100 Farms … a tale of how it all begins

Once upon a time not so long ago, in a land not so far away, a fertile river valley bounded by a stately forest was called home by one hundred farm families. In a time no one remembers, the valley had been divided into one hundred farms of exactly the same size, fed by the same placid river, sheltered by the same generous forests that breathed out what the families breathed in.

But change was headed toward this peaceful valley, a change as imperceptible but real as one drop of water flowing in that placid river.

It all started one, clear-skyed, spring day when John was plowing his field. Watching the rich brown soil roll away from the blade as the horse’s haunches moved rhythmically with each step, John fell into a contemplation. He thought about his young son, hair like corn silk, back at the cabin. He imagined sitting on the front porch holding his sleeping son while the warm sun warmed their faces.

He thought, “If I could plow this field faster, I would have more time to sit in the sun and hold my baby.” Reins in hand, he kept walking behind his horse watching the patterns of blade and soil advancing in front of him. An idea emerged almost as if he had plowed it up along with the worms and twigs in the ground. If I had two plows hooked together and two horses to pull the double plow, it would take half as long to plow this field.

“I would have more time to spend with my son,” he said out loud. So, he made the double plow and did, indeed, plow the land twice as fast and had more time to bounce his baby son on his knee. Life was good.

Across the way, John’s neighbor Sam, saw the new plow; saw John on the sunny front porch with his baby son. Sam began to think about what he would do with more time. Sam and his wife Sally didn’t have children yet and last year’s corn harvest had been thin. He didn’t have enough corn to trade to get a second plow and a second horse. He didn’t really need more time, but it would be nice to have a better harvest. Last year when the summer rains disappeared beyond the horizon, the field had dried up and the corn shriveled. “If it had rained more,” he thought, “I would have had more corn.”

Sam thought about rain and corn as he plowed the field and as he sat in the evening looking over his field to the river beyond. One evening, as he was telling Sally about his day, he slapped his head and said, “The river! If we could bring the river to the field, the corn would continue to grow and we’d have more corn.”

And Sally, suddenly seeing the extra corn, thought, “If we had more corn, you could get that double plow and an extra horse and I could trade some corn to Mary, the weaver who makes that beautiful indigo cloth threaded with marigold highlights that make it look like gold on a moonlit night.”

They talked on and on until Sally offered, “I could plow the field while you dig a ditch from the river to the field.” And, they did, and the corn grew and grew. Life was good.

When neighbors came to visit and saw Sally’s beautiful indigo curtains and the double plow and the ditch, they began to dig their own ditches and build their own double plows. One of the neighbors loved the wood of the forest trees and he began thinking about the tables and chairs he could make if he traded his extra corn for better tools. So he did, and their cabin filled up with lovely birch furniture. Life was good.

Time went on and some of the farmers who lived further down the stream started noticing that the upstream farmers seemed a little more prosperous. Their fields seemed to produce more corn and they always had extra corn to trade for cloth and furniture and curtains and clothes. Their children wore shoes even in summer.

The upstream farmers began to brush a white, milky liquid on their walls, which made them turn white and gleam in the morning sun. Some even added a room they called a parlor where they sat at night and sang songs. They started calling their cabins “houses” and talking about things the down streamers didn’t understand.

The downstream folks began to wonder why they never had the extra corn to trade for tools and cloth and second horses. Their farms were exactly the same size, fed by exactly the same river, sheltered by exactly the same forest. What were they doing wrong? They formed a committee to talk to the up streamers who told them they needed to dig their irrigation ditches, build their double plows.

The down streamers looked at each other and then said, “Wait! There’s apparently something you don’t know. I think there’s something we need to show you.” They invited the up streamers to come to their farms where they all walked out to the river, the same river that fed them all.

As they walked to the river, one of the down streamers asked, “Does our land look like your land?” The up streamers nodded and said, “Of course.”

The down streamer said, “Look back toward your farms. Can you see the river?”

The up streamers nodded and said, “Sure.”

The down streamer asked, “Do we have the same amount of land planted with the same type of corn you have?” The up streamers glanced around, nodded and said, “Yes.”

Another question came. “Do you see anything different from the way you do things?” Shoulders shrugged and several responded, “No, except of course we use double plows and you haven’t dug your ditches to the river. You really must do that, you know. If the rains don’t come, you’re going to be in trouble.”

As they came close to the river, the down streamers stood back and invited the up streamers to look at the river. When they got close to the bank, they gasped in shock. They’d never seen this view. Instead of looking down the gentle bank to a placid river, they were looking at a gorge so deep the river looked like a stream trickling through boulders.

