Perennial Grains and "Centers of Origin"

  “Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration,  The Atlantic

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration, The Atlantic

I read with special interest the article “How Will We Feed the New Global Middle Class” by Charles C. Mann in last month’s issue of The Atlantic (March 2018). It not only addressed this pressing question in terms amply supplied with meaningful examples and disturbing statistics, but referenced the important research long undertaken by a longtime friend and supporter of our work at Palouse Colony Farm, WSU plant scientist Dr. Stephen Jones. Mann’s article casts the controversy about supplying a growing world population’s food supply as a century-long contest between the “Wizards” and the “Prophets.” He characterizes the former as advocates of commodity production and scientific innovation exemplified by Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution,” and the “Prophets,” or proponents of natural ecosystem conservation like William Vogt. I commend the entire article for your review of this complex question, but thought Mann’s discussion of Stephen Jones’s research on perennial wheat to represent a rare convergence of Wizard-Prophet interests.

Perennial grains do not exist in nature so cereal crops must be planted year after year which necessitates field tillage and attendant labor and other inputs. Development of a crop like the Salish Blue wheat hybridized by Jones and his agronomist colleague Steve Lyon offers hope for a grain of sufficient milling quality that can produce from the same plant for two to three years. Jones and Lyon have told me that the pioneers of perennial grain research were a team of Russians headed by Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), a brilliant scientist who paid for his independent thinking by perishing in one of Stalin’s GULAG prisons. Vavilov formulated the “Centers of Origin” theory (a phrase first used by Darwin) for the geographic origins of the world’s cereal grains. Vavilov had been a protégé of Robert Regel, Russia’s preeminent pre-revolutionary era botanist. Regel had appointed the brilliant young Saratov University scientist head of all Russia’s agricultural experiment stations on the very day the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917. Vavilov became a prime-mover in the organization of the first All-Russian Conference of Plant Breeders in Saratov in 1920.

The group’s June 4 opening session marked a milestone for world science as Vavilov delivered his famous paper, “The Law of Homologous Series in Hereditary Variation,” in which he put forth the first hypothesis on plant mutation. For subsequent related research that led to the formulation of a law on the periodicity of heritable characteristics, Vavilov came to be known as the Mendeleyev of biology. Although Vavilov’s enthusiastic grasp of problem definition in crop breeding proved easier than problem solving, upon Regal’s death later in 1920 he was named director of the Agricultural Ministry’s Department of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, and went on to organize the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences.  

  Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Vavilov derived many of his insights from extensive travels “across the whole of Scripture” in Transjordan (Israel) and Palestine. He traveled widely in the Middle East and pored over religious texts in order “to reconstruct a picture of agriculture in biblical times.” His ideas were significantly influenced by the field studies of German botanist Frederich Körnicke (1828-1908), curator of the Imperial Botanical Gardens in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, and Aaron Aaronsohn, Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Haifa, Palestine. In an article published in 1889 on the history of world grains, Körnicke had identified a specimen of wild emmer found in the collection of the National Museum of Vienna as the progenitor of all modern wheats. He urged botanists to conduct expeditions in the foothills of Mt. Hermon where it had been found in order to better document its origin and range.

Aaronsohn subsequently recorded his historic 1906 discovery of the grain: “When I began to extend my search to the cultivated lands [near Rosh Pinna], along the edges of roads and in the crevices of rocks, I found a few stools of the wild Triticum. Later I came across it in great abundance, and the most astonishing thing about it was the large number of forms it displayed.” Indefatigable Vavilov followed Aaronsohn’s itinerary to locate this relict stands of the famed “Mother of Grains” and found it growing nearly forty inches tall with stiff, six-inch long beards. His further research demonstrated that emmer’s ancestral range extended throughout northern Transjordan and into Turkey.

