News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 29, 2009

The Off Season: Prospecting in the fields of gold

By Mike Lunsford

Every few days I stand at the base of one of our front yard maples and push a fresh ear of field corn onto a squirrel feeder my friend Joe made for me a few years back.

For some reason, we don’t have many squirrels around our place, but we’re in no short supply of jabbering blue jays and territorial woodpeckers and space-sharing cardinals, and they thoroughly enjoy the bounty that we leave for them a few feet from our watchful eyes.

Our ear corn habit is supported not by runs into town to the local feed store or farm supply shop but from gleaning the fields near our home. My wife and I know we must look strange to passers-by as they blast past us in their cars and trucks, perhaps even appearing a little needy as we stoop and kneel in our old blue jeans and muddy boots to get our free harvest.

But where there’s corn, there’s a way, and we are determined to pick it up before the cold and the rain either ruin it or the marauding bands of itinerant deer that take over the fields at night gobble it up.

The rolling acreage near our home is farmed by a friend, Artie Yeargin. My wife and I have taught his children at the local schools, and my grandparents even worked for his grandparents when they were needed during the potato and strawberry seasons years and years ago. He is a good steward of his land, and I admire the way he mows along the roads that border his fields and how he works hard to prevent erosion and waste. I am also more than happy that he doesn’t care a bit that we walk his fields to kick up and pick up the corn for our feeders.

In what now seems a whole lifetime ago, I used to walk the fields around our home with my grandfather. We carried burlap feed sacks, and spent sunless afternoons gleaning for ear corn to feed his goats and sheep and my pony. We occasionally had a side of beef on the hoof, too, but I never really liked the idea of what eventual fate he usually faced and secretly hoped he’d remain a little too skinny to dispatch to the slaughterhouse. I also recall that I always wore a stocking cap and that my nose ran and that I wore brown Jersey gloves while we gleaned; my grandpa wore his green gum boots and a hunting cap that had flaps he could pull down over his ears. The cornpickers in those days weren’t nearly as efficient as they are now, so we’d come away with considerable loot, knowing that our labor was worth cold hands and a slightly sore back.

Just a week or so ago, Joanie and I were just under way on our customary walk when I spied a single, tantalizing ear of corn where Artie’s combine had merely mashed the stalks down, rather than clipping them off. It was a spot near a corner of his field where he’d had to make a turn.

“Let’s get that ear when we get back,” I told her. “Maybe we can find some more tonight before Artie chisel plows,” I said. I knew we would have a nice sunset to watch whether we found much corn or not, so 40 minutes or so later, we found ourselves in the field hunting for unburied treasure. Experienced gleaners know that you step on the shucks as they lie on the ground to see if they are empty or full, that rarely is a full ear of corn found lying in the sun as if it were tanning itself. The whole process simply involves stepping and stooping, an aerobic exercise that neither of us should avoid. In just a few minutes, we had harvested an unexpected bounty, and since it was warm enough, and we weren’t far from the house, we both pealed off our jackets and began tossing ears into them in hopes that we wouldn’t have to make an extra trip back home to grab a bucket or two.

The word “glean” dates back to the early 14th century and originally may have meant “he selects.” By late in that same period, the English were using the verb to literally mean “to gather grain left in the fields by reapers.” Of course, there are many Biblical references to the practice, the most obvious being the instance when Ruth caught Boaz’s eye as she gleaned his fields for grain. The Law of Moses forbade the corners of the fields to be harvested so they could be gleaned by those who needed it, and the practice is mentioned in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

So, who are the two of us to ignore Scripture and leave the corn to rot in the fields? It seems such a waste.

After a while in the field that day, we actually grew selective. At first, we picked up everything, even the ears whose hard, gold kernels were falling out like diseased teeth, even the ears that were less than half full or that held warped and oddly shaped rows of corn, as if the combine passed it by because it had no taste for imperfection. Eventually, we took only the best-beautiful, full ears — some nearly a foot long that otherwise would have gone to the field mice and mold.

We really have no good place to keep our corn once we pick it up, for it isn’t as simple as tossing it into a plastic trash can or cardboard box. Field corn needs to be dried — one reason why the roar of Artie’s grain bin dryers greets us each morning as we walk out to grab the newspaper or feed our begging cats. It is not, however, an unpleasant sound, for it signals another year gone, a harvest collected, and the return of clear, cold air from the north. If we leave our corn covered or wrapped in plastic for long, we’ll find it sopping wet. The tell-tale signs of rot and mold won’t be far behind.

We know we’ll be robbed of some of our plunder. The same armies of marauding mice that scurry across those nearby fields will attempt a full-scale invasion of our garage and barn to get what grub and warmth they can grab at our expense. The raccoons, before they go into their cold-weather daze, will raid our feeders, too.

But our time walking the fields is well-spent because we get so much more out of it than a bit of corn. But don’t tell our blue jays.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be signing his newest book, “Sidelines: The Best of the Basketball Stories…” from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Vigo County Public Library and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 19 at Baesler’s Market. His first book, “The Off Season,” also will be available. Mike’s Web page can be found at www.mikelunsford.com.