Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Mares At the Summer Solstice

                                               

For two reasons, the morning of the June 21st in 1956 is burned into my memory.  First, it was the summer solstice in Ireland’s Leinster province and it dawned with a clear azure sky, a rarity in the  north Atlantic. By 7:30, the sun was already high in the sky, the swallows were back from South Africa, busy reclaiming their nests in the eaves of our cowshed, and all across the meadows, daffodils, lilacs, and lilies blended their fragrances, to the delight of every butterfly and bee in the county. For good measure, a cuckoo was sounding off from our sycamore grove, as if making sure we understood today as a perfect harbinger of summer.

The second reason the date stands out is less enchanting. I’d just turned  fourteen at the time, a primary school dropout, and was about to go to war with the devil in a way that few people ever have. This is the story of that war, which was fought on a battlefield in the foothills of Mt. Leinster, close to the site of the famous 1798 Battle of Vinegar Hill fought just over the mountain in County Wexford. More blood may have been shed at Vinegar Hill, but definitely not more sweat and tears.

I’d quit school almost two years earlier, mostly out of guilt. I got tired of watching my single mother’s lonely struggle on our hard-scrabble farm, Ballinvalley, to provide for me and my five older sisters. They’d already launched to various nursing schools and jobs, so that now I was the last and only man standing between my mother’s despair and some glimmer of hope on that  godforsaken sliver of land.

At least, that’s how I saw my man-up role that summer.

Consider the setting:  a steep wedge of 40 acres perched on perilous, spring-pocked drumlins, making it abundantly clear that we would have to lease land from nearby farmers if we were to grow anything but ferns and rushes—both of which thrive in wet, acidic soil.               

This stressed plot came with the contrasting amenity of a spectacular vista of lush green fields in the valley below.  These belonged to our well-heeled neighbors, the O’Connells, who owned a ninety-acre farm there in the valley, with rich loamy soil and terrain flat as a dance floor. My ancestors had been evicted from that land to make way for tenants more amenable to British occupation, while the Rices—as with all Catholic rebels — paid the price of resistance with little but pride  to show for their heroism. While much taken with my rebel ancestry, I’d have given a limb to own even one of those fertile fields. But in the spring of 1956, that was not in the cards.

What was in the cards was an opportunity for a lease on a couple of those heavenly acres. I jumped at the chance on the 11-month system (designed to prevent renters from establishing “squatters’ rights” which came with 12 years of uninterrupted occupancy). “Gentlemen farmers,” the O’Connells had long since shunned that hard work. Instead, they leased their bountiful fields to local farmers for a handsome fee. Cash up front. With distressed holdings such as ours, squeezed to the margins by centuries of absentee British landlords, leasing was our only option if we were to have any chance of viable grain or root crops.

Brimming with inexperience, I could not imagine any downside to this venture. What could  possibly  go wrong with swapping endless acres of mossy rocks and soggy rushes for loamy, fertile fields?

So we took the plunge, borrowed the money from the bank—a daunting venture in and of itself— and leased the O’Connell’s land. It was just two acres, but it felt like twenty, given the contrast with our barren, pockmarked precipice.  

I hired a contractor to till the field and took over the planting from there.  Potatoes went in the first acre, using our fleet-footed Irish draft mare to open the furrows. I had the whole acre planted by mid-April, a first in the community. Early birds. Perfect. I’d be able to handle all the cultivation without help. Or so I thought.  Potatoes are an easy crop to grow. Except for the planting and mounding up the soil by plough, there is no hand-labor involved. Until harvest time, all that is needed is spraying for blight—which no one is likely to neglect since the Great Hunger of the 1840s.

 

The second acre I’d committed  to turnips; a very different story. Turnips require intensive hand-labor after initial seeding by machine: thinning, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, storing. They are an extremely demanding root crop to grow. I’d seeded the crop in late May, then turned to the other demanding tasks back at our home farm in Ballinvalley, about two miles up the mountain. With no experience working in such fertile soils, I’d assumed the turnip seedlings would be sprouted in their normal ten-day cycle; ready for thinning in about twenty days.

I could not have been more wrong.

That became abundantly clear when I ventured back down to the valley three weeks later, ready to thin the turnips.  As expected, the potatoes had already sprung from the soil, looking bushy and healthy in their perfectly straight rows, shimmering blankets of green in the morning sunlight. I felt a rush of pride at the promise of a bumper crop and the secure winter that would follow.

