The Mephisto Waltz & The Planter's Paradox April 08 2017


Do I keep dancing with the devil or is it time to change partners?

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

I swing into an easy cadence down the gravel road.

Hut, twarp, threep, fourp.
Your left, your left, your left, right, left.

It's down in my DNA now - a dismounted drill from half a century ago.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch – a steady four miles per hour – my head on a 300 degree swivel taking it all in. There’s that big potato field on the right and the camelina and hay stacks coming up on the left.

Alles in ordnung.

Everything  in order and in its place - the sun playing hide and seek with clouds – the snowy ranges in the distance and a chill breeze from the west – a perfect spring morning.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

 Waiiit a minute

A discordant note registers in my brain.

What are those white blobs in the field to the left? It looks just like snow residue but  the snow in the valley floor went out a couple of weeks ago.

I slow down and move closer to investigate. It sure looks like snow but its not melting. There’s a blob right there on the road.

By now alarms are going off in my head because this is Big-Ag country on steroids, even though I had thought it was too early in the year for poison.

Carefully, I approach the white blob.

No apparent smell but that doesn’t mean anything. Nerve gas is odorless.

I gingerly poke the blob with a rock and see that it is a resilient white foam with staying power.

How long has it been here? How did it get here?

By now my awareness has ratcheted from yellow to orange and is scanning for active threats. There is a tattered aircraft boundary flag for crop dusters on a pole ahead. There are no aircraft within sight or hearing - but fresh heavy truck tracks veer off into the field just before the haystacks.

Moving real fluidly now with a routine stream-of-consciousness EDC gear check.

G19 AIWB with spare mag. Yep, still secure. Small bear spray in right jacket pocket. Yep, still secure. SOG Aegis folder clipped inside right front pant pocket. Yep, still secure.

Yes, all secure - for all the good it will do me if I get caught up in some kind of inadvertent chemical attack.

I keep moving with a sardonic chuckle.

You never know when some meth-addled farm hand will do something crazy.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Nothing unusual here. Just an old guy dressed like everybody else out for a morning walk- a part of the landscape.

Then I saw it.

A large vehicle parked  behind the hay stack.

It looked almost like a concrete truck with a chute sticking off to one side and painted a non-descript green with a circular logo on the door: “Agricultural Services, Inc”

Well, here we go. Never miss a beat.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

I can see the driver. He is slumped over in his seat deeply absorbed with something and oblivious to my presence.

Ha! He’s looking at an electronic device.

I continue up the road like the most natural thing in the world completely invisible just like standing quietly in plain sight ten feet off the trail in the mountains as a whole troop passes by never detecting my presence.

Digital zombies lost in an analog world – the natural world- the real world.

I am committed now as I head on pass the big pivot on the right and the potato field extending to the horizon. The pivot has a sign informing me that it is GPS directed.

So far so good.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Then comes the faint but unmistakable sound of heavy machinery ahead. I get a flashback to the unmistakable sound of tank treads. No matter how faint the sound - for the ground-pounder in open terrain, if you can hear tank treads you know they are too close and it sends a chill into your soul.

The rule to staying alive is to always see  “them”  before they see you - whoever or whatever “them” may be.

I lighten up on the foot crunches and sure enough behind the screen of cottonwoods in the last small field before the ridge I see movement at 400 yards ahead. A huge piece of equipment is moving quickly back and forth. I could tell that it would make short work of that field. I was on a dead-end road and there was only one way out. 

Time to “about face!”

I did a quick 180 and headed back the way I came. Only a 1000 yards to go- a little over  half a mile on a one lane country road.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch

Now I knew why the road was built up with a good well-drained gravel base. It had to support heavy machinery-think long trucks full of GMO potatoes and chemical tanks to feed the pivot plus semi-trucks to haul the GMO alfalfa in the big square bales to feed the Black Angus herds out in the county.

The scale of the operation was impressive - the totally mechanized green-revolution at its apex. The fields had been mono-cropped for decades. Crop dusters applied pesticides, fungicides and glyphosate right on schedule. I heard that last year for the first time in this area, a serious potato disease had been discovered right before harvest.

The crop dusters came out again and doubled-down with the appropriate poison. Then, the harvested potatoes were directly sprayed again as they came down the conveyer in the processing facility. The growers could not afford to lose their “certified” disease-free status, you see, so drastic measures had to be employed.

The uproar behind me got louder and I knew the driver had finished up and was headed my way taking up all the road and then some.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Maintaining the same steady pace, when I figured he was 40 yards back, I stepped off the road into the potato field and glanced over my shoulder. Yep, there it was like some diesel-belching antediluvian monster, with two long sprayer wings folded up along its body on each side. 

The driver roared past as we both gave a wave of the hand just like it used to be in the old days when there were so few people in Montana that you greeted everyone you passed with a neighborly wave. You went about your business on your own land and outside of family you might not see another person until you went into town next month to re-supply.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Back on the road now. That hand wave led me into a familiar rant down one corridor of my mind.

Montana - the last frontier in the lower 48 until the yuppie invasions. They came here because it was, well, it was Montana, The Last Best Place. Then, they immediately set out to re-make it into the hell-holes they came from. Screw 'em.

