Thanksgiving occupied a special place in the year on our Minnesota farm and marked the end of the crop year. During the eight months between April and November, we tended the fields; tilling planting, cultivating, harvesting and then plowing. Every day, we minded the sky for the perils of the season—late spring frost, heat waves and drought, cloud bursts and flood, hail storms and early snow. Any one of these could wipe out a season’s labors. Most years, we sprinted through two months of fickle autumn weather as it slid from summery to wintery, picking corn, plowing stubble and culling the livestock before freeze-up and snow. After Thanksgiving, we relaxed a while.
Our first on-farm Thanksgiving occurred in 1947 and the last one in 1997. I was four years old that first year when my mother roasted a goose and cooked the garden vegetables she raised. November snow fell early. Five acres of corn remained unpicked and the stubble stood plowed. Both must wait until spring. The cars didn’t start for several days. Yet, my urbanized New Jersey parents were grateful. They pulled up stakes that April to go farming in southern Minnesota despite the absence of agricultural experience. They were still in their twenties and still immortal.
We lived in a draughty house in need of paint. Rusty barbed wire fences kept livestock away from the house. Small hillside fields bordered with weeds ringed the slough in the center of things. A line of woods marked the winding river half a mile away. Nothing about this place predicted prosperity. But come it did. Drainage and tiling turned the slough into rich bottomland. Contoured fields arrested soil erosion, check dams formed small ponds and the woods improved under professional management. Wherever he could, dad planted trees and created niches for wildlife. Year by year, the farm became more productive of corn and wheat, deer and pheasants, songbirds and ducks.
My mother shone in glory on Thanksgiving amid the roasted turkey, green tomato mincemeat pies topped with hard sauce, roast carrots, mashed potatoes, silky gravy and cranberry sauce. Cousins and aunts from town joined our table and afterward the adults played bridge and children played Monopoly and Parcheesi. For many years in the 1950’s, the television station ran The Wizard of Oz on Thanksgiving. We loved the tornado scenes.
As my siblings and I grew up and married, our spouses and children replaced the cousins around the table. But some things didn’t change. November is still the grayest month in Minnesota—cloudy, cold and damp. At times, depressing. On Thanksgiving mornings, Dad and I still went outside to do some light chores, such as splitting and hauling firewood while mother, sister and wife finished preparing the food. Out came the good china, the monogrammed silver and crystal. These familiar roles and routines gave as much comfort as the food. A confirmation. We knew who we were, where we were and why we were thankful.
When all was ready, we bowed our heads and dad said a grace over the important things. Then the platters and bowls circled the table and our plates vanished under piles of mashed potatoes, slices of turkey, peas and smooth gravy. Looking out of the windows, I saw our newly plowed fields stretching to the river. Sometimes snow dusted the furrows and sometimes not. Yet the cloudiness never dampened our gratitude. We had the fields, the palpable connection, the umbilical between our livelihood and abundance.
We celebrated the last on-farm Thanksgiving in 1997. Mom and Dad were retired, no longer immortal but as lively as ever and wiser for their experiences. Arthritis crippled my mother at 80 but she was still a game chef. Dad and I still went outside to finish some chores, fewer now than in years past.
Thanksgiving, between helpings of turkey and pie, I realized this was the last time I would sit at this table and see the furrows, black and rich, awaiting spring. Gazing out and across the fields, I saw for last time the farm as it had formed me. Come spring, a crew would seed the fields with prairie grasses and plant clumps of oaks. This pleased dad but I felt melancholy—like the death of a friend—the permanent loss of intimacy with the living soil that had long sustained us.
Was I thankful? Yes, always! But I was more than thankful. I felt grateful and my gratitude grew from our intimate relationship with the soil. Dad thought of loam as magic stuff, a community of organisms that, with the sun, released life-building nutrients to produce fields of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. He held the soil as in a trust. Now, he was retiring the fields he retired.
Gratitude comes with humility and humility comes from recognizing you aren’t so self-sufficient that you don’t need the aid of anyone or anything. We are all part of an interdependent web of life. Our soil neither promised nor gave us a crop unless we collaborated with its organisms to produce it. We were married to the loam and tended it so it could tend, feed and sustain us.
I said a bittersweet goodbye to the farm that Thanksgiving. After 20 years, I still miss the palpable fulfillment of feasting in sight of newly plowed fields dusted with snow. I still miss feeling connected to a plot of soil I worked to produce corn, soybeans and wheat. I miss the spontaneous gratitude that comes when we were spared the worst of the weather. Or, if we were struck, gratitude for our recovery from it. Most of all, I miss the sense of life living with the land and not off the land. And with that, I miss the simple joy of life lived knowingly along the tenuous margins of security. Thanksgiving on the farm taught me humility that prepared me to be grateful. On this day, a slice of humble pie still satisfies the soul.
