It was only a box in marbled brown Bakelite plastic but it was more formative in the way I perceive and think about the world than any other medium of communications. Radio. Listening. Imagining. I have a blog and a website, I watch some television and read some on-line news, subscribe to magazines and a daily newspaper but it is the radio that makes the biggest impact. That and books. Of all these sources of communication, I rely most on the radio. Why?
When listening, I think much more critically about what I’m hearing than when I receive the same information on television. Radio engages the imagination, the inner person, while television is passive (and there’s science to back this). Perhaps my attachment to radio comes from growing up without television. I was 13 when we got a TV and 14 when I went off to a boarding school without it (but I had my radio) and then on to college. By then, my media habits were settled.
Humans evolved elaborate ways to transmit knowledge through oral communication long before they developed pictures or writing. Indigenous peoples around the world have accurately transmitted, across many generations, factual details of their ancient history that are confirmed by archeology. For centuries, the first books of the Hebrew Scriptures were transmitted orally until they were written . Listening and memory are closely linked. Listening entails making mental pictures that are uniquely personal and aid our ability to recall them. (“The movie isn’t as good as the book.”) The images are eidetic parts of us. I can’t say the same for TV. Nor has the technological capacity to accelerate the rate and volume of communication been matched by a comparable improvement in the quality of what we communicate. In fact, some technology seems to contribute to shorter attention spans and less time to digest what we are hearing.
Call me old fashioned, but the radio—the medium of the spoken word—requires careful listening. It began early for me (and many other children) when my parents read to me before I learned to read. Before that, I “read” books to my sister because I had unconsciously memorized the stories. Later, after I learned to read, Dad and I enjoyed historical novels that he read aloud. (No surprise, perhaps, that I studied to be a historian.)
Unlike the neighboring farm wives, my mother didn’t listen to daytime radio programs and didn’t join in discussions of A Brighter Day, Ma Perkins or The Romance of Helen Trent. She was a librarian cum farmwife, she read or worked crosswords when she had free time.
Dad grew up near Philadelphia during the Depression and the radio was a principle source of entertainment. On the farm at midday dinner, he occasionally listened to the stock market news. No, not the Wall Street market but the livestock market for canners and cutters, barrows and gilts, heifers and steers at the South St. Paul. At harvest time, he followed the status of corn and soybean futures and other information of no interest to me. On Friday nights, he tuned into the boxing matches sponsored by Gillette razor blades. Sometimes he mimed with his fists, a right to the jaw, a left to nose in the rapid-fire broadcasts.
My sister and I usually washed, dried and put away the supper dishes. And if I didn’t have lessons to do, I listened to Dragnet, The FBI in Peace and War, Suspense and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons and other showsdepending the day of the week. My Saturdays revolved around broadcasts of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and, when I outgrew that, Dad and I listened to Gunsmoke, Perry Mason and Have Gun, Will Travel. On Sunday mornings, we often listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on our drive to church. In the afternoons during winter, my parents listened to classical music concerts by the NBC Orchestra while my sister and I squabbled playing Monopoly. At suppertime, we laughed with Jack Benny and Our Miss Brooks. Even after all these years, I can recall the theme music, the lead in and even bits of episodes.
Listening sharpened my critical thinking. As a writer today, I am still awed at the radio script-writers’ economy in using words to tell a complete story, limn a character and generate humor. Lately, I have begun listening to audiobooks as I drive and notice how the images I “see” in my mind are different from those when I read. It is the same with learning Spanish late in life. If I read “aloud” just under my breath, the ideas and images are clearer than if I only read visually.
Nature and culture have designed us for sophisticated oral communication. To think before we speak. It is still good advice. Listening to the radio helped.
May 30th is the 150th anniversary of celebrating and remembering deceased veterans. It began in 1868 as Decoration Day to commemorate the soldiers slain in the Civil War, and later those lost in the Spanish-American, World War I and World War II. As a child in the 1950’s, we celebrated the day in quaint ways that seem almost relics from another century. I remember Decoration Day (as we called before 1971) as a more solemn and communal occasion than it seems after changing its observance from a fixed date to the end of a three-day weekend on the fourth Monday in May. Along the way, we may lost much of the communal solemnity.
