Last week I traveled that long lonesome highway, also known as I-70 going east from Denver, back to the depopulating High Plains, back to my own particular increasingly populated past. The highway is a rosary of grain elevators marking a succession of little towns. In one of those towns my mother was buried a year ago November. I thought my father, in the car with me and my youngest sister, would want to stop at the cemetery but he said no, and we drove right by.
We were on our way to an older sister’s jubilee, 50 years as a nun. The weather was normal July, windy and hot, which is becoming the May and June normal as well, but the big round circles of irrigated corn are more numerous than ever. Lately there have been increasingly alarming reports about the rapid depletion of the Ogallalah Aquifer. My 95-year old Dad said, “That’s something I don’t have to worry about.” I guess I don’t either. We Californians have our own water issues to try not to think about.
I wonder if my Kansas cousin, whom I talked to at my sister’s celebration, or his twin sons, worry about it. He recently turned over his farm to them, who have eagerly taken up the farm life, going against the general flow of youth to cities like Denver. My cousin farms 6,000 acres, a good portion irrigated. (My father at most farmed around 800, none irrigated.) My semi-retired cousin is disheartened by farm life as it is now. People don’t visit each other, he said, don’t help each other out like they used to. Everybody is just trying to get ahead of everybody else.
His is not just boilerplate nostalgia; in my father’s time neighbors looked out for each other. If you finished harvest before your neighbor did, you pulled your combine into his field and helped him finish. Decency and expediency required it. You never knew when the weather would throw something at you.
The wheat was mostly cut across western Kansas. It had been a fairly poor crop, the weather too hot and dry. I’m sure the farmers cashed in their government-subsidized insurance. Another thing not to worry about: their current financial status. Somehow they manage to drive around combines that can easily cost well over $300,000. Would such a farmer be needing or expecting help from his neighbor 6,000 acres away?
Back when I worked the harvest, we almost never got finished before the first week of July. One Fourth we drove down Main Street at sunset sitting in the back of the pick-up jubilant to be near the end, drinking beer and singing Mai Tsarki Mai Tsarki, a Hausa Sanctus that my sister and I learned in Nigeria.
The convent in Great Bend, like the plains, is depopulating. A harvest of white heads half-filled the chapel. My sister asked if I would lead the choir in singing the Hausa Sanctus at the Mass. Why not?
Nobody, myself included, could keep a good African beat on the drums but all in all, it wasn’t a bad rendition. Hosanna, hosanna.