Glorious an overused adjective that applies to anything. This time of year, “glorious fall color’ is pasted to descriptions of maple leaves turning red and yellow in New England. And the noun of miracle is forced to serve as an adjective to shill for cleaning products, over-the-counter drugs or products of questionable efficacy. Despite these banal uses, a genuine and glorious miracle happened today. My friend Beatriz raised her hand and took her oath of citizenship. The ceremony closed a circle that began 10 years earlier.
She was a frightened Mexican mother of three on the cusp of deportation when we met in a church pew in 2008. She had no lawyer. Because of my career in government relations, our priest wondered if I could help her. What could I do? I had no experience in immigration law nor had I ever advocated for a person. When I said yes, I worried about what unseen personal entanglements might follow. What did she expect of me? I began uneasily but she quickly put me at ease with her intelligence, modesty, candor and English. We met often at first and went through reams of information on her civil rights. She called attorneys but none took her case because it seemed unwinnable. Her greatest fear was separation from her daughters. What would happen to them? Having two daughters of my own made this case personal.
For the next three years, worries and legal setbacks tried my patience and tested her faith. Then an attorney took her case hoping to secure her status using a recent court decision. We went to court half a dozen times. On the day of her hearing, she came to court after working all night to help a woman in labor. Under withering government examination, she answered questions calmly and graciously. Then she returned to help the woman in labor How did she do it?
She gave birth to twins and, six months later, she and her husband divorced. Then the judge denied her petition and left her vulnerable to removal. A single mother of five girls, she worked two jobs to support them and pay the mortgage. But she had one more chance. Because of spousal intimidation during marriage, she applied for a visa under a provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The immigration judge seemed skeptical but agreed to consider her application. Beatriz continued working as the request inched its way through the legal system. She suggested meeting for lunch one day in 2013, the start of our fifth year on this this journey.
She greeted me with a smile much wider than usual. “The judge granted my visa under VAWA. I have a work permit, a green card and can apply for citizenship in three years!”
The news sent me reeling. We had hoped for the visa–but a path to citizenship! She ordered a piña colada to celebrate. Two years later, when he twins entered pre-school, Beatriz juggled motherhood, two jobs and a full course load in criminal justice at a nearby community college. In May, I sat with her daughters in the college field hall and watched Beatriz, in robe and mortar board, accept an Associate of Arts degree with highest honors—4.0. She is the first in her family to earn a college degree. As she basked in the congratulations of family and friends, she was already enrolled in university classes to complete a B.A. degree.
Today was the first time together since graduation. She arrived eyes bright, smiling and wearing a fashionable suit with high heels. We spent an hour before the ceremony catching up our lives and those of our children. She still worked in security at the hospital but over the summer she bought a business. A wine and liquor store.
What?! Is there no end to this woman’s energy, imagination and courage? She was looking for another opportunity when this one came on the market and hired her brother and sister to run the store. “I’m still learning a lot as we I go along,” she said, oblivious to the understatement.
What happened to the frightened young mother I met a decade ago? She is now a confident and accomplished woman of 40, unafraid to try new ventures. Her daughters, whom I’ve known since infancy, are cut from the same cloth. Her oldest, a high school senior, is taking college classes and receiving offers from A-list universities. She wants to be an astrophysicist.
Beatriz’s story is a glorious miracle. We think miracles come as bolts from the blue but I think most of them are quieter and last longer. Her miracle is glorious because she lives with faith in a just universe. She isn’t a Pollyanna or Candide depending on wishful thinking. Her faith took full account of the political, legal and practical realities before her and, no matter how daunting they seemed, she faced them one-at-a-time drawing on a tireless inner strength. Never in 10 tumultuous years did I hear a word of compliant, self-pity or doubt.
She thanked me for my support and I was more than glad to give it. For Beatriz, the journey takes her toward her vision of better life. And I have the honor to be her compañero or companion on the way. In her company, I learned lessons in faith, humility and courage; and had the privilege of living something of an immigrant’s inner reality. Along the way, I came to see myself, my country and immigrants from another perspective. Beatriz is an avatar of the kind of person who in their millions made America great. Her vision, drive and humility are the qualities that made our diverse nation what is and—I hope—what it will continue to become.
People who knew my father often said I was the ‘spittin’ image’ of him. And there was some truth to that. We walked with similar gaits, we were similar about the eyes, though his were blue and mine were brown. Beyond that, however, we diverged. Dad was an extrovert while I enjoy solitude as much or more than company. Since the advent of DNA tests, ‘spittin’ image’ takes on a new meaning.
