Old Fields Seen Anew


Late on a clear summer afternoon a few weeks ago, as I was bringing a load of first-cutting alfalfa hay down the main road from the field on the hill, I briefly lost 30 years.

Set off perhaps by the light on the pastures or the squeaking of the wagon or the fresh scent of the hay, there was a sudden synaptic crackle in the back of my head and I found myself in 1961. As Yogi Berra or Barbara Mikulsi or somebody once said, it was deja vu all over again.

On the day in 1961 to which I was magically returned, I was 20 years old and perched for the moment on the top of the world. I had turned the tractor, the baler and the trailing wagon off the road onto the lane, and stopped to talk to a fertilizer salesman who was looking for my father.

"Pretty hay," he had said to me, and as I heard him say it again he dissolved and disappeared, taking 1961 with him. That was the extent of the flashback. But upon arriving back once again in 1991 where I belonged, I took some satisfaction in reflecting that after 30 years I was still bringing alfalfa hay down the same road from the same hill to the same barn.

The road has changed a bit. It's still narrow and twisty, but there are more houses on it now. And the tractor, which used to be an Allis-Chalmers, is now a Ford. But the baler is still a New Holland, though a newer model, and the haymaking process itself hasn't changed all that much. Cut, rake, bale. Hope for clear weather while working and, after the hay is in the barn, pray for rain.

Writing a newspaper column has its similarities to farming. The fields of the brain are sown with ideas, some of which, it is hoped by the sower, will grow and bear publishable fruit. And no sooner are today's 800 words harvested than it's time to think about replanting and growing some more. The cycle goes on and on.

About 17 years ago, this byline first appeared in The Sun. The column which went with it was frequently but not exclusively about politics. It was opinionated -- the writer's opinions having been colored and molded by a decade of reporting for daily newspapers -- and, accordingly, sometimes perceptive and sometimes obtuse. Occasionally, to judge by the mail, the same column managed to be both.

Over the years, the column underwent various changes in perspective, in tone, and in frequency. Occasionally it went away altogether, only to pop up again for a while, the way a spring sometimes does when a long, dry summer gives way to soaking rains in the fall. In 1986 it stopped altogether, presumably for good.

Yet now, in this season of drought, here comes the damn thing again, trickling out its flow of words, who knows for how long this time.

It's related to the column of 1974, just as the driver of the above-mentioned Ford tractor is related to the kid on the Allis-Chalmers in 1961, but there have been some significant changes, too. In the interest of consumer protection, they ought to be summarized.

The columnist of 1974 came directly out of other forms of metropolitan journalism. He wasn't a parent. His community attachments weren't especially strong, and his life experiences, while reasonably diverse, were still those of a person of 33.

The 50-year-old columnist of 1991 runs a family farm; has a son, 15, and a daughter, 8; has owned, operated for 15 years and sold a small but modestly successful publishing business; has spent two instructive but generally nightmarish years in the world of large corporations; and is now seriously involved with local and regional conservation issues at various levels.

Cumulatively, such experiences have an impact, and help shade the writer's views on such questions as whether Marylanders should plead to have taxes raised, what the new stadium should be called, whether Kurt Schmoke's first-term achievements are of any consequence, or whether South Baltimore should move into Anne Arundel County.

The columnist of the '70s using this byline was once selected by the Baltimore City Paper as one of the city's three most boring people. Whether the columnist of 1991 is more or less soporific is a subjective judgment, but there's no doubt his perspective is a little different,

That isn't to say that experience amounts to clairvoyance, though. The fellow driving the Ford tractor down the hill isn't any better equipped to see the future than was the kid on the Allis-Chalmers back in 1961. His vision's only sharper when he's looking backward, and it's better not to look in that direction too long.

Peter A. Jay writes from Havre de Grace.

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