He Who Loved The Land
Sometimes in the dim past of my childhood, my grandfather would unload me from his back under some white oak trees just beginning to bud. “Look at this hill,” he said, gesturing broadly with a sweep of his hand. “Look up that steep hill toward the sky. See how pretty the new spread of corn is.”
This was the first field I can remember my grandfather taking me to see. The rows of corn curved like dark green rainbows around a high slope with a valley and its little tributaries running down through the center. The corn blades rustled in the wind, and my grandfather said he “could understand what the corn blades were saying.” He told me they whispered to each other, and this was hard for me to believe. I reasoned that before anything could speak or make a sound it had to have a mouth. When my grandfather said, “The corn could talk,” I got down on my knees and looked a stalk over.
“This corn hasn’t got a mouth,” I told my grandfather. “How can anything talk when it doesn’t have a mouth?” He laughed like the wind in the corn and hugged me to his knees, and went on. The one thing my grandfather brought me to see that delighted him most was the pumpkins. I’d never seen so many pumpkins with long necks and small bodies. Pumpkins as big around as the bottom of a water barrel were sitting in the furrows beneath the tall corn, immovable as rocks. There were pumpkins, and more pumpkins, of all colors: yellow and white, green and brown.
“Look at this, won’t you,” my grandfather said. Look what corn, what beans, what pumpkins. Corn ears so big they bend the cornstalks. Beans as thick as honey locust, beans on the honey locust tree. And pumpkins thicker than the stumps in this new ground. I could walk all over this field on pumpkins and never step on the ground.
He looked upon the beauty of this cove he had cleared and his three crops growing here. He rarely figured a field in dollars and cents. Although he never wasted a dollar, money didn’t mean everything to him. Re liked to see the beauty of growing things on the land. He carried this beauty in his mind.
Once when we were walking between cornfields on a rainy Sunday afternoon, he pointed to a redbird on its nest in a maple tree, a redbird with shiny red feathers against the dark background of a nest. It was just another bird’s nest to me until he whispered, “Ever see anything as pretty as what the raindrops do to that redbird sitting on her dark nest?” From that day on, I have liked to see birds. Especially redbirds, sitting on their nests in the rain. But my grandfather c was the one to make me see the beauty.
“A black snake is a pretty thing,” he once said to me. So shiny and black in the spring sun after he sheds his winter skin. He was the first man I ever heard say a snake was pretty. I never forgot his saying it. I can even remember the sumac thicket where he saw that black snake.
He saw more beauty in trees than any man I have ever known. He would walk through a strange forest laying his hand upon the trees, saying, “This oak or that pine, that beech or poplar was a beautiful tree.” Then he would single out other trees and say they would be cut. He would always give his reasons for cutting a tree. “Too many trees in this spot, too thick, one damaged by fire at the butt, lightning at the top, one leaning against another, too many on the ground, or the soil not deep enough above a ledge of rocks to support them.”
Then there were the times my grandfather took me to the hills to see wild flowers. I thought it was silly at first. He would sit on a dead log, maybe one covered with wild moss, somewhere under a tall beech tree, listening to the wind in the canopy of leaves above, looking at a clump of violets growing beside a rotten log. He would sit there enjoying himself indefinitely. Only when the sun went down would we get up and start for home.
My grandfather wouldn’t break the Sabbath by working except in an emergency. He would follow a cow overdue with a calf. He would watch over mares in the same manner. He followed them wherever they went and helped them deliver their foal, saving their lives. He would do such things on Sundays, and he would fight forest fires. But he always said he could make a living six days a week. Yet he was restless on Sundays. He had to walk around and look over his fields and enjoy them.
fly grandfather didn’t have to travel over the country searching for something beautiful to see. He didn’t have to go away to find beauty, for he found it in everything around him. He had the eyes to find it. He had the mind to know it. He had the heart to appreciate it. He was an uneducated lover of the earth. And if anybody had told him that he was, he wouldn’t have understood. He would have turned and walked away without saying a word.
In the winter when the snow was over the ground, and the stars glistened, he’d go to the barn to feed the livestock at four in the morning. I have seen him put corn in the feedboxes for the horses and cows, then go out and stand and look at the morning moon. He once told me he always kept a horse with a flaxen mane and tail because he liked to see one run in the moonlight with his mane arched high and his tail floating in the wind.
When spring returned, he was always taking me someplace to show me a new tree he had found, or a pretty red mushroom growing on a rotting stump in some deep hollow. He found so many strange and beautiful things that I tried to rival him by making discoveries too. I looked into the out-of-the way and unexpected places to find the beautiful and the unusual.
I didn’t get the idea of dead leaves being golden ships on the sea from a storybook. And neither did my grandfather, for he had never read a book in his life, except the Bible. It was in October, and we were sitting on a bank. We were watching the blue autumn water slide swiftly over the slate rocks. My grandfather picked up leaves that were shaped like little ships and dropped them into the water.
“These are ships of swift water,” he told me. Going to far-off lands where strangers will see them.
He had a special love for leaves, and he’d pick them up when we were out walking and ask me to identify them. He’d talk about how pretty each leaf was and how a leaf was prettier after it was dead than it was alive and growing.
Many people thought my grandfather was just an old goat. They saw only a little man, dressed in clean, patched overalls, with calloused and scratched hands. They often saw the beard along his face. And they saw him go off and just stand in a field, and then go off like he saw nothing. They thought he was moody. Well, he was that alright, but when he was standing there and people thought he was looking into space, he was looking at a flower, a mushroom, or a bug he’d discovered for the first time. And when he looked up into a tree, he wasn’t searching for a hornet’s nest to burn or a bird’s nest to rob. He wasn’t trying to find a bee hive; he was just looking closely at the beauty in the tree. And among the millions, he always found one different enough to excite him.
No one who really knew him ever felt sorry for my grandfather. Any feeling of pity turned to envy. For my grandfather had a world of his own, larger and richer than the vast earth that world travelers know. He found more beauty in his acres and square miles than poets and writers who have written a half-dozen books. Only my grandfather couldn’t write down the words to express his thoughts. He had no common symbols by which to share his wealth. He was a lover of this land, who lived his life upon this earth and never left a line of words except to those of us loved, and lived with him.