Did you know that among the things that grow really well in northern Maine are potatoes, grain, broccoli and rocks?
Yep, I said rocks.
OK, so the rocks technically don’t start off as small pebbles and then sprout into larger stones. But they are there, under the ground. Every spring, thanks to the workings of frost and cold, a new crop is pushed upward and above the dirt.
Which means as soon as the fields are dry enough to access, farmers are out there picking rocks that could damage machinery used to plow and plant their crops.
Living as I do in the middle of Aroostook County potato country, I hear them every spring.
The rumble of the tractors, the shouts of the people and the hollow, echoing thud of rock after rock tossed into a metal trailer pulled by the tractor.
Once that cart is full, it’s hauled to an existing rock pile and dumped. Or, sometimes, a new location for a new pile is selected.
Either way, it’s been going on for generations. Year after year, rock after rock, these piles have grown in number and size.
There are numerous piles scattered around Rusty Metal Farm, silent monument to the days decades ago when this was a working potato and sheep farm.
I love exploring these piles, because they contain not just rocks.
At some point every farmer has something break down in the field. And for as long as there have been farmers, there have been broken parts tossed aside for newer ones during quick field repairs.
To keep these parts out of the way of moving machines, farmers began tossing these parts on the rock piles. And then adding more rocks on top over the years, followed by more broken parts.
Over time, the rocks grew moss and the old parts started rusting away. Think of it as a sort of rock/machinery compost pile. Only one that composts with glacial speed.
And as the rusty metal content of these piles grew along with rocks, they took on another role — that of emergency supply stations.
I can’t count the times I accompanied my late husband Patrick as he searched for specific, often no longer made, parts for his ancient Massey Ferguson tractor that he could fabricate back into a usable part.
He’d locate a farmer currently using or who had at one time used Masseys and ask if he or she had any spares he could buy.
The farmer would look off into space for a bit doing a silent inventory check, and then inevitably reply, “Yeah, I think there’s one on the rock pile out in the field. Help yourself.”
Off we would go, bouncing down narrow dirt roads running alongside growing potatoes in his old Ford pickup in search of the specified pile.
Once there, we’d hit the pile, Patrick in search of whatever tractor widget he needed, and I in search of rusty treasures.
And let me just say, when it comes to useful widgets and treasure, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Many was the time Patrick would have found what he needed, hauled it back to the truck, replaced the rocks he had moved aside and I’d still be burrowing through the pile in search of something interesting.
Some days Patrick would help me. Other days he’d wander off to inspect the potatoes or look at native plants growing alongside the fields.
Sooner or later, I’d hit paydirt and raise my find high above my head. It could be a horseshoe, a rusty cog or an antique nail.
Patrick would dutifully examine it and then say, “Very nice, can we go now?”
Once home, he’d take my find and hang it for display somewhere in his shop or garage. Man, those were good times.
In later years I learned that these rock piles actually played a part in the area’s field ecosystem.
The piles no longer being added to eventually start growing woody plants and trees, often a hardwood like a poplar or birch tree, even if the dominant species around the fields are mixed softwood fir and spruce.
One theory behind this is that the hardwoods produce seeds with a cover. You’ve probably seen them floating to the ground like tiny winged bugs.
But tiny as they are, they don’t disperse well while airborne.
Once on the ground, and especially if they are shed after the snowfall and that snow is packed down, they blow long distances over the snow, coming to rest up against any obstacle in their path — like a rock pile.
Then, as the snow melts the following spring, they settle down in between the rocks and if there is any available soil at all, sprout and start to grow.
Even in the middle of the woods here on Rusty Metal Farm I find these piles, moss and tree covered and likely long forgotten.
Trees growing around these piles are more than 100 years old, according to the core samples I have taken to count the rings.
Even a century later, you can still see the shallow grooves remaining in the ground that were once cultivated rows of potatoes. Likewise, areas still have pieces of the old cedar fencing used to contain the sheep.
As for those piles? Under all that moss and those rocks, I am pretty sure treasures still lurk.
And really, can you ever have too many rusty widgets on display?