For a long time, I ignored the offers to send my DNA to the genealogical company to learn about my ancestry. My family tree is well-documented back to England in the 1630s. I recall my shock and disbelief when I discovered my father’s earliest ancestor (Abraham Newell) and my mother’s, (John Livermore) arrived in Boston on the same ship. They were English Puritans fleeing the persecution of Archbishop William Laud. They must have become acquainted during their three-months voyage before landing in Boston and going their separate ways and intermarried Puritan descendants in New England and New York. The last immigrant to marry into my family came from England in 1814. My parents married in 1941, uniting two families who voyaged together 305 years earlier.
I gave in, ordered the kit, spit into the tube and sealed the sample inside its mailer. Why am I spending $79 for this? I wondered. What can it tell me about my ancestors that I don’t already know? I sent it off, confident of the results: a preponderance of British DNA with soupçons of French from the invading Normans and maybe a drop from the marauding Danes.
With surnames liked Searle, Christie, Livermore, Baldwin, Cook, Eliot, Stewart, Smith, Wheelock, Wood, Douglas, Taylor and Warren, I had no doubts my family originated with the English and Scots. Searle is one of the commonest of English names–like Anderson in Minnesota. My extended family tree included only one set of Dutch ancestors and that one very recent. We came from what was called ‘good Yankee stock,’ a phrase better fitting the bull of highland cattle. What they meant was, we were white Protestants from Britain or maybe the Netherlands.
Six weeks later, when the email with my results arrived, I opened the link to see a colored pie chart before me. Things aren’t always as they seem and neither am I. A large lemon wedge—41%—said West Europe (France, Netherlands), an apple green wedge—19%—said British (English, Welsh and Scottish), and a gray wedge—40%—said ‘Other.’ That’s me? Not what I expected!
And what’s in the ‘Other?” That category included 18% Irish, 11% Scandinavian, 7% East European and 2% (possibly) Italian. In the State of Minnesota, it’s useful to claim some Scandinavian ancestry. Call it street cred. Besides, it’s good for my marriage since my wife’s great-grandparents emigrated from Norway.
What does this mean in the end? Or doesn’t it mean anything?
Regardless of what the DNA tells me about my past (and it’s fun to speculate and wonder), my identity is determined by where I live, whom I live among, the language I speak and the cultural norms that guide my thoughts and actions. You and I are creatures of the present time. Our strains of DNA entered our family lines long before recorded history when the coastlands and rivers were the crossroads for traders and raiders, for people seeking refuge from other groups or finding good land for crops. The Saxons, Frisians, Franks and Gauls settled in Britain before the collapse of Rome. Migration and trade after that deepened the mixture. The various genetic strains represent peoples and cultures that, like yeast in bread dough, are invisible but inextricably bound up with the mass of flour and water.
Unless our ancestors and immediate family lived in extremely isolated communities, it’s probable our DNA contains many contributions from varied sources over time. Were it possible (and I wish it were), you and I might look back in time to see our common ancestors and their struggles or even the moment when they received the genetic link that binds us now. I know that moment was there—is there—but we can’t see it.
How you and I see each other has more to do with culture and language than invisible DNA. Yes, we may notice differences in racial traits at first but, unless either of us is a bigot, we aren’t likely to linger for long on skin tone or the shapes of eyes and noses. We will be listening to expressions of values, ideas, opinions, humor among many other traits. You and I will know the other by our demeanor; whether we smile or glower, act kindly or harshly, with modesty or egotism. These things will quickly tell us whether we are apt to be friends.
I have no idea where my most ancient origins began. My veins don’t run with the ‘pure blood’ from any group—and it’s likely yours don’t either. Though we are free to interpret our past as we choose, there is at least one over-riding lesson we can draw from our DNA. Racial purity is a lie.
You and I probably share a relationship much closer than we may suspect because it isn’t obvious on the surface. But if we pay attention to our DNA, we can’t sustain the fiction that we are so different from others as to put them in a separate category. There is no ‘other;’ there is only ‘us.’ Our DNA makes us children of many fathers and mothers; at the level of our DNA, we are the ‘spittin’ image’ of each other.
To most people, June 6 is D-Day but, in my family, it’s Mom’s birthday. Born Janette Elizabeth Christie in Montclair, New Jersey, she would be 100 today had she lived. Why do I pay special attention to her birthday 17 years after she died?
A century mark is a reminder of our connections forward and backward through time. My mother knew people who had fought in the Civil War, and sailed on schooners; her father gave her rides in open cockpit biplanes, and she watched men walk on the moon. She grew up at the end of WASP era of social prominence in her grandmother’s Victorian house where domestic servants cleaned, cooked, gardened, and kept an eye on her. Her family ‘summered’ by Lake Piseco at the Irondequoit Club in the Adirondack Mountains where she learned to fish for trout and shoot a rifle. A bright student, she skipped a grade, spent her 13th year in France with her aunt and uncle, and returned home, a francophone. Thanks to her grandmother’s generosity, she graduated from Simmons College, a private institution that prepared women for the professions. She chose library science, and her peers chose her as president of the student body. Although she graduated with highest honors, we knew nothing about that until we wrote her obituary.
