November 29, 2020

Fridays with Damaris: The Surrounding Fields

Indiana Country Road 2016

The Surrounding Fields
By Damaris Zehner

The house where I live is on a three-acre square of land.  One side of the square faces a barely paved county road; the other three are surrounded by farm fields owned by a farmer who lives nearby.  My family enjoys this setting.  It’s quiet.  The nearest traffic is a mile and a half away.  Perhaps one car an hour comes down our road.  When I stand outside, I can hear the wind.  At night the loudest sounds are coyotes yipping, the odd whooping cry of a screech owl, or, in the spring, an orchestra of frogs.  On clear nights the sweep of the Milky Way is visible, and we see the progression of the moon through all its phases.   On our property I’ve seen garter snakes, rabbits, toads, frogs, a mink, several weasels, far too many skunks, a baby snapping turtle, twin fawns, argiope spiders, blue-tailed skinks, bats, and birds.   A great congregation of birds lives here.  One of my favorite is the marsh harrier.  He doesn’t show up frequently, but when he does, he skims the fields like a seagull skimming the sea.  Bob-whites lob their calls as aggressively as competing tennis players, killdeer skitter and complain, kestrels scan the ground from the electric wires, and overhead turkey vultures circle in the updrafts.  Indigo buntings, red-wing blackbirds, goldfinches, and a variety of woodpeckers add color.

We can go outside barefoot and feel the soft earth harden in the days after a rain.  We can lie down on the grass without self-consciousness; the first day in spring when I can stretch out on the ground is one of the happiest days of the year for me.  We can be casual about what we wear outside, especially during the summers when the farmer is growing corn.  By the first week of July, the corn forms enough of a wall that we can walk outside in our pajamas and not be seen.  We need to pay close attention to the season, though:  the first morning after harvest has occasionally come as a shock to the sleepy, pajama-clad person taking the dogs out, who stands exposed to the school bus trundling past.

But still, I love the openness and the wide view of the surrounding fields.  Wide views do not occur naturally in this part of Indiana, where the land is only slightly rolling and forest is the natural ecosystem.  In summer the fields are lush green during the day and flickering with fireflies at night.  In fall they turn golden brown, then, when the crops are harvested, every contour lies bare to the eye.  Morning and evening foxes and coyotes will lope across the dangerously open expanse, or a frantic deer will stand frozen in the middle of the bare fields, head up, then dash for the small strip of woods to the south of us.

It looks like a rich and healthy ecosystem, and in some ways it is.  But the health has more to do with the wealth of Indiana’s soil, water, and climate and with human neglect as factories move and towns dry up.  Where human beings have interacted intensively with the land, there are some problems, not obvious to the casual observer now but with the potential for future harm.

Our three acres are surrounded by thousands of acres of corn and soybeans.  The two crops are generally rotated each year, but not always.  Small patches of trees have been cleared away since we’ve lived here, making an open expanse for several miles in most directions.  In the spring, trucks spray anhydrous ammonia and spread lime.  Sometimes field tile is put in to drain the land more efficiently; this involves large machinery digging a system of trenches throughout the field and perforated plastic pipe being unspooled like thread and laid in the trenches.  Once the field is ready, the huge planters drive through.  The driver sits in a comfortable, enclosed cab high above the field; the planting these days is directed by satellite GPS.  Modern machines tow huge booms of seeders behind them that can plant a forty-foot width with every pass of the field.  Our house, a four-bedroom American four-square, is slightly less than forty feet wide.

After the plants emerge, strange-looking vehicles on high wheels creep across the fields like spiders, spraying the crops with herbicide and pesticide.  At least once a year, crop-dusting airplanes zoom overhead, trailing poison as a squid trails ink; recently helicopters have been spraying as well.  I can hear the engines overhead barely in time to rush out to the clothesline and haul in the laundry, call the dogs, and close the windows.

When the crops are dry and brown, the combines start their march across the land, lights and engines scouring the fields far into the night.  Some of the newer combines can harvest eighteen rows at a time.  Huge tractor trailers wait by the side of the road to take the winnowed corn or beans to the grain elevator.  The days of harvest break into our quiet life.  The farmer who works around us is responsible for several thousand acres of crops, so he often harvests at night.  He parks four or five vehicles – tractor-trailers to haul grain, his and his workers’ pick-up trucks, perhaps a tractor and grain wagon or tanker for refueling – alongside our property.  He leaves the engines running and the lights on, even when the vehicles aren’t used for several hours.

