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:
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