Landscape of Youth Remembered

This reminiscence is a brief, wistful journey in a lingering daydream to a natural history of my past that comprises who I am.

Recalling my boyhood on a farm outside a small town in a Minnesota river valley, I walk through its green and amber fields and its verdant woodlands in spring and summer, sitting down and rolling back to “…loaf and invite my soul…lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” with Mr. Whitman.

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With tasseled corn waving in the breeze, the air is filled with the fragrance of freshly cultivated earth, new mowed hay drying in the humid sun, and the pungent aroma of cows and horses in the barn.  Pigs squeal as they play in the mud, and chickens in their roosts cluck away, singing their discordant Song of the Laying of the Egg.

In the forest, the crow, the robin, the wren, and the jay converse as they establish presence and protocols.  In the farmyard, geese and ducks squawk, racing to where their grain is scattered on the ground.  Hawks and eagles keep their vigil from the sky, while the owl from his perch waits silently, blinking his eye lids – three lids per eye – monitoring a mouse bumbling through the leaves on the ground who would soon meet an untimely end.

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Foxes cry on moonlit nights, sounding like a human babies lost in the woods; the wolf plaintively tests the air to see if any brothers or sisters might be in the neighborhood.

Summer provides a natural bounty, with berries of all kinds, plums, apples and cherries to be eaten right off the vine.  We pluck dandelions from the yard to make a sweet wine that will rest in bottles in the cellar alongside crocks of fresh cut cabbage in a salty brine, among rows upon rows of pickles and tomatoes that will bring thoughts of summer to cold winter days.

Escaping summer’s mid-day inferno is essential, whether lounging in a creaky, unpainted gypsy lawn chair made of willow twigs in the shade of an ancient elm; lying quietly in the cool screened porch; or retreating to a far corner of the hay mow where no one would think to find me.  I might snatch a wisp of timothy hay to chew on or stick between my teeth – or pull a blade of grass to stretch between my thumbs, purse my lips, and blow through to produce a whistle so loud it made the dog jump.

When the smoldering, moist heat becomes oppressive, when it’s 95 in the shade and 95 percent humidity, I ride my horse over the hills and through the back woods to Long Lake, where we plunge in to swim together.  Or I bike to the St. Croix River, jump in wearing cut-off jeans, and feel the swirling current dissipate the heat from my mind and body and carry it downstream.

Taking little brother for a horse ride
Taking my very reluctant little brother for a ride on my pony Peanuts.

Harvest season comes as the air takes on a steely edge, winds pick up, and oak burning in the wood stove perfumes the air.  The wood cook stove in the kitchen never gets a chance to cool, as each day my grandmother adds additional lamb, vegetables, barley, and potatoes to a bottomless cauldron of soup that never ends.  I lift the cast iron plates from the stove top to toast thick slices of rustic, fresh baked bread over the deep crimson embers and slather them with hand-churned butter.

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Towing Dad behind the 1948 Leader farm tractor. I learned to drive this tractor a few years later.

Doing early morning chores, feeding stock, milking, carrying water, chopping wood, I can see my breath as a light frost forms around my nose.  Snow builds on the roof.  Icicles drip in the frigid sun from the eaves.  Fields and woodlands begin their turning a frigid, brittle white as the somber silence of winter envelopes the land.

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Winter fog

In late winter and early spring, our sheep will begin dropping lambs wherever they feel like it.  We lace up our sorrels and trudge through the night snow, slush and mud with flashlights, listening for the bleating of orphan lambs that must be brought in to hand feed.  The dogs will lead us to them.  All lives are precious.

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Eight years old with an orphan lamb that I had bottle fed.

These memories occupy a comfortable space in my mind, providing a homage and the logic to what formed me and what I’m made of now, all these years later.

As long as memory remains, so will this landscape of my youth.

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Stairs leading to downtown Stillwater, Minnesota
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My hometown on the St. Croix River: Stillwater, Minnesota.

 

 

8 thoughts on “Landscape of Youth Remembered

  1. Thanks for the article. It brought back some childhood memories. I think you should send it to Christina because she thinks Minnesota is just a fly over state. I don’t think she has ever been there. There is a good side to aging remembering only the good things. I think you should write another article of the hardship of the farm life in those days. Unless people have lived that life they would have no idea what it was like.

    It looks like they are putting a new addition to your old house…………Curt

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    1. Thanks, Curt! Christina is subsribed, so she’ll see it. Yes, there is a value to seeing both sides. For my purposes here, I wanted to give a brief sketch of the time I remember as positive images. Though of course, it wasn’t alwasy so. I will write another of the flip side, which was filled with back-breaking work that never ended. I have those memories, too. I remember the old farmers walking slowly, their backs hunched over, riddled with arthritic pain from 16-hour days bent to the tasks at hand.

      I had heard from the new owners that they were planning from the very beginning to add on to the house. They have done a tremendous amount of work to turn the old farm into a showpiece. They both have lots of ideas and excellent taste.

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    2. I’m sure this part of the country has its lovely moments – true, I have only flown over it, and will leave the very well described accounts to the author! Thanks Steve for anotheor every nice article.

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      1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Christina, as much as I enjoyed writing it. Countless are the parts of the world I’ve only ever flown over. To stop and stay anywhere for a time, no matter how long or how short, you need a reason. For example, I’ve flown over Montana countless times, and I have spent some time there, mainly for work. It is a stunning place. But I find it far more interesting and informative to read the stories of Ivan Doig about his native Montana, like “This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind,” one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

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    1. Yes, you have. You were in the kitchen helping Grandma knead bread when her arthritic hands could not. You and Dawn were in the front yard picking mountains of dandelions to simmer down for wine. And I think that my pony Peanuts may have been the first horse you ever rode. May the journey remain long, and may we never forget.

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  2. Reading your post brings back memories of many trips to Taylor’s Falls, often in winter, when I was a child. We spent many happy hours in St. Croix river valley. Thank you for sharing your memories.

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