Book review: American Harvest

Jun 1, 2020 by

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“Certain conditions yield certain things.” In the setting of the Great Plains, an owner of a custom harvest crew offers this axiom in answer to writer Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s question about differences in types of grains grown across the Midwest. For Mutsuki Mockett, the axiom also provides a window for looking at differences between sectors of American society, particularly between urban and rural America.

American Harvest

American Harvest

In American Harvest: God, Country and Farming in the Heartland, Mutsuki Mockett writes about her four-month journey with an Anabaptist/Mennonite custom harvest crew, which starts harvesting in Texas and cuts grain in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Idaho.

Mutsuki Mockett was born in California to a Japanese mother and an American father. Her bi-cultural identity and experience is the genesis of her two books I have now read. Her 2015 book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey springs out of her Japanese family’s ownership of a Buddhist temple 25 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I lived in Tokyo for a year and traveled to Japan many times, but her book was a new doorway for me.

American Harvest springs out of the Mockett family’s ownership of farmland in southwest Nebraska for more than 100 years. The author, who has lived in California and New York but never in Nebraska, owns the remaining 320 acres from what was once more than 7,000 acres of Mockett farmland near Kimball, Neb.

For more than 10 years, the absentee landlord Mocketts had their harvesting done by Wolgemuth Bros. of Elizabethtown, Pa. The author and her father, who died in 2008, always showed up for the harvest. On the basis of those years of acquaintance, Eric Wolgemuth, with 30 years of custom harvest experience, invited Mutsuki Mockett to join his harvest crew through the summer of 2017. She talks with him about her interest in gathering information for a book; he asks if she wants to learn about “the divide.”

Wolgemuth’s harvest crew was joined by a second crew, Slagell Harvesting of Hydro, Okla. Both consisted entirely of people from Anabaptist backgrounds.

Because of the people she lived and worked with for four months, the lens ­Mutsuki Mockett used to look at the urban/rural divide was the lens of faith.

When asked, the author said she is not Christian. She is a humanist, a liberal. But at the daily breakfast table she is moved by Wolgemuth’s prayers and by his wife Emily’s reading of a Bible passage. The author has conversations with the harvest crew about the impact of faith on how they see the world and how they conduct their lives. They talk about evolution and creationism, personal sin and collective sin, doubt and faith. Through the summer she reads the Bible and many books about the Bible.

On Sundays, never a day of work, accompanied by one or more crew members, she attends a variety of churches, including a Western Trails Cowboy Church in Texas, a megachurch in Oklahoma City, a Brethren in Christ church in Oklahoma, a Mennonite Church USA church in Oklahoma, a house church in Nebraska and a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church in Idaho. For Mutsuki Mockett, most of those experiences are unsettling, sometimes even angering.

One church experience she writes about affirmingly is at Pleasant View Mennonite Church of Hydro, Okla. She is moved by a member’s report of providing 37 loads of hay to ranchers in northern Oklahoma whose lands were burned by wildfire. She is moved by the man in the congregation who humbly prays words of gratitude for “beauty in the morning sunrise, in the changing of the seasons and the ripening of the harvest fields.”

In that service, Mutsuki Mockett is intrigued by the sermon of Pastor Jeff Selzer, especially his words about biblical shalom. Our family here in Hesston, Kan., are neighbors and friends of the Selzer family. Our children grew up with Jeff Selzer and his brother. We know something about Pastor Jeff’s “certain conditions.” They are close to ours.

Mutsuki Mockett provides fascinating details about the context of the custom harvest: the land, the history of the land (including the arc of Native Americans’ presence on the land), the crops, the machinery, the logistics of moving machinery and crew, the weather.

Her summer’s journey through the Great Plains in the company of Anabaptist/Mennonite custom harvesters is, on the one hand, a record of an outward journey, a journalist making observations. But, in its most engaging aspect, the book is an account of what Mutsuki Mockett learns about herself, sometimes with painful unsettledness, sometimes with clarity of self-identity. The journey is inward.

In New York City, Mutsuki Mockett is asked to summarize Christianity: “I manage to say that what makes Christianity different is that it is the religion of love. Christ made it clear that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and that we are to feel the connection to the Holy Spirit through our hearts. . . . I am thinking about how my friends [on the harvest crew] are capable of holding their hearts open to make room for me. I think of how hard I have tried to do the same.”

Certain conditions yield certain things.

Dave Osborne retired in 2017 from a career in education that spanned six countries and five decades, including 35 years in international admissions at Hesston College in Kansas.


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