In this era of on-line sales, after more than a century as retailing behemoths, the business press predicts the imminent demise of Sears-Roebuck & Company and JC Penny. Both are institutions founded in an age before rural free delivery, widespread telephone use and, certainly, the internet. These mail order hosues were fixtures in thousands of small towns along with the Ben Franklin five and dime, Rexall Drug, A & W Root Beer stands and Dairy Queen.
Growing up on a farm in the 1950’s, the Sears-Roebuck catalogue was definitely a “wish book.” With more than 500 pages, my sister and I would spend rainy afternoons pouring over the pages, selecting things we wanted but knew we couldn’t afford. One can dream. This catalogue was the Amazon.com of its day.
Every summer, Mom and I riffled through the catalogue, selecting the clothing for school in the fall and winter. I wore Roebuck jeans that didn’t have the same cachet as Levi’s. Of course, I had western-style shirts with pearl-like snaps instead of buttons. But no cowboy boots. Not practical, especially when my growth spurt started and shoe sizes expanded. Then it was my sister’s turn to pick her clothes. Before ordering, my sister and I stood straight as our mother measured our height, waist and chest to get the right size with room to grow during the year.
One of us carried the order in its envelope up the hill to the mailbox. Then we waited. And waited. And waited until the mailman blew his horn and dropped a box by the mailbox. Our clothes! The box was usually so big we had to fetch it in the pick-up. One by one, we took out the items. Ah, the aroma of new clothes. Then we tried on each item to be sure of the fit but we couldn’t wear anything until the first day of school. This was like an early Christmas!
You could buy anything from Sears & Roebuck—anything! The catalogue carried hardware, furniture, Kenmore appliances, Craftsman tools, sewing machines and even kits for houses. From 1908 until 1942, Sears sold pre-fab houses. The parts for the house were shipped in boxcars. Each house weighed up to 25 tons and contained more than 30,000 parts. Pre-fabs were cheaper to build and accommodated modern conveniences like central heating, electricity and plumbing. As I look at old catalogues (on-line) with pictures of the Sears houses, the designs look familiar and I wonder how many of those houses I have visited without knowing they were pre-fab? At least one house on a neighboring farm appears to a Sears house.
For many years, we didn’t buy a lot in the stores because it was cheaper to order goods from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. We did it for the same reason we order books, clothing, cameras, yarn and household good from Amazon.
There is a cycle to this, I think. The Sears catalogue business offered rural residents an alternative to the narrower selection and higher priced goods of general stores. As the Sears business grew, and the population became more urbanized, it invested heavily in stores at shopping malls after World War II while its chief competitor, Montgomery Ward, did not. Sears continued to grow and diversify. It became the nation’s largest retailer until the 1980’s with the rise of Walmart. Since then, its fortunes have declined in the face of discounters. Now Target and Walmart are hard-pressed by competition from Amazon.
A Sears catalogue became archaic almost as soon as it left the press because the next wish book was in preparation. Many a catalogue ended its life in the little house with a crescent-moon on the door. Our neighbors didn’t have an indoor toilet until a decade after they bought a black and white television to watch wrasslin’ matches between Hardboiled Hagerty and Farmer Marlin. For toilet paper, they used last year’s Sears catalogue. A sad end to a volume of wishes. As I said, things go in cycles and maybe the antidote to Amazon will be the ‘buy local’ movement. Time will tell.
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.
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.
As a boy, I waited eagerly for many things. Waiting generated anticipation, hope, and impatience for time to pass swiftly. Waiting tested my self-control, and I learned to distract myself from the object of my attention. When you are a boy, and you think a day of waiting is an eternity, it helps to have something else to do.
Despite summer’s many delights on our farm, I longed for mid-October. Nothing delighted me like the shorter days, colder nights, the half-harvested fields of corn, the frost on the grass, and the pastel sunsets. Why? Because the seasons for hunting pheasants and ducks began in October. At the age of 13 or 14, I had no qualms about taking the lives of sentient creatures. I waited for glorious day when I could blast them out of the sky with a single shot.
