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April 2016, vol 12 no 1

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Teri White Carns

Knik Valley Wheat

bread in hand
farmer resting from sowing
wheat for next year's loaf

Knik Valley wheat fields – they are harvested by farmers from the Midwest, from the Netherlands, from temperate climates, who brought their seeds to plant in the subarctic shadow of Pioneer Peak. The Denaina Athabascan/Ahtna Indians who came a thousand years ago after the Yupik/Chupik people called the area Benteh (many lakes). They fished and hunted around Eklutna, Niteh, and their other villages for eight hundred years before the Russian Orthodox missionaries came looking for souls in 1840, and the American and European adventurers came seeking gold thirty years later. The Indians knew nothing of grains or bread until the Russians brought them Holy Communion and the Sourdoughs brought them fry-bread.

The soil into which Knik Valley wheat sinks its roots is eolian – wind-blown, loess – dust particles from the rocks ground away by the glaciers. The rocks are igneous from the volcanoes, and sedimentary, transformed from the bodies of sea creatures during millions of years when the waters came and vanished. The glaciers arrived recently, covering the land, retreating, and returning again to carve out the Matanuska, the Susitna and the Knik river valleys, and to grind the rocks into silt and sand. In their wake, shallow-rooted white spruce, cottonwood trees, and balsam poplar forested the flat valleys, and alder, wildflowers, and grasses crept up the slopes. The farmers who came in the early 1900s stripped the land, and sowed wheat into long straight rows stretching from the settlers' roads to the feet of the mountains.

Today, winds blow off the Knik and Matanuska glaciers, lifting the soil made of ancient ocean lives from the bare fields in late winter and laying it down on forests to the south and west. The farmers must fertilize what's left, and irrigate in the spring and summer to make up for the sparse rain. Sixteen inches in a good year, it falls in August and September when the grain should be drying for harvest. Even the nineteen hours of June sunlight don't warm the air enough to make up for the cooling winds off the glaciers and the nearby ocean. It's not ideal for wheat, but a couple of stubborn farmers grow it nonetheless.

This year one of those farmers, Ben VanderWeele, sold most of his wheat to an Anchorage distillery to refine into the elixir of vodka. In the spring he will plant last year's wheat acres with potatoes, and sow the wheat over where the potatoes were this year. He likes growing it, even though the potatoes are paying the bills. In the fall the Sandhill Cranes, thirty-some strong, were gleaning his wheat stubble on their way south. Come next September, acres of gold will bow to the Knik winds, honoring the gods who have accompanied them these many thousands of years.

heavy brown wheat heads
too wet to harvest this week
snow on the Chugach

today's Communion
wheat rows in slanting light
of September dusk