Only on certain special days can you still see them, the marks left on the land by those first farmers who wrestled the walking plow behind a team of horses. The field I see over the fence likely hasn’t been worked for a hundred years. No doubt a long ago farmer gave up trying to wrest cash crops from its poor shale soil and turned it over to pasture. For a century, grazing cattle and horses have tramped its mud into ankle twisting hummocks where the swale encroaches and eaten its tough wiregrass down to the gravel each dry summer. And now, under the assault from the wild, that pasture is slowly being swallowed by the march of red cedars and creep of the spreading beaver pond.
On rare days, though, windblown snow will trace the outlines or melt enough to let the ancient furrows reveal themselves, still there, still a testament to the skill of those who laid them down so long ago. The strips of plowing, called lands, are far too narrow for any modern tractor. Setting out his section, not many yards wide, the farmer methodically plowed up one side and down the other until the strip was finished. Then, moving over, he began another strip. And because he now returned in the opposite direction from the furrows on his first strip, his plow turned over the earth in the opposite direction, leaving an open gap between the lands. This gap was known as a dead furrow, a permanent hollow that would remain even when softened by disking, harrowing, planting and rolling. The next year, the farmer would turn over the same lands with his plow, imprinting the dead furrows again on the face of the field.
Their arrow straightness, acre after acre, is a testament to the skill and dead eye reckoning of these early plowmen. My old dad used to say one of the best days in farming was the first spring day upon the land. It doesn’t take much to imagine the vigor of the morning dry enough and warm enough to thrust the plowshare into the earth. The team, out of shape from the winter, had to be eased into the work until their powerful muscles hardened. It would be too pleasantly cool for sweat and the torment of horse flies that would come later. The moist soil would turn over with a satisfying, steady hiss, burying the previous year’s weeds and stubble and disappointments underneath. Eating his noon meal from a honey pail brought to the field by a skipping youngster, the farmer would toss his apple cores into the fence line where wild apple descendants still grow, tasting deliciously of long forgotten varieties. Home in the evening, weary and ready to sleep, the farmer could hit the hay with a happy sigh. With his own hands, he had just created a blank canvas of earth ready to receive a new year’s seeds, plans and hope. A year certain, he was sure, to be better than the last.
The ghostly lines he has left advise me to think the same thing too.