MY FRIENDS CAN READ IT FOR FREE. (Excerpt #7 from The Harvest of Reason). As usual, the drive took about two and a half hours and they arrived at Hancock Experiment Station around nine o’clock. They split up as the Pinkerton crew headed for their own plots and Maddie went to work in Dr. Gates’ plots. However, as their fields were adjoining, John was able to keep an eye on her in the distance all morning. READ MORE

(if you’re here for the first time look at the excerpts 1-6 in earlier posts)

As usual, the drive took about two and a half hours and they arrived at Hancock Experiment Station around nine o’clock. They split up as the Pinkerton crew headed for their own plots and Maddie went to work in Dr. Gates’ plots. However, as their fields were adjoining, John was able to keep an eye on her in the distance all morning.

Gauzy clouds hung low in the blue sky. The rows of eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks decades ago bordered the fields geometrically and reached up to touch that sky. Whenever he glanced across the field Maddie was busy wielding a hoe between bean rows. He never saw her take a break; she seemed determined to complete the job. He wished he could say the same for his own crew. Jiang and Lao Chu were working, but there was no end to Pete and Dave’s goofing off. They had no concept of pulling their own weight. They hit the water jug at every turn in the field. When harvest time rolled around things were not going to be easy.

At lunchtime they stopped to pick up Maddie and drove back to the station. They sat on the grass under the shade of the tall trees to eat. Jiang and Lao Chu gravitated to their own spot, while Pete and Dave chose another tree. This left John to keep Maddie company. There was a comfortable silence between them, of two people who had worked and sweated all morning and were pausing for a deserved rest.

He saw, out of the corner of his eye, the fat black ant crawling up the blade of grass. Maddie’s leg was resting on the ground. That bare expanse, from her khaki shorts down to her boots, was vulnerable. He’d never known workman’s boots could look so sexy on a woman. It was the very contrast of something feminine and something worn and rough. He spotted a second ant the same moment she screeched.

“Oh! Ants! This place is crawling with them!” She searched the area around herself in a panic.

“Oh c’mon! It’s just one little ant.”

“Just one! There’s tons of them!”

“That kind doesn’t bite.”

“I don’t care!” She jumped up, “Do I have any on me?” she turned around slowly for inspection.

“No, you’re all right,” he murmured, swallowing hard. “Here! You can sit over here,” he moved over to make room beside him.

She brought her backpack and sat with her back to the trunk of the tree.

John was dealing with his emotions and would have been content to continue in this quiet vein, except for the fact that Pete and Dave were laughing at some joke. He wasn’t sure what they were talking about but he didn’t want to run the risk of her overhearing them.

“So, how are you getting along in Anderson’s class?” he asked.

“Oh, all right,” Maddie replied. “We’ve formed a study group. Lisa, Emily Mbasa, Alex Vieira, Said Farhadi and myself.”

“For what purpose exactly?” he asked, taking a sip from his can.

Maddie looked up, puzzled. “To review the material, quiz each other, help each other over the rough spots. That kind of thing.”

“I see.”

Maddie now frowned. “Haven’t you ever participated in a study group?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Can’t say I ever felt the need.”

Maddie stared open-mouthed. He’d never felt the need, he said. It was a remark that made her launch into a diatribe of justification. “Well, it’s not just about what you can get, you know; sometimes it’s about what you can give. I mean, some of these foreign students are still really struggling with the language barrier; but beyond that they’re brilliant. They’re the cream of the crop, so to speak, in their own country. They have to be, to be sent over here.”

She realized she’d digressed and gotten preachy. “Anyhow,” she continued, “I find that pooling resources with other people is really helpful. It saves time and is actually quite productive.”

He was silent. It was like an unspoken challenge. How could he be so individualistic as to never have needed a study group? And why did he sit there so placidly sipping his pop, not even taking the trouble to defend his point of view.

“Oh, these ants!” She slapped her leg in frustration and then moved her backpack.

“Where?” he asked.

“On the grass! Can’t you see them?”

“No. I don’t see them.” He seemed amused.

She shoved her lunch things into her backpack and got up, stomping. “I’m going to freshen up before we go back out,” she said, and headed for the inside of the station.

As she walked into the building Maddie was still wrestling with the conversation. “For what purpose?” he had asked. For survival, of course! Didn’t everybody need all the help they could get to make it through graduate school? She felt a prickle of annoyance. That was the thing about these white guys that always puzzled her. They appeared never to doubt their own abilities. And they seemed to expect to be at the high end of the bell curve. No crippling self-doubt, no question of whether they were entitled to be here. Just arrogance and individualism come hell or high water. John didn’t even seem to be aware of the conflict in their ideologies. Besides which, he was too good looking for comfort. She had always been suspicious of guys who looked too good.

Back at her bean plots Maddie tried frantically to finish her weeding. Her right arm ached from repeating the same movement over and over, so she switched the hoe to the left hand. This proved awkward so pretty soon she was back to the right hand again.

By two o’clock she was able to put down the hoe to begin surveying her plots for severity of disease infection. She needed to take notes on bacterial blight[i] and BCMV[ii]. It would be very confusing to attempt to rate both diseases at the same time, so she started with bacterial blight. Each row was numbered both in the field and in the field book, as she surveyed each row she wrote down a ranking from 1 to 5. It was really a two-person job, one for taking notes while the other one examined the plants and called out the ratings. If she had been able to come up with Dr. Gates’ crew earlier in the week she would have had a partner to get the job done.