Vavilov met Washington State College agronomist Edwin Gaines and his celebrated botanist wife, Xerpha, at the 1932 Sixth International Genetics Congress at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This celebrated gathering was attended by some 550 of the world’s leading geneticists. The conclave’s highlight was the much-anticipated delivery of Valvilov’s presentation on geographic distribution of wild cultivar relatives. His paper focused on the importance of preserving threatened landraces and their progenitors for future breeding stock and pure research. He further postulated the origin of modern hard red wheats in the Fertile Crescent (“southwestern Asia”) and soft whites in northwestern Africa. Vavilov also described ancient selection methods by which early agriculturalists unconsciously conducted spontaneous variety selections.

In spite of myriad challenges in hosting such a prestigious event in the midst of the Great Depression, the Gaineses invited Vavilov to Pullman while on his extended trip to several western states. Vavilov accepted the offer and spent several weeks in the late summer and fall of 1932 touring grain research stations in the Northwest clad in ever present tie and fedora. The time of year and fecund Columbia Plateau laden with grains spawned from his homeland may well have reminded Vavilov of lines from the celebrated Russian poet Pushkin extolling life on the steppe. He could quote verse at length in fluent English. The Gypsies imagines new life in fall-sown wheat even as hunters and their dogs trample fields underfoot. The image poignantly anticipates Vavilov’s own fate a decade later as a victim of Stalin’s purges: “…the winter wheat will suffer from their wild fun” while the stream ever “passes by the mill.”

“One Dinner” with Palouse Heritage and the Inland Northwest Food Network

INWFN.png

Founder Teri McKenzie of the Inland Northwest Food Network is passionate about health and heritage! Since establishing the organization five years ago in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area, she has spearheaded dozens of events across the region to promote local agrarian economies through farm-to-table dinners, seed swaps, and cooking classes. Her friendship with my brother and Palouse Colony Farm co-founder, Don Scheuerman, led to a wonderful evening last month at Spokane’s acclaimed Ruin’s Restaurant for the Inland Northwest Food Network's monthly "One Dinner" featuring Palouse Heritage. We arrived right on time but were lucky to find a seat so were grateful we had made reservations. All the folks at our table were “Ruin’s Regulars” from the city who enjoyed hearing Don talk about life on the farm and the nutritional benefits of heritage grains.

Chef Tony Brown crafted an incredible menu of eight small plates paired with specialty drinks, which more than enough for the hearty appetites present around our table. Among my favorites were the farro risotto with white miso and crumbled cheese, Shaun Thompson-Duffy’s Culture Breads made with our Palouse Heritage Crimson Turkey wheat flour, and those incredible pulled pork sliders! My wife, Lois, raved about the braised beef and barley with sweet potato, and we both loved the rye bread pudding Tony devised with huckleberry curd and custard. Should have asked for that recipe! Since my German paternal grandmother made the most delicious rye bread while Norwegian maternal Grandma Peterson made every dessert possible out of huckleberries she loved to gather, I suppose I come by passion for Tony’s bread pudding naturally. Topping off our wondrous evening was Bellwether Brewing’s Smoked Palouse ESB made with our Scots Bere heritage barley malt.  

Something else we found interesting at our tables were colorful handouts listing “15 Reasons to Eat Locally Grown Grain.” Here are a few of the entries:

Local grains taste better. Farmers grow a diverse variety of wheat and other grains, and these products travel a more direct path from the field to your pantry. Without the conventional additives, local grains have more interesting flavor profiles and taste better.

Supporting local grains rebuild regional food systems and the regional economy. In addition to the on-farm jobs they support, local grains require processing, storage, and distribution. This means more regional-scale infrastructure and jobs in these facilities. It also paves the way to create other regional food infrastructure for products like meat, pickled and processed goods, and more.

Nothing makes truly “artisan” bread like truly artisan grains. Bakers using regional grains are constantly innovating to celebrate the diverse flavors and characteristics of local grains, creating a richer array of products.

 

You can cook it, bake it, and brew it.

Because the “staff of life” should be local too.

Bread is agriculture! And so is beer, cake, and granola.

