It’s unmistakable. It’s special. It’s fall. And something’s in the air. And that something is dust.
And it’s not just any ordinary run of the mill dust. It’s harvest dust. Which means runny noses, itchy eyes and stuffy sinuses for anyone within sneezing distance of a field or a farm. Which is pretty well everywhere in Central Alberta.
A snuffling haze has descended on the prairie landscape once again, as it does every harvest, when farmers spend all day every day and most of the night every night out in their fields going round and round in circles in machines the size of your average apartment building.
They stay out in those fields for days on end, other hard-working family members delivering heaps of scrumptious farm food on a regular basis, the machine only slowing down enough for lunch or supper.
Heaven forbid the farmer should have to stop the machine, it would not only mean that he might not get his crop off, it would mean there would be a break in the production of the vast clouds of dust that cover the nearby towns and cities in a proverbial blanket of purple haze.
Not that I’m complaining. I like farms, and farmers — some of my best uncles were farmers. And I don’t even mind the dust — it reminds me of my dirty youth.
In fact, I spent a huge hunk of my growing-up summers on my Uncle Wilf’s farm east of town, in the Hillsdown Valley Center district.
In those ancient days when the tractors and combines were only the size of a small house and air-conditioned cabs had yet to be invented, my cousins and I would ride up with my Uncle, rattling along, standing beside the driver’s seat hanging on to various fenders and metal bits for dear life. It was a place of honour and it meant that by the end of the day, the three of us kid-cousins would look like four-foot-high piles of dirt, trudging back through the hot dry sun and the stubble to the farmyard.
Even Dodger the dog, a seasoned harvest veteran, would sneeze every time he came near us.
There we were, stumbling statues of grime, grabbing the pumphandle together, heaving up and down, taking turns sticking our heads under the waterfall whoosh of ice cold water right from the pump. Washing enough dirt from our hair alone to grow a hill of potatoes.
But Uncle Wilf and my older cousins would stay out on the tractors and combines from dusk till dawn and then some, and in particularly dry harvests, the dense clouds of grain dust and black dirt would engulf them until they looked like giant lumps of coal rumbling around and around the back forty by remote control.
One year, during an impossibly dry harvest, I was sure we’d go out to the field to make another gourmet farm food delivery and instead of finding Uncle Wilf and his combine, there’d be a humongous stationary pile of black dirt the size of a haystack, and my Uncle would have to dig his way out from the inside of the massive dust ball using the spade he always kept under the seat for just such emergencies.
I can remember one fall in particular, on a rare lull in the action when my Uncle had to gas up the combine in the farmyard, sitting with my cousins in the full hopper of the combine, up to our scrawny shoulders in grain. Sitting right in the barley, like swimming in tiny marbles. The dust around us thick as Rogers Golden Syrup.
The farm boys showed the city slicker (me) how to make “grain gum,” which is exactly what it sounds like, only tasting way worse than you might imagine. We’d scoop up a palmful of grain from around us in the hopper, blow off all the dirt and debris and any random insect bits, and jam a chaw into our gubs and start chewing like there was no tomorrow.
The trick was to get the right consistency of spit and grain, and it took some practice, that’s for sure, and after a while you’d give up and gob the mushed-up mess over the side of the hopper. At least I did. My cousins seemed to be able to keep at it until they were chewing expertly away on grain “gum” that had about the same taste and consistency as chewing on a pair of dirty socks.
But it was all part of that special time of year when the leaves turn every colour in Mother Nature’s book, and the farmers are in the fields, and the enormous dust balls and the dense clouds of harvest dirt come drifting into town for an Indian Summer visit, priming the dense air molecules so that they will be ready to turn to the icy crystals of winter.
And it’s funny, every year at this time, I find myself stopping regularly at what my farm cousins used to call the Corner Store. Where I buy a package of Juicy Fruit Gum. For me, nothing says ‘harvest’ quite like Juicy Fruit Gum.
Harley Hay is a local filmmaker and freelance columnist.