Decoration Day always occurred during the most glorious weather southern Minnesota can offer. A time to honor the dead at a season of new life. The trees were leafed out, wild phlox and geraniums bloomed in the woodlands, orioles and meadowlarks trilled from the fencerows and cottonwood groves. This day meant two things important to this schoolboy: my little sister’s birthday and the last week of classes before summer vacation.
My memories of our small-town Decoration Day celebration began with the sale of buddy poppies in the Rexall drug store, the Ben Franklin dime store and other shops. Veterans of World War II sold them to raise money for comrades disabled in conflict. At the age of 10 or 11, I couldn’t explain why I bought one except everyone expected me to. Like going to church, I did it because–well–everyone else did it. It was part of being an American to wear this icon of remembrance and sacrifice.
On this day, the merchants of Janesville hung out flags and there was a parade led by the VFW honor guard carrying the American flag followed by the drill team marching along, the sun gleaming off their chromed helmets and the barrels of the Springfield rifles on their shoulders. Behind them came VWF Women’s Auxiliary and the high school band playing patriotic songs for this solemn occasion. If there were speeches, I don’t recall them but they weren’t things boys remembered.
Decoration Day meant a trip to the Janesville Cemetery on a knoll a mile east of town. In the days leading up to the celebration, families raked the ground over the graves, mowed the new grass and decorated the headstones with flowers (real or made of paper), and small American flags. Our family went to the cemetery with Aunt Faith to visit her father’s grave. On the headstones I saw many familiar surnames, the ancestors of my classmates and school chums. Even as a boy, I felt a palpable but still inexpressible link connecting me to those lying beneath the headstones.
Almost every man I knew when I was a boy had served in World War II in some capacity. Uncle Walter, our neighbor’s brother, lost an eye fighting the Japanese. Our dentist served in the cavalry (without horses), mother’s cousin was a B-24 crew chief and my uncle Rob ran an Air Force fighter communications network in China.
Mrs. Wegge, our sixth-grade teacher, prepared us for Decoration Day. I recall learning the first stanza of the famous poem, In Flanders’ Fields, written in 1915 by a Canadian soldier amazed to see the brilliant red flowers blooming in the hellish no-man’s land churned and pocked by shells:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The poem’s elegiac meaning made little impression on me until the summer of 1961, after I graduated from high school. I visited Flanders in Belgium as part of an air cadet exchange with other NATO countries. Belgium is one tenth the size of Minnesota and a battleground during much of its history. Flanders lies north of Brussels, Waterloo, the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, lies just south of it and Bastogne, a major battle of World War II, lies to the east. During that month, our Belgian Air Force hosts showed us historic sites from many wars. We laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown and our contingent sat atop the hull of a tank destroyed in the battle for Bastogne, sixteen years before. I returned home from Belgium amid a national mobilization for conflict with the Soviet Union over access to Berlin. War seemed very close.
The grief of the Civil War, the Great War and World War II touched virtually every American community and nearly everyone knew of a family that had lost someone. Congressional declarations of war and shared sorrow once mobilized the nation into a common effort. For 30 years, compulsory military service gave young men a common and transformative experience and every family a direct stake in going to war or opposing it.
John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country” has lapsed with time. The abolition of the draft and reliance on a wholly professional military has made serving one’s country an option, a choice but not a shared responsibility. I fear this change has made us numb to the conflicts ostensibly waged for our protection. And with this disconnection, we may lose our understanding of Memorial or Decoration Day as a time of comunal remembrance.
Good Friday? As a boy, I wondered why they called it good? What was so good about getting killed? As a ten-year-old in the 1950’s, I took certain things for granted because adults didn’t encourage questions about basic assumptions. And besides, we lived on a farm and I had other, more immediate things to do—like feed the chickens. That’s just the way things were.