After weeks of that frenzy, the fields are bare and quiet.  They might be tilled once before spring, but generally the old stalks lie scattered over the tire tracks pressed into the dirt.  The winter winds are strong here – actually, the winds are strong all year round – and each dry stalk forms the foundation for a drift of snow, or of dirt if snow doesn’t fall.  I don’t see many living things on the fields after the weather turns cold except for the occasional coyote, fox, or deer I described earlier.  In fact, the fields, as opposed to our acres or the native forests, are not much visited by any species.  Even farmers don’t set foot on their land over the course of a year.  Let me not exaggerate – perhaps once a year, the farmer who works the fields around us will walk over a few feet of his field with his helpers and point and talk.  Sometimes he’s directing someone to cut off the branch of one of our trees that hangs over his field.  The last two years he’s overseen an experimental test patch in the middle of his field, but he’s left a bare dirt track big enough to drive a truck through, so he doesn’t have to walk there.

What are the results of this type of farming?  Well, it does produce a lot of commodity crops and can be efficiently worked by a small number of people.  However, it doesn’t produce most of the food we actually eat, despite many farmers’ claim to be feeding the world;  our food is grown far away from this rich land, in California or South America – the broccoli, asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, pinto beans, Brussels sprouts – all the variety of vegetables that we actually eat.  We would struggle to live on the great bounty of these fields, and we wouldn’t be happy doing it.  I especially would suffer; I’m allergic to corn and don’t eat much soy.

And the efficiency and small work force have their costs:  first, the benefits of the advanced machinery need to be weighed against its costs and the amount of debt the farmers incur to keep up with the technology.  Our neighboring farmer and his wife have taken several million dollars in government subsidies in just the last few years.  (The information is easily available on a public website.)  Despite the image of the American farmer as a rugged individualist, most farmers considered successful these days are sustained by the government and the banks, not the land.  This is true not only of their equipment but of the petroleum used to run it, subsidized in ways both obvious and unseen, the roads maintained for them and worn down by them, and the whole transportation system as well as the trade agreements that enable them to sell what they grow in markets around the world.

Second, replacing human labor by technology has led to unemployment, in farming as in other industries.  The biggest farmers have the biggest debt, and the most rapidly increasing rate of debt is for farm machinery, which unlike land loses its value rapidly.  The almost 200 billion dollars currently in farm debt could cover quite a few salaries of farm hands who could take the place of the most expensive machinery.  Instead that money is going, in many cases, to overseas banks and manufacturers; even when the lenders are American, the debt payments, unlike salary payments, do not stay in the same community where the farmers work.  Sociologists in recent years have bemoaned the rural decline in population, the “hollowing out” of the farming states; surely this problem begins not with the loss of the people but with the draining away of all profits before they can circulate through local businesses.

So the economic impact of modern hi-tech commodity farming is less than positive; what about the environmental impact?  Here is what I observe:  Snow drifts over the bare fields to block roads and creep back across the pavement as soon as the plow goes by.  In some places local government will install ugly orange plastic fences along the road to try to keep the drifts down, but I haven’t seen any effort to restore natural windbreaks beside roads.  When the snow isn’t too deep, those same drifts, as well as the snow on our property that is downwind from our neighbor’s fields, get a thin coating of brown dirt blown from the fields.  It’s not very pretty.

Local farmers plant rows according to the convenience of the machinery, not the contours of the land.  When it rains, topsoil runs down between rows and along the cleared area beside our property.

The farm land is so compacted and sprayed that very few things other than genetically modified crops can survive on it, but mutant ragweed is beginning to take off, as are a few other weeds that have been naturally selected for herbicide resistance.  In contrast, unfarmed areas of central Indiana are burgeoning with uncontrollable life.

There are simple things that farmers could do to improve these and other problems.  They could have smaller fields separated by patches of forest.  Planting a larger variety of crops in narrower strips would slow disease and pest transition and make it easier to really rotate crops, not just swap corn and beans.  They could give up ditching the fields for drainage – an expensive and destructive process that never seems to end – and instead create wetlands where water naturally collects.   They could provide a more natural rotation of animals and plants.  These and many other ideas have been known for millennia.