A stark contrast assaulted my vision in the next plot. Where I’d expected to find neat rows of sprouted turnips, a pale green mat of creeping pestilence—the despicable scutch grass—had sprung forth, completely overshadowing any sight of the nascent turnips .  Row after row, as far as the eye could see, the ugly, spiky weed had flourished, crossing the furrows with abandon in what would surely have been an award-winning display, if that had been my intention.

My first impulse was to scream in rage and frustration, so I did, long and loud. “Shite! Shite! Rice, ya feckin’ eejit! How could ya have let dat feckin’ scutch grass  get ahead o’ ya?” I  kicked and ripped at the evil looking clumps, firmly ensconced in the black soil, seeming to smirk  at me balefully. I’d put so much into this venture, having convinced my skeptical mother that in spite of the expense and inconvenience of planting a delicate crop two miles away, I could make it work.  That’s what the man of the house is supposed to do. Right? Sounded so good, so sensible, when I was making the case, to her beaming pride and approval. The downside risk was immense: if this venture failed, we’d have to sell all our livestock since they’d have no winter feed. And we’d have a debt to the bank that we’d couldn’t repay, risking our credit worthiness for the following season. In short, the stakes could not have been higher in this gamble I’d taken on O’Connell’s bountiful acres.

Now what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t just throw in the towel and say, “Sorry, Mum, the turnips  didn’t work out. We gotta plough up the whole rotten mess an’ start over.”

I could already hear her stricken voice. “Are ya out o’ yer mind, Son? Start over! Start over with what?  I knew I should never have listened to ya.  Sure, yer just a young lad with no sense. It’s all me own fault. We’ll figure something out. Go on out and feed the calves.”  Then she’d have a good cry by herself and I’d still be a child, exposed as the poser that I most assuredly was.  Turnips were one staple we depended on as feed for all the animals—cattle, pigs, horses, sheep—throughout the long winter months.  No, there was only one thing for it: I would have to weed this whole God’s cursed acre by hand and save this turnip crop.

I’d brought along the standard gear for a usual day of thinning turnips: knee pads made of muslin potato sacks, hefty twine to secure the pads around my thighs and legs, and a hat to keep the sun from burning the back of my neck. Mother had made me a couple of egg salad sandwiches and a bottle of tea to cover my breaks. I usually worked until dark each day, which was past 10 p.m. in the summer.  Long days of hard work were a given, something I’d been doing since I was about eight, but always as part of a group effort—usually Mother and my sisters, plus the seasonal help we’d hire for thinning and weeding. I used to love those times. Pure fun.

But this was an entirely different situation.  For one thing, I was a lone warrior.  My sisters had all flown the coop, and I—the would-be man of the house—had convinced Mother to give her arthritic knees a rest this year.  And we couldn’t afford to hire seasonal labor, given the expense of the lease. Since this had been all my idea—one we could barely afford—I was in no position to argue that we should also hire extra help.

I’d fought a lot of tough weeding battles before on our gnarled Ballinvalley farm: thistles, nettles, ferns, patches of scutch grass. But those were all child’s play compared to this. It’s easy to think of an acre as small, unless you have to weed it by hand, row after row.  Dropping down into the first row, it felt as though I was taking on the entire Leinster Province.

The sun rose quickly from the east, drying off the plants and making my job somewhat easier. I could smell the sweet aroma of the rich soil, something I never detected in our own acidic fields. As if to assure me that I was not alone, a flock of pheasants suddenly appeared, before silently sliding into the thicket of weeds. Glancing north, I could  still see the sheep on our own farm—white specks on the distant hillside—a timely reminder of why this venture had to succeed. There really was no choice.

*  *  *

 

Four hours later, I was not so sure. At the start of this day, I’d had great confidence that I could thin turnips with the best of them; I took pride in being faster than most. After all, thinning was a simple task: find the hardiest looking plant in a bunch, strip away the weaker competing plants, and leave “the winner” to thrive unrivalled —all done in one practiced stroke.   With typical rows, I could thin about a quarter of an acre in a day, two days at most, if the weeds hadn’t taken hold.