Maddie looked repeatedly at her watch; time seemed to evaporate in the heat of the afternoon. She worked at a steady pace but her mind also sifted through other issues. Disease resistance rating was a subjective skill developed through experience; and she was proud of having learned that skill from masters. She had fond memories of old Dr. Maurice and the whole bean crew at MSU. In fact, she would not have said it to anyone here, but she was homesick. A whole summer had not been long enough to make the adjustment from her friendly alma mater to the impersonal atmosphere of UW. She remembered wistfully the coffee hour in Ag Hall, where the professors all sat around the table telling jokes and grad students drifted in and out to chew the fat. Another neat memory was the Horticulture Garden right behind Ag Hall, planted with dozens of varieties of roses, oodles of different shades of begonias and cascades of multicolored azaleas. A place where one could go lie on the grass at lunchtime and sunbathe.

The UW-Madison campus was beautiful in its own way, and the school had a reputation that ranked it with the Ivy League universities. But the department was not yet a comfortable place to be. One reason was the lack of female faculty members. Also, there were relatively few women grad students and there were absolutely no African Americans anywhere–among the faculty, staff or graduate student body. Maddie sometimes felt that she was an alien among earthlings. She felt that all day she had to speak a foreign language and live up to a male code of behavior.

Last week’s research group meeting had been acutely uncomfortable when she had said she had “an intuitive hunch” about something in her experiment. Dr. Gates said, “Science is conducted on facts and empirical observations. Not on intuition.”

How could she stand up in front of that group and explain the part that intuition had always played in her decisions; how it guided her to develop experimental hypotheses which could be tested; how it influenced her view of agriculture as an interconnected system of plants, insects and pathogens; how she felt that hormones and metabolites never operated in a metabolic vacuum, but rather, in a complex balance which affected the growth and yield of a plant. No—it would be impossible to tell them. She would be considered flaky, and would lose her credibility. All the time she was walking a tight rope.

She was startled out of her introspection by a voice. “How’s it going there?”

She looked up to find John.

“Oh, is it time to go already? My goodness, I can’t believe—”

“Relax, relax,” he said. “We’ve still got another, oh…” he looked at his watch, “half hour. The guys are finishing up and then they’re going to load up the van. I just came over to see if there’s anything I can help you with.”

She stared for a split second. His T-shirt was stained with sweat, he looked sunburned, she felt sure he would have preferred to sit out and rest if he had some extra time on his hands.

“Thanks,” she said. “You could help me by taking notes. If you’re sure?” she added.

“Yeah. I’m sure,” he said, taking the field book and pencil from her hands. She pointed over his arm to the column for the BCMV rating, unwittingly touching him in the process.

She thought she heard him murmur something under his breath.

“Excuse me?” Maddie glanced back, “Did you say something?”

“Oh no. No.” He shook his head.

She was puzzled.

She walked slowly up and down rows, reading off row numbers, pausing, bending down to examine plants, calling out the ratings. At five o’clock they were finished, and Maddie flashed him a grateful smile.

“I would never have finished if you hadn’t come along,” she said. “It would have taken me three times as long to do it by myself. Thank you!”

For a moment he looked like a schoolboy, who had been given a treat for good behavior.

“Don’t sweat it,” he replied, his manner gruff. He cleared his throat and glanced across the field. “Here they come,” he motioned to the van heading their way.

When the van pulled up they jumped in and headed back to the station to hit the rest-rooms before taking to the road. Maddie washed her face and arms, trying to get off some of the grime, that unpleasant mixture of sweat and dust. She looked at herself in the mirror, her color was high and her tank top was wet and streaked. She took it off and used it to wipe her face and arms, but it was no comfort. The longing for a shower was acute. She fished in her backpack for her reserve shirt.

As they all assembled outside again the same seating arrangement ensued as in the morning, with Maddie and John still slotted for the front seat.

“Aw c’mon,” John pleaded with the two in the middle seat, “One of you guys can drive back, you both have driver’s licenses.”

“No way, man” Dave said, “I need to catch some Z’s.”

John looked in appeal at Pete, who responded by pulling his cap down over his eyes and settling against the window for a nap. He didn’t ask the foreign students; perhaps they didn’t have American licenses. At that moment Maddie sensed a weariness in John. Underneath the irritation he tried not to show she detected a streak of exhaustion. As he turned resignedly toward the driver’s seat, she was struck by the unfairness of the situation and the pettiness of his co-workers. He seemed so much more mature than the others. “I can drive back,” she offered.

John hesitated for a moment; “That’s okay,” he said.

“I have a driver’s license too, you know.” She stressed the point. “And I’m not a bad driver.” she said.

“Well, okay, here you go.” He handed her the keys. “Thanks.”

Maddie got in and turned on the ignition. Slowly, she maneuvered the van out of the station. As they picked up speed her nose began to wrinkle at the thickness of the body odor in the van. A bunch of stinky, dusty guys, she thought. She smiled in the darkness as she drove the van full of sleeping men back to Madison. Would you look at this? Now, which sex would you say has greater endurance, Maddie Hawkins?

She glanced over at a sleeping John, leaning his head against the window, his cap falling in his face, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked quite harmless like that.

[i] Bacterial blight – a disease of beans

[ii] BCMV – the Bean Common Mosaic Virus, a disease of beans.




I’m really interested in your comments.

DISCUSSION QUESTION 7   Is there any place for “intuition” in science?

About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at
This entry was posted in agriculture, chastity, college students, equality, female professors, genetic engineering, genetics, global discussion, graduate school, interracial marriage, John Pitts, Maddie Hawkins, national discussion, plant breeding, race on campus, Uncategorized, University of Wisconsin-Madison, women in science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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