More Than Just a Story

During the last eighteen months and through the process of drafting The King of Highbanks Road, there is something I’ve not shared with you. It’s the kind of thing that troubles a writer deep down. Even makes him wonder whether it’s worth it.

I’ve never been able to explain to you how it’s more than just a story. I’ve known it was more, even if but from a feeling deep down inside my soul that couldn’t be explained. The words describing it wouldn’t come out. But I knew it was more.

And so there was always a nagging void between the writer and the reader. To be completely honest, I felt a bit inadequate in the vortex of that void, and struggled daily because the story I’ve been telling you wasn’t, well, whole.

We are about to clear all that up.

***

There was not a day that passed from the time I was 5 years old until the day my father died from natural causes in 2011 when I did not believe that would be the day we found him in a roadside ditch, his head blown off with a shotgun. 

Every summer morning in 1981 as the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for 23

Dr. Mike Rosman, clinical psychologist, and perhaps the nation’s leading expert in the behavioral study of farmers.

consecutive days, I watched dad force down a cup of coffee, then he’d go to the bathroom and vomit for ten minutes. We literally watched a crop burn up that year. It happened to small farmers everywhere. Interest rates skyrocketed the next year, and the banks came after our land. They didn’t care if we had to sleep in a ditch. They just wanted their money. I never believed my father would survive the pressure.

He died twenty years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Earlier this week I randomly came across a 2018 article in The Guardian about suicide rates in rural America. Its title: Why Are American Farmers Killing Themselves? The story quoted two academic researchers who had dedicated their life to counseling small farmers in rural America. And their research specialized on the 1980s.

The weather, the markets, the interest rates, the stress. It was the “wrecking ball” that became the beginning of the end of the small farmer on the American landscape, they said.

A “wrecking ball.”

These guys were telling the part of the story that I didn’t know how to tell. The view from twenty-thousand feet. The big picture.

Finishing the long story, I put my head into my hands and cried. I tracked down those researchers and called them, and we talked, and I cried some more. I told them my story. They said they’d heard it a million times. And so they let me cry some more.

“But farm families are proud, and we just don’t talk about it a lot,” the said. “…and yes, we’d be happy to help you with your book. Whatever you need. Anything.”

The thing is, everyone’s normal is relative. We are products of that place from which we come. Without and understanding of something else, the only thing we know is our normal. But there was something that just kept telling me my normal was different. I witnessed too much stress, too much pain, too much struggle. Surely that wasn’t normal.

And so even though I didn’t really know what to call it, I had a deep, down desire to tell you about it and share it with you. It seemed a story that needed told.

And now I get it. It WAS something.

It was a wrecking ball that tore through the landscape I called home.

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10 Things I Learned to Love About Home Again

 

As we wrap up the finishing text for The King of Highbanks Road, I reflect on so many things from the experience of putting it all on paper – and how the place I will always know as home has impacted me all over again.

• The art of loafing and sitting around a coffee table with a group of men just shooting the bull, telling tall tales, even a few lies.

•Massive Crock Pot gatherings after church where the food is so good it makes you want to melt, but the older ladies say, “It must notta been fit to eat. They barely touched a thing.” This, although every last crumb was scraped from the bowl.

•The smell of fall. For cotton farmers, this is distinct, unique, and like nothing else in the world.

•Four-wheel drive pickup trucks so tall you need a step side to get in one … and the bird dogs and retrievers that ride in back of them. I recently got one of those trucks for myself.

•Watching the fall migration of Canadas, Snow geese, and mallard ducks navigate the Mississippi River Flyway.

•The sudden power jerk when a 2-pound crappie hits a 12-foot pole, and the battle that follows in the seconds afterward.

•Going out of my way to see the senior members of community families who raised me.

•Listening to the satisfying, nostalgic, mechanical hum of a distant cotton picker in a field miles away as it tries to beat the rain.

•The smell inside the old church where I was raised.

•All those small-town stories, and people, especially the local farmers who for better or worse, shaped me into the man I am today.

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What Arkansas’ First Congressional District Needs Again

Four things, I submit.

1. Someone who has a passion for public service, not the perks of the job.

2. Someone who speaks as an independent voice, a representative of the people, not a manipulated party puppet.

3. Someone who bridges the gap between black, white, Hispanic, rich and poor. Someone who embraces diversity.

4. Someone who “gets” that the background of the First Congressional District is rooted in the forward thinking of entrepreneurial farmers, under-paid, under-valued teachers, and senior citizens who’ve given us all a legacy of hope and opportunity.

***

Full Disclosure:

Former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR)

I spent nearly four years working alongside Congressman Marion Berry as a press secretary, and later as a district director. In the years leading up to that privilege, I was a newspaper reporter with a love for following those invested in public service, Blanche Lincoln among them.

And I’ll tell you what Arkansas‘ First Congressional District needs again. We need a public servant, a representative in Congress who follows the example set forth by Marion Berry and Blanche Lincoln.

***

Three weeks ago today, Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington (D-AR) ended his bid to recapture the traditionally Democratic held seat representing nearly a million people. I voted for Ellington, not that I know him personally. We’ve met a few times and I gauged him to be one who fit the mold of Berry and Lincoln. Whether it was an inadequately run campaign, or just bad timing, we may never know, but I think we missed a good opportunity to get the First District going again.

***

Berry and Lincoln were quite different, yet very much alike.

To each of those one million constituents, she was Blanche. He was Marion.