“Just call me Jane,” she said as her introduction; Janette Elizabeth appeared only on legal documents. Jane is a solid, everywoman name that fit her well. It doesn’t sound snooty and pretentious, like Janette. She married in 1941, and passed the war in New Jersey. Afterward, she, my father, and her brother bought a farm in Minnesota, although neither man had any experience. She agreed to this—provided the house had central heat and an indoor toilet. Over parental opposition, they pooled their life savings and bought–sight unseen–280 acres of eroding fields, sloughs, cut-over woods, a sluggish river, and shabby buildings. On April 10, 1947, Jane, my Dad, my sister and I arrived in Minnesota at the play they called ‘The River Farm.’ Never did I hear her utter a regret over trading the wealth and status of Montclair for life on a Minnesota farm.
She kept the farm accounts, cooked, raised children, drove tractors as necessary, fed lambs with a bottle, gardened, and canned vegetables. She hosted meetings of the University’s Home Extension Service. Jane knew who she was and easily made others comfortable regardless of their background. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions of better-informed farm women with 9th grade educations. Jane simply engaged them where they were and went from there. She made fitting in look easy, focusing on values rather than possessions. After she died, we discovered fine silver and crystal I had never seen stored in the basement. It was like her to think the silver platters from Tiffany’s were out of place in a Minnesota farmhouse.
We all remember our mothers for their meals—famous as acts of love. Jane excelled at mince meat pies, gravies, and was a whiz at turning left-overs into new meals. Ever frugal, she made Christmas ornaments and gifts to save money. But she valued culture and, on Sunday afternoons, she listened to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Besides the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she read the Saturday Review of Literature, worked crossword puzzles, excelled at Scrabble, and read literature. A grammarian, she made certain her children knew when and how to use ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘lain’ and ‘laid.’ She loved Winnie the Pooh, and sprinkled her conversations with phrases like “a little smackeral of something.” A hopeful and intuitive person, she told me, “Don’t plan anything, something good might turn up.”
Whether it was nobless oblige or not, she quietly set about serving others without notice or condescension. She catalogued books at the county library, organized a library for a law firm. As a Civil Air Patrol officer, she served as the squadron’s administrative officer. Ten years after we arrived, the voters sent my father to the Legislature for 12 terms, and Jane became his advisor, critic, strategist, and editor without dropping her other chores. Later in life, she read stories to children at the local library. She filled her life with many roles: wife, mother, grandmother, librarian, advisor, and reader. She was many things to many people but to everyone she was always herself. A simple plaque on her kitchen wall aptly summed up her life: ‘Bloom Where You’re Planted.’
Jane lived at The River Farm for 53 years until her death in October 2000. On that bright autumn afternoon, she lay in her bed, looked out the window, and her spirit drifted across the fields to the river and into the trees beyond. We buried her ashes in the woods near her mother, brother, and aunt. Later, my father joined her. It is a quiet opening on high ground where woodland phlox bloom in June, and song birds call.
“Just call me Jane” was her calling card. She planted her life at The River Farm, and bloomed with values, virtues, mores, and manners that she gave as gifts to her children. Her presence was a gift of unmerited grace, and pausing to recall and celebrate Jane is like a Pentecost, a moment when the fires of love, compassion, and grace rest on us like tongues of flame.
I park my car on the county road and stand next to the mail box. The brisk November wind wipes clean the azure sky, and the sun casts sepia light on the corn stubble, grass, and leaves. From the mailbox I can see our farm in a glance. This is where I first saw the farm as a child. We called the place home for 67 years. Now, with my back to the wind, I take a last, long look good-bye.
My arrival in Minnesota is an eidetic memory, a tenacious image of a passing moment. The rain had stopped but the yellowish clay road is boggy. After days on the road, Dad stops the gray 1940 Plymouth on the shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. The lane downhill to the farmhouse is a slick rut of black mud. I sit in the back seat with my infant sister. Low clouds and pewter puddles add to the day’s gloom surrounding the weathered farmhouse with peeling paint, and the slattern barn in need of boards. The moment we stop among the dark, loamy fields and soggy stubble comes back to me. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three years old, and this is my earliest memory of home.
My mother’s family followed the sea, and Dad’s pursued business but my parents threw off city life in New Jersey to go farming in Minnesota. Seeking an independent life, they ignored parental warnings about being broke within six months, and entered a partnership with Rob, Mom’s brother. With audacious courage, my young parents invested their life savings, our future, in a farm they had never seen. They couldn’t turn back.