So why don’t they?  First is the conservative nature of farming.  Any activity that involves a large and long investment for an uncertain outcome is going to be conservative; no one wants to experiment when a year’s income is riding on the results.  Farmers tend to stick to what has seemed to work.

But even when things don’t work so well, farmers will keep doing them if there are financial incentives to do so.  This is the second reason.  Government programs have tended to encourage big agribusinesses and have been less friendly to smaller, more varied farms.

Third, farmers love their machines.  All Americans do.  We always fall for the promise that new technology will make our lives more fun, more productive, and more sophisticated.   And the people who have outdated technology, whether cell phones or tractors, get made fun of.

Finally, there is a mistaken aesthetic that dictates how people see and judge the land around them.  And honestly, the land here looks pretty good.  Or at least it looks pretty.  But the cost of those perfect fields and vast expanses of monoculture may be more than we can pay.  Our aesthetics are as damaging to the environment as our greed or carelessness.  So we need to move toward a new aesthetic.

How much of the world are we responsible for tidying up?  Nature is messy by our standards.  A patch of disturbed earth becomes populated with a swirling mob of what we’d call weeds – dock, plantain, dandelion, mulberry, crabgrass, lamb’s quarters, and a hundred plants I don’t have a name for.  And that bothers us.  We spray, mow, and weed, in the process disturbing the natural succession of plants.  We say that keeping our lawns, gardens, and fields as pure monoculture is more efficient and attractive.  I drove with farmers past fields of soybeans shortly after the introduction of Round-Up, and they talked about how beautiful the thick carpet of identical plants is.  They’re not wrong.  The lush uniformity is beautiful.  But I’m not sure we have the right to expect the same sort of beauty from nature that we can create within our houses.  Should a farm field look like wall-to-wall carpeting?  Should every molehill be leveled, every fence row scorched, just because we think it looks nicer?

We have neighbors down the road whose property has been described as a doll’s house because of its detailed perfection.  It’s a good description – they treat their two acres as if it were as entirely under their control as a doll’s house.  The fences have lines of brown under them where the mower can’t reach and herbicide has been sprayed.  Their lawn is grass only, no violets or dandelions.  Their mature hardwood trees are all pollarded to be a matching height.  It’s pretty, I suppose.  It’s also horrifying as an illustration of their attitude toward natural beauty.  To speak in hyperbolic terms, those neighbors are conducting an all-out war on nature, with policies of scorched earth and ethnic cleansing, and the result is extreme totalitarianism.

Farmers around here will tell you that they are aiming for efficiency, but they are also motivated by this false aesthetic of human-imposed purity.   I watch while they grub out a small patch of trees that they had no problem maneuvering around, just so the field looks “clean.”  It’s a competitive aesthetic, too.  People in this small community will criticize landowners whose fields aren’t clean, whose yards aren’t mowed to velvet – in other words, who leave any toe-hold for nature in their property.  Rabbits and deer have no right to a corridor of shelter; killdeer and quail have to keep packing up and moving as their surroundings are cut down; coyotes are shot.  And once we’ve expunged the aborigines, we can live the imperialist lifestyle we like.

I have some sympathy, I guess.  I’m all right with keeping my house clean, but I have to decide how far my household extends.  If I find insects on my kitchen counter, I kill them.  But should I kill the insects in my yard?  All the insects in the world?  How much of the natural world do we have the right to control at the same level that we control our houses and yards?  If we are going to live in a better balance with the surrounding fields than we do now, we have to change not only our acquisitiveness and our focus on profit and exploitation; we also have to learn to see beauty in what we now consider messiness.


  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    ‘An early bird catches the worm’
    I couldn’t resist this.

    Thank you Damaris. Loved your post.

    Living in the country has advantages no city bound person could ever appreciate.
    The crisp, clear, cold, breath taking moments when the door is first opened and the morning floods in. The cats stretch from their slumber on their comfy beds inside. The dawn beckons them and somewhat reluctantly me.
    Parrot screech, magpies call to their family, sparrows have been twittering for hours.
    Wet grass heavy with dew, like crystals in the early sunshine. Fallen leaves like rich jewels of red and yellow.