One up streamer shook his head and said, “You’re never going to be able to dig a ditch down to that!” The other up streamers nodded their heads and agreed.

“So what do we do?” a down streamer asked.

One of the up streamers looked back at the river, scratched his head and said, “I guess you’re going to have to pray for more rain.”

Then the up streamers turned and went back to their gleaming white houses, sat on their broad front porches in their polished birch rockers and gazed across their fields with their neat little irrigation ditches. They sipped their sweet tea and sighed as they watched the river flow gently by.

In the meantime, the downstream farmers took the advice they had been given. They each contributed a tiny parcel of land and spent their late afternoons building a chapel where they could pray for rain. One day a week they would go to that rough hewn chapel and pray for more rain. Sometimes it seemed that their prayers were answered. But in the years when there wasn’t much rain, their prayers went unanswered and their fields withered.

However, the upstream farmers still had their irrigation ditches and, when the days were dry, they pulled the river into their fields. Their corn flourished and they still had extra to trade for things like pigs and chickens, pretty dresses, pianofortes for the parlors, and barns to store the corn.

Sometimes the up streamers felt good when they traded their extra corn for help from the down streamers who often didn’t have quite enough to eat. But, the down streamers still had their own fields to work so the wives and the children began to plow and plant and harvest the corn. Sometimes the children could hear the school bell ringing and see the up stream children skipping toward the new school house. Then they would turn back to their work.

One year a farmer was struck by lightning in early spring. He couldn’t work the field and his wife was bedridden, heavy with child. The women came with casseroles and greens, fresh milk and eggs while the men quickly pitched in and plowed and planted their neighbor’s field.

The injured farmer was grateful for their help even when they remarked that he should have dug his irrigation ditch already. His middle land farm had access to the river, but they were new to the farm and his wife wasn’t very strong. It was all they could do each year to get through the harvest with barely enough food to last the winter.

The next year came and the lightning-struck farmer was still too feeble to work the field. His neighbors showed up again and plowed and planted. He noticed their glances at his wife who was big with their second child. He heard one of them say as he walked away, “If he could do that, why couldn’t he dig his irrigation ditch? Why should we help him take our water?”

One year the rains were sparse. None of the down stream farms produced enough corn. A few farms had enough stockpiled to make it through the winter. Some couldn’t and they wound up selling their farms to some of the upstream farmers. By the end of the winter, only 70 farms remained, some made twice as big as they once were, a couple even tripled.

Some of the landless farmers now worked the land that had once been theirs for a small share of the corn. They grew thin. Their children were barefoot and sickly.

One fine summer day, a yellow-haired man came to the valley. He was a friendly sort with a prosperous look, golden rings on each finger, riding a flashing black stallion. He sat on the porches of the down stream folks, most of them now croppers rather than farmers. He nodded his head as they told him their stories. He clucked sympathetically when they explained their problems.

After visiting for a few weeks, he gathered them together and revealed the truth: they had been swindled. “Look for yourself,” he said. “Those farms up there have water and you have none. Now they have stolen your land. They sit there on their fancy porches and send their kids to school while yours have to work the fields. I hate to tell you this, folks, but those snooty rich people aren’t your friends. They’re your enemies.”

The down streamers gasped and shook their heads. “It can’t be,” they exclaimed. “They’ve been good to us. They helped us when we had problems.”

“Did they help you get water to your fields?” asked the yellow-haired man. “Did they invite your kids to their highfalutin schools or share their stored corn when your fields withered and your kids went hungry? They’re not like us … they’re greedy crooks!”

“No! It can’t be!” a few people shouted.

The yellow-haired man said, “Sorry, folks. It’s the truth. I only tell the truth. See those forests.” Everyone turned to the beautiful forests where they hunted deer and rabbits, cut trees to build their cabins, gathered mushrooms in spring.

“That’s what they want,” the yellow-haired man yelled. “They want your trees. They want to cut them all down and sell lumber to the cities. You’ll be left with barren lands and they’ll get rich. We have to stop them now!”

Slowly the down streamers turned to each other and started to buzz. “Maybe it’s true …” “Remember when …” “They said I was lazy …” “They called me a drunk …” “They asked me why I needed another child …” “They refused to let me borrow their double plows …” “They sold me a lame horse … “ “I saw two of them cutting trees … big trees … “

The buzzing got louder and tempers flared, until the yellow-haired man raised his hands. “It’s okay folks. I can help. I’m the perfect person to solve your problems. I’ll go talk to those people. I’ll make them listen. I’ll get them to build a pump to bring water to your lands. I will be the best friend you ever had. I’ll be your king and we will make this valley great again!”

Everyone cheered and danced long into the night.