-up moving it to the cylinder-drum and concave, the rub bars hitting the great rope of wheat shattering stocks and heads, loosening a million kernels from their glumes, the separators shaking everything free, the grain dropping through and gathering, the combine’s flying tail batting straw an acre wide—and the dust, in warm still air, hanging forever.