The Farm Woman


This coming Monday evening (June 23rd) we’ll be hosting a book discussion in the library of Jean McKay’s Chronicles of The Farm Woman: The Story of Mary Frances McKinney. I’m just a little more than a hundred pages into the book at present, but already enchanted, and pleased that I’d given it a try.


In so many ways, The Farm Woman  rekindles memories of many of those great rural classics of farm life in the Great Depression years or their aftermath. For me that means M.G. Kains’ Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management, Aldo Leopold’s incomparable A Sand County Almanac, or Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley.


Consider, for example, this brief but poignant passage from one of Mary McKinney’s columns appearing in William Allen White’s Emporia Gazette:


“Have you ever noticed a group of trees as you drive along a country road? Perhaps there is a cedar among them and maybe a gnarled old apple. A yellow rose bush to blossom first in the spring and possibly a lilac and clump of asparagus. If you drive more slowly you will see a pile of stones and the ruins of a cave – the remains of a Kansas homestead. As I sit on my front porch I can see six such groups of trees. A generation ago those houses were teeming with life. Three or six or eight children. The boys slept in the loft and girls in the front room.


“As the boys grew up they turned their backs on the farm. The girls married and left it. The old folks passed on. Fire and time have brought the houses to ruins – a clump of trees, a few stones and a yellow rose.”


For me the particularities are ever so slightly different – an ancient Kiefer pear rather than a gnarled apple by the ruins of an abandoned farmhouse, a line of Osage Orange trees littering their hedge apples along the abandoned boundary line, flowering quince or forsythia to herald the coming spring, sand plums and Hercules Club trees lining the ghosts of vanished fencerows. Yet the vision is fundamentally the same.


One of my fondest childhood memories of Haysville is of my mother herding rowdy sons into an old blue and white DeSoto and driving her boisterous expedition out to the peach orchard on a hot spring day. It’s the persimmon tree that garnered the scientific name Diospyros, but it’s a fresh-picked peach that truly deserves the appellation “fruit of the gods.”


That memory returned to me a hundred times over in later years, when I envisioned my own miniature utopia on a handful of acres down in Rockwall County, Texas. I planted more than a dozen varieties of peach trees, expressly calculated so that in that more southerly clime a new variety of peach would ripen every couple of weeks from the end of March until early October. Nirvana.


It’s true that Chronicles of The Farm Woman: The Story of Mary Frances McKinney is somewhat inconsistently edited, and occasionally flawed by a bit of awkward prose. Ignore that. Persist, and I believe that you too will find it to be a wonderfully rewarding read.



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