Archive for Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Shouts and Murmurs: Shadows of a Kansas wheat harvest

June 13, 2007

This didn't start out to be a prize-winning, or even a meaningful, photo. It was June 20, 1995, and local farmers neared the end of wheat harvest. As a weekly newspaper editor in a small central Kansas town, I realized we hadn't yet run a photo of wheat harvest.

Generally, this included the honor of riding with a farmer in the cab of a combine as the machine charged through the field transforming stalks of wheat into a shower of golden grain. Or standing in the bed of a pickup truck photographing as many as three combines (silver Gleaner custom cutters on one occasion) lumbering toward me as together they harvested a vast field of wheat.

However, 1995 was different. Farmers may have toiled in their fields for a week or so. But for me, the season that makes Kansas famous had slipped by nearly unnoticed, something I didn't realize until one evening when dinner was over and the sun slipped toward the western horizon. This was Kansas, for Pete's sake, I needed a wheat harvest photo, and quick, or my readers (and my publisher) would never forgive me.

I grabbed my camera and hurried to the grain elevator a half-mile away. At first it seemed pointless, there wasn't the long line of trucks I'd hoped to catch sifting through the evening light. Then the soft rattle of wheat spilling into a hopper caught my ear. This scene only lasted a few seconds. But it was long enough to capture the shadow of grain elevator worker Trent Harmon -- his arm raised to signal the truck driver when the bed was empty -- on film.

As I shot the photo, using a 35 mm camera, I wondered if, or how well, Trent's shadow -- frozen against a wall of tumbling wheat and highlighted by the evening sun behind me on the longest day of the year -- would show up. In those days at the newspaper we shot with color film, dropped the film off at the grocery store to be developed and printed, transferred the color prints to black and white images and ran them through the printing process. It was difficult to retain detail.

This time the system worked. The photo, in black and white on the front page, won first place in that year's state news photography competition in our newspaper's circulation division, and to this day, among the tens of thousands of photos I've taken, remains my favorite.

Kansans understand why.

Wheat harvest yields not only bins full of golden grain and unforgettable sights and sounds, but also, a sense of wisdom. Stand at the edge of a wheat field; hear the wind whispering through the slender stalks, rattling crisp heads of wheat -- and listen to what it says.

Farming is a feat we take for granted. How can bushels of wheat planted in September multiply by June into a crop that can feed a nation? What gives farmers, who realize all too well they cannot harness nature, the faith to believe temperatures, sun and rain will cooperate and nurture crops they plant? Obviously, non-farmers believe it as well, or we'd all be planting gardens of our own. It's a mystery -- the faith in man, the faith of man, the faith in a higher power who oversees it all. And yet, it's a reality. We live because of agriculture -- because of those on whom we rely to feed us. And most of the time we don't think a thing about it. As long as the food is on the grocery store shelves -- we're content.

But on a deeper level, as Kansans, we know there's more to it than that.

"Shadows of Kansas Wheat Harvest" symbolizes what I love about Kansas -- the stalwart nature of its people, oceans of golden wheat rustling and shimmering under sunny skies, and of course the state's rich agriculture heritage -- which indeed, can feed a nation.

As any Kansan worth his or her salt knows, that's what Kansas is all about.

-by Lisa Scheller

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