 

“Tasting the Grain” at the 2018 Cascadia Grains Conference in Olympia

TasteTheGrain.png

In recent weeks with the slower pace at the farm during colder weather we’ve turned our attention to a series of special events featuring our Palouse Heritage grain flours. Having participated in every Cascadia Grains Conference that the Jefferson County Extension Service has held in Olympia for the past five years, we were honored again this past January to present at the “Taste the Grain” dinner held at historic Schmidt House. The mansion was built a century ago in Colonial Revival style for the founders of Olympia Brewing and was an ideal setting for us to sample the array of breads and brews provided by Rob Salvino at Seattle’s Damsel & Hopper Bakeshop, South Sound Community College Culinary Science chefs Kelly McLaughlin and Isaac Gillett, and Copperworks Distillery.

  Puget Sound Community College “Palouse Heritage” Chefs

Puget Sound Community College “Palouse Heritage” Chefs

Since my task was simply to tell stories about the various heritage grains and heartily sample the many courses, I far and away had the most pleasant role for what was a wonderful evening. County extension personnel and conference organizers Lara Lewis and Aba Kiser skillfully handled the many logistics since we were spread across the state, and thanks to Rob, Kelly, and Isaac’s special talents the capacity crowd had an incredibly delicious menu. (Among the many guests was our special Palouse Colony Farm artist friend from Washington, D. C., Katherine Nelson. I will follow this post with another about her life and work.)

Below is the dinner menu we formulated for the evening, and for the first time we included a series of pairings featuring craft brews and distilled products. Of course we can’t guarantee that you’d find these offered on the bill of fare at famed The Spar in downtown Olympia during the periods specified, but there are historical reasons for these combinations.

 

 1. 1820s-1850s: Fur Trade and Frontier Era

Smoked beef brisket with blue cheese and lavender honey on rosemary crackers made with Palouse Heritage Sonoran Gold wheat flour / Paired with Top Rung’s My Dog Scout Stout

 

2. Pork Belly Crostini: Candied pork belly with leek strata, roasted tomato, and mascarpone on charred crostini made with Palouse Heritage Sonoran Gold wheat flour / Paired with Copperworks Whiskey

 

3. 1860s-1870s: Northwest Pioneering and Townbuilding

Salted maple, apple, and mascarpone galette made with Palouse Heritage Empire Orange and Crimson Turkey wheat flours / Paired with Fremont Brewing’s Universale Pale Ale

 

4. Chili Lime Prawns: Colossal prawns, arugula, chili, lime, chive, basalmic caviar and barley tuile using Palouse Heritage Purple Egyptian barley flour

 

5. 1890s-1910s: Waves of Immigrants and Golden Grains

Focaccia di Recco and crispy pancetta made with Palouse Heritage Crimson Turkey wheat flour, rosemary, Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, and 4 cheeses / Paired with Ghost Fish IPA

 

6. Gin and Tonic Tart: Lemon egg tart using Palouse Heritage Turkey Red wheat flour with gin and tonic simple syrup using Sandstone Stonecarver Gin

 

Thanks again Rob, Lara, Aba, Kelly, Isaac, and Olympia historian Don Prosper for such a marvelous event!

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 3)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


Grey’s novel relates the tragic end of protagonist Kurt Dorn’s father, Chris, who collapses while fighting a crop fire. While recovering from the loss and challenge of bringing in his grain from the field, Kurt is unexpectedly greeted by “a wonderful harvest scene.” Neighbors from all around his home gather for a grand threshing bee to complete the harvest. Grey cleverly uses this special “American” event—commonly seen in rural areas for families in distress, to describe the complicated and labor-intensive process of grain harvesting operations in an era of horse- and steam-power. Kurt arose to see “the glaring gold of the wheat field… crisscrossed everywhere with bobbing black streaks of horses—bays, blacks, whites, and reds; by big, moving painted machines, lifting arms and puffing straw; by immense wagons piled high with sheaves of wheat, lumbering down to the smoking engines and the threshers….” Few other novelists provide such colorful and detailed narration of the harvesting sequence from cutting by combine and reaper to threshing and hauling the year’s precious yield to storage:

First Kurt began to load bags of wheat, as they fell from the whirring combines…. For his powerful arms a full bag, containing two bushels, was like a toy for a child. With a lift and a heave he threw a bag into a wagon. They were everywhere, these brown bags, dotting the stubble field, appearing as if by magic in the wake of the machines. They rolled off the platforms.

