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The straight row mentality

My morning survey of the garden reveals that I did it again. The row of early potatoes, finally up, marches straight across the garden until the last four hills and then veers off inexplicably, six inches out of line. I try, I really do, but I am genetically incapable of making a straight row. Yes, I could use stakes and a string but that takes too much time. Who needs perfectly straight rows anyway?

A whole lot of people do. Most farmers for sure. For them , everything must be lined up square with the world. Straight. Smooth. Precise. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. My favorite farmer folds together the two wires he takes off a haybale into a neat little bundle and then instead of just tossing the bundles in the junk for recycling, he ranks them up like stove wood. I am not making this up. And you should see his real stove wood ricks. They are marvels of architecture. They look like he uses a level to stack the wood, and every piece, you better believe it, is exactly 16 inches long. It is enough to make a slop-honnus like me weep. “Slop honnus” was my mother’s word, probably a corruption of an old Prussian term for devious people who can’t keep their rows straight. In our family, the farmer or gardener with the straightest rows gets the most respect. In fact some farmers used to plant roadside corn fields parallel to the thoroughfare whenever possible so neighbors passing by couldn’t look down the rows to tell how straight they were.

Granted, if you are building a house, you better be very particular. But who says that tomatoes taste better when grown in straight rows rather than in crooked rows? To win a blue ribbon, why should a steer have to have its hooves polished, its back perfectly straight and horizontal to the earth (which, remember, is not horizontal but curved), its hide combed as smooth and plush as a new rug, its stance straight and tall with head outstretched as if were pledging allegiance to the flag? Wouldn’t you rather know how rich the steer’s meat is in health-supporting Omega 3 fatty acids?

The straight row society has words for heretics like me. While they keep everything “squared away,” we are wasting our time “running in circles.” To get even (evenness being another virtue of the very particular) I like to invite straight row addicts to our house. It sets cockeyed to the world. In the manner of country people who always know exactly where they stand, especially in the checkerboard square landscape of the Midwest where the country roads always run true north and south or east and west, very particular people want to know which direction they are looking at out our windows. “A little north of west,” I say, “but not quite northwest.” They stare at me as if I had just announced that I was a flat-earther. Then comes endless arguments about who is pointing most accurately toward Albert’s barn down the road or the grain elevator in town, neither of which is visible out any of our windows. Sometimes I cock a picture on the wall slightly askew just to complicate the issue a little more.

I think nature is a slop-honnus. I think going overboard in very particular farming or gardening is a threat to real world order. Nature does not lay out landscapes by tape measure and carpenter’s level. Streams meander. Hills and valleys flounder all over each other. Economic success in nature means that an oak tree produces 50,000 acorns to get two new trees. But in the process, the other 49,998 feed an unnumbered variety of animals and insects.

I could tell a few true stories about very particular farmers who upset their tractors trying to mow every tuft of grass on a steep bank or cultivate every last possible square foot of soil next to a creek or pond. A little slop-honnusness would have saved their lives.

One thing for sure is certain today. All the corn rows are straight, thanks to global positioning systems (GPS) that guide tractors perfectly straight across the endless fields of the midwest. Machines are very good at making straight rows. Of course if the rows really were straight, they’d be off the ground by several feet by the time the planter reached the far end of a big field.

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