When I was in junior high, I worked for awhile for an elderly rancher and his wife who lived a couple of miles outside of town on a very small ranch. Along with the small herd of cattle you would expect on a Montana ranch, they also kept chickens and rabbits, and one milk cow that that they milked by hand. On days I worked there, they fed me. A staple of the meal was ice-cold, fresh milk with globules of fat still floating in it, which I loved.
They had a big garden behind the house that I would help to plant and weed, and a small field that they would hay for the beef cows, the milk cow, and two mules. They used the mules to plow, move stumps, to pull the hay wagon, and to plow the garden.
One spring, after hooking up the plow and the mules, the rancher turned to me. “You want to give it a try?” I had walked behind and next to him before. He had explained the process and so I was excited to give it a try. It was hard work and my shoulders and back hurt like hell. He walked next to me while I worked, giving advice, saying nothing critical about my crooked furrows and uneven depths. Later, after driving me back home, he must have re-plowed the part of the field that I did that afternoon because two weeks later when he picked me up to help him with fence work, that part of the field looked the same as the rest: furrows straight as a ruler, deep and black.
The first time I read “Follower” by Seamus Heaney, I thought of that day I tried my own hand (and shoulder) at plowing and those long-ago summer days working at an old-time ranch. Heaney’s poem, of course, is about much more than that. The fact that it is about following behind his father who is doing the plowing is indication enough of that.
The language and images of “Follower” are yet another example of why Heaney is our greatest living poet. Its resonant reminiscence is true to the best Heaney poem.
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.