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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.