…From that he progressed to a seat on one of the immense combines, where he drove twenty-four horses. No driver there was any surer than Kurt of his aim with the little stones he threw to spur a lagging horse. …[H]e liked the shifty cloud of fragrant chaff, now and then blinding and choking him; and he liked the steady, rhythmic tramps of hooves and the roaring whir of the great complicated machine. It fascinated him to see the wide swath of nodding wheat tremble and sway and fall, and go sliding up into the inside of that grinding maw, and come out, straw and dust and chaff, and a slender stream of gold filling the bags.

  A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910,   Palouse Heritage Collection

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910, Palouse Heritage Collection

With the successful completion of harvest providing payment on the farm’s mortgage (Kurt sought no favors from Lenore’s sympathetic landlord father) and resolution of further WWI turmoil, young Dorn finally feels free to enlist in the army. Following basic training in the East, he is transported to the front lines in France where he experiences the brutalities of war. Grey paints the ugliness of battle in vivid terms that also express the wastefulness of violent conflict. While an ardent patriot who decried foreign aggression, Grey also uses dialogue and description to relate the horrific long-term consequences of war for survivors frequently overlooked in contemporary press accounts. The injuries Dorn incurs going over the top of a trench amidst machine-gun fire, panic, gas-shelling, and bombardment nearly end his life. The scene is less heroic than nauseous in “pale gloom, with spectral forms,” and death. He returns home as a broken man haunted by hideous dreams and devoid of hope for the future. Once again the abiding power of love and land shown through Lenore in their native fields of Columbia grain bring forth meaning and restoration:

Then clearly floated to him a slow sweeping rustle of the wheat. Breast-high it stood down there, outside his window, a moving body, higher than the gloom. That rustle was the voice of childhood, youth, and manhood, whispering to him, thrilling as never before. …The night wind bore it, but life—bursting life was behind it, and behind that seemed to come a driving and mighty spirit. Beyond the growth of the wheat, beyond its life and perennial gift, was something measureless and obscure, infinite and universal.

Suddenly he saw that something as the breath and the blood and the spirit of wheat—and of man. Dust and to dust returned they might be, but this physical form was only the fleeting inscrutable moment on earth, spring up, giving birth to seed, dying out for that ever-increasing purpose which ran through the ages.

With the completion of The Desert of Wheat in 1918 and lucrative contracts from Harper’s for future works, Grey and his wife, Dolly, relocated from Pennsylvania to southern California in 1920 and acquired a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival mansion near Pasadena. He had long been an avid outdoorsman, and his financial success led to worldwide fishing expeditions and support of conservation efforts. Although one of America’s most prominent authors, Grey had still harbored doubts about his continued capacity for creative writing. But the recent Western travels and popular acclaim for The Desert of Wheat fostered renewed commitment and a turning point in his career. His journal entry of February 16, 1918 records, “…[M]y study and passion shall be directed to that which I have already written best—the beauty and color and mystery of great spaces, of the open, of Nature and her wild moods.”

The commercial success of Grey’s books led in 1920 to his formation of a motion picture company, Zane Grey Productions. The company released a silent movie version of The Desert of Wheat which played in theatres nationwide as Riders of the Dawn. He eventually sold the company to Paramount Studios but continued writing short stories novels for the rest of his life and consulted for later Hollywood productions of dozens of films based on his books.

  Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from  Starry Night  (2016)

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from Starry Night (2016)

The Desert of Wheat also inspired Paxton Farrar’s award-winning 2016 short film Starry Night funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Farrar cited “the vastness of the landscapes” and “melancholic romance that permeates the land” as important cinematic influences. In Farrar’s presentation the main character is a young woman who seeks escape from small town life  to pursue her passion to become an astronomer. The film’s starlit scenes evoke young Dorn’s evening soliloquy as he surveys the cosmos and expresses an eloquent philosophy of life uncharacteristic of a Western novel: “Material things—life, success—such as had inspired Kurt Dorn, on this calm night lost their significance and were seen clearly. They could not last. But the wheat there, the hills, the stars—they would go on with their task. …[S]elf-sacrifice, with its mercy, succor, its seed like the wheat, was as infinite as the stars.” Whether returning to familiar Southwest scenes and frontier action for new novels, or while sailing to the South Pacific, Grey’s time on the Columbia Plateau left a favorable and enduring impression.

