You’ve seen them, no doubt. Those solitary corn stalks standing alone in a field.
My friend James, whose father is a Wisconsin farmer, told me those stalks are indicators of what is called “gathering loss” -- a way to measure how much corn a field produces, and how much is lost.
I wanted to know more, and so searched online. With a few clicks, I discovered “Ask a Farmer,” a service of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.
Nate from Fargo answered my query, and said “gathering loss” refers to waste that occurs when a combine removes corn from the stalk, or doesn’t get all the kernels to separate from the cob. The left-behind stalks remain there on purpose to indicate to farmers how much corn in each field didn’t make it to market.
“It’s all about the yield,” he said.
A few weeks ago, when I saw a clutch of those remaining stalks in Deerfield, I parked my car to get a closer look. As I was taking a photo, a combine pulled up behind me and a farmer leaned out, smiling.
“I left those just for you,” he said.
We got to talking, and my new friend Steve admitted he had never heard of the term “gathering loss.”
“Our combines can’t make real sharp turns,” he explained. “We miss a few.”
And he added, “This time of year, city people love to decorate with corn stalks.”
I have to admit: I still don’t quite understand the gathering loss concept, even though James and Nate tried their best to explain it to me.
And I’m not sure that it matters. Even though I remain fuzzy, I'm still drawn to the term. Those lonely stalks are like magnets to me, and I know I’ll keep pulling over to stare at them.
I think the idea of “gathering loss” haunts me so because the phrase points to thoughts beyond agriculture. As the days grow shorter, I don’t need much to fuel my autumnal pensiveness: summer and winter, sun and shadow, life and death.
“Gathering loss” is a good way to measure our own harvest and notice what’s left behind. As Nate in Fargo reminded me: it’s all about the yield, isn’t it?
Martha Ackmann is a writer who lives in Leverett, Massachusetts. Her new book, "Vesuvius at Home: Ten Days in the Life, Loves, and Mystery of Emily Dickinson," will be published next year.