Of frogs and wet spots

Justin Isherwood
A deafening chorus of frogs is a sound that farmer, Justin Isherwood has come to believe is the very invocation of a healthy landscape.

The porch is a special place and a special perspective on the cosmos.  An evening porch adds a distinctive dimension to our being. It was that my day had run long, I arrived home fragrant with fields. A good day, if I was late arriving and we had company.  My friends seemed intent to comment on my personal affinity to dirt. Myself I didn’t think I was close to dirty.

We picnicked, supper outside, chicken and chops, potato salad, two kinds, the classic mayo and the German variant. There was new asparagus, steamed with cherry tomatoes and vinaigrette. There is something about new asparagus.

We ate, we talked, we lingered into the twilight, the company departed. She went to bed, I sat on the porch. There are days that need to decompress, standard enough for a planting day; that certain sense of hurry, rain predicted, two hydraulic fittings broke, a rock intimidated the field disc, a tire went flat. Normal day.

By way of pathological confession, I have allowed my soul the equivalent of one cigar per week. Cut in half, a few moments here and a few moments there. It is terribly tribal, I can’t explain this something of a divine moment, on the porch, a mild spring night, in the dark.

What struck me was the sound. A sound that I have come to believe is the very invocation of a healthy landscape. Around me in the dark was an earnest chorus of frogs.

My farm is above that big empty on the map called the Buena Vista Marsh. Accordingly with its low places, woods too wet to convert to fields and whatever corn might prosper.  In Central Wisconsin fields are punctuated by wet spots. Wet spot being the true and correct farm glossary.

The difference between what is a family farm and what is a CAFO is how these wet spots get treated, to suggest what is involved is the citizenship of the wet spot. Big Ag’s principle curse is it’s straight-line approach. Doesn’t matter what’s in the way, whatever, gets plowed through and planted over. This is how big works.

With modern flotation tractors this can at least be attempted. But to comment how even Lenco potato harvesters can be turned into submarines for attempting to farm a wet spot. A matter of honor is involved, to plow, to plant that straight line. It’s about field efficiency, maybe even heroism, and also the distinct boast of big machinery.

Tractor ego is involved, and that lovely Old English word, indefatigable. What farmer doesn’t get that? Sometimes this whole farm business is just one big “I dare yah.” As in, bet you can’t plant the wet spot.

Something else is involved here. What happens to this earth, this profession when we of Big Ag, steer wide. When we steer wide and leave unplowed that wet spot. It’s more involved than saving wear and tear on machinery, that the seed will rot anyway and the fertilizer go to waste.

A few years ago in a field destined for corn I detoured a wet place, fearing the planter would sink. I had previously broken an axle trying. Funny how a tow chain messes up the day’s rhythm.

Later that summer I chanced on this same wet spot, about the size of a single stall garage, it was still wet. Center pivots do that. As predicted the seed had rotted. What had grown up in its place was frogs. There in the midst of a corn field was this murky little pool alive with frogs. How they got there I don’t know. This apparently what Genesis does without being asked.

My thought on the porch this night was how this is what farm-country dark is supposed to sound like. That overwhelming chorus of frogs. My hope is someday a Farm Bill will include this frog chorus. I believe, when it comes to agriculture, there is more than one way to prosper.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.