 

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 2)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


The setting of Grey’s novel blends both actual places of the Columbia Plateau like Spokane, Connell, and Kahlotus, with fictitious communities that include sufficient geographical description to suggest likely locations—Ruxton in Golden (Walla Walla) Valley, Neppel (Moses Lake), and Glencoe (Pasco). Grey also references the work of notable agriculturalists like Frederick D. Heald at the State Agricultural College (present-day WSU) and Experiment Station in Pullman. Grey’s original version, now in the Library of Congress, also mentioned the communities of Ritzville, Odessa, and Marlin. Subsequent insight by local historians regarding the book’s principal families also shed interesting light on the influence of particular individuals and farms. Grey is known to have visited areas in Franklin,  Adams, and Whitman Counties in 1917, and comparison of the writer’s itinerary with the Dorns’ and Andersons’ various travels in the book suggest composite figures drawn from families in the vicinity of Wheeler, Connell, Hooper, and Walla Walla.

  The Anderson-Owsley House and Farm Today

The Anderson-Owsley House and Farm Today

Much of the book’s action takes place at the Anderson-Dorn farm, a place of Grey’s imagination but likely modeled in part on a ranch owned in 1917 by R. F. Anderson and located approximately nine miles south of Connell. The property was later owned by the Kenneth Owsley family. Connell had been platted in 1883 as “Palouse Junction” for a spur of the main Northern Pacific transcontinental line that tapped the fertile Palouse Hills grain district to the east. Later named Connell for a railroad official and pioneer resident, the town had long served as an important grain storage and transfer point with substantial timbered flathouses along the rail line for storing sacked grain, a thriving main street business district, and local newspaper, the Connell Tribune-Register.

The tableland surrounding the Anderson farm presented Grey with a stunning vista with Oregon’s Blue Mountains to the east and flaming sunsets beyond the grass- and sage-covered Horse Heaven and Frenchman Hills rising in the west. The farmstead included a two-story main house that remains on the site and substantially conforms to Grey’s description of the Dorn home, numerous outbuildings, crenelated water tower and windmill, and a 60´ x 110´ barn that enormous even by Big Bend standards. The property was situated along the area’s principal north-south “Central Washington Road” and had served in earlier days as a way-station for stage coaches who tended and exchanged teams of horses in the large barn.

  Pat Boyer, “E. T. Thompson Threshing Outfit” Mural,   City of Connell, Washington

Pat Boyer, “E. T. Thompson Threshing Outfit” Mural, City of Connell, Washington

According to local tradition, Grey stayed at the Anderson place in mid-July to visit with area farmers and experience harvest field labors firsthand. During the time of his visit to the area, the Tribune-Register reported on the commencement of field operations: “Harvest has begun already and will be in full swing here by the middle of next week. While the hot, dry weather has interfered somewhat with the later grain crop, the fields which matured earlier are in splendid condition and promise a good yield” (July 20, 1917). Ezra Thompson farmed land adjacent to the Anderson spread  in 1917 and a photograph of his horse-pulled combine taken in the Twenties shows the kind of threshing equipment Grey described in the novel. The picture was recently transformed into a colorful City of Connell building mural by Pullman artist Pat Boyer.

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 1)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


For many years I kept a copy of Zane Grey’s novel, The Desert of Wheat (1919), on my bookshelf. I confess it was mostly there because the title had piqued my hope that the famed Western author might have once turned his attention away from Southwestern cowboys to farmers in the Northwest. A few pages into the book confirmed its setting to be on the Columbia Plateau. But encounters on its opening pages with “motor-cars” and labor organizers led me to set it aside in favor of what I thought might be more interesting reads. Only in recent weeks did I return to the book after realizing that Grey had composed it amidst the convolutions of American involvement in World War one hundred years ago. So I pulled it off the shelf again and this time found myself immersed transported through compelling prose to a remarkable time that I found had high relevance to many issues of our present day.

