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Working by the moonlight

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By The Staff

Ivan James was a rare gem of a man who inhabited the hinterland of northeast Perry County.

His occupation was farming, a most noble pursuit he'd been born into. Ivan was a wide-brimmed-hat sort of fellow, blue-denim overalls, handkerchief spilling out the back pocket, whittlin' knife hidden in the front one.

His hands were out-of-doors worn from a lifetime of hard use, but there was a softness in his eyes that revealed something of his old soul.

In his time, Ivan had a reputation of having an unusual talent with animals, especially draft horses. It was said his teams were harder working and better disciplined than most and yet no one could recall him ever striking them or even raising his voice to them.

He was a practitioner of his husbandry in the truer and older sense - one who is 'wed' to his animals and land. It shown most strikingly in his care of horses.

By the time I knew Mr. Ivan James, his horses were long gone, an impracticality in his declining years, yet still close by him in memory and stories. It was the late 1970s that would later prove to be the last few years of his life. He'd stop by on occasion, as rural neighbors do, to check in. He had sold my father a few acres of ground and was interested in its progress.

Ivan had given in to the modern mode of transportation and work, a high-seated, diesel-burning contraption promoted by the tractor dealerships of its time. To the twig-sized kid I was, this machine appeared a growling, fuming creature of moving metal and turning wheels. There was, however, nothing to dread from the man who climbed off this machine, who would sometimes grace us with reflections of mythic days gone by.

From the time of our elder generation's youth, life in the backcountry of Indiana required of its people the plowing of the soil. Harrowing, sowing, haying, harvesting and log-pulling meant learning the way of the horse. As with anything, some, like Ivan, took to it more readily than others.

Even in winter, teams were driven into the steep hollows. Columns of ice that formed on the rock overhangs could be sawn like stove wood, then hauled out to the icehouses by the steadfast power of horse, oxen or mule.

Ivan once told how, during extended hot spells, farmers would hitch the team at dark and work on bright moonlit nights. As a child, I had a vague understanding that some farm people planted crops and performed tasks in specific phases of the moon.

This is known as going by the signs of the moon. My child's mind mixed together this story of working by the moonlight during heat waves and going by the sign of the moon for rural work. What strange effects, I wondered, did the drenching moonlight have on those horses out there? What magic did the moon impart upon the Hoosier farmer back then? I am still left to wonder.

Like the giant American chestnut tree of old, Ivan James and his kind have disappeared from these hills. I often think about what stories my generation will have worth sharing when they enter their twilight.

Tales of how big a truck they were able to afford, journeys to pick up fast food, memories of hours, days, weeks, months, years spent, spent like a savings account that can't be replenished, entranced by televisions and computers. Our culture of affluence has a strange way of exacting its own price.

Ivan carries on in my memory, larger in significance to me than his lasting effect on this world or how long I knew him. He represents a local mythology of land, person, and sense of place. In my mind, I can see him out there still. His spirit and the ghostly team he loved in life are workin' by the moon. There's a rhythm of footfalls, hoof to earth, the gentle rattle of harnesses and tackle. A faint whisper on the wind from teamster to horses.

They are old sounds that the midnight fields are always glad to hear.

Faith lives near Mount Pleasant.