I Wish I Hadn’t Read This Book

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson


Photo: Lionel J-M Delevingne, copyright  © 2009

I wish I hadn’t just finished reading Steve Turner’s Amber Waves and Undertow so I could have the joy of reading it for the first time.

Full disclosure:  Steve Turner and I have been friends for 20 years.   We live on opposite coasts, but we’ve visited each other’s homes and met each other’s spouses.  We were organizers in the same freelance writers’ trade union for years, so I always knew Steve wrote for his living. But until now, I’d never read any of his work.  Boy, am I surprised.

I’m not reviewing his book because we’re friends. Steve is getting the same treatment I’d give a stranger.  I don’t pan books I don’t like, because I know what it takes out of you to write a book.  If I read one for review that I don’t like, I just don’t review it. I don’t finish it, either.

Amber Waves and Undertow: Peril, Hope, Sweat, and Downright Nonchalance in Dry Wheat Country is on its surface a book about agriculture and farm life in Adams County, Washington — hot, dry land east of the Cascade Mountain Range and the Columbia River.  Steve and three friends went there between their junior and senior years at Middlebury College, in Vermont, to pick strawberries, pack peas, and work in the wheat harvest.

I’m not a very visual person, but Steve Turner’s lyrical description of the land where he helped in the harvest when he was 20, and to which he returned nearly 50 years later, living there half of several years while he did his research, put pictures in my head. Steve made me feel the heat, the dryness, the choking dust carried on the wind. He made me hear the roar of the mighty harvesting machines.  He made me feel his fear the first time he drove alongside a combine that cut the wheat stalks and dumped grain into the bed of his truck.

Steve told me:

From childhood on I’ve had a personal romance with the land, wherever I am, and in the best places an underlying desire to be part of it, to lose myself in it.  Connecting with that was an admiration, albeit at a distance, for agriculture–a sure way of direct involvement with the earth.   So when I got to Adams County, so very very different from the green, wet hills and pastures of Vermont, my latest locale, I was fascinated.  And particularly in the context of harvest, I was smitten.

Here are two passages from Amber Waves that capture his attachment — and make me feel it. This is about his early view of the land where he is to work:

We were surrounded by a vastness, and a great stillness.  Our equipment was gathered in a kind of dry swale, at a crossroads, on a mowed corner of a field Noble said was almost a full section, most of a square mile.  Square, perhaps, but not level.  From our stationary vantage point the land rolled up gently all around in immense, supple mounds and rounded ridges, covered in the organized bristle, the delicious light toast color and texture of ripe wheat.  There were no trees anywhere, and the only sign of life, other than the roads, was the pole to pole droop of a telephone line, disappearing toward our home compound, only a few miles away but as quickly invisible as though swallowed.  The sky, correctly and unexceptionally blue, stretched around so routinely that the eye dismissed it in favor of the more interesting land forms.

And this is after his scary first drive in a huge, strange truck, taking a load of wheat to the elevator — successfully.

Parked on the ridge, with no combine in sight or earshot, I climbed up to sit on the top of my cab.  Looking down and out upon this place, this vast sward of wheatland, where I had just established my right to be, I was captivated.

The sensuousness was powerful.  The dry air pleasantly parched away my sweat.  Light breezes, ruffling past my ears, moved down the slope to press fans of bending response into the uncut wheat.  The land spread away voluptuously, its rounded upthrusts and soft swales like primal sculpting of the feminine form.  Edible, too.  The interaction of summer heat and young male hormones added subliminal arousal to this sensory banquet.

A stillness of longing filled me, a sense of suspension.  It occurred to me with what seemed great propriety that I was very much alone.

And here’s the older Steve, describing the rest that comes after a harvest at which he was an observer:

The younger members of the crew luxuriate down on the grass, while the older guys, like me, take advantge of lawn chairs….Conversation eases down to restfulness.  The cool green of it all, punctuated by flowers, blessed by the calm silent absence of engines, is a fine lull. And again I am captivated, feeling the happy sense of immersion in a process descended from time out of mind, this modern-day version of bringing in the sheaves.