My  first foray on this field showed me that this time I was literally in over my head. As I grabbed the first tuft of scutch grass and pulled, its roots ripped across the entire ridge, uprooting every single proximate turnip plant tangled in a matted quilt. I knew there was no point in trying to replant an uprooted turnip; unless watered immediately, it would simply perish from the trauma within the hour.

 

I had no choice but to abruptly switch gears; downshift to a snail’s pace. Where speed was of the essence, I was now reduced to gingerly tugging at the scutch grass, working like an archeologist on a fossil dig, trying to preserve at least one viable turnip before moving on to the next.

After four hours of this tedious pursuit on all fours, I stood to survey my progress. My right hand was already blistered from the weeding and both my wrists ached. Every muscle in my legs and back screamed in protest ; I knew it would take days for my body to adjust to this unnatural, down-on-all fours posture. My mouth felt dry from the flying dust,  and my eyes stung from the glare of the blazing sun. I felt like I’d worked a full day already, though I’d finished just one row, when I’d normally have finished five by now.  The implications were dire. I’d arrived thinking I’d be finished in a week, at most. Now it looked more like a month, an utter disaster for the turnip crop. Every day the scutch would grow stronger, the turnips weaker, and in a month the war would be lost, and with it my hopes and dreams for a new start in Ballinvalley.

I fought back tears of frustration as the Angelus bell in Rathanna chapel announced the noon break. I sat on the bleak headland, surveyed the daunting sea of weeds—which seemed to have flourished even since morning—and devoured one of the egg sandwiches and immediately felt better. With blood sugar restored, I felt less desperate. I drank some of the cold tea—saving some for a break later—and went back to war. By 6:00 p.m., when I heard the bell again, I’d finished another row, was halfway down a third, and thought I was beginning to hit my stride.

But four more hours on, with my shadow in the furrow lengthening, I knew this was wishful thinking: I’d barely finished a fourth row. I stood, aching from head to toe, blistered and exhausted, to take in the sunset on this longest day of the year. It was already blood-red, balancing on the horizon, casting the glowering field of scutch grass in an eerie, orange glow. In spite of my being soaked in sweat, the sight sent a sudden chill down my spine. There was no denying the terrible reality before my sunburned eyes:  after fourteen hours of all-out effort, I was clearly losing the battle with an insidious enemy that barely showed a mark after my pathetically heroic exertions.

 

O’Connell’s field abutted one of the main roads into our largest village, Borris.  Nightfall approached and the road began to fill with neighbors on their way home from work or shopping in the village. As I finished the day’s work and  got ready to head home, several people stopped by the field to expound on the futility of my task. “Sure, it’s absolutely hopeless. Might as well let it go.” This from Billy Dunphy, a neighbor noted for his indolence and begrudging nature. Other naysayers followed suit.

“This is the kind of thing that even a grown man couldn’t handle, let alone the likes o’ ye, a wee garsoon  yerself.  Sure, ya shoulda stayed in school. I hear ya were good at that.”

“Sure, ya should never have leased it if ya weren’t gonna take care of it. I’m surprised Connell let ya have it in the first place. Dere ought to be a law against such neglect of good land.”

“Now listen, Sonny, there’s no point in wastin’ time on dis ting. Plough it up and plant cabbage, kale, or something that’ll have a chance.  Sure, the turnips have none.”

And so it went. I knew it would only be a matter of hours before I would be the laughingstock of the village, a place hungry for gossip and perversely delighted to see a neighbor in distress.  I never understood this, since people were generally kind and generous in person. They just couldn’t resist the temptation to gloat at another’s misfortune, especially if the misfortune was based on risk taking or “being too big for yer britches,” as I would surely be seen. Better that I labor in futility, as had my ancestors, among the rocks and wet springs in Ballinvalley.  We might all be losers, but we would be losers in solidarity—no one with the gall to break ranks.

At supper, I didn’t tell Mother about the disaster I’d discovered down at O’Connells. I was counting on some miracle before she found out and pulled the plug on the whole venture. Mother was very decisive and it didn’t take much to provoke her inner commandant.

Over the meal, I kept up my best front.

“How did it go today, Sonny?”

“Oh, not too bad. Tough weedin.’A lot o’ auld scutch grass. But I made a dent in it. Spuds lookin’ good, too.”

