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Oklahoma Agriculture in the Classroom

Songs and Poems

Plowing through Ashes

by Walter McDonald

After frost, grain-sorghum stubble
yellow as wheat
hid pairs of pheasants
scattered on the plains.
Seven, eight times a season
we searched the rows,
shotguns stiff, dogs sniffing ahead,
and took our necessary meat.
After the last snow
we torched the stalks,
the orange flames
spreading like a prairie fire,
covering the fields with soot.
March, after the dirt cooled,
my father plowed the charred
earth brown again,
like flipping a reversible jacket
seam by seam.
Unless it rained, he ditched,
for two weeks irrigated,
and in May
he rigged the tractor up,
lowered four worn plows
into the ground
and planted grain.

Farmers intentionally burn off their fields after harvesting to prepare for the next cycle of crops. The process, called agricultural burning, rids the land of excess straw and stubble. Once the grain is harvested they cut a perimeter of the field, turn the ground up around the perimeter and set the stubble to flames. They monitor the area closely to make sure the fire doesn't hop over the fire break and get into surrounding woods.

About Poet: Walter McDonald

Walter McDonald is an American poet and a long-time resident of Texas. In 2001 he served as poet laureate of Texas.

Frequently concerned with landscape and place, including Texas, McDonald's work is known for its clear, narrative style.

"...when I let down my bucket in a plains region doomed to dry up, I found all sorts of images for poems, ...Every poem is a metaphor of how it feels to someone to be alive at some time, at some place."

McDonald is the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including four Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Discussion and Activities
  1. Circle the words you don't understand and look them up in a dictionary.
  2. Read the poem aloud, one stanza at a time.
  3. Identify the poetic style.
  4. What do you know about the poet from reading the poem?
  5. Explain what is happening in the first stanza.
  6. What does the phrase "took our necessary meat" mean?
  7. What time of year is "after frost?"
  8. Describe what condition the field would be in "after the last snow."
  9. Explain what is happening in the second stanza.
  10. Compare and contrast these phrases: "after frost," "after the last snow," "after the dirt cooled."
  11. How is plowing "like flipping a reversible jacket seam by seam?"
  12. Explain what is happening in the third stanza.
  13. What is the poet's purpose for writing this poem?
  14. What do you know about farming from reading this poem?
  15. Identify any examples of figurative language used in the poem (simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification).
  16. Write a prose version of this poem.
  17. Draw a picture to illustrate a scene from the poem.