Before the days of well-educated folks providing weather reports over the air waves, that often conflict with the view out of your window, knowing how to find water, predict weather weather and test soil was essential information passed on from generation to generation. In our farm family that meant mastering divining rods, the weather stick and field checking protocol.
The most important topographical feature to a pioneer picking out a homestead site was an accessible nearby water source. Here in the land of ten-thousand lakes you would think that a visual inspection of your immediate surroundings would suffice. After all, few Minnesota farmsteads rest far from a standing body of water. Therefore, it seems to me that one could assume that the water table is high and that well locating and digging, even for the novice, could only end in success.
There are many ways to find sources of ground water. I just finished reading a handbook for pioneers that was published in 1859. The writer dedicated a whole chapter to signs in nature indicating ground water. Apparently my great uncles never got their hands on a copy of this fellow’s book, because to the absolute horror of my Christian grandma, they searched for ground water using, “Divining Rods”.
Divining rods are either thin metal wires or a “Y” shaped branch cut off of willow trees. The wire ones are about 20 inches of straight with a right angle for a handle at one end. With a rod held loosely in each hand, the operator slowly walks forward. When the rods detect water, they quickly swing together of their own accord and cross. As you walk away from that area, they immediately swing wide apart again. The willow works similarly, except the pointed end will point down when over water.
Divining rods are used by a “Diviner”. Since neither term is included in the catechism of Martin Luther and nobody can explain how these mysterious rods work, they were immediately labeled by my grandma as conscience stimulating instruments of the dark side. Of course, none of us knew how electricity worked or how roosters got hens pregnant either, yet electricity and poultry products were consumed guilt-free.
So when my great uncles, grandma’s brothers, showed up on our farm with those divining rods they were about as welcome as a horribly itchy, gland swelling, stomach emptying, body annihilating communicable disease. It was disconcerting to her that none of the adult males on the premises had moral sense enough to have a healthy aversion to self-motivating wires or sticks. However, since hope springs eternal, the children were warned not to go near them as they were suspect. The divining rods, not the great uncles.
The idea that these rods could find water right out the blue smacked too much of magic or chance for grandma. Both works of the devil. The only power she gave credence too, was God. And rightly so. If it wasn’t God inspired, it was suspect. Grandma felt that there was nothing divinely inspired about divining rods. Moreover, she felt very strongly that expecting something from nothing was gambling. Gambling at best was foolishness, at worst a vice. Vices were the root of all moral decay. Therefore, the divining rod pointed to sin not water.
Now, many people would bet that in a small church-going farm community like Swede Grove, in a state where games of chance were outlawed, that the fear of acquiring a gambling addiction from divining rods would be against the odds. Maybe, even irrational. If I was a wagering woman, I might agree, but I am a Swedish farmer’s daughter. There is logic to grandma’s concerns. Sin, just like redemption, requires a first step. It’s sort of like her sex before marriage analogy. Sex is like ice cream, if you have never tasted it, you aren’t going to miss it.
Besides, the farmers I knew were are all gambling addicts from the get go.
There were wagers on which neighbor spent the most time eavesdropping on the telephone party line, if Mennonite ladies wore underwear, how long any member of the family would stay in the outhouse, how many green apples could be consumed before you couldn’t leave the outhouse, which sow would farrow first, which cow would have the biggest calf, what ornery rooster would go next into the soup pot and on and on. I suppose that some of the chronic wagering could be attributed to weakness of character, but I’d like to think it was because we did not have a television set.
When you really think about it. In reality, the whole enterprise of agriculture was, is and always will be one big gamble. Farming is a crap shoot, all over the place.
I think that is why the menfolk enjoyed using the divining rods. It was a small gamble in their world of constant big gambles. Eventually, of course, we all took our turns learning to use the wires or sticks to find water. I have used them and tested them by walking over a water pipe and they did work.
Now, learning to using a weather stick is not nearly as complicated or morally questionable as divining rods. Weather stick usage is fairly straight forward. The value of weather stick use is based solely on the presentation of its applications.