“Think you can finish up by Friday? We should be shearing the sheep next week and weaning those lambs. They’re getting too big, an’ the price of wool is good right now.”

“Yeah, might take a few more days. But definitely by the end of next week. It’s goin’ well. Goin’ well…”

“Great, son. Keep up the good work. That’s was a big risk ya took, so I’m really proud to see ya make a go of it. We’ll show ‘em all what a bit o’ hard work an’ ambition can do. It feels good to have a man around the house for a change.”

This became the routine charade, day after dreary day.  I’d lie about my progress, eat supper, then stumble into bed, barely making it up the stairs before I was sound asleep. Back on the Raleigh bicycle  by 7a.m., new knee pads, sandwiches, and tea.  Resume the war with the scutch grass, knock off three more rows before dark, and escape  the gawkers at nightfall with the lowest measure of harassment or humiliation possible. Fortunately for me, Ballinvalley was a place of splendid isolation from the Borris road, so it was highly unlikely Mother would catch wind of the latest flow of gossip.

I pressed on with grim resolve, each day managing three more pitiful rows. Each night I was greeted by an ever larger chorus of gloaters and soothsayers as word of my Sisyphean spectacle spread. If I’d been a more nimble entrepreneur, I believe I could have sold tickets. Perhaps even made enough to hire help. As it stood, I took to wheeling the Raleigh into the field and slipping out the back gate to avoid the cacophony of sarcasm, advice, and barely disguised derision.

By the end of the third day, I was nearing my wits’ end. The scutch grass was definitely getting stronger, and I was losing way too many turnips in my haste and impatience.  I kept fighting back the panic that rose in me each night as the sun set over Borris, and with it my hope of winning this war with the devil. Even the pheasants sounding off in the adjoining woods—which usually filled me with delight—failed to bring a smile. 

I resolved that tomorrow, after four days of futile labor, I’d  come home and fess up to defeat. I even rehearsed my opening line.  “Mother,  I have something to confess. The turnips are a lost cause…”

Then, on that fourth day, the miracle happened, the first one. 

Arriving at the battlefield at my usual time, 7:30 a.m., I was amazed to discover two magnificient white Arabian mares* prancing daintily through the scutch-grass-turnips. I recognized that unique gait. They belonged to my friend and mentor, Davy Dillon, and my spirits soared at the mere sight of their glistening coats and flowing manes. For me, Davy was always associated with good tidings, though I could not imagine what they might be in this case.            

As always, he was way ahead of me.   Walking swiftly behind his brand new, green McCormick cultivator, he held the shafts of a nifty machine designed  for thinning. It had two discs that formed a triangle with an adjustable apex such that it sliced away all growth except the plants in the center of the row.

I’d heard about this machine, but I’d assumed the scutch-grass infestation was beyond redemption and that the machine would only do further damage.

Again, I was wrong. For already at 7:30—knowing Davy, he’d have been there since sunrise at 5:00—he’d already finished half the acre of turnips and was about to start on the second half. And, lo and behold, the devil had already been laid to waste, limp and withering in clumps up and down those beautiful, ebony rows.

“How ya goin’ on there, Young Rice?” Davy  asked, his deep bass voice already lifting my spirits, before he signaled the mares to take a breather.

“ Ah, sure, not so bad,” I replied, trying to sound matter-of-fact. “That auld scutch grass got a bit ahead o’ me, but it’s alright. Should be finished before next Friday if the weather holds.”

“Right ya be,” Davy said, looking across the field at the obvious inanity of my claim. “That should be no problem. Just thought I’d pitch in here. We’re up to speed up at our place, so thought these ladies could use the exercise. Hope it’s alright dat I  just went ahead.”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said.  “No, I’m grateful. Really, I am. Tell ya the truth, I was beginning ta worry a little bit about ... Anyway, dis machine looks just what the doctor ordered. Mind if I take a turn?”

“Nah, let me show ya how it works,” Davy said, handing over the reins. “Here’s how ya hold dis ting; it’s easy once ya get da hang o’ it. Just guide it. There ya go….” 

After a couple of practice runs, we rested the mares, shared the tea, and chatted about the plague that was scutch grass. He told me how he’d lost many a battle with it when he was getting started. How he lost a whole crop of turnips and herd of sheep to go with it. Never wanted to see that happen to anyone else. That was Davy, a man like no other in the community; a man who never liked to see his neighbors in distress; a man who never waited to be asked for help; a man who just did what was obviously needed, and never expected anything in return.

