My family started the holidays as we often do — by rising early on Thanksgiving, packing homemade pies as carefully as Fabergé eggs, then driving west to see relatives in Acadiana, a part of Louisiana that boasts some of the richest farmland in the state.
What I like best about the drive is the openness of it. The pastures and fields lie flat as a table, inviting you to see what there is to see. Cows graze like figures in a creche, and without many trees to catch the eye, the horizon looms big for drivers along U.S. 190.
What you see mostly is sky — willow china-blue on bright days, as it was on Thanksgiving morning, but sometimes, especially in late fall and winter, the color of iron.
Even a sunny sky along this drive has an emptiness to it that eventually makes you feel a little empty, too — not desolate, exactly, but somehow smaller and more alone. It’s a kind of prairie country, touched by a largeness that humbles any human presence.
The landscape becomes an exercise in solitude, and this sharpens the pleasure of the end of the trip, which concludes in a driveway as we’re welcomed into the waiting arms of extended family.
After eating too much lunch, I slip out the back door to walk off a few calories, strolling the long rectangle of a sugar cane field just cleared for the season. Harvest time runs at least until Christmas, but this field is done for the year, with only rows of stubble to suggest what used to grow there.
The ground is as blank as next year’s calendar. With the cane gone, I can see every corner of the empty plot, its borders as sharp as the lines of a map.
A smarter eye could measure the field in square feet, tallying up its acreage, but I count the distance instead in calories consumed. By the time I return to the house, I figure I’ve burned off one piece of pie, possibly two.
Everyone should have access to an exercise track along the edges of where food is grown. At the very least, it might renew a connection between eaters and farmers that’s grown fainter over time. For most of our history, many Americans were no more than a generation removed from a farm. My father left such a farm to marry my mother, part of a gradual exodus that emptied the old homestead until it was sold to a real estate developer. Where strawberries once grew, tract houses now stand.
With that evolution, fewer of us will be leaving our holiday tables this season to walk through farmland near the back door.
There’s a lovely line in “A Christmas Carol” when long-suffering Bob Cratchit lauds his employer, Scrooge, as the founder of his holiday feast.
But the real founders of our holiday feasts this month are farmers. In this December, as in other Decembers, they will feed me well — too well, in fact, for my own good.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.