Our place—the River Farm–consisted of a ‘T’-shaped tract totaling 280 acres. Three 40-acre parcels ran south from the county road and intersected 160 acres of bottomland forest and marsh running east to west along the LeSueur River. Sluggish in summer, the river flooded in spring and on this day its water covered half our fields. A low ridge snaked through the woods and ended a mile away at ‘Bunker Hill’ on our south line.
They bought the farm from John Jennison, my great-grandfather, a shrewd, self-educated, small-town banker. He wore dark suits, lived in a three-story Victorian house, and signed his name with a modest flourish. He loved poetry, and I recall him declaiming, ‘Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …’.
When Uncle Rob told him which farm we wanted to buy, grandfather asked, “Why do you want that one?”
“Because we like the view,” Uncle Rob replied.
“Rob … you can’t farm a view!”
Dad learned the practical tasks of farming by asking the neighbors ‘dumb questions’ and studying the bulletins published by the Agricultural Extension Service. By ones and twos, he bought cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. We had a small tractor but for years Dad made do with reworked horse-drawn equipment he bought at auctions. When they closed the books on 1947, the farm earned $2,300 and spent $13,000. “We are really in the red,” Dad said.
We were ‘foreigners’ for a time—Yankee Easterners. In our township of German immigrants and their children, we heard accented English in phrases like ‘come here once,’ and ‘so you did that already now.’ Like all newcomers, we stood out in unexpected ways. We milked the brown Guernsey cattle of the British Isles but our neighbors kept
herds of the black and white Holsteins from Germany. Our tractor, a gray Ford-Ferguson, seemed tiny next to the neighbors’ large green and yellow John Deere’s and crimson McCormick-Deering Farmall’s. Everyone shopped in Janesville at Wiste’s Red and White Grocery, bought feed at the Archer Daniel’s mill, and sold grain at the Huntington elevator. However, on Sundays the Mittelstaedt’s attended St. John Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), the Eustice’s went to St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and we attended St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Despite our peculiarities, we quickly folded into a closely knit rural neighborhood. During lean, post-war years, everyone swapped labor and equipment at planting and
harvest. This unspoken mutual assistance pact lasted until everyone owned all the equipment they needed. We lived securely, and no one locked his doors in case a neighbor needed to use the phone. Three years passed before our phone arrived, a wooden box with a crank. Eleven other parties shared the line and eaves-dropping was expected. Such neighborly intimacy lasted until the 1960s when private phone lines appeared.
Dad treated farm work like a form of play, a puzzle to solve, a game to win. Possessed of a Protestant’s belief in working out his salvation, he found spiritual contentment in tilling the soil. Farming was a kind of religious stewardship. I was about six when we planted the first of many thousands of trees. He told me about the idea of stewardship and leaving the world better than I found it. The earth was like gold to him—something miraculous to be treated as reverently as sacramental elements. Planting trees and preparing the ground for planting pleased him, and he stayed on the tractor until dusk. In the gloaming, on tranquil May evenings, I heard him whistling Broadway show tunes above the murmur of the tractor’s engine, a contented man.
I was not yet six years old when Dad, short-handed at haying, asked me to steer the tractor and hay wagon. ‘Oh boy!’ This was a rite of passage into becoming a ‘big boy.’ Although I had often steered the tractor while sitting on Dad’s lap, now I would do it on my own. After he hitched the tractor to the hay wagon and loader, I sat the tractor seat, he set the hand throttle, shifted it into gear, and I steered the rig across the field. While I looked through the steering wheel to align the radiator cap with the windrow of hay, Dad forked the hay onto the wagon. I drove
tractor after that a year before I went to school and learned to read. By the age of 10, my chores included feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs for sale, pulling weeds in soybean fields, and hauling manure, picking up bales, and plowing stubble. As ‘big boy’ chores mounted, I looked for ways out of them.
A creek from our neighbor’s pasture emptied into 50 acres of marshy ground at the center of the farm. The marsh lacked an outlet and the soil didn’t dry out until mid-summer. This struck Dad as a waste of good land and, like a missionary among heathens, he set out to ‘redeem’ it. During the summer I turned nine, soil conservation engineers peered through their transits and drove a line of stakes through our marshy ground. When the dragline arrived, I spent days mesmerized by its work as the huge bucket opened a mile of ditch to the river. After that, a bulldozer shaped the dirt into a levee to keep the river’s floods from our fields. Our project was but one of a greater change reshaping the face of southern Minnesota. In every township, draglines turned winding creeks into straight channels. Bulldozers erased oak groves, brush patches, potholes and sloughs to make way for more fields of corn and soybeans.