    City life was not for me. The freedom of unlimited space is ever enticing.
    I have just picked a bunch of violets which have filled my living room with their old fashioned smell.
    Suits me, I think I can relate to ‘old fashioned’.

    As the weekend approaches IMonkers, take some time away from the computer, IPhone, tablet etc and find and open green space.Put your brains away. Look heavenwards and direct your thankful prayer to the ascended Christ.

    This might take a few minutes of precious time but I assure you the time spent will be more precious.

    Christ is ascended.

    look into the sky
    eagle harrying a hawk
    just soaring the blue

    I watched this last Sunday. Neither was particularly aggressive, seemed like a game.

    Peace to all, Susan

    • Dana Ames says

      One of my tasks today is to attend to the garden containers underneath my front window, planted with carnations. Unfortunately, our bird feeder hangs too close to the farthest planter, and an abundance of non-carnation seeds has sprouted. Must pull out those seed sprouts – and move the bird feeder! For now it’s a container garden of flowers on my porch – I will grow vegetables again when husband builds me some raised beds, as I can’t get down on my knees any more…

      I am very blessed to live in an area (northern California – cradle of hippies) where people are highly conscious of food production methods, and we have lots of organic farming going on. Our local co-op carries only organic produce, locally sourced whenever possible, and there’s a weekly farmer’s market where one can buy locally produced beef in addition to the veg. Yes those products cost more – and I’m willing to pay, even on a fixed income now, because I want to avoid the larger and long-term price that comes with the destruction of the ability of our land to actually produce, and the introduction of yet more chemicals into the environment and my body whose effects are completely unknown.


  2. Susan Dumbrell says

    Hi IMonkers

    You got me going, sorry that is what the antipodes do, we are upside down or maybe the right side up??

    I have been reading Internet Monk since Michael Spencer first posted this site. An old girl but attentive.

    I hope you will consider my suggestion when I say (as I have said over the past couple of months) that the gendre has changed. It is so introverted, introspective, scholarly beyond the realm of ordinary mud-shuffling bloggers.

    I understand your need to converse in a strata above some of us lesser beings but are we being true to the initial purpose of Michael Spencer’s web site.

    We have so many fascinating IMonkers each week who give us breadth and breath to our life. For them I give thanks.

    Peace to all, Susan

    • Susan, I agree with you on the content. Lately, as I start my day, I first click onto this site, see the subject, heave a deep sigh of weariness, and then move on.

      It is not what it used to be and the population has skewed more in one direction than in the past. But, “that’s life”, as they say…

      • Oscar, plus 10

        • Seriously folks?

          Michael Spencer would have deleted these comments in a heartbeat because they weren’t relevant to the day’s subject and thus disrespectful to the blog and the day’s author.

          Susan (and others), you haven’t heard me complaining about all the hijacking of the comment thread that goes on so that you can talk about whatever happens to be on your mind at the moment, have you?

          A blog represents the interests and pilgrimage of its author and not of a particular audience or constituency.

          Under Michael it was everything from right-wing political commentary to neo-Calvinist perspectives to emerging-appreciative post-evangelical musings to ambivalent interactions with Catholicism to utterly transparent introspective tales of Michael’s personal journey to debates with haters and book reviews of scholarly works.

          It has continued as diverse and multifaceted as ever, perhaps even more so. If it’s not to your taste, I won’t be hurt. But please deal with that appropriately. Write me – don’t hijack the comment thread.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Content ebbs and flows. I complained once or twice when I felt several posts were too “Lutheran,” but then I realized that those were just periodic “blips”. Let’s face it…Michael’s passing naturally meant this place would change. A decision could’ve been made back then to just fold the place, but several folks decided to keep it going, to continue to be a place of refuge for people wandering the evangelical wilderness. I don’t mind Chaplain Mike at all for bringing in guests now and then, or even frequently, to alleviate the burden of keeping this site going. The alternative -shutting it down – stinks.