Our family shopped in the Minnesota village of Janesville, population 1,100. It had a stoplight, a town cop, a volunteer fire department, a public school and one of every necessary commercial service: grain elevator, drug store, coffee shop, gas station, furniture store-funeral home, hardware, dentist, doctor, veterinary, butcher, beer joint, five and dime, feed and hatchery. There were three active churches: Trinity Lutheran (Missouri Synod), St. Anne’s Roman Catholic and St. John’s Episcopal.
In those days, your particular denomination defined you and your associations socially much more than it does today. Your church reflected your ethnic origins, beliefs, state of spiritual salvation (as seen by others) and whom you might marry. The German immigrants and their children attended Trinity Lutheran, the children of Irish and Polish immigrants went to St. Anne’s and the Yankees, like my family, belonged to St. John’s Episcopal. Ecumenism wasn’t in anyone’s lexicon and a “mixed marriage” was an anathema, a kind of cultural treason that could get your exiled from the family.
The Missouri Synod church was a particularly strict and conservative sect. When boys were invited to join the town Scout troop, the Lutheran pastor said “no!” because—God forbid—his boys might come into contact with Catholics! To keep the children faithful, the church had an elementary school (grades one to eight) conveniently located across the alley from the public school. We farm kids lived on adjacent to each other and rode the yellow buses to our respective schools.
During recess on winter days, we public school boys took on the ‘Dutchies’ (for their ancestry) in epic snowball wars across the alley. We organized. Those with the strongest arms threw and the rest of us packed ammunition. It didn’t matter who threw first. The tribal response always came in force and dense salvos of hard-packed snowballs flew back and forth. Sooner or later, someone laced snowballs with pebbles. Tears and blood followed. When the bells rang, the day’s war ended and we returned to classes gloating over our victories. Later, we boarded the buses and sat with the foes we fought so viciously earlier in the day. No one held a grudge.
Despite our sectarian prejudices, Lutheran, Catholic or Episcopal, we reverenced Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. That said, we had no ecumenical services until after Vatican II, and then only on a limited basis. Instead of ecumenism, and despite the narrower opinions and preferences of that time, we gave each other space to observe holy days and ceremonies without interference or criticism.
Everyone celebrated Christmas in a cheery and quasi-secular way but Good Friday felt different. It passed as a subdued afternoon, as if a storm brooded, and adults said little and children were shushed. Whether by custom, ordinance or informal agreement, Janesville shut down between the hours of noon and three o’clock. The bank, drug store, five and dime, grocery and even the bar closed to observe the hours when Jesus suffered on the cross and darkness covered the land. Many of us sat in our respective churches, our altars bare, the crosses draped in black veils and listened to the Gospel lesson about betrayal, death and forgiveness—the same Scripture in each church. During these hours of sober self-examination rose the prayers asking forgiveness of our sins.
Now, looking back from a half-century on, I know our differences in ancestry, ethnicity and prejudice blinded us to what we shared in common. Maybe that’s why it was a good Friday. In those three hours, we were of one spirit in reverence for something we held in common even if we refused to recognize it. These days, three hours of publicly shared and reflective silence could help us all see something greater good we share lying just beyond our immediate prejudices and passions.
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.
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.
I fish. I fish because it’s been a predestined part of my life since the age of two when my Dad gave me a book; Trout, by Ray Bergman. Published a couple years before my birth, it is a literary classic on trout and how to fish them. In the fly-leaf, my 23-year-old father inscribed his hope we would fish together someday. And we did. For 62 years.
Fishing fills me with wonder because it is ancient and yet still an essential foraging skill in certain parts of the world. In my life, however, fishing is an art, the subject of literature, and imbued with romance. Trout bedazzle me with their cunning beauty. Red and black spots speckle the bronze sides of the brown trout, and the mottled green-black sides of the brook trout are intensified by the contrasting red and white trim of their fins. Brown and brook trout are beautiful creatures of such allure as to weave a spell over those who seek them. I’m hooked.