Davy was more than a neighbor to me. I’d been following him around since I was about six, playing ploughman with my dogs until he let me handle the Arabians. By the time I was twelve he’d let me handle  his prancing, dancing white mares, an act of trust he never conferred on anyone else, even his most seasoned workers.

As was his nature, he didn’t ask me why I hadn’t asked for help.  He knew why. We had that kind of relationship. It was based on unspoken respect, and yes, love. At the time, and forever, we articulated nothing. It was unnecessary and would only have embarrassed us both.

That was never so obvious as when Davy finished up the disc working and sat for a morning break. I was flying down the rows now, thinning turnips faster than even at my normal scutchless pace. I’d already finished two rows by noon and was halfway through the third. Still there was more than three quarters of the acre to go and only two work days left in the week, with the weeds still gaining ground, and the sheep waiting to be shorn. I felt like the anchor of a relay team who’d been given the baton with a hopeless handicap. I was bound to lose, even if I broke a world record.

It would take a second miracle, against all odds, which was surely not in the offing.

But then it materialized , in the form of Davy’s entire farm crew—all four of them—lads I’d known for years and who were now lucky enough to be working for Davy.  They arrived on their bikes, laughing and ribbing each other good naturedly. They loaded  the disc machine onto the cart, and Davy asked me to take the Arabians back to Rosdillig, his farm, to water and care for them.  Meanwhile, he assured me, he and his crew would see to it that the turnips were thinned. With that, he tied on his knee pads, dropped in the row, and joined his crew at a fast clip.

sauntered proudly down the road sporting the two Arabian thoroughbreds.  I met several of the naysayers  along the way, greeted them merrily, and kept going. They were not so eager to chat now; the word would already be out that Davy was on the job, and that meant only good things. Nothing juicy to gossip or gloat about. A grave disappointment.

I took care of the Arabians, hurried back to O’Connell’s field, and fell in beside my cavalry and big, broad-shouldered mentor. Looking at him across the row, knowing we’d won this war, I felt such a surge of  gratitude and relief that I silently burst into tears. Davy glanced back, saw the downpour, and asked, “Hey, Sonny, ya alright?” “Yeah, I’m ok,” I replied. “Musta got some o’ that auld scutch grass in me eye.”

 

He flashed his familiar gap-toothed grin and said, “Aye, that’s often happened to me, too. Ya can never be too careful around this auld weed. That’s why the Aussies call it the divil’s grass. But we beat the divil this time, Sonny. Saved the turnips. Should be a great crop come fall.” I smiled back at him, not trusting myself to speak.

At nightfall, I couldn’t wait to see the faces of the gloaters when they came by. This night, I’d be in no hurry to leave. I’d be taking the Raleigh out the front gate, eager to greet every last naysayer, ready to hash out the finer points of scutch grass warfare.  Arabian mares, too, and the wonder of the light at the summer solstice.

 

 

 

 

Thomas Rice was born in rural Ireland and lived there until he was 16. He dropped out of school at 13, emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and, later graduated from Cornell University. He went on to get a Ph.D. in Sociology and spent 20 years in academe. Along the way, he’s been a farmer, breeder of border collies, construction worker, tractor driver, bartender, licensed carpenter, social activist, founder of an institute for social justice, and story-teller. Rice has been a Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, a Research Associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an NEH Fellow at Berkeley. He is the co-author of four books and over 50 articles and essays in a wide array of refereed academic journals and editorial pages of such newspapers as The Boston Globe, In These Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He writes a regular blog for his website, http://barrowriverpress.org Since 2012, his writing has been edited by Professor Wayne Johnson, best-selling author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop Faculty .

 

Beginning in 2009, Rice has dedicated himself to writing full-time. Since then he has published six short stories, one novella and a memoir. His first novella, “Hard Truths,” was selected by Otto Penzler and Robert Crais for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2012.  In 2010, he published a memoir about growing up in post-WWII Ireland, called, Far from the Land: An Irish Memoir. He has recently completed a collection of novellas and short stories (10 stories; 250 pages), titled Rites of Passage & Other Irish Stories, and is currently working on a novel , Finding Nora, about a case of child abandonment and reunification.