In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Free Association.”
I first knew ‘home’ as a drafty, gray house set in an oak grove on a farm in southern Minnesota. It is April 10, 1947, and we have just arrived from New Jersey under a leaden sky after the rain has given the black, fallow soil an oily sheen. I am three-and-a-half years old, and see my home through the mud-smeared window of our 1940 Plymouth sedan.
As a child, I don´t question the defects in our old house and even older barn. They are a natural, unchangeable part of all that makes up ‘home’, just as much as my father’s blue eyes and my mother’s premature gray hair are integral aspects of my parents. At the age of four I experience the world as an organic web of things living and inanimate; cows and barn together, tractor and fields, in a unity of relationships whose separate parts I don’t yet distinguish.
Dad´s fascination with the soil verges on excitement. Southern Minnesota’s earth is the product of decaying grass and plants that built up, millennia by millennia, to produce ‘black gold’ in the form of highly fertile soil for raising corn and soybeans, oats and wheat. Agriculture is a highly choreographed ballet of fungi and bacteria, insects and worms, sun and rain, heat and cold, seeds and roots. These hidden creatures and forces move together as the plants draw nutrients from the soil to produce corn, eight feet tall and heavy with fat ears; a harvest to sustain for a year.
As a city man turned farmer, my father quickly learned how our lives are entwined with the invisible life of the soil. Neighboring farmers talked of ‘working up’ their corn ground, as if it were something inert to be acted upon. But dad didn’t think that way. His words and actions were those of working ‘with’ his corn ground; as a team. And after the crops took all the nutrients they needed, and we harvested the grain, we plowed under the stubble, feeding the microbes that broke down the plants and released the nutrients to the soil for next year’s crop. As I grew, dad never missed an opportunity to impress on me, along with lessons in courtesy and respect for others, the simple idea of the soil as a living thing that – like a child – must be nourished and enriched and protected. In our home, the care of the soil was care of the family.
Across southern Minnesota, only one day in four, on average, is cloudy and rain falls less frequently than that. Most of the time we welcomed the rain, a few times we have prayed for it to fall, and at other times we prayed for it to stop falling. The kind of rain set the mood for the day or the season as surely as my mother’s tone of voice set the mood in the house.
As March days warm, flurries give way to slow, disconsolate showers dripping from a deck of flat, gray overcast. It’s a gloomy kind of rain holding out the promise of real spring some day, but not that day. In the long hours of daylight before and after the summer solstice, the earth warms and rain falls as frontal storms blow through. As a boy I spend many afternoons fascinated by the cumulous clouds building along the southwest horizon and riding forward as billowing mountains, like whipped cream, seamed by shady canyons where my imagination plays hide and seek with whatever mythic creatures might live there. Such rains come in a rush, driven by wind, the droplets soaking into the cracked soil, percolating to the roots of growing corn. Dad and the other farmers hope these rains are ‘soakers’ and not violent ‘gully washers’ that will send our prairie river over its banks and into the fields.
Rain halts the outside work and my dad relaxes, knowing this and other well-timed rains assure the heavy harvest in a few months. But we are less welcoming of rain in September and October, before the harvest is in. We can’t harvest wet corn; we want the summer days to stay a little longer, to linger with us like a sweetheart on the front porch, unable to say good-night. Living on a farm you never forget that a rainy day isn’t about your convenience or inconvenience; you know it’s about something larger of which you are a very small part.
Without rain and soil I have no sense of ‘home’. Within me, these three are inseparably bound up in a feeling beyond emotion. It is a sense of being settled, rooted; of being bound up in a web of being far greater and more profound than my own sense of self. It is belonging to a moment of fulfillment ordained by Providence or the cosmos. It’s an unquestioning acceptance of the rightness of all things, if even for only an hour. My choice has nothing to do with this sense of ‘home’ because this moment, every moment, is ‘just how things are’ and nothing can change that. It’s perfection.
I felt and still feel this connectedness on days when the rain falls softly, steadily, giving the soil enough time to soak it all up and dissolve the nutrients bound up in grains of mineral, or dead corn roots; to feed the myriads of fungi and bacteria that are the silent partners of every farmer. Listening to the rain, even in the city, my thoughts and memories return to the days when we had little or no work to do and stayed indoors. Gathered in the living room, my mother works on a crossword puzzle, my dad reads a book, my sister and I play Parcheesi spread out on the floor. And if it is a Sunday, we listen to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on the radio.
Now sixty years past childhood, my parents are dead and their ashes rest in the soil on a wooded ridge across the prairie river that cuts through the farm. They are forever at ‘home’. The title to the land now belongs to another, a friend, but the ‘home’ with its soil and rain remains with me. Whenever I sit quietly, listening to the rain falling gently, as fat droplets ‘plop’ hitting the soil, I feel the family at home, gathered in the house. We rest, the soil rests, the rain rests, and in my time, I will rest in the soil where the rain falls gently.