Trout draw me to the stream and I’m enthralled with the life living along it. A day of fishing infuses me with the sound of running water, and the shrubbery twitters of warblers, thrushes, and catbirds. I see more clearly when blinded by light, broken and refracted on the riffle of water sliding over the shingle of limestone. Delicate mayflies, ephemeroptera, rising from the water’s film, mating and dying, tell me trout may soon feed with carnal abandon. And most of all, I’m enchanted by the trout themselves. The world as they see and know it intimately is a world I can’t enter, except through imagination.
Our home waters is a half-mile of a spring-fed stream in southeast Minnesota. For more than 60 years, my father and I fished this stretch of water flowing along the base of a sheer, limestone cliff where delicate harebells and ferns grow on narrow ledges. A hundred or more feet above us, ground-hugging junipers lean over the cliff like curious gargoyles. Our stream chuckles sibilantly over limestone shards, and gurgles around blocks of stone in the deeper pools beneath the bank. This is where Dad and I first fished together, and where we last fished together.
Early on, along these banks, he taught me the rudiments of fishing. In my first years, Dad fished close by me and, if he hooked one, handed his rod to me so I could learn to play the trout and bring it to the stream bank. Sometimes he stood behind me, his put his hands on my arms, and guided my cast so I learned the timing in setting the hook. If I was too slow, the trout spit out the fly. If I was too quick, I jerked the fly from its mouth.
Beyond that, there was only so much a father could teach a young son, and only so much a youth was willing to learn directly from his old man. Dad fished methodically, patiently working the water before moving farther. From watching him, I learned to cast rhythmically, lay a tiny fly on a spot 25 feet away, and gauge how the currents would affect the drift of my line and fly. After that, I had to learn and develop, by trial and error, my personal style of fishing.
We fished together but separately, keeping several hundred yards of stream between us. When either of us hooked a trout, he or I whistled an alert so the other could watch and enjoy what we hoped was a spectacle. On difficult days, when trout were few, we stopped to compare notes on what flies worked best, or in where in the stream—riffles, pools or deep runs—the trout seemed to be skulking. Or we talked about the type of rises we saw—the lunge into the air after a caddis, the subtle suck that pulled a mayfly under, or maybe subsurface foraging of emergent insects. Wooing a trout entailed fashioning an approach—upstream or down, a particular fly—floating or sunken, a lair—riffles or pools. Out of consultations were memories made and bonds forged.
Decades later, I took my daughters to this stream and taught them fishing the way Dad taught me, then released them to fish on their own. I still see my oldest daughter, red hair pinned up, overalls rolled above her knees, standing in a mountain stream catching one rainbow trout after another. And see my youngest daughter showing off the prowess she honed while working summers on a Wyoming dude ranch. They validated everything I learned from Dad and taught to them.
The anticipation of fishing gives nearly as much satisfaction as fishing itself. The rod, the line, the fishing vest retain residual scents of fish oils and sunlight. A week before the opener, nothing is pleasanter than checking the waders, the boots, flies, and the net. Within these simple tasks lie memories if not stories of other days. Nothing bonds fishermen together like shared memories and tales well told. Some fish stories we tell are true but there are others stories we tell because we wish they were true. And in telling them, they acquire a kind of truth that need not rely on facts.
In the end, whether fishing for food or for sport, I think the idea of fishing and the act fishing constitute a form of seduction. Getting the trout to rise to a fly made of feathers and silk requires great skill. The good cast is an act of physical grace, and choosing and presenting an irresistible fly is the craft of the heart. Like any good seduction, there is a hook hidden within an attractive proposal. But there is an unanswerable question: Who is the seducer and who is the seduced? Is the seducer the exquisite trout that calls the fisherman to the stream to spend his day casting in hope of a conquest? Or is the seduced the trout that falls for the fisher’s proposal, the artificial fly? Like so many pleasurable seductions, both parties share a willingness to seduce and be seduced. And that, perhaps, is the allure of the stream.