      Here’s the thing I ask myself whenever I begin questioning iMonk content: Does this post have anything to do with “Continuing Michael Spencer’s legacy of Jesus-shaped spirituality”? Most do. Most discuss – maybe in headier, more intellectual ways than my mind can cope – how Jesus fits into the world as we know it. Religion and science, religion and the brain…these are deep topics, and for some people’s faith and walk it’s important to try to wrap their head around the nuances of those topics.

      I think this place veers from “Jesus-shaped spirituality” every now and then, but I’ve learned to just say, “Meh.” I read the articles I find interesting, I skim the ones I don’t, and in either case I often read the comments to see what others are saying.

      And heck, maybe even Michael Spencer himself wasn’t full-on 24/7, 365 days a year, about Jesus-shaped spirituality.

    • I’m very happy to read Damaris’s essays.

      This is still the friendliest place on the internet. I’m addicted to a few other church-related blogs too, and I benefit greatly from them, but this has less of an edge, less outrage or tension.

      Michael Spencer didn’t mind being a little combative, but Chaplain Mike errs on the side of peacemaking. I feel safe here.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > Our aesthetics are as damaging to the environment as our greed or carelessness.
    > So we need to move toward a new aesthetic.

    The new aesthetic is and old aesthetic; or perhaps a more pragmatic approach to the world that was less concerned with aesthetic and more willing to see the beauty where it was.

    We fight the same forces are fought in Urban spaces. The constant battle against the all squelching quest to impose order and uniformity – only in Urban spaces we call it “zoning”, “built environment”, etc… Everyone wants to be in the pre-WWII parts of the city… the root of that being that those places were built before someone decided that all things needed to be carefully ordered – they are places naturally chaotic, disordered, …. and functionally efficient. In radical contrast to our post-war synthetically [not] efficient places.

    Fortunately many of the PTBs get it. Facing the time induced collapse of infrastructure nobody wants to pay to rebuild: what is the most effective way of dealing with spring rains, to avoid flooding? Trees! Who knew? [aside from, you know, everyone born before 1940]. So we’ve planted hundreds, if not thousands. Side effect – cooler in the summer, less A/C use, reduction in power use, lower bills. And the technology required to maintain trees? A saw.

    This week I saved a quote for later use from one of my favorite bloggers: “I like something made of sheet metal and springs. If it breaks you can fix it with a screw driver and some common sense. We’re well in to the age of diminishing returns on advanced technology.” – Granola Shotgun

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “‘I like something made of sheet metal and springs. If it breaks you can fix it with a screw driver and some common sense. We’re well in to the age of diminishing returns on advanced technology.’ – Granola Shotgun”

      Who here has had that little “Check Engine” light come on in their car? It used to be you could open the hood and see everything that might possibly be wrong, then take out a few tools, rattle things around, close the hood, and fire the car back up. Not now. The insides of my hood these days look like a demented amusement park ride, full of metal and plastic and wires going this way and that, with no rhyme or reason. It even takes removal of certain parts just to change a headlight. That “Check Engine” light means “take the car someplace where someone can check the computer in your car to see what’s wrong.”

      Is that good or bad? Probably good if it’s something major, but it takes the fixing out of my hands.

  4. Damaris, you’re sounding more and more like Wendell Berry. And that’s a good thing. Sounds like you are, quite properly, truly a member of your community, rooted and real. Thanks for the post. I regret the day, whenever it was, that we gave up being hunter-gatherers.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I regret the day, whenever it was, that we gave up being hunter-gatherers.

      I really like modern medical care, specially dental care. Life without dentists would be much less pleasant.

      • Robert F says

        I kinda like having a dependable, regular supply of clean, potable water. Oh, and toilet paper….

    • Rick Ro. says

      +1. Very “Wendell Berry-ish”. Nicely written!

    • I think Wendell Berry would be pleased to be compared to Damaris.