The monster machine turning off the road at the hay stack brought me out of my rumination. He joined his buddy sitting in the foam dispensing truck for a short confab and then roared off  on some tangent and started to methodically work over the foamed field in what appeared to be a  GPS guided grid.

Well, I wonder what kind of binary cocktail they are serving up this early in the season. Looks like those old boys are gonna have one last dance with the devil.

Hey, it works for them –  a new $60,000 pickup with a big house on the hill – kids out of college and scattered on the wind - dead men driving a dead end road, It's all they've ever known.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Still a fine day.

The gabble of returning geese and the raucous cries of sand-hill cranes waft up from the river. A shaft of sunlight illuminates a snow squall moving across the valley.

Stimulated by the four-step cadence, the opening bars of a fiddle tune came floating through the ethers of my mind.

When did I last hear that? Oh I remember. It was those old geezers at the picnic – that community picnic at the end of summer maybe fifteen years ago at the old ranch house by the crick that still ran clear and cold as it tumbled down through a gap in the mountains.

The tables of food spread under the gnarled cottonwoods were pretty well ravished after the third and fourth helpings of Bar-BQed ribs, fried chicken, potato salad and all the fixings. Kids were running around throwing the last watermelon rinds at each other. The grownups had settled back contentedly in  conversation with their friends and neighbors as the shadows began to lengthen into the mellow Sunday evening.

A broken-down, leathery cowboy of an indistinguishable age opened up a battered violin case. On que four crusty codgers with weathered boots, jeans, hats and clean go-to-Sunday-meeting shirts took out their instruments and started to tune-up.

Ruthie Mae had invited them.

Ruthie Mae grew up in the community and started taking formal violin lessons when she was five. She diverted from her classical training a few years ago and starting playing Bluegrass. Lord knows where she found these guys. They looked like they had brought the first Longhorns from Texas to Montana Territory and then played saloons and dance-halls for a hundred years.

The lead fiddle raised his bow and the first notes of that plaintive melody floated into the evening air. “Faded Love” it was - lovely and unforgettable to the present hour.

(That was way before YouTube but these guys in a garage catch a flavor of that old rendition: naturally unslick and unproduced.)

“The Tennessee Waltz got people up and dancing and the music continued into the night with an amazing repetoir. They knew all the old songs.


Next year Ruthie Mae ran off to Idaho with a twenty-something-year old cowboy her own age. That picnic was the last time I saw any of them but the music never left.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Almost  back where I started.

It's an old, old theme of deep human nature and terminal hubris– the Faustian or Mephistophelean Bargain that surfaces repeatedly from antiquity through art and literature. The fool always thinks, "Surely I am smart enough, wise enough to make a deal with the devil and beat him at his own game. For riches, acclaim, the comfortable life that I have worked so hard for and now deserve, I will sign this note for a future claim on my soul and substance. Surely I can pay it off or strike another bargain.”

And thus the dance begins.

As I recollect, The Mephisto-Waltz was written by Saint-Saens, the 19th Century French composer. He claimed that the devil came to him in a dream and offered the piece to him. Saint-Saens awoke, remembered the composition and wrote it down.

Pretty horrible as far as I'm concerned – atonal, dissonate, piece of crap-a whole cult of followers and imitators grew up around it– an entire school of music.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Here we are. Made it back.


“Hi Dad. How was your walk?

“Pretty good, darlin. Beautiful Spring morning. The birds are singing and the mountains are shining.”

I took off my hat and sat down at the kitchen table before continuing,

“I sure enjoyed the visit. Glad I could get those water filters installed in your kitchen and shower. You can't trust the well water here.”

“I know it. Thank you, Dad. Promise me you will come back soon?"

“I will when I can. It's getting busy with the seed business – planting time now in the southern states and a couple of months later here – probably the second or third week of May the way it looks now.”

“I hope we have enough seed," she says, a worried smile on her face.

“We'll see. By the way, in regard to the last piece we did on Gabe Brown and the paradigm shift to healthy production agriculture, do you think Big Ag can ever be changed to where they stop poisoning people?”

“That's a rhetorical and theoretical question and a leading one at that," she grins, "What do you think, Dad?”

“I know I will never get the last word with my daughter but someone you respect had a good answer. Your first love was theoretical physics. Right?”

“OK, go on," she answers, "I think I know where you are going with this.”

“Remember when Max Planck the originator of quantum physics was famously asked how long it would take for the new physics to be accepted by the science establishment and he responded that  'it seldom happens on the road to Emmaus where Saul becomes Paul in a sudden transformation of light.'?

"Oh Dad, another one of your little games, you know that I know something about Max Planck. Let's be more precise." She reaches over to the bookshelf and pulls out a well-worn copy of Bartlett's Quotations and reads from a book-marked passage:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” — Max Planck

I paraphrase in rusty German, "Die Wahrheit triumphiert nie, ihre Gegner sterben nur aus, or Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out. More loosely translated as Science advances one funeral at a time."

My daughter nods in agreement, a grim smile on her face. "Unfortunately, it's true."

“G'bye Sweetie. I have to get over the pass before dark.”