The afternoons began to grow longer and the crop of this 75th year began to peek shyly out of the soil, the old farmer knew it was time. But he couldn't go just now. No, he couldn't go in the springtime ...
Barney grew up on a farm not too many miles from here. He never married - the land was his bride and each year's crop was his child to nurture and protect. In good times, his profits went back into the soil. In bad times, he hunkered down stubbornly over the land his father had first broken, like a mother hen guarding an egg.
He is not a famous man. He never saw Paris or Rome - in fact, never strayed far beyond the edge of the fields he knew so well. He never yearned to write famous novels or hobnob with celebrities. He was a farmer - and that was enough.
The endless hours of labor in blazing sun, pouring rain and drifting snow were not kind to Barney. He had a variety of illnesses that would have destroyed a lesser man long ago. He walked with a slight stoop and his hand shook on the rare occasions he motored into Odebolt for an ice cream with his sister at the drugstore.
Inevitably, his body failed him. The years of pain and aches couldn't stop him from farming, but on the day he limped to his front porch and looked around at the immaculate farmstead beginning to show weeds, peeled paint, escaped chickens, and overgrown fences, he knew the day had come.
It was some years ago, about this time of year, when he left the farm to younger hands. Those who knew him recognized then that it was the beginning of the end. I think he did, too. He moved to town, but never into town. He lived in a little house on the edge, where he could stroll each day to the bordering fields to renew his kinship with the soil.
His health continued to deteriorate. Those who saw him during those days were reminded of a proud cornstalk bent beneath the weight of a pounding storm. He noticed that his short walks seemed to take longer and longer each day, but he didn't mind. Like the higher power that each season turns seed into harvest, he wasn't likely to be hurried. He knew he should move into the nursing home in the city. He knew he wasn't well. And he knew he was near the last row of his long life.
But he couldn't go in the spring. He couldn't go when the smell of fresh-turned earth was in the air and the lightning-split apple tree was waving its blossoms in the whispering wind. He couldn't go when the newborn calves were hobbling about on drunken legs, when the corn was beginning to struggle out of the ground and children ran along the fence rows to scare up rabbits and birds. "No, he said to himself. "No, not in the spring."
Yes, his friends always said he should go to the nursing home. But he couldn't go in summer. He couldn't go when the crops were brilliant green, when the sycamore tree out back offered deliciously cool shade and an afternoon wasn't complete without the echoing shouts of children playing baseball in the nearby meadow.
"No," he said to himself, "No, not in the summer."
In the fall, he could almost look forward to the comfort of a warm nursing home bed. But he couldn't go in the fall. Not when the oak trees were flaming red, and men and machines toiled to bring in a bumper crop. Not when the geese were honking overhead and the invigorating talk at the farmer's favorite cafe carried him back to pleasant memories. "No," he said to himself. "No, not in the fall."
In the winter, his bones ached. But he couldn't go in the winter. Not when sparkling snow covered the fields in calm majesty, and the horses in the pasture would crunch through the crusty white layer to accept a quartered apple. "No," he said to himself. "No, not in the winter."
It was in the midst of that winter of winters, with snow piled halfway up the barns, when they found Barney, dead. His leathery face was relaxed - some said, carrying a slight smile. He had never made it to the nursing home. No, not when the exhilaration of the changing season and their reflection in God's handiwork was so near at hand. He died within sight of the rolling Sac County farmland where he had grown up, grown wise, grown old.
I was still a child at the time of the funeral. But I would like to think that shade of a smile on Uncle Barney's face came from one late realization: All the years he worked so hard to hold onto his precious soil; it was actually the other way around all along. It was the land that had held onto him.
Dana Larsen is a former member of the Messenger staff and current editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org