No one foresaw that adopting hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and newly reclaimed land would result in bumper crops that depressed prices for corn and wheat. To make up for lost income, farmers planted even more acres, further lowering prices. By the end of the 1950s, we and many others enrolled some of our fields in the Federal ‘Soil Bank’ program to cut surpluses. Ducks and geese changed their migration routes, bluebirds and plovers lost their nesting areas, and it’s been years since I have heard a meadowlark on the farm.
In this small corner of Waseca County, I lived among people whose varied origins and talents shaped my later life. My mother passed on many of her upper-class social graces. She had a college degree as a librarian, spoke French, and encouraged my artistic and literary efforts. Dad focused on teaching me practical skills on the farm in counterpoint to Uncle Rob, a charismatic artist whose idealism never matched Dad’s tenacious persistence. Rob left us after several years to pursue more quixotic adventures.
The Mittelstaedt’s became like a second family to us. Heinz, a German immigrant, had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, and his shrewd mind made good use of his limited education. Gertie, his generous, broad-hipped wife, set extra places for us at her table without a fuss. Once, she made room for my sister, uncle, and me at her Thanksgiving dinner when a sudden blizzard trapped my parents in town.
During adolescence, I became a disciple of Ed Iversen, a retired U.S. forest ranger and regular companion on fishing trips and pheasant hunts. He taught me woodcraft, fly-fishing, and introduced Dad and me to canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Opinionated and testy, I could only do things his way or the wrong way. Under his guidance, I learned the elements of ecology and forest conservation, an influence that later led me to write a book on wilderness protection.
Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Geza lived nearby. She had retired from medicine, and he retired from labor arbitration to be a gentleman farmer. A Hungarian Jew, he spoke five languages, played concert violin, and dabbled in writing history. He inspired me to think critically saying, “The mind is a wonderful place to play” over chess games. He was right.
Dad served 12 terms in the Minnesota Legislature while farming and improving higher education was his passion. To advance his goals, he hosted annual summer sweet corn parties for legislators, college officials, and others who wanted to improve Minnesota’s public colleges. Over buttery sweet corn from our field, the guests chewed on ideas, formed friendships, and built a coalition that state colleges into a system of state universities. Though I was then a disinterested teen, I absorbed many lessons in the art of coalition building I would one day need in my career.
I attended a vocational boarding school beginning at the age of 14. An indifferent student, I saw little point to the classes in agronomy, arc welding and carpentry, history, English, and biology. Years later, after college and graduate school, during a career at Cargill, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Second Harvest Heartland, I often drew on the practical lessons and insights learned from the neighbors, and the vocational classes. If nothing else, hours on the tractor seat made me tenacious.
Dad’s active farming ended in the fall of 1961. He rented the fields to a neighbor, took up selling life insurance, and had an auction shortly before I went to college. The stocky auctioneer stood on a wagon and pointed his cane at a plow parked nearby. “C’mon boys, $300,” he called in a rapid sing-song. He tapped the with his cane. “$300. Gimme three, gimme three, three … I see four! Who’ll gimme four-fifty, four-fifty, fifty, fifty …” One by one, the buyers claimed their prizes and we turned a page on the farm.
Many years later, in 1997, after Mom roasted the Thanksgiving turkey and my wife made the pies, the whole family sate table, and looked at the newly fallow fields stretching to the dark trees along the river. We had just finished our 50th harvest. Our last. My parents had managed to ‘farm a view’ that was now covered by a conservation easement. From now on, The River Farm would produce wild grass and trees, not corn and soybeans. The news filled me with unexpected melancholy. I feared the absence of the seasonal rhythms of planting, cultivating, and harvesting would severe a visceral link between the fields that had sustained us and an abiding sense of gratitude.
In the following decade, Dad breached the levees and tile lines, restored wetlands, and planted trees. Despite his good stewardship, I felt increasingly disconnected from the farm as it became something different from the childhood grange that had formed me. Mom and Dad stayed on the farm until the end of their lives. Now they rest across the river on the ridge near a granite boulder among the bloodroot and wild phlox where they used to camp and watch the migrating songbirds. There was a tenacious majesty to their persistence in ‘farming a view’ and bringing about a landscape that reflected their vision. They never described their intention concretely yet they worked at fulfilling it with silent determination.
I haven’t lived at The River Farm for nearly 50 years but I have never left home completely. None of us do. The farm I remember, the one that haunts me, is the farm of my youth where each field presented a distinct face, depending on the crop and the season. I still see the oats turning amber in July with thunderheads coasting along on the horizon. On long-shadowed August evenings with cricket songs, I see corn standing next to velveteen alfalfa hemmed by the woods lining the river. In this promised land of memory, the scene is more artistic than agricultural. This is the farm I where I grew up, and where I still grow up.