A weather stick is usually the size and shape of a yard stick. The kind you get for free at the Minnesota State Fair. However it is painted completely white. To predict accurate weather, the stick must first be planted about three inches into the ground. If you cannot dig a three-inch hole in the ground, you know that your stick’s predicting powers have already begun to work as it is telling you the ground is still frozen. Should water fill the hole you have dug for your weather stick, you can be assured that grandma’s prayers have been answered and no further use of divining rods will be necessary.
Once planted the stick really works its magic. If you can see it…it is daylight. If you cannot see it…you need to get your eyes checked, because you should be able to see a white stick in the dark. If nobody can see the stick…it is foggy. Should the stick cast a shadow…it is sunny outside. If there is no shadow….it is overcast. If the stick is wet..it is raining. If it is floating…you are experiencing a flood. If it disappears…it is snowing. Should it blow over…it is windy. If it turns green…you need to cut your grass. And, if it turns yellow…you need to holler at your dog.
Once you have found water and can use your weather stick, it is time for field checking. Field checks always taken place after the snow has melted, but before all of the standing water has disappeared.
When the time is right, usually during a chore shortage, or before or shortly after a round of food consumption, someone of driving age, between the ages of 6 and 86, will announce they are going to go check fields and start a tractor.
Tractor choice can be a poser. Sometimes, the tractor is chosen because it’s the closest to the field checker. Other times it is picked, because it already has fuel. Most often though, it is chosen because it is the biggest and fastest.
Once the tractor is started, the field checker invites guests to ride along by hollering for volunteers over the loud revving diesel motor. The guests, never more than two, stand on the wagon hitch behind the driver. The vehicle then roars down the farm lane. It races down a county gravel road until the breaks are slammed down hard as its operator rudely cranks on the steering wheel attempting to make the sharp turn into the field’s landing.
Once the all important traditional pause and moment of silence on the landing has been completed. The tractor, driver and guests brace themselves for a rigorous field testing experience.
The clutch is slowly let out as the throttle is simultaneously thrust to full. The tractor leaps onto the rich black soil. The deep tread of its large rear tires catapults dirt clogs high into the air. The driver jams the stick shift into a higher gear to gain speed in an attempt to outrun the dirt clog shower raining down on unprotected heads.
The tractor races across the field, with its passengers’ shirt tails flapping in the spring breeze. It slows as it crests a hill. The tractor pauses before yawning loudly and taking a deep breath. Then, with a loud roar, it charges down the hill with its driver enthusiastically yelling, “Hang on!”.
The passengers behind the driver hang onto the tractor’s fenders white-knuckled. They stand on their toes and loosen their knee joints to act as shock absorbers to prepare for impact. Valiantly the tractor hurls itself towards the flooded valley beneath the hill’s summit while silently screaming, “I am not a boat!.”
The splash of water and mud created by several tons of tractor hitting open water at road speed is spectacular! Physics does not lie. For every action there IS an equal and opposite reaction. As muddy spray shoots heavenward, the tractor’s great rear tires furiously spin. There is a slide one way, and then a slip the other way before the tractor just sinks straight down.
Swedish farmers by nature are pessimistic optimists. They know things can and do go wrong. However, all is not lost if you can find even a little bit of good in it. Therefore, you only really lose if you give up.
It is this innate positive attitude to never give in, that can be misconstrued by the non-Swedish as stubbornness, that makes the driver continue rock the tractor back and forth until such a time as it becomes clear to God, nature and humankind that the tractor is going nowhere. This point of cosmic consensus is reached when the tractor’s trailer hitch is underwater and the axles have settled below the mud line. When these hallmarks are met, the field test is assessed as successful and the field officially declared…not ready.
Then, the tractor’s driver and guests slowly survey the scene, while figuratively and actually scratching their heads.
After a historical recitation of infamous past spring field checks and an exchange of situational observations, conclusions are reached. The tractor is stuck. They should not have chosen their biggest tractor. Calls will have to be made to neighbors for assistance. There will be a mandatory re-telling of the best stuck tractor tales. And, they are going to have to walk home….again.