Pheasant season opened in mid-October, and on that day my mother prepared lunch for the usual gang of hunters. Besides my father, there was John, our banker; Irv, who ran the feed mill, and his son Buddy; Doc, our dentist; Ed, the retired forest ranger, and me. We gathered in the house about 11 a.m., filled our plates with sloppy Joes on a bun, potato chips, a pickle, and a soda or coffee—the traditional opening day lunch. The dogs—two Weimaraners, and a setter—waited outside.
Our clock struck noon. Time to go. We heard muffled ‘booms’ in the distance where other hunters shot at birds. Each of us shrugged into our canvas hunting jacket, picked up our shotgun and stepped outside to start the ‘drive’ or sweep across the fields. Dad organized everyone so two men walked the sides of the cornfields and the rest of us spread out between them with the dogs.
State law limited each hunter to killing three rooster per day, and no hens. Holding our shotguns across our chest at port arms, we crashed our way into the cornfield. I heard the flutter of wings, followed by ‘Hen!” No shots. Then another flutter and the ‘BOOOM!’ of someone’s 12 gauge. And so it went all one opening afternoon in the mid-1950s. We spent hours working through each cornfield and weed patch where pheasants hunkered close to the ground.
I was about 15, and our gang had hunted most of the farm, and were walking back toward the house for coffee and cookies. We walked seven abreast across a hayfield, each man about 50 feet from the next. Easy walking there because the alfalfa was barely ankle height and offered no real cover to hide a bird. The afternoon was about spent, and so were we. We walked along, talking, with our guns slung casually over our shoulders. Suddenly, a rustle of wings. Cackling. A rooster shot out of the alfalfa at the far left end of our line. It flew six feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of us. The pheasant’s wings beat frantically, its neck stretched straight out, and its bronze feathers gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Pheasants always appear easy to kill on the wing.
“I got ‘em!” Ed yelled. BOOM! but the bird kept flying. As the rooster flew along our line, each of yelled, “I got ‘em!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! As the terrified bird flew faster. One by one we fired until the cock reached the right end of our line, soared upward a few feet, cleared the top of some brush, and vanished in our woods. Nary a feather did we touch. We stood in place, mouths agape. No one said anything. Then Ed laughed, a sneezy, nasal laugh. A laugh of self-mockery. We caught it and laughed until we wept, laughed until we gasped for air. The bird made a fool of us all. It was worth waiting for.
Besides pheasants, I waited for the ducks. Waterfowl fascinated me until I was obsessed with them. When I could, I stalked the riverbank in hopes of flushing a mallard, or went over the ridge to a pothole hoping to bag at least a blue-winged teal. The greatest prize, however, would be downing a Canada goose.
At that time, the Canada geese were non-existent in our area. The only ones we saw were the northerners migrating south ahead of the Canadian winter. Some men I knew spent a lot of money to hunt them farther west. That was out of my boyish league. Someday, if I waited, I might afford it.
I bagged all the geese I could ever want one November day in the late 1950s. A steel gray overcast covered the sky and the chilly north wind foretold wintry weather ahead. Dad and I were picking the last of the corn when I heard something and looked up. High above us, I saw a skein of geese winging south. Then another line of geese, and another.
All day, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of geese passed over our heads. I wanted to hunt, then and there, but they flew too high to reach them with my shotgun. Hour after hour, they moved in long undulant lines, in skeins of rippling birds honking, cackling, and muttering as they rode the the hard north wind. They traveled in large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, blue geese, and the smaller brants.
I had never seen so many geese before, nor have I seen that many in the years since. Each year I waited and hoped I might see such a migration again. Before going to bed that night, I stepped outside in the windy darkness. They were still there, high up, calling, cackling, honking on ahead of the winter gales. It was a moment of wonder that has lasted a lifetime.
Emptiness, the quality of ‘empty,’ doesn’t exist except in our egotistical imaginations. ‘Empty’ is a conceit of seeing ourselves as the center of the particular personal, social, or physical universe we currently inhabit. Nothing is truly ‘empty.’ The word simply reflects our failure to see what is directly before us, outside the veils of our notions. We say a place is ‘empty’ when its existence doesn’t fulfill our preconceptions for it.
