There is a light drizzle of freezing rain tapping at the door of my cabin today. It is little more than a week before the words I am writing are due to appear on your breakfast table or work desk with your morning coffee and scrambled eggs. But I write when I can, and today, despite a full schedule of televised football games, and the stacks of ungraded papers in my briefcase, and a good book lying open on my nightstand, I am clacking away on a keyboard to the whir of a heater and the steady drip of my gutters.
I am considering a careful walk to my truck in a few minutes. I want to pull it under the overhang of a rusting tin roof so I won’t be scraping an ice-glazed windshield tomorrow morning in the dark. Incongruous to the past few days’ worth of unseasonably warm January days, the icy rain makes me want to pull on a thicker sweatshirt, hunker down and wait for spring, but I was reminded again just this morning that a little bit of green can go a long way in the winter months to encourage a bud of optimism. Looking at the long-term forecast and its oncoming freight train of frigid arctic air, I may need a bit of encouragement…
Just across the road from my place, a farmer friend has planted acres and acres of winter wheat, and even before it disappeared beneath a blanket of snow a few weeks ago, it was as green as a golf course fairway. I love wheat fields, particularly in the wintertime, for they are cheerful reminders that spring and lawn mowers and leafy trees are never far away. I thought those very thoughts as I retrieved my morning paper today, standing near my mailbox to look over the field as it was raked by a wet northwesterly wind.
Years ago, I asked Artie Yeargin, who farms the rolling clay of the farmland to the west of us, if he’d consider planting a little wheat, and so, two falls ago, he did just that. I have always liked to watch wheat blow in the spring wind, enjoy it even as it lies dormant through the winter. By late June or early July — earlier last year since we had precious little moisture — winter wheat is ready for harvest. By then, it is a uniform blanket of reedy gold stalks, its fat heads rocking in the breeze like metronomes.
I don’t know if Artie planted the wheat just to get me to be quiet or not. I had always heard that wheat can be a tenuous crop to grow, for much can go wrong. Timing, of course, is important, and it needs plenty of nitrogen, and it is susceptible to a host of pests and diseases. But, I have also heard there is money to be made from it, that one of its benefits is that wheat fields can be doubled-cropped with soybeans, and, of course, there is straw to be harvested as well. I have no idea of his reasoning, but Artie planted even more wheat this fall, and I couldn’t be happier, for on gray days such as this, there is that ever-present green just across the road.
Centuries ago, long before we could walk down grocery store aisles and grab loaves of bread and packages of muffins and boxes of cereal from the racks and shelves, wheat was eaten like I eat popcorn: by the handful. People gathered the seeds, rubbed the husks together and chewed what was left in their palms. Wheat is actually a grass, originating near the “Cradle of Civilization,” in what is now modern-day Iraq. That’s a long way and ages from being today’s buttered toast or bowl of “Wheaties.”
According to the Wheat Foods Council, wheat was first cultivated in the United States just a year or so after the Revolution began, primarily as a “hobby crop.” Now, it’s grown in 42 states, and more than 75 percent of all American grain products involve wheat flour in one way or another. The latest statistics I found determined that Kansas grows more wheat than any other state, although North Dakota isn’t very far behind. A single acre of Kansas farmland can produce enough bread to feed more than 9,000 people for a day, and one estimate says that the entire state grows enough wheat in a year to feed every human being on the planet for two whole weeks (or keep my son in cereal for a month).
Of course, farming is actually science, and I am interested as to how wheat stays green at a time when so many other plants, including many of my “evergreens,” turn anemic and brown. After being planted in mid to late fall, winter wheat (scientific name Triticum aestivum) seedlings begin a process called “cold acclimation.” The seedlings pop their heads through the soil when the temperature drops below 50 degrees or so, and as it absorbs light, wheat produces considerable quantities of carbon, storing it in its crown. The combination of the colder air and the carbon helps the plants store energy for the spring thaws. Ironically, wheat needs cold weather to be able to flower.
I have said it before about things that require more brains than I have to understand: The science of the natural world interests me, but I appreciate its beauty more, and for that field of wheat across the road, I am thankful, not only for the bread it will produce, but for the mood it puts me in. I don’t know exactly what variety of the six main kinds of wheat Artie has planted, and I don’t much care since gluten and I are good friends, and pasta is one of my best buddies.
In the early summer, I’ll watch the wheat fields turn to gold, and combines will move across them in an early harvest. But, for now, the wheat’s green encouragement in this bleak mid-winter gives me what I really need.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his fourth book, “A Windy Hill Almanac.”