Land-Grant Livin'

November 5, 2010


If you plotted our town on one of those vintage maps that show important products, we’d be an ear of corn, a fat green soybean, and a little black mortarboard. Even within the perimeter of the campus, we have farms for teaching and research. On one of these, a dairy farm of 200 cows, we are living out our destiny as a land-grant institution.

Land-grant institutions, you will remember, came into being under the Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Tracts of land were granted to loyal states; the state could sell the acreage to raise funds to establish a university. Land-grant universities were required to teach mechanical arts (engineering), agriculture, and, in a nod to the desperate reality of the Civil War, military tactics.

In the early days of our university, the student brigade rolled out its cannon and practiced artillery on the central quadrangle. When called to the Somme, they went. And now, once again, in our sleepy town, you can hear the booming sound of cannon fire.

The first night the booms woke me I figured that I had been reading too much nineteenth-century French history and had a very bad case of Napoleon on the brain. Once he settles in, he’s a bear to get rid of. But my husband grumpily assured me that I hadn’t imagined it. Someone was firing a large gun on our campus.

The neighbors had theories:

(1) Frat boys setting off fireworks. The originator of this theory grew up here, which is why he assumes that any nighttime phenomenon that can’t be otherwise explained must be caused by fraternities.

But frat boys, although they do operate inside a highly structured and hierarchical institution, don’t set off their fireworks at regular intervals.

(2) “Firing to get rid of the Canada geese,” my husband theorized. “There are too many of them around the ponds.” But weren’t the Canada geese sleeping at night?

At a dinner party that night our host admitted he was exhausted. Early in the morning he had finally called 911 and complained.

We all leaned forward. So what is it?

His eyes twinkled. “You know all those cows? And think of all the methane they produce… .” The university, the 911 operator had explained, responsibly trying to keep all that hot methane out of the biosphere, had installed a machine that processed the methane with a loud bang. Unfortunately the timer had malfunctioned and that was why it had gone off all night rather than during the day.

“University flatulence,” he chuckled. “We should have known.”

I liked all these theories. I pictured the frat boys setting off fireworks at timed intervals (they would probably have an app on their cellphones to keep track), the geese going elsewhere (good riddance!), and the methane from the dairy cows exploding with a bang. But like many appealing theories of ordinary life, all three were wrong.

The university once again has a cannon. And on that modest dairy farm, our land grant mission, our very destiny -- agriculture, military tactics, and engineering -- has finally come together to defend our land-granted soil. And just in time, too. The enemy is massed all around, lined up on the wires, waiting to attack. Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce?

For the last two years flocks of crows have swooped down and pecked through the enormous rolls of corn stored in heavy plastic, causing rot and spoilage. Storing the feed corn for the coming year in giant plastic rolls is efficient and economical. Each plastic roll holds the equivalent of a sixty-foot silo and needs no maintenance. The farm tried netting over the plastic but the crows pecked through it. They tried poisoning, but neighbors complained about the crows keeling over in their yards, and the cruelty. So this year they have purchased a propane-powered nuisance cannon. At intervals it sets off a sonic boom of over one hundred decibels. Normally it goes off at random, regular intervals all day long. It went off all that sleepless night because someone forgot to turn it off.

Napoleon said that it was with artillery that you wage war and win battles. How he would have loved the university’s 21st-century weapon, the propane cannon. So portable! Blue and yellow plastic, a lightweight tripod, and 17,000 detonations from one small tank of fuel. Its only projectile is that now-familiar sonic boom. At least for now, the crows are in retreat.


Carol Spindel is an instructor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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