During the 1950s, when I was a boy, a part of our farm was a wetland or ‘slough’ and produced nothing— nothing we wanted. This ‘empty’ space was too wet to plow and plant to crops we could harvest and sell. To fill the ‘empty’ place, we dug a ‘Big Ditch’ through the slough to carry off the water from four or five miles of subsoil tiles. The next year, rows of corn and soybeans displaced the resident plovers, bitterns, frogs, arrowroot, sedges, and cordgrass. We did what 10,000 other Midwest farmers did with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we ‘reclaimed’ empty land in a common belief that agriculture was the only proper use for soil and water.
Calling a place ‘empty’ when we don’t encounter what we expect or desire has a long history in North America. In 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition from St. Louis west across the plains of Kansas to Colorado. From his account and those of other explorers, the empty region was called the ‘Great American Desert,’ unfit for settlement or cultivation. To Pike and the other explorers reared among eastern forests and settlements, the plains seemed empty—a void of grass, sage and wind, populated by a few nomads. To the Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Comanche peoples, the Great American Desert constituted a well-settled land of plenty because they knew what to look for. ‘Empty’ didn’t exist.
Writers of fiction and science have and still do write about the dark void of space, the emptiness between celestial bodies. That description worked for a while but now we are learning it isn’t true. The dark void, isn’t ‘empty’ at all but filled with ‘dark matter’ we don’t yet understand, gamma rays we measure, and ‘black holes’ we can’t see with our naked eye but measure as gravitational force. Stars, nebulae, galaxies and their suns, planets and moons don’t float in nothing but exist in the gelatinous matter of space, like peas suspended in aspic.
The idea of ‘empty’ fascinates because we can project onto it whatever fantasies, desires, or dreams we pursue. In the settlement of the American West, politicians, charlatans, and honest settlers projected their fondest visions onto the land without seeing or incorporating what was already there. The boastful later claimed they made ‘something out of nothing’ but the facts of history say otherwise. Homesteaders believed ‘rainfall follows the plow,’ and broke the plains in order to recreate their version of a democratic Eden. Years of drought and blowing dust soon exiled from this garden as surely as Adam and Eve. Political subsidies dammed rivers to irrigate saline soils until they turned too salty for crops. Hydro dams on the Columbia River ruined a valuable salmon fishery because all that waterpower was going to ‘waste,’ going for ‘nothing.’ Empty.
Looking back, I see how we and other farmers fell into the same emptiness trap on our farms and used the ‘empty’ space of the ‘slough’ as a screen on which to project our particular vision of a better world. Our singular vision served us as its principle beneficiary in terms of more acres for crops, more bushels per acre and more dollars per bushel.
It worked, in the short run but not forever. Not for us, and not for many others. After half a century of widespread wetland drainage across the Corn Belt, the nation had more land in production than it needed. Drainage hindered ground-water recharge, lowered water tables, hastened precipitation run-off and severe flooding. The productive acreage gained from drainage added to the on-going economic problems of grain surpluses and lower prices. Collectively, we did this to ourselves.
My father retired our fields after 50 years of cropping and enrolled them in a conservation program. He planted the farm to grass and trees, he severed the tile lines to stop drainage, and used the levees that once kept water off the fields to hold it in. Today, rushes, cord grass, sedges and arrowroot grow around the water’s edge; mallards and teal breed there, so do terns, sandpipers, herons and bitterns. Pelicans rest during migration along with coots or mud-hens. This isn’t a fully restored marsh, it’s a prosthetic one. It’s making amends, an admission we didn’t value what was there in the first place.
Empty doesn’t exist. If we think it does, it’s because we are blind to our conceits. We see something as ‘empty’ because we lack the imagination, the humility, or the desire to look beyond our presumptions and notice what already exists. Emptiness exists only within us. We risk harming ourselves and others if we are blind to what is already in place and then call it ’empty.’