To be a farmer is to have a special understanding of the plants and animals that are essential to human life. But I wonder if that knowledge comes with an invisible cost.

Mark Twain said something of this in his 1883 travelogue “Life on the Mississippi,” which recalls his early days as a steamboat pilot.

In the book’s most famous passage, Twain describes how he learned to read the ripples, currents and floating debris as signs for how to navigate around the river’s many unseen and hull-gutting hazards.

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book,” Twain writes, “a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”

Like steamboat mates, farmers live by their professional instincts. You can tell when the chickens are sick, when a crop has a nutrient deficiency, and when a soil is healthy enough to survive a downpour without gullying.

In some fields of work, the practitioner’s realm of knowledge and ideas is so esoteric that the average person does not hope or care to attain it. I think of physics, high finance, law, medicine, philosophy.

But what’s special about farming, and perhaps steamboating, is that its materials are so common, so familiar, that the uninitiated seemingly ought to know more than they do. “Cow” is among the first words children learn, but how many of them will grow up able to identify when one is in heat, or how to take advantage of that brief interval to achieve a successful breeding?

And yet there’s value in seeing life with our first eyes, like children or neophytes. Twain recalls his wonder at a red and gold sunset he saw when he was starting out as a riverman.

“In one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water,” he writes. “In another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal.”

Twain realizes, though, that once he became an experienced reader of the river, he would have seen the same sunset not as enrapturing, but as merely illuminating the Mississippi’s proliferation of sandbars and sunken trees.

“All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!” he writes.

Perhaps this is why farmers and their neighbors sometimes come into disagreement. The observers interact with cows and crop fields on a mainly aesthetic level, as marvels to be beheld, while the farmer sees these things professionally, as tools to be managed for a purpose.

And if that’s all the farmer can see, that is an impoverishment indeed. To be surrounded by crops and animals has become a rare gift in America over the one and a half revolutions of Halley’s Comet since Twain died during that celestial body’s appearance in 1910.

Certainly I can see how farmers might get trapped in an instrumental view of their work. You who have grown up on a farm may barely remember a time when you could not read the feelings of a cow — or realize that she was not a cow at all, but a steer or heifer. You can no more turn off your work than you can neglect to read a road sign.

It's broadly valuable to know how things work, but knowledge doesn’t have to preclude us from seeing the beauty in a farm scene. Europe’s Old Masters created powerful paintings in part because they studied anatomy and perspective, enabling them to render people and landscapes more realistically than their forebears.

You know the rewards of farming, and how deeply they are mixed with hardships. Outsiders might not see those struggles, but don’t be surprised if they also appreciate your work for reasons you had not contemplated.

Perhaps this fall, while you rush to pick the apples or bring in the fast-senescing corn, take a moment to see your farm as if for the first time, with a visitor’s eyes.

Maybe you will see the red and gold on the horizon you had forgotten about so long.

Maybe you will be reminded that the farm, more than a forum for unending tasks, can be a place of good and even awe.


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