by Douglas Yeo
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. George Washington, in his Thanksgiving proclamation of October 3, 1789, reminds us what this day is for:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness,” now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—that we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks.
There is much for which we can be thankful. Last night, my wife and I went to a Thanksgiving Eve service at our church, New Covenant Church of Naperville, Illinois. About halfway through the service, we sang a hymn that I have sung more times than I can count, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”
Last night, the hymn had new meaning for me. Because this year, I am especially grateful for farmers.
Each Wednesday since the end of the August, I have gotten up early in the morning to drive south to Urbana, Illinois, where, for the 2022–2023 academic year, I am serving as Clinical Associate Professor of Trombone at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I’ve made this trip 13 times this semester, a 159 mile, nearly three hour long drive. After two days of teaching at Illinois, I get in my car again and make the same drive home. When I first mapped out my drive, I made a decision. I could have taken interstate highways all the way from our home in the Chicago area to Urbana. Interstate 355 to 55, then 57 all the way to Urbana. But I on that first trip in August, I decided to try something different. I decided to take the back roads through the cornfields.
The decision was, as I first thought it through, a pragmatic one. Interstate highways are fast, fast roads. Speed limits mean little on interstates. A speed limit of 60 or 65 miles per hour means many—if not most—people are driving 70 or 75. Or faster. I thought the drive on back roads would be more peaceful. Fewer trucks, less noise, and perhaps I could take in a nice view along the way. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.
The view on Illinois 115 near Cabery, Illinois, August 22, 2022
On my first drive south on August 22, I turned off Interstate 55 to Illinois 31, the first of several state roads with a posted speed limit of 55 mph that took me straight south from the Chicago area to Urbana. State Routes 31, 18, and 115. 55 miles an hour, that is until I came across a small village (which happened several times) when the speed limit dropped to 40 mph for a minute while I passed a village with a population of 250. Or fewer. There certainly were fewer trucks on the road. In fact, there were NO trucks. In fact, there were no cars, either. I had the road completely to myself. So much so that I stopped in the middle of the road and snapped this photo, above. And you can see what I saw for hours: endless cornfields.
In August, the corn was high. And as far as my eyes could see, I saw thousands of acres of corn. Corn that went on to the horizon and beyond. I was fascinated by the endless stalks of corn, gently undulating in the breeze. I saw farmhouses and silos that dotted the landscape. As the weeks went on, I witnessed the ritual that’s done by farmers around the world: harvest. Massive pieces of farm machinery appeared in the cornfields. Stalks were cut down, and the corn was separated from its husks and shot into huge trucks. In recent weeks, with the fields shorn of their stalks, I’ve seen new pieces of huge equipment plowing the fields. The fields will lay fallow until the spring when I will see another ritual: planting. And the cycle will go on again, just as it’s been going on since the first humans walked the earth. The hymn reminds us that this cycle applies to us as well:
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.
Lord of harvest, grant that we, wholesome grain and pure may be.
These drives through the cornfields—I have two more trips to campus this semester before the Christmas break and then I will repeat this driving ritual next semester—have given me a new appreciation for farmers. Farming is hard work. I never thought about how much time it takes to harvest hundreds and hundreds of acres of fields. Now I do. It’s not a one day job. And farming requires a lot of trust and faith. These fields rely on the rain that God showers down from the sky. The right balance of sun, heat, and rain means a bountiful harvest. When that balance is off, the harvest is compromised. Farmers trust, hope, and pray.
I also have thought about these farmers and how I have a relationship with them. One way or another, their corn finds its way into the global food cycle. I have certainly eaten food that has been made, either directly or indirectly, with the fruit of their land and the work of their hands. And every now and then during my long drives through the cornfields, I see a sign stuck in the ground that offers a simple message, lest we forget:
Today, on Thanksgiving day, my oldest daughter, her husband, and our two grandchildren will come over to our home for our annual Thanksgiving dinner. We’ll be joined by some friends from church. There will be laughter in the house. We’ll watch some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, something we do each year since I marched in that parade with the McDonald’s All-American High School Band on Thanksgiving Day, 1972. Later, we’ll have a football game on television in the background as we wait for the food to be ready. Then, days of preparation and cooking will culminate in a moment when we sit around the table with a feast before us (with three pies—blueberry, apple, and pumpkin—waiting their turn in the kitchen). It is a feast that I have been reliving each year since my earliest memory, a feast I suppose I’ve always taken for granted (with gratitude to my mother, mother-in-law, wife, and daughters who have done so much over the years to prepare the feast). We will look at this bounty before us, we will hold hands, bow our heads, and I will pray. I will pray and thank God for the many blessings He has given to us over the last year. I will thank God for His faithfulness through the year, through the cheerful days and through the storms of life. I will thank him for church and school and work and love and life. And I will thank Him for farmers who do the back-breaking work that puts the food on our table. Backbreaking work that most people never see.
I’m very glad for my weekly drives through the cornfields in Illinois. Because today, these words have new meaning for me:
Come, ye thankful people, come. Raise the song of harvest-home:
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God, our Maker, doth provide, for our wants to be supplied:
Come to God’s own temple, come—raise the song of harvest-home.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. We have so much for which we can be thankful. And before you put a fork to your mouth today, thank God for farmers.
The view along Illinois 115 near Piper City, Illinois, November 22, 2022.