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Wheat: An Inspiration for Legions of Poets - 2002-07-27

Across the American Great Plains, farmers and their huge combines have been busy harvesting the winter wheat crop. Seared by this year's record drought and battered in places by damaging hail and ravenous insects, the 2002 winter wheat crop has suffered more than usual and the summer harvest is expected to be America's smallest in more than 30 years. But in many parts of the wheat belt, the crop has fared well enough. At harvest time, the tall grains spread to the horizon like a golden ocean, covering 13 million hectares of rolling plains in more than half a dozen states. The majesty of those "amber waves of grain" has long been an inspiration, not only to farmers and harvesters but also to legions of poets.

It was a trip to the top of Pikes Peak more than 100 years ago that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write the poem America the Beautiful. The grandeur she wrote about wasn't limited to 'spacious skies' and 'purple mountains.' The poet also noted the more discrete beauty she found in "amber waves of grain..." beauty that's still appreciated today.

You'll remember me
When the West wind moves
Among the fields of barley
You can tell the sun
In his jealous sky
When we walked the fields of gold…

Fields of gold are now brightening the Kansas countryside as the wheat harvest moves north from Oklahoma. For grain merchandiser Moe Stephan of Moundridge, harvest time is the high point of the year.

"Every time I drive to Hutchinson or Wichita or Salina, my eyes are always going back and forth towards the wheat and I get a little excited especially the waving of the wheat that gets you kind of excited and then as you see it turn color it gets me a little excited," Mr. Stephan said.

For a landlocked state like Kansas, the sound of the wind whistling through the grain is like hearing the ocean surf. A hundred years ago, Harry Kemp captured that illusion in his poem A Wheat Field Fantasy.

As I sat on a Kansas hilltop,
While, far away from my feet,
Rippled the lights and shadows
Dancing across acres of wheat,

The sound of the grain as it murmured
Wrought a wonder with me.
It turned from the voice of the Prairie
Into the roar of the sea.

And I saw not the running wind-waves,
But an ocean that washed below
In ridging and crumbling breakers
And ceaseless motion and flow...

Kansas wheat fields once again are rolling like the ocean, rising and falling as they're ruffled by the wind, breakers moving so quickly that only the barn swallows, meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds keep up as they fly just above the grain.

"It's a wonderful feeling when you walk out the door and you can hear the wind blowing the wheat," says Deb Lichti, a wheat farmer's wife in McPherson County. "You can hear it ripen... you can hear the ripening process. There's a different sound from the time that it's green to the time that it turns gold. I can remember that I would be out in the middle of a field during the harvest. standing out there waiting for the combine to come unload in the truck. And the sound of the wheat waving in the wind is just beautiful. It's just a wonderful sound."

The recent rains in south central Kansas have inundated fields, delaying this year's harvest. Farther west, drought has all but destroyed the crop. Some farmers have lost their wheat to hail storms. Even so, ice seems to play a part in the eternal cycle of planting and harvest.

This poem by C.L. Edson was published in 1914 in a volume titled Sunflowers: A Book of Kansas Poems:

Out on the frozen uplands,
underneath the snow and sleet,
In the bosom of the plowland
sleeps the Promise of the Wheat.

With the ice for head-and-footstone,
and a snowy shroud outspread
In the frost-locked tomb of winter
sleeps the Miracle of Bread.

With its hundred thousand reapers
and its hundred thousand men,
And the click of guard and sickle
and the flails that turn again,

And drover's shout, and snap of whips
and creak of horses' tugs,
And a thin red line o' gingham girls
that carry water jugs;

And yellow stalks and dagger beards
that stab thro' cotton clothes,
And farmer boys a-shocking wheat
in long and crooked rows,

And dust-veiled men on mountain stacks,
whose pitchforks flash and gleam;
And threshing engines shrieking songs
in syllables of steam,

And elevators painted red
that lift their giant arms
And beckon to the Harvest God
above the brooding farms,
And loaded trains that hasten forth,
a hungry world to fill
All sleeping just beneath the snow,
out yonder on the hill.

Today's harvest is very different a single combine has replaced scores of workers. But the elevators are still taking in the freshly gathered wheat. Kevin Wiens is Grain Operations Manager for Mid-Kansas Co-op in Moundridge.

"Fresh wheat right off the field is a real neat thing. You handle it and it's warm, it's got good color, good texture, a real good odor to it. It's a neat thing to work with during harvest," she said. Custom cutters are now moving through the fields in their efficient machines that blend modern technology with centuries-old tradition. Yet the spirit of the harvest remains.

Poet Vachel Lindsay was one of thousands of itinerant workers in Kansas 90 years ago. In spite of the backbreaking work, the heat, wind and exhaustion, harvest time was then as it is today - a sort of celebration. In his poem "Kansas," he writes:

Oh, I have walked in Kansas
Through many a harvest field,
And piled the sheaves of glory there
And down the wild rows reeled.

Each sheaf a little yellow sun,
A heap of hot-rayed gold;
Each binder like Creation's hand
To mold suns, as of old.

Our beds were sweet alfalfa hay
Within the barn-loft wide.
The loft doors opened out upon
The endless wheat-field tide.

I loved to watch the windmills spin
And watch that big moon rise.
I dreamed and dreamed with lids half-shut,
The moonlight in my eyes.

For all men dream in Kansas
By noonday and by night,
By sunrise yellow, red and wild,
And moonrise wild and white.

The wind would drive the glittering clouds,
The cottonwoods would croon,
And past the sheaves and through the leaves
Came whispers from the moon.