My father toiled for fifty years,
facing the worries and the fears—
the gambles that a farmer faced
when all his future he had placed
as seeds beneath Dakota dirt.
Every year, he risked the shirt
right off his back. With faith, he’d bury
his whole future in that prairie.
Sticky gumbo, that fine-grained silt
upon which his whole life was built.
Then, closer to our summer home,
near the river, in sand and loam,
he hoped he could prepare for ours:
our clothes, our college, and first cars.
Then came those years that brought the change
that altered fields and crops and range.
The rain that formerly turned to rust
plows left untended, turned to dust
that, caught up in the wind’s mad thrust
caused many a farmer to go bust
as a whole nation mourned and cussed
black clouds of dirt that broke the trust
that nature would provide for all.
What formerly fed, now brought their fall.
It broke the men who couldn’t wait
for the drought years to abate,
but my father kept his faith in soil.
Found other paying forms of toil
building dams to catch what rain
might later fall on that dry plain.
And though others thought his prospects poor,
he kept his land and bought some more.
He learned to vary furrow line,
believing it would turn out fine.
So when good fortune returned again,
bringing with it snow and rain,
he welcomed and was ready for it.
That April it began to pour, it
filled his dams and nourished what
soil remained. He filled each rut
with clover, alfalfa and wheat.
Allowed the summer sun to beat
and change them into fields of gold—
into grain and feed he sold.
Bought cattle. Planted winter wheat.
Once more secure on his two feet,
expanded and as he had planned,
bought more cattle and more land.
Some said that he had just exploited
those whose land he’d reconnoitered
and purchased after they’d given up,
empty hands transformed to cup.
He was a hero unsung, unknown,
until long after when I was grown.
At the centennial of our town,
I learned a bit of his renown
when others told to me how he
shared nature’s generosity.
He sent three daughters to university,
then shared with his community
to build a church and give more knowledge
to those young men he sent to college.
Then made loans without fame or thanks
to other farmers denied by banks.
I’d always known how rich my life
was made by all his toil and strife—
the insurance he gave his family
that enabled us all to be free.
But, aside from daughters, wife and mother,
I’d never know of every other
soul he’d helped to prosperous ends:
neighboring ranchers, sons of friends.
Could my father have known he’d also planned
all these other futures when he bought the land?
This rich Jones County gumbo on the treads of my tire at one of our all-town reunions a few years ago is what sent me to college!
Not enough dirt for you? Check out this story: https://judydykstrabrown.com/2015/01/26/south-dakota-gumbo/
The prompt today was soil.