  5. Your area of Indiana sounds very much like mine here in Central PA. But there’s a big difference; while the farms are still huge and grow mostly corn and soybeans, they’re owned by Mennonites, both Old Order and more modern. They don’t use chemical fertilizers, they spray with liquefied manure; you can always tell when rain is coming, because the smell of manure takes over the atmosphere as the farmers rush to get it on the ground so the rain will sink it in. They also use leftover whey made available to them by a local cheese processing plant; I’d never heard of that until a farmer friend who maintains a meadow for haying told me about it. I don’t know what they use to get rid of insects and weeds, but I’ve never seen any of the sprayers used in those processes around here, and I know that I notice a wide variety of “wildflowers” around the edges of some local cornfields. It’s a slower life, and it’s probably more work than “gentile” megafarms, but the people here seem fairly happy with their lives, and the farmers don’t seem to be as obsessed with “purity” or “cleanliness”, at least not in their fields. And they always seem to have at least one area on the farms for growing eatables, many also having roadside stands to sell those lovely vegetables. In many ways they seem to have achieved that balance you talk about.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I’d never heard of that until a farmer friend who maintains a meadow for haying told me about it

      Back in the day when I was a [goat] shepherd we used surplus milk for fertilizer – it works very well.

      > and the farmers don’t seem to be as obsessed with “purity”

      The purity thing comes in large part from Technological Affluence. Without Technological Affluence the impracticality of purity is obvious; Technological Affluence induces us to do many things for little other reason than “because we can”. “because we can” can deceptively look and feel like accomplishing something.

  6. Dana Ames says

    Thanks, Damaris. A thoughtful and evocative piece.

    There are prayers in the Catholic tradition that you can pray for blessing of the land, the animals and the crops; if you haven’t done so already, look them up, and pray them when these things come to mind. Orthodoxy has one for blessing the bees particularly – I find this charming as well as completely practical. Our own priest has done this for beekeeping people in our parish. (Many Orthodox monasteries cultivate bees for the wax for candle production – beeswax candles are the only kind we use, with very rare exceptions – with the happy byproduct of lots of monastic honey for sale.)

    One book I read and re-read as a pre-teen was Maria von Trapp’s “Story of the Trapp Family Singers”, wherein she describes the custom of people burying small glass bottles of holy water in different places on the land they owned in Austria, around Easter-time. I don’t advise burying bottles on your land, but it surely wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle some holy water around, anytime 🙂 When we bless things, we are asking God to make them what they really are – this can’t help but mitigate at least some of the damage done in our ignorance and sometimes freely chosen blindness.


    • Rick Ro. says

      Nice, Dana!

      –> “…but it surely wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle some holy water around, anytime.”

      Sometimes God might be asking us to be that holy water.

  7. Robert F says

    ….we also have to learn to see beauty in what we now consider messiness.

    And in ugliness. I, for instance, am repulsed by insects. As a boy I was never one of those fascinated with crawlies, and I still avoid them as much as possible. I hate their chop-mechanical movements and hardness, which in combination with their smallness makes me wish at times that I could blockade every opening and tender spot in my body. How can I live in balance with and appreciation of God’s creation when I am disgusted by a kind of living organism that he’s created in such mind boggling numbers? I count it as one of my serious faults, but I don’t anticipate being able to overcome it in my lifetime.

  8. My wife called me as I was driving home, still twenty minutes away, from work. She was in a panic like I hadn’t heard in 16 years of marriage. This was about a week and a half ago. She had a “BUG” on her shoulder that she was swiping at but it wouldn’t come off. She was completely panicked. It was a tick. It was the first tick she’d ever had in sixty three years. In her panic she couldn’t describe it and didn’t know it was a tick. By the time I had gotten home she had removed the evil invader and had it under a cup. She was still shaken. (She doesn’t like bugs and always asks me to kill them or escort them out of the house.) I’ve probably had eighty ticks in my lifetime. Currently we live in suburban Texas so we don’t commiserate with nature a lot although we do “water the birds” ( our little birdbath) and keep tabs on the robins nest in the Live Oak out front. We do our best to keep the rabbits and the squirrels from eating our flowers and our house as the case may be. I look forward to a time when we have more time to embrace nature. I consider it the feminine aspect of God, available for our viewing. It is the ‘Re’ of God. Regenerate revive rebirth reconstitute renew repopulate re-member reform replay recreate. Play time or recreation is one of the easiest places to find God and I think that’s why he created the Sabbath, His rejuvenate. Nature has its dark side of course and that is impossible to miss. Still, even with the darkness, it is a telescope straight into the core of His own irrepressible nature.
    On another note, did you hear about the turtle that was attacked by a gang of snails? Cop asked him what happened and with a bit of cry voice he said, “I don’t know. It all happened so fast!”