As a youth and young adult, I was too green to appreciate the dismal prospects of this soggy tract with its draughty house and battered barns. Now, 70 years later, I am amazed at my parents’ tenacious grit in bringing this run-down farm to a productive peak and then, after 50 years, expanding their vision to turn the fields and woods into a landscape wilder than it was when we arrived. It looks as if we had never farmed it. This morning I came to the farm to hand the keys to its new owners. After a brief history of the place, and a few minutes of small talk, I wish them well as I leave the house.
I get out of my car by the mailbox, the spot where Dad stopped the car in 1947. We held title to this land for 67 years but the land possessed us more than we ever possessed it. This tract of southern Minnesota soil belongs to someone else now but it is still my family’s home in the geography of my heart. My parents, neighbors, and friends still live there in memory. Their words point my way forward, like cairns on a trail across level plains. With my face to the sun and back to the wind, I need only close my eyes to see the farm again as a three year-old because time is fluid and memories flow easily between 1947 and now.
Several years ago, at a high school reunion, I ran into a classmate I hadn’t seen in decades. The intervening years had done their work of addition and subtraction on our features. Although I couldn’t register his face, I knew him from the timbre of his voice when he said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ From deep in the pool of memory came a spark of recognition. His voice rose from the undertone of high school memoires, part of the on-going drone of young adults trying out their identities. We were never close friends but I recognized his voice as part of the murmuration I had ignored in the moment.
Sounds may well be among the most durable of sensations. While in the womb we hear our mother’s voice. I KNOW that voice, the change in pitch, and after my birth, the hummed tune, the hushing sounds, the cooing as I was coddled and nursed. I don’t think anyone loses this though the memory has no distinct image or event. So it is with many things we fail to notice clearly at the time. Yet, later in life, a sound, a voice, some chance thing brings recognition of some experience I forgot or a fragment I never knew before. Life is a fabric woven with the soughing of sounds barely heard yet recorded and recalled.
I look forward to the murmuration of spring as living things emerge after the deeper silences of winter. The whisperings pull me back to other times. Snowmelt triggers boyhood memories of winter dripping off the eaves over my bedroom. A steady, throbbing, plip-plip-plip of melting snow seeming to match my own pulse. Out in the pasture, the plip-plips had gathered to gurgle through tunnels under the snowbanks. Miniature rivers ran to the creek in the pasture and became a rushing sound that joined the river overflowing its banks with a burden of ice floes crashing one into the other.
Soon after the snow left, but before the grass greened, when the first dandelions opened fuzzy blossoms, the bees busied themselves by day. Their murmurations as they collected nectar among the petals promised warmer days ahead. Bees speak softly and I rarely heard them as distinctly and acutely as the songs of cardinals, robins, and orioles. The murmur of bees was a base note, a simple sentence punctured with the exclamation points of birds. While the yard is drab from winter’s ravages, the sound of a Minnesota bee in late March reassures me spring is nigh. When I stop to listen, I hear them in various places at the same time. It isn’t simply their sound arrests me; rather, I am in thrall to the eidetic memories connected to their murmurings.
The undertones of murmuration sometimes brings rumors of trouble and danger. Anyone growing up on the prairie know the mumble of distant thunder. Sometimes the tone is so low, we feel it as a physical vibration through the soil. Grumbling thunder may mean nothing at all, or it could herald disaster. The thundercloud always contains both salvation and destruction. Saving rain falls in dry seasons, disastrous floods or tornados come in wetter years. Long before they arrive, I know them by their mutter.
I am, and we are, a bundle of memories and emotions whose residence lies far beyond the powers of cognition. We can no more manufacture and recall some of them then we can see our faces without a reflecting surface. And of the senses, our memories of sound and the echoes of susurrations long-ignored remind me of a past that isn’t really the past so long as sounds retain the power to bring memories into the present. It’s impossible to be conscious of all things in a single moment. Yet, by some miracle of our creation and evolution, our ear and mind record much of what passes without notice. When a murmur, a voice, a susurration registers, it fills me with a sense of homecoming. I find it useful to think of these things as sound buoys that guide me through the fogs of life. They warn me of the rocks and shoals, capes and harbors of life’s voyage. All these things are stored in an emotional attic, ready for release as a warm memory or sharp warning, as essential as breathing.
Sound is something it’s easy to take for granted. Like the air I breathe, I take it for granted unless something stands out in the sound cloud around me. Then, maybe a noise I hear in isolation, triggers a memory. At once, the present moment dissolves, and I’m inside a past moment; it’s a spark of time as fresh and real as the original. These reverberations of the past never erode or rust or lose their power. They’re visceral, eidetic, and so penetrating that important parts of my life, my very soul, was shaped by them. It may be that my individuality and yours are defined as much by echoes as by fingerprints.
