End Notes: Losing Ground

By Kyle August Nickel '03
  December 17, 2003

"If our culture continues to treat the land as though it is a thing to build on, we will have giant bank accounts and hollow stomachs. How do we change that?"

What do we do with the hand-me-downs that we did not ask for? The jeans that don’t fit quite right around the waist, the furniture we have no room for in our small apartments, the sadness that, despite our best efforts to uproot it with reason, we know to be justified?

Grandpa still won’t talk about when Purdue University sold his father’s Polled Shorthorns. It took my father a decade to talk about the selling of the farm. Even though I was just learning to ride a bike when the creeks were tiled out and all the flat-black dirt was hauled off and rearranged for the houses and golf course, it has taken me months to get still enough to write this. What do I do with this sadness I inherited, this sadness that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my blood and bones? Lynnwood Farm is gone and there is no way now to cut through those acres with an old six-bottom plow. No place to fit show steers, nowhere to break them to lead. The neighborhood association would not tolerate the scent of Berkshire hogs.

It was not our land. It never was. Those 600 acres were someone else’s before Charles Lynn bought them up, and the flint pieces chipped into sharp points that turned up as the plow bottoms peeled back the soil were reminders that the land was someone else’s long before that.

In the window of history that my great grandfather, grandfather, and father lived and worked on Lynnwood Farm near Carmel, Indiana, legacy building seemed to be a way of life. Under Mr. Lynn’s ownership, the farm produced world class Polled Shorthorn cattle, Berkshire hogs, and Percheron draft horses. The Shorthorns and Berkshires had come with my great grandfather when he came east to work for Mr. Lynn in 1938. His name came off of the ownership papers, but his hands never came off of the halters.

In 1942, Purdue University received the farm from Mr. Lynn as a gift. It was the end of an era. Production was turned to research and, in 1966, less than a year before his death, my great grandfather’s Polled Shorthorns were sold. The genesis of no-till farming occurred there. The realization of the harm that can occur from the misuse of chemicals was studied there. Synchronization, a process now thought of as essential for artificial insemination, was developed on the cattle that came after the Polled Shorthorns. Thousands and thousands of agriculture students from around the country would stop there on their way to or from the National Livestock show in Chicago in order to see how a world-class livestock farm operated.

In the mid-1980s, Indianapolis moved north and property values skyrocketed. Purdue was not doing as much animal science research as it had in years past at Lynnwood and the farm was sold. The proceeds from the sale established a trust for the University’s remaining farms. Lynnwood gave its life so other farms could live. The symbolism is not lost on me, but there is still a downhearted place within me.

It was a much different kind of farm than the one I grew up on. I have amplified and romanticized the stories I’ve heard to an extent that has turned Lynnwood into nothing short of an empire, a kingdom of castles with haylofts. Maybe it was.

Where I call home, there are too many acres to be a hobby farm and not enough to be a real farm, though I suspect that is a distinction only farmers would make. It still belongs to my parents; the suburbs don’t threaten it.

Nonetheless, I have grown to fear subdivisions and progress because they took home away from three generations before me. These men lived on the ground, and from it. I suspect that my father’s first kiss was not in a house, but in the same hayloft where he danced and learned to shoot a jump shot. First bike rides were not taken down tree-lined streets, but in the gravel lanes between the fields. Home.

That sadness belongs to Grandpa. That is a story of loss that is not mine to tell, only to see in my father’s eyes when we drive north on Keystone Avenue, past the Borders Books and O’Charley’s restaurant, to see how he doesn’t look east down 146th street.

The story that is mine to tell begins around a fire built in the backyard at my parent’s house last Easter weekend. Sitting in the circle of light, drinking coffee with my parents as the frogs cleared their throats in the cool April night air, I was struck by the quiet that I had taken for granted in my childhood there. At some point, the conversation turned to the well being of the county they reside in. We blamed the stagnant, if not desperate, local economy for everything that was wrong. For an uncensored moment, before I remembered the faces of the people I know who have been laid off, let go, or put out, I was grateful for all those sad statistics.

The edge of town has not moved in my lifetime; it is still almost ten miles to town from my parent’s farm. The quiet I took for granted in my youth is still there for me to marvel at when I return from my apartment half a block from the fire-station sirens and railroad tracks in Crawfordsville. There is no army of earthmovers and orange barrels marching in to turn those acres into parking lots, no traffic that requires three left-turn lanes and all because of a lack of progress.

I keep an old tobacco tin on my desk filled with the flint tools I have found in the creek and fields on our land. Some details aside, that ground has not changed since the people who made those tools first walked there. We still grow things and eat them, kill things and eat them, call the land home more than we do the shelters that keep the weather out. We take care of the land because it is so much a part of our life, our blood, and our bellies.

Much of the world around my parents’ place sees it different, sees progress not as sustaining the land, but as dollars. That idea of progress will starve us someday; if not literally, certainly of a way of life that is unique to the middle of America.

We protect the ground that is sacred and beautiful in our country, as we should, but we are allowing the land that feeds us to be covered with a multitude of giant do-it-yourself stores, chains of casual dining restaurants, and endless half-acre lots of new homes. As much I would love to see a fleet of earthmovers and bulldozers roll in to any look-a-like commercial area, crack into the parking lot, and hammer down into the first coffee chain or mass-marketed clothier, it will not happen. Money moves the world and those acres will never again see corn and cattle, forests and plains. This sort of progress can’t be undone.

It may seem like an overreaction, just the result of the fact that one of the barns that three generations before me worked and played in now houses golf carts, but considering the length of human history, it was just a few short centuries ago that some man, dark-skinned and indigenous, launched an arrow from his bow in the same woods I used to hunt. This progress is a rapid one and I have no solution for it. The frontier is closed and there is nothing left to conquer. If our culture continues to treat the land as though it is a thing to be tamed, a thing to build on, we will have giant bank accounts and hollow stomachs. How do we change that? I genuinely want to know.

When the time comes for me to bring children into the world, I do not want to give them this burden. They must not receive a legacy of fear for their home and way of life. There can not be any hand-me-down sadness. I want them to know there will never be golf carts in the barn.

Kyle Nickel is an award-winning writer and former Wabash English major currently working the harvest on a farm north of Linden, Indiana. Contact him at: