This article is featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Texas LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
Her smile is as wide and natural as the 103-acre farm in the background. Clad in a red-and-black flannel shirt, the woman tells viewers, “Alright, well, we’re inside the tractor now.” After she introduces the two cats watching from outside, she holds up her book cover, “The Wish and the Peacock;” she opens it and announces, “Chapter one, hide-and-seek. . .” pauses, then reads: Finding lost things on the farm is the world’s hardest game of hide-and-seek. I’ve been searching for Dad’s favorite shovel for weeks.
Meet farmer and middle grade book author Wendy Swore. For the next 15 minutes, Swore reads the chapter, acting out sentences with gestures and animated faces, and changing her voice for each character. Viewers get acquainted with 12-year-old Paige, who has lost her father and wants to save her family farm, located on an Idaho reservation. Swore knows her setting. For the past 20 years, she has lived and farmed on the Sho-Ban Reservation, where her husband and five children were born and raised.
Sponsored by her publisher, Shadow Mountain Publishing, Swore’s online read-aloud isn’t just for kids. They are for everyone stuck in quarantine, says Swore. At the beginning of her read-aloud video for her first novel, A Monster Like Me, Swore takes a moment to explain her location. “Because I am a farmer in my full-time job, the quietest place that I have to read to you is from inside my tractor.”
Swore is right at home inside her tractor. It’s home! She has been planting the seeds of her imagination across farm fields since she was a child. “I got to sit on my dad’s lap” while he flew his crop duster plane. “That was my introduction to agriculture.”
Today, Swore Farms is a sensory feast for any writer—field after field of vegetables, grain houses, dogs, geese, peacocks, ducks, cats, thousands of pumpkins and a corn maze that draw crowds every fall.
Ask Swore when she started writing and she lets out her hearty laugh. “About 15 years ago, my husband said ‘you should write a story about the farm.’ I wrote a 90,000-word young adult novel about this farm thing.” After her husband read it, he clarified that he meant “a flier coloring book thing to hand out to kids.” Blunt, upbeat Swore replied,
“It’s too late!”
“I’ve been writing ever since.” That novel was for just for fun. The dress rehearsal motivated her to go to writing conferences. “They were world-changing,” she says. “On a farm, I’m totally by myself, especially in off-season. I went to a writing conference and suddenly my world opened.”
She had yet another reason to keep writing. When her youngest was 10, he couldn’t wait to read each new part of A Monster Like Me. “He would come home from school and ask, ‘do you have the next chapter ready?’ He liked finding typos!”
This spring, Swore’s fans will get to read her first contemporary novel. “Strong Like the Sea is a new thing for me to write,” she reveals. “It’s not directly based on my world.” The opening will surely hook youth and adults alike: Sometimes when I get home from school, I find a lucky gecko clinging to the screen door—which is pretty cool—but today I find something even better: a note from Mom.
Sowing Story Seeds a Coast Away
The fiddle and banjo music is as sweet and comforting as the scene—fields of waist-high corn with tufts of silky hair. It’s as if the video-camera is giving thanks to each row. Slowly, viewers see a high-back wooden chair with a woman playing fiddle. A mustached man in a paddy cap appears. Seated on the same type of chair, he plays banjo with intense focus. Then, the musicians are both in full view—in the bucket of their old John Deere tractor! He closes his eyes and begins to sing,
“Oh, dear chickadee you sing a sweet and mournful tune
In the month of May when the lilacs are in bloom . . .”
Meet Sassafras Stomp. They are farmer-songwriter Adam Nordell and his wife, farmer-musician Johanna Davis. For the next three minutes, they record a YouTube of them both singing one of Nordell’s originals, “Chickadee.” The folk music duo draws viewers into a dreamy fun tune, as they glance at their farm-tough fingers and up toward the clouds moving o’er their farm. For the past 10 years, they have lived and farmed in Unity, a small town nestled in the rolling hills of Mid-coast Maine.
On the cover of their latest CD, “Walk These Fields,” there is a photo of Sassafras Stomp posing in the tractor bucket. Yes, on the same wooden chairs! Nordell is quick to point out that they are on “extended sabbatical right now.” And, for a wonderful reason: The singing farmers became parents two-and-a-half years ago. They continued traveling and performing Nordell’s songs and old-time folk music in small towns and big cities across the U.S. till their son turned one-and-a-half. Proof, that the duo is as high-energy as their music!
But, traveling “became logistically too complicated,” says Nordell of parenting, farming and performing. With their last gig a few months before the pandemic hit, Nordell saw his farmer occupation as a huge advantage. “I’m grateful that we didn’t head into the shutdown with music as a primary pursuit.” Soft-spoken, philosophical Nordell goes on to say, “There are aesthetic and practical questions to resolve before we start performing again.”
Sassafras Stomp has enjoyed a decent income from their busy winter tours and the success of other CDs—“Spruce Trees and the Sea” and “Cornstalk Fiddle.” They’re especially well-known by fans of contra dance, a social dance that began in England in the 17th century and soon caught on in the U.S., where today, it’s a folk dance with long lines of couples. Nordell plays guitar, five-string banjo and foot percussion—an amazing kicking-stomping of his feet in a galloping rhythm on a board that he made with his dad.
A guitarist since age 13, Nordell is always tilling a new crop of lyrics. For him, composing rhymes with farming! Both connect him to people and land, he says. “Songwriting and how it intertwines with place for me is trying to do the same thing.” Though he didn’t grow up farming, he wants audiences to learn of his roots, as well as be reminded of the uniqueness of their own.
“I try to use images of where I grew up in (Helena) Montana and on our farm . . . and encourage other people to feel at home where they live and the history of where they are.”
Farming and writing are all about place for Nordell—and being connected to a place. He explains as if he’s composing out loud: “Muse is being in a place, in the fresh air, working with my hands.” He repeats the word place. He pauses. “Being physically active—walking, seeing the landscape, processing the landscape. The muse fills up and I try to pay attention.”
Finding Time to Write
When do Swore and Nordell write? And, egads, how do they find the time? They are full-time farmers, often working 12-hour days. Even in winter, they are busy planning, building another grain house, cleaning, repairing vehicles, etc. They do it all; they don’t have employees.
Actually, these farmer-writers milk their manual labor! All their digging, shoveling, driving, planting, sowing, thinning, tilling, threshing, tending, harvesting can yield a bushel and a peck of words per day.
“I have time all day long,” says Swore. That means plenty of time to glean ideas from her three adult kids, one teen and pre-teen while working with them in the field. “I say, what do you think about a character who is like this. Then, I ask what do you think is the worst thing that could happen to this character. If I am thinking of a certain part of my story, I’ll say, so this is the situation, this is the character, how do you think this character can get from point A to B.”
Winter is Swore’s indoor “writing season,” but she tries to write a little every day year-round, with occasional marathon weekends. About 30 minutes a day is all she can handle though. Swore struggles with narcolepsy and must be available for her son who has Asperger’s syndrome. Fiercely determined, she sits in a ball chair and plugs in earbuds to keep moving-bouncing-dancing to musical tracks.
“Writing is hard,” she attests. Swore’s passion for specific themes undoubtedly keeps her returning to her keyboard. “I’m interested in people you might think are broken, but you get to know them and there’s more to them. Even broken people have something in them.” That’s why she wrote A Monster Like Me, the story of a girl with hemangioma who was bullied by kids and adults. Swore was that girl, growing up with a golf ball-sized protrusion on her face. Reading at schools and listening to kids’ stories reminds her of her mission: “I want kids to love themselves.”
Bottom line, writing is a creative outlet for Swore. “It can go with me into the field. I can keep developing it.”
It’s the same for Nordell. He finds seeds for songs in the repetitive, often mundane, tasks of farming. He wrote the title track to their third CD, “Walk These Fields,” while plowing the hay field “to plant our first wheat crop there.” This excerpt mentions the name of Nordell and Davis’ farm. Songbird. A perfect fit, since swallows, larks and other songbirds are known for being some of the best singers.
We’ll walk these fields next fall.
The feeling in your feet in the tender winter wheat
Hear the songbird when she calls.
Hope falls with each pass of the blade
But it will rise again as bread from the sourdough you made
The lands and furrows of the millers stone
Who’s to say we cannot live on this alone?
We can be here for one more year.
Even though he’s home on the farm this winter, Nordell’s songwriting process is still the same. “Typically, my songwriting starts with a line or two, and then happens for a year or more, and I accumulate a bunch of images and ideas that wind up getting built around that seed.”
The vivid, dramatic storyteller clearly relies on his roots to compose. “A song came and I wrote it,” he says, as he ends another personal story of how a song came to be: “When my grandfather died, I was working, cleaning up some crop debris . . . processing a lot of memories of knowing him as a little kid, and growing up with him as a role model. A few little phrases from him and from my grandmother and the geographic imagery of his life came to me. . . .”
Following the Footsteps of Yesterday’s Farmer-Writers
Farmers have been working full-time and writing for centuries. And, so have their children.
Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns was 15 when he made his first attempt at writing—a song about his first love, “O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass.” It was 1774 and farmers traditionally paired a boy and girl to bring in the harvest. Nellie Kilpatrick delighted Burns with her singing as they picked corn on the Burns family farm, Mount Oliphant Farm (Ayrshire, Scotland). Burns later credited Kilpatrick for “first committed the sin of rhyme” and “thus with me began Love and Poesy.”
Emily Dickinson’s keen observation of flowers and fascination with naming appeared in one of her childhood poems: Arcturus is his other name, I pull a flower from the woods. A monster with a glass. . . . While growing hundreds of flowers, planting vegetables and caring for trees, Dickinson wrote poem ideas on old shopping lists, envelopes, chocolate wrappers and anything she could find.
After working as a poultry farmer on The Derry Farm, New Hampshire, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost wrote a letter to a friend, saying, “I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had on the farm. The only thing we had was plenty of time and seclusion.” In 1961, Frost became the first poet to speak at a presidential inauguration when he recited his poem, “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
E.B. White started writing as soon as he could spell. His amazement/intrigue with a big spider’s weaving inspired his beloved classic picture book, Charlotte’s Web. White watched the spider in a barn on his saltwater farm in Maine, the setting for his animal-filled tale. In a letter to his readers, White said, “Although my stories are imaginary, I like to think that there is some truth in them, too—truth about the way people and animals feel and think and act.
Next time you see a farmer driving a tractor or working in a field, take heed. They might be planting story seeds for the next generation; or, like Swore, they might be creating stories that only time will tell.
“Say, I have 600 rows of beets to thin,” she says. “It’s tedious and time-consuming. If I’m doing it with my children, we make up a story as we go.”