Living in Oaxaca, Mexico, I wake about 5:30 each morning to the sound of roosters crowing from atop a nearby house. While this may annoy some sleepers, the rooster’s crow transports me back to childhood. It’s morning once more on the farm. The eastern sky blooms and the first amber light washes across the field, infiltrates the oak tree outside my window, and falls across my bed. Roosters and daybreak are inseparable. The bravado of crowing foretells a day of unforeseen possibilities. On a farm, there is the plan for the day, and then there is what really happens. The cock’s crow reminds me of possibilities and pitfalls to come.
You may laugh, but I will swear it is possible to hear corn growing. I know I did on humid, July nights, when no breezes stirred southern Minnesota. Lying in bed, I heard the faintest of sounds outside, as if someone were tearing paper slowly and carefully to make no noise at all. But something was ripping in the lower fields. It was the sound made by leaves of corn splitting their sheaths as they unfurled in the muggy darkness. It was a ‘green noise’ that often lulled me to sleep when nothing else could.
Our hogs filled an important place in my childhood soundscape of hums, thuds, crashes and swishes. Their guttural voices were as integral to my world as the acres of oats and corn, the woods, and the prairie river. Grunting hogs sang contrapuntal base notes to the roosters’ shrill falsettos. Pigs often carried on in a low, soft hum punctuated by a squeal. They usually fed at night, and took turns eating at the individual feed boxes covered with metal lids. In sixes and sevens, they nosed up the lids, then grunted contentedly as they smacked on ground oats and corn. When sated, each pulled his snout from the lid and it fell with a ‘clunk.’ Many nights, I fell asleep listening to grunt, smack-smack-smack, grunt. Clunk! This rhythm lasted until I left for college, and Dad sold the hogs. For a long time afterward, on visits home, I unconsciously listened for them and, when I didn’t hear them, knew a part of me was no longer resident there either.
The prairie wind is a maestro of sounds and moods, depending on the month and weather. A March wind has a wet smell, and roars through the bare oaks about the house ahead of a warm front. It’s a fickle wind that often produces a late spring blizzard more often than bluebirds. At the season’s other end, a November gale through these same oaks blusters like a bully, heralding the on-set of cold and darkness. In between, the wind often whispers ‘sweet nothings’ to leaves on a summer’s eve. Like great compositions, the wind may use a caesura, a full stop amid a storm, and in the fragment of silence, I can hear an individual drop of rain fall from a leaf and strike the ground with a fat ‘plop.’ The wind talks. For those who listen, there is much to be learned from the wind.
Farm life wasn’t completely cut off from the larger world. During the 1950s, we depended on AM radio (WCCO-Minneapolis) and the rural telephone to Janesville, six miles away. In those days, the radio gave us farm market reports, ball games, soap operas, the New York Philharmonic concerts, the Jack Benny Show, and CBS News. Static on AM radios also told us more about the weather than the Weather Service. Faint static meant a distant and possible thunderstorm. As static increased in intensity and frequency, so did the storm probability. Our telephone (a wooden box with a crank and speaker) connected us to a party line of 12. We knew who got calls by the pattern of rings. More than that, however, the phone was our Doppler before there was Doppler. In stormy weather, the a ‘ping’ on the phone meant lightning nearby. Frequent ‘pings’ meant the storm was nearly upon us.
We lived about three miles from the former town of St. Mary but only the church remained. In the 1950s, early on Sunday mornings, I heard the peal of its bell as the local Catholics went to Mass. As the rural population thinned, the diocese closed the church, and it fell victim to time and neglect. I last saw it on a summer evening, shuttered but humming with the sound of bees swarming about a hole in its eaves. Only the cemetery remains but, somewhere in the heavens, the reverberations of that bell continue to ripple toward eternity.
It’s a fact that most farmers can tell you the make of tractor solely by its sound. I grew in a neighborhood of green John Deere and red International Harvester models. The Deere’s two-cylinder engines made a distinct ‘pop-pop-pop’ sound and folks called them ‘Johnny Poppers.’ International’s produced a deep, steady growl. We owned small, gray Fords that purred. Yet, despite the make of tractor, their sound faded quickly with distance. Some of my deepest memories are of twilight on spring evenings, hearing my father whistling Broadway show tunes as he tilled a field for planting. As sure as the sun came up in the east, I knew his restless soul was utterly content and he wanted nothing more than to make the brown, prairie soil ready for seed.
You may think of the country as a quiet, tranquil place. It is tranquil but never silent. A farm and its countryside are filled with sounds. As a lad, I heard them distinctly because I had few distractions. Each echo, hum, reverberation, crash, jingle, swish, roar, and vibration held meaning. Some brought pleasure, others warned of danger or accompanied pain. Yet each played a part in who I became, and who I know myself to be. Sounds are visceral, indelible, and as much a part of myself as my DNA. Many things combine to make us humans, but I think our individual identities a made, in part, by a distinct sound-cloud of memory and meaning.