That’s what I loved the most about them.

Over the years, Lincoln developed a strong skill set in constituent relations.

Former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

People loved her. But she was more than just a pretty face. Blanche Lincoln was an effective public servant. She got things done.

Berry, on the other hand, was never a slick, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear kind of guy. What you saw was what you got. I quit, early on, trying to morph him into something he was not. It couldn’t be done, and no one should have ever tried.  Berry got the job done. His advocacy for all of us built roads and overpasses, put clean, running water in rural towns, beat down every ridiculous regulation he could that would aggravate the already lopsided odds against farmers everywhere. Not a great politician was Berry, (and it was never his aspiration) but a magnificent and tireless public servant.

Can we say that’s what we enjoy today in the First Congressional District? A warrior who stands in the gap, and on our behalf?

If not, who?

And, when?

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In Google Search of the Old Farmer’s Prayer

cotton crop in arkansas

Mom, dad and me, happy, and celebrating one of the best cotton crops we ever had in 1992.

“Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it, and keep it.” ~ Genesis 2:15

***

From an analytical standpoint, one of the things I enjoy most about blogging is the daily report indicating “search terms” punched into the engines that ultimately lead readers to my archives.

Since launching www.stevenwwatkins.com back in January, it’s been no contest among the terms searched that lead readers here.

It’s “the farmer‘s prayer.”

Readers from the world’s every continent have searched “farmer’s prayer” and found this blogsite. And when they did so, they read about my dad. For me, that’s an honor, and it carries great reward.

famers prayer

I asked dad to pose for this shot, and he reluctantly agreed, but you can see just how proud he is. It’s the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him during the harvest.

It’s ironic, a bit melancholy, and still yet rewarding.

You see, after taking leave as a writer for nearly two years, it was my dad’s passing that compelled me to begin writing once again. The circumstances of his death and the “religious” blasphemy to which he was exposed welled up inside my own soul, and there were just too many things that had to come out.

So I turned to the blog.

***

Daddy was a farmer. It’s all he ever wanted to be. And he was a pretty decent farmer. Most of my life’s lessons were learned in a cotton patch right by his side.

When he died, our family wanted to honor his love for the land, and we composed a slide show video of a series of photos I took in 1992 – the harvest of one of his most successful cotton crops. It was a Sunday afternoon, and as I remember, among the happiest days of his life.

The last slide in the the video makes me cry every single time. It’s as if he’s saying: “I’m leaving now, but I’ll see you again soon.”

***

Over the last three weeks, I’ve thought a lot about my dad, the farmer. It’s the first harvest he never saw. We took a diversion from our typical cotton crop this year and planted 120 acres of the finest soybeans I’ve ever seen. The yield was high, and the price was good.

me checking soybean depth

Me, earlier this spring, checking the seed depth on our soybean crop near Monette, Arkansas. I’ve seen my dad do this thousands of times, so I stopped to do it, too.

In fact, it surpassed the finest cotton crop we ever farmed. Daddy would never have believed it.

My best friend’s dad was a farmer, too. He’s been gone for 10 years now. Brady and I talk of our dads often. Because of the good crops we’ve had in recent years, we like to think our dads are still taking care of us as they always did.

We like to say we own X number of acres. Not really. God grants us the wonderful opportunity, but for a time, to be the caretakers of His land. We pray that we care for it well, and use it to glorify His name.

When Daddy became a farmer, his prayers were answered. I’m thankful he and my mom and my grandmother, and the many ancestors that preceded them, taught me a love of the land.

It was a good crop this year, dad. Thanks for sending it our way. I love and miss you, and I’m so proud of you.

THE FARMER‘S PRAYER

“Old farmers never die, they just go to seed.” ~ unknown

***

Time just keeps moving on

And many years have come and gone

But I grow old without regret

My hopes are in what may come yet.

On the farm I work each day

This is where I wish to stay

I watch the seeds each season sprout

From the soil as the plants rise out.

I study nature and I learn

To know the earth and feel her turn

I love her dearly in all her seasons

For I have learned her secret reasons.

All that will live in the bosom of the earth

She is the loving mother of all birth

When my body is old and spent

And my soul to Heaven has went.

Please compost and spread me on this plain

So my body Mother Earth can claim

That is where I wish to be

Then nature can nourish new life with me.

So do not for me grieve and weep

I didn’t leave, I only sleep

I am with the soil here below

Where I can nourish life of beauty and glow.

Here I can help the falling rain

Grow golden fields of ripened grain

From here I can join the winds that blow

And meet the softly falling snow.

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A Delta Prayer

Sunset on the Arkansas Delta

Across the azure sky you grace, southeast to slight northwest,

You pass above the fertile land, and we hope the very best.

A litte rain is all we ask,

To help the crop bear yield,

This is what we love to do, for our livelihood’s in the field.

Checking on our soybean crop earlier this Spring. My wife surprised me with this photo she took from the truck.

So stir up mighty clouds, oh sun,

Bring thunderheads Delta’s way,

All we ask is a little rain, so the farmers can have another day.

We pledge our best to love the land,

For caretakers is all we are,

We’re reminded who really owns the land, when we see the evening stars.

A little rain is all we ask,

Dear Lord, as we close this day,

And we pledge to give you the honor and praise,

For Your’s is the only Way.

Things are looking great, so far.

So we thank  you for the rain to come,

And for the sun we give thanks too.

We put our crops in Your dear hand,

And count our blessings, through and through.