Punkin Time

November 10, 2013

I woke up this morning and James Whitcomb Riley was on my mind. Well, maybe it was after coffee, but sometime this morning “When the frost is on the punkin’”  started running through my head. Here’s how the first verse runs:

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,  
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,  
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,  
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;  
O, it’s then the time a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,  
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,  
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

This is definitely an aggie poem. If I were to ask my students to read it, I would have to explain every other line. They would get frost on a punkin, but fodder in the shock? Unlikely. And Riley continues:

The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—

Clover overhead? That’s not going to resonate with very many of the undergraduates I see. Even the few who grew up on farms aren’t going to have seen any “hosses” in the stalls, much less a hayloft above them filled with clover. The idea behind this poem is that all that late summer and early autumn work is done. “your apples all is gathered, and the ones a fella keeps / is poured around the cellar floor in red and yaller heaps.” It’s a fine time, says Riley. We do have a few apples down in our basement, where it is passably cooler than upstairs when we are running the heat—and we have been running the heat here in Michigan for several weeks now. But no, they aren’t poured around the floor, and frankly our basement isn’t a proper cellar, in the first place. Face it. We live in a world where it is impossible to even imagine poetry that takes the ordinary rhythms of farm life as its backdrop.

Riley doesn’t tell us exactly when the frost is on the punkin. When we lived in Indiana, this poem used to be associated with Halloween. Riley did write a poem called “The Gobble-uns’ll git ya if ya don’t watch out”. Same meter as the punkin’ poem, so maybe people get confused. If you were living in, say, south Alabama during Riley’s lifetime (1853-1916) the frost wouldn’t be showing up on the punkin until sometime around Thanksgiving. Michiganders would have already expected the hard freeze by Halloween, and they probably wouldn’t have left the house bareheaded. So this is not a big literary point mind you, but one virtue of Riley’s poem is the way it celebrates a moment that is defined by seasonal, farm household rhythm that’s going to vary from one clime to another.

Of course here in 2013, nearly a century after Riley’s death, we’re just now experiencing the hard freeze here in November. I’ve had my hat on once, and you generally can leave the house bareheaded. If you are a college professor like me, or have any of the urban economy jobs that most of my friends have, you don’t have that sense that the season’s work is mostly done. Even the farmers are working toward season extensions, and the Allen Street Farmer’s Market premiered it’s year-round indoor facility this month. It’s not just the climate that’s changed since Riley’s day. Seems like our work is never done.

Well maybe that’s just nostalgia. Farmers had plenty to do over the winter even in 1890. But it’s still a nice if quite unfamiliar thought that Riley’s appealing to here. Plenty to do, but mainly there’s a time to catch your breath. You get those wonderful blue skies and the air is chilled to a wonderful freshness when the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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2 thoughts on “Punkin Time

  1. t downright poetic

    oftentimes your work tends to reveal the depths of your inner soul but when you do it in the context of your day job yeah it’s over my head and part of the job is to sound objective: an academic

    this is moving.
    you moved my mind back to the farmyard south of Cassville … Grandpa and Grandma Grandpa and Grandma Browns farm.. yes animals around included guineys.

    things are so different now. I wonder if there are still guineys.

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  2. I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” a while back, and what I take to be a central point of that book is relevant to this week’s blog entry. Fukuoka describes a low labor input method of agriculture that also requires little from the farmer during the winter months (unlike more common practices that require the farmer to spend winters maintaining equipment and outbuildings, learning about next year’s seed offerings, feeding the stock bareheaded, and so on). A benefit of winters off is that farmers can spend that time doing what (he claims) Japanese farmers traditionally did during winter: writing haiku. It seems as if Fukuoka would not approve of a year-round farmers’ market.

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