Fall is a month away. It doesn’t seem like long ago that we were pouring fertilizer on a robust lawn before May was half done, satisfied with a green, grassy, house apron devoid of even one dandelion.
Back then, summer was still a month away pretty much, and we had a full agenda of activity including play and travel, romps with the kids, and some quiet moments by a large body of water, soothed by a clement breeze sent from the northwest. The sun was up by 5:14am, the weather folks pointed to clear skies, and to the occasional fluffy batt of clouds, high up and benevolent as they shaded the lawns, fairways, fields and lakes for a moment before moving along.
Driving to Door County in Wisconsin today, I looked at the limestone cliffs which are the mirror image of the Niagara escarpment, running from The Falls north through Tobermory to Sault Ste. Marie and then south to Green Bay. From the road, you see a 100-foot-high cliff, a sandwich of million-year-old seashells, blanketed with a hard-earned topsoil. Above that, the trees, orchards, soy and cornfields richly, generously, spread in every direction.
And above that, are the clouds. Lots of them. Hung against August’s blue sky, they are more intent on passing. Their bases are grey, and the furls are silver, with a blown effect that signals that they are in a hurry to be somewhere else.
That’s when I sense the shift. Our planet, perched on a permanent tilt, has moved along its perpetual path around the sun, and in the process, has changed its shadow settings. The sun rose at 6:07 this morning.
Back here on earth, we are sensing the change, despite all our denials.
As a kid, I didn’t really sense seasonal change. But when I was working age, the bells started to ring.
Back then, early in the morning, in the third week of August, standing at the bottom of a tobacco conveyor belt, there was a wet fog lifting across the cold, grey, sandy fields, revealing countless rows of tobacco stalks stripped to their top leaves. Only a couple more rounds to go.
Last night’s boat was left beside the kiln, ready to sew and hang first thing. As we pulled back the dew-wet canvas, the leaves are warm from their own combustibility, and exude a sweet peppery scent. Their steam escapes into the cool morning air nuzzling my face. Lifting them limp out of the boat, they beg to be hung out to dry, and quickly.
The tying machine folks aren’t the first up. The primers and the boss’s family were out hours before, unloading the neighboring kiln in the dark, gently lifting out 1200 sticks of cured tobacco, placing these on a wagon to be towed off to the barn for storage.
The emptying of a tobacco kiln is a ritual as disciplined as doing your laundry. After a week of careful curing, the heavy, wet, green layers of tennis rackets have baked to a light bouquet of stiff, golden dish cloths carefully stitched to three-foot-long sticks. They rustle, and breathe a moist, musky perfume in the early morning. The grower has to evacuate the kiln promptly, as a new harvest will be hung tomorrow.
As the pickers ride off to the field, our tying team revs up the machine table and the sticks are placed into the moving chain by womens’ hands which moments before were finishing thermos mugs of coffee. They pull in handfuls of tobacco like romaine lettuce for a gourmet chef’s banquet salad.
Off across the yard, the cool dew gives a fuzz to the grass while it drenches my feet, padding back and forth between the tyer and the conveyor. Up above, our kiln hanger has cranked up his radio which he has hung on the red door of the kiln. Sonny and Cher beg us, “Baby Don’t Go”.
It’s late August, and we all feel the harvest coming to an end. Ten more kilns at most. Ten more days.
Finishing up a harvest is a sobering experience. The work started four weeks ago, roughly, the result of four months of careful planning and cultivation. Our clothes are worn and washed out, hands tough, muscles built, our tans are faded, our pockets are full. But as the coolness pervades the fields, and the sun retreats from its July intensity, everyone senses that the job is just about done.
It was numbing, repetitive, demanding, important work, racking up numbers in the thousands, and millions, if you cared to count. Despite its physical demands, tobacco harvest was a time of freedom, too. Just get the product safely packaged; don’t worry about tomorrow.
Now, decision time.
Some of us go back to school. Others will stay on the farm, emptying the kilns. There are jobs in town. There’s canning to do. Still others will go to the next harvest, moving on to pick apples, pumpkins and cabbage.
Overhead, the sun smiles on us, warming our days around noon, and then the clouds move in.