It would have been enough for me if  Steve had given me all these images, all this music in his words. It would have been a neat extra that he taught me about the geology of the area, the huge floods in the Pleistocene era some 12,000 years ago that carved out the Columbia River Basin. His brief chapter on the Hutterites and Mennonites who settled the area, his description of what is happening to the water table in western Adams County — and what is likely to keep happening — are a nifty plus. But there’s more.

Adams County is the vehicle that Steve uses to convey the irresistible forces of  mechanization and chemicalization, with their inexorable demand to “get big, or get out” that is transforming rural America. In a chapter on potatoes, another major Adams County crop, he points out that more than a grower’s skill is involved in his operation’s success.

Market concentration, for one. “There used to be a bunch of processors,” says Roger Krug, who formerly was a buyer for one of the biggest, Lamb Weston. “And there was competition for the crop, and a grower could compare bids. But now it’s down to just a few, and they rule the roost.”…. Frank Martinez [one of the biggest growers in the area] confirms the impact of the tightening of demand sources. “We used to shoot for $500 an acre net on a crop, twenty-five years ago. Now it’s down to $300. They always find a way to screw you.”

Get big, or get out indeed.

One of the outfalls of the advent of big agriculture is the decline of the tiny cities that serve the surrounding farmlands. Lind, whose 1950s population of 800-some is now down to half of that, is one such. But the city (in my neck of the woods it would be a town — you have to have 15,000 residents to call yourself a city) still has its pride — and its deliciously quirky ways.  Consider Lind’s brand of Demolition Derby:

[The] best evidence of Lind’s nonchalance is parked at the outlying rodeo grounds: battered hulks of large, strangely decorated grain harvesters displaying grievous damate that was gleefully inflicted in the name of community spirit. Every year, spurred by the civically-minded Lions, citizens of Lind abandon their tyically sedate, mostly Republican ways, and invite erious abuse of this fundamental grain farming equipment in the Combine Demolition Derby, a racous sendup of the very agronomy that created the town. Retired combines are stripped of their front-end mosing reel and stem-cutting sickle bar.  They get a bit of protective armor, plus outlandist paint jobs and ornamentation…They become supersized battlebots. And with their improbably wide (try 18 feet) header mouths bobbling out front in steel grimaces, they’re piloted into the arena, roaring and bouncing, to smash each other up in bizarre, elephantine combat.”

If you’re engaged in agriculture, you’ll recognize your struggles in those of the people of Adams County, and perhaps come to understand them on a deeper level.  If you’re on the outskirts, you’ll see the connection between your own struggle for identity and autonomy and what the people who grow your food are going through.

It’s all here for you, from the particular to the general and back again. A beautiful piece of work. If you read it, you’ll want to thank Steve for having written it — and me for telling you about it.

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4 Responses to “I Wish I Hadn’t Read This Book”

  1. […] that everyone from celebrities to your mom wants — nay, needs — to have in their pocket. I Wish I Hadn’t Read This Book – ruralvotes.com 08/07/2009 By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson Photo: Lionel J-M Delevingne,copyright  […]

  2. I have always been fascinated by histories of American life — this looks like a good read. Off to visit amazon.com now.

  3. I am a school librarian. Plan to check so see if my local public library has this book. If yes, I will definitely be reading this book. With all the budget cuts because of the economy many small libraries are suffering. Maybe you could write a post about how small town libraries are faring in the downturn and what can be done to help them when they can’t afford new books.

  4. I can always tell a professional journalist by the way they write about another pro. Based on your recommendation, I will read this book.

    I manage a small farm store and produce stand. We sell local products and also contract with an organic oat grower for an oat/wheat flour mix we use for all our breads pies and other baked goods. It’s a real mom and pop operation, open only a few months per year. I have a regular job and my wife is a teacher. We love what we do during the growing season and wish we could do this for a living but we are both from old farming families and know better. Our house is on land once tilled by my grandfather. Seven lots were subdivided out to family members when the estate was sold, we were lucky enough to get a five acre plot.

    For us, it’s enough to remain attached to the land in our own small way, our kitchen is licensed and everybody loves my wife’s baked goods. We use the income to subsidize our annual vacation in the winter. Summer’s too much fun and work for us to leave home.

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