COLUMNISTS

Dad was pretty confident in his science

Justin Isherwood
That his urban bride-to-be liked the smell of manure and could drive a potato truck was enough to convince Justin Isherwood's father the marriage would last.

My father believed the true Christian life was as a farmer, to his thinking other occupations were ok but less Christian. As a kid I knew my father’s theology had some flaws but religious flaws aren’t something you tell your dad. Besides, I was the third born, first born maybe but not lowly third to dissuade my dad of his theological shortcomings.

My dad was classic Jeffersonian, a political and moral example descended from the third president of the United States. Jefferson was a farmer, as was Washington the first president, my dad noticed the precedence.

He believed this example of the Founding Fathers established a protocol like to the two-term presidency, that all presidents there and ever after be farmers, at least by some definition. Chicken farmers count, ranchers, peanut farmers, a big garden counts, and maybe fishing. He was content with this thesis and often when the presidency entered what seemed to him troubled waters he spoke of the flaw, “shoulda elected a farmer.”

Growing up on the farm came with the expectation that we would by natural instinct follow this vocation. Same as trout swim upstream to their natal spawn beds guided by their otolith, a boney calcium deposit behind the trout brain that science believes guides them back to ancestral waters to reproduce where they belong. He believed his children were like trout, at the base of our brains an otolith to guide us back to agriculture, back to our home dirt from where we might have mistakenly strayed.

My older brother trained as a geologist, he was a mere twelve credits short of graduation when his otolith kicked in. He summarily dropped out of college and surrendered to the stubborn noise in his head. Soon after rented the vacant local parsonage and returned to the farm. Just as our father predicted. 

Myself, I did gain escape velocity, I was well on my way into the ministry, about to be ordained when that dull stubborn noise rose in my head. It wasn’t anything particularly intellectual, or even closer to intellectual as it certainly wasn’t smart given the standard economic racism experienced by agriculture. Neither was it common sense, instead like the trout a stubborn primal magnetism, a compass heading I couldn’t deny. It was instinct, like my brother; I turned upstream following my share of Vietnam and began building a house on a wooded forty west of the farm. Our father by this juncture was pretty confident in his science.

The younger brother lasted out three years of law school followed by seven years of practice, then on a fine and admittedly beery night confessed, of a noise in his head.  His actual words were “is there room on the farm for me?” Ostensibly this was about splitting the money pile four ways instead of three, to the end my answer should have been more deliberative. It wasn’t. Instead that otolith kicking in, that same homing instinct of a stupid trout. 

The next day his house was on the market and he told his wife they were moving to Plover, back to the farm. Which is problematic on its own, given that money pile is a real mathematical constant. Seems my younger brother wasn’t as good at arithmetic as I thought. 

When I was at that age when a farmboy begins to amortize his fate considerate to the opposite sex, at least what we took for the opposite sex in those faint-hearted days, my father gave me hints of how to select an appropriate mate consistent to my farmyard proclivity. 

Seems a set of known indexes applied, the first was fairly straightforward, the victim should be a farm girl. Or something approximate. By consequence the sample would be hardened, equipped with the appropriate farm sector antibodies. My brothers complied with this formula, I didn’t. They married farm girls.

I married not only a city girl but a big-city girl. This departure from formula sincerely frightened my father. A scene likened to the witch scene in Macbeth, that same wholesale foreboding including the double double toil and trouble. My father went so far as to ask the local clergy whether this this kind of marriage between two species was legal. He died believing urban people and rural people are separate species. 

In desperation my father at an awkward moment cornered me and asked how I knew “it” would work, he meant the marriage. 

To admit this was a hard question, given my sampling of women at this moment was relatively superficial. My father was totally serious. He still thought a separate species was involved, at the very least different genes, different nesting habits, different metabolism, different sense of gravity. 

I confess an unease followed this question, all the while my dad looking at me like the rock of the ages looks at a dumb kid. 

Thoughtlessly I blurted out that “she” liked the smell of manure on the fields. Adding she could drive a tractor, drive a potato truck, shingle a roof, sleep through storms. I stopped, not surprisingly I was breathless.

He looked at me as a long moment passed. “I guess that’ll do” he said, from my dad this was high praise. 

He never asked how I knew she, about to be my wife, slept through storms. Seems my dad was a wise man.

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.