Best-selling author and conservationist Zane Grey (1872-1939) is considered the father of the modern Western novel. He wrote eighty books with nine selling over 100,000 copies in their year of initial publication, including the quintessential Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) which became a million-seller. Even today sales of his many works typically reach 500,000 copies annually. Grey’s novels and some 300 short stories were known for idealizing the American frontier spirit with archetypal characters inhabiting moral landscapes who exemplified the Code of the West—integrity, friendship, loyalty. British poet John Masefield and Ernest Hemingway considered his writing praiseworthy and others compared allegorical storylines laden with struggle and mystery to the ancient Beowulf saga and Star Wars science fiction trilogy. Though some critics found Grey’s plots to be formulaic, several of his works ventured beyond worlds inhabited by cowboys and desperados to explore contemporary issues, and human influence on landscapes.

  Zane Grey’s  The Desert of Wheat  first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of  The Country Gentleman

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Grey and his wife, Dolly, journeyed from their home in Pennsylvania to the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1917 and traveled through eastern Washington in July. That same tumultuous month Alexander Kerensky was named premier of the Russian provisional government after revolutionaries toppled the Romanov monarchy, and a major German World War I counter-offensive commenced on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Grey closely followed world events through newspaper reports sought to incorporate their impact on American national life into his writing. He had been encouraged by The Country Gentleman editor Benton Currie to compose an agrarian-themed story for serialization the following year.

  Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915,   Washington State Historical Society

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

While attending a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in July at Spokane’s opulent Davenport Hotel, Grey and A. Duncan Dunn, regent of the state’s agricultural school in Pullman, discussed the plight of the region’s farmers since Northwest grain markets and labor unrest seemed highly related to unfolding international events. Inspired in part by events in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) sought to organize itinerant harvest laborers throughout the wheatlands in order to hold out for raises from two to three dollars for a customary ten-hour day of intense physical labor tending the annual threshing operations. The Wobblies were strongly opposed by farmers on economic grounds, and many throughout the country considered their socialist leanings a threat the moral and political order. The inland Pacific Northwest was also heavily populated by immigrant farmers of German ancestry from central Europe and Russia. Grey’s story would also explore the tensions within families and communities created by complex relationships between heritage and nationalism.

  Zane Grey,  The Desert of Wheat  Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Grey’s “The Desert of Wheat” would first appear in several installments of The Country Gentleman in the spring of 1918, and Harper’s published the first of numerous printings in book form in 1919.  His earlier works had been known for vivid descriptions of action and environment, as well as respectful inclusion of Native Americans and minority cultures. This new work appealed to both reviewers and the general public, and opened with lines inspired by his summertime journey across the Columbia Plateau’s vast farming district:  “Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills…. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth.”

  Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,”  Country Gentleman Magazine  (May 14, 1918)

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Through dialogue about Bluestem and Turkey Red wheats and rattling threshers under the hot harvest sun, the story lauds the hard work and struggles of taciturn Kurt Dorn, son of an elderly German immigrant farmer. Young Dorn faces drought, blight, and the elements in order to support his father, and experiences World War I prejudice and rural labor strife. Although Grey’s characters are not typically prone to mystical reflection, Dorn and protagonist love interest, Lenore Anderson, ponder the significance of change in their own relationship, his  enlistment and brutal experience of European battle, and deeper meanings of wartime damage to culture and conviction. As do few other books in Grey’s considerable corpus, The Desert of Wheat exemplifies his lifelong compulsion to express “Love of life, love of youth, [and] love of beauty.” Dorn and Anderson’s dialogue further attest to the wastefulness of war and Grey’s own ambivalence over conceptions of patriotism and heroism. Literary historian Christine Bold characterizes Lenore Anderson as the personification of humanity’s spiritual core—a “Western version of Ceres,” and like waving heads of grain frequently described she symbolizes renewal amidst an odyssey of life, loss, and land.