In the rice fields north of Sacramento, Tom Reese climbs into his giant red harvester, starts the engine and heads south across a flat landscape covered in gold and green stalks heavy with grains. At the end of the field, he turns and heads north. Back and forth.
To the east, the Sierra Nevada provide a backdrop to this contemplative task. To the north, the Sutter Buttes hide behind hedgerows, and to the west, the Coast Range disappears, lost in a waning afternoon.
We revere the natural landscapes of California, mountains and coast. Too often we take for granted the simple, flat world we see in between. The sublime can be found in our own backyard, in fields and farms and the mechanization of a rice harvest every fall.
Reese, a jovial man with huge hands, has worked this land for 35 years. He describes the process as I lean forward in a seat next to him and watch rotating combs suck stalks of rice into the harvester. A cylinder separates grains, flinging them into a shaker pan and fans blow the unwanted parts out the back. Another machine keeps pace as rice flows from a chute on the harvester into a cart. Back and forth.
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Across the valley, other rice farmers in other harvesters deliver grains to carts that in turn, transfer rice to waiting trucks. The trucks drive south to Van Dyke’s Rice Dryer in Pleasant Grove, a business started by Jim Van Dyke’s grandfather, who sold it to his son. Jim bought the business and now his daughters are taking over the immense facility that connects farmers to global markets.
About 50 farmers deliver more than 1 million pounds of rice each season to Van Dyke’s Rice Dryer, where the grain offloads through grates in the ground and begins an up and down journey to dryers. Aqua-colored conveyers take the rice sky high and drop the grains into a variety of huge storage containers, until it’s sold.
Back in the rice field, the western sky appears red orange through the dust. The field sends up an aroma of newly mowed straw. Harvester lights appear across the darkening landscape as farmers continue their work into the night. Reese is ready to go home, ready to leave his field that is quickly becoming too damp to harvest. He pulls to a stop, reaches into an ice chest and offers me a beer.
We stand together watching a brilliant sky fade. I breathe in that smell, the smell of fall in the valley. Earth gives up its heat, creating a fog that hugs the ground. Damp air drifts around us like ethereal ghosts. Black birds swarm over cattails that border the fields.
I am awed by this simple experience. Right in my own backyard.
Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.