"We lost a good man…. This is dangerous work we do.”
Those were the first words my friend Phil spoke to me yesterday as we embraced at the memorial service for his brother Dan, who was killed a week ago in a farm accident.
Dan was a good man indeed. The fact that scores of friends, neighbors, relatives and admirers came to a far corner of Northeast Iowa to grieve with the family was testimony to that.
In the eulogy, Dan’s uncle reiterated the obvious, but tragic fact. “Farming at its best is a hazardous occupation,” said Phil Thalacker. Farmers around the neighborhood have taken the occasion to tell stories of close calls, he said.
“We all have those stories to tell,” he said. “I hope this experience will help us all to be more careful.”
Dan’s life and death, though, stand for much more than a cautionary tale about the dangers in one’s calling as a farmer. What he had accomplished by age 63 were the achievements of a full life, an exceptional life when measured by the important things.
Dan’s gathering of earthly treasures had little to do with material matters. He inspired many folks, including me, to think about how we can better strive to put agriculture in harmony with nature. He practiced what he preached, turning his farm into a demonstration of good grazing management, sustainable crop production, and natural resource conservation.
A letter from U.S. Senator Tom Harkin read at the service credited Dan’s “relentless activism” for conservation, his leadership in farm groups, and his work to help advance the Conservation Stewardship Program, which now involves 38,000 farmers and 69 million acres
My friend Phil summed up his brother’s philosophy. Dan studied the soil, the microbes and the insects; he knew the birds and the animals. The human role, the farmer’s role, in this web of life is to make agriculture a “net positive,” to give rather than subtract from the cycle.
“Dan believed that if it’s working, it all fits together,” Phil said.
In an insightful detail, Phil reported that in doing chores on Dan’s farm last week, he found a hot wire fence around a patch of mint, which he realized Dan was saving for “some bumblebee subspecies,” one of the many important pollinators on the place. Not just the cows and the grass, but all the little live things have a fit, too.
We were reminded at the memorial service about the fact that life goes on, as it will on Dan’s farm. And there was much done by this man: his legacy in working with nature will be remembered. But I was also struck yesterday about what his life, and death, say about how much is left undone in achieving a deeper understanding of our place on the land.
It seemed a time to begin to approach the undone left in this life.