New and Lost Southern Friends

I made a new friend that week and mourned the loss of a friend I never got to know.

The new friend was made in the small back yard of the Florida house in which My Love Dee was raised, it in the few feet of green between the house and a canal that leads out into Tampa Bay. That friend, a big old oak tree, filled my heart on that recent week when words from a favorite tree were required; it embraced me much in the same ways I’m held by the gnarled old oaks at our farm on the Eimon Ridge.

The oak was a wonderful place to sit on a recent morning to watch the sun rising across the canal, light fighting through morning clouds that might help keep that June Florida day reasonably cool.

The place has its own beauty in the same way our Wisconsin farm has its own beauties. I paused under the oak to wonder what the place was like, though, before such human development that’s arrived – before the constant buzz of human activity and whooshing cars passing near the house and its grand tree.

The oak was so familiar in its twisted and gnarled branches spreading wide from its massive trunk to shade the soil below, those branches inviting young spirits to climb and explore the tree’s heights. Its bark feels and looks much like my familiar old oaks at the farm, though the leaves are different and stay green through most of the year instead of bronzing and eventually dropping as the farm oaks’ leaves during autumns and winters.

It’s a Southern Live Oak, but its heart and DNA are oak just as the farm’s Burr Oaks, White Oaks and Red Oaks.

It’s an oak, and that’s all my soul needs to know.

Soon enough, we’d be returning to our beloved farm with the glories of its ridges and valleys, and with its solitude and quiet. And though I long for our farm and soil so familiar to me, I knew our departure would cause me to miss those things I’ve come to know at the place of Dee’s roots.

I’d certainly miss her father Randy, with his stories of wisdom and wit. I’d also miss that old oak tree and its wisdom.

The tree’s words dropped onto me with some of its old and dried leaves as I sat beneath it, me sipping my second cup of coffee of the morning.

The tree told tales of the large recreational boats that have made their way to that end of the canal, the boats’ passengers filled with fish and fun from the big bay, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

It told me stories about Dee and her family sitting beneath it during her youngest years, them yet so young and with so much life ahead of them.

It described years of fighting hurricane winds howling across the bay, and of searing days of southern sun with blistering heat and steaming humidity; of massive lightning bolts and then nights of mystically starred nights.

That old tree reminded me of the days we celebrated the life of Dee’s mother at that house, reminding me of time taken beneath that tree to reflect upon her joyous mortal days.

I considered as I sat beneath it how the oak would remind me that we need to be here more often to allow Dee to recharge her soul with time in the place that raised her – with her father, mother’s memory, the big water and that tree.

My coffee mug emptied, I took leave from the tree for a refill to continue gathering the tree’s words and to watch the morning continue to unfold before me. Upon my return, I made note of a work-crew across the canal.

It didn’t take long before I realized that the crew was there to remove from a neighboring back yard a tree nearly cloning the one I’d been visiting. The neighboring oak and its likeness to my new friend-oak had caught my eye a few days previous, it also sprawling wide across that neighboring soil.

The workers’ saws buzzed through the morning, carefully dropping branches from its heights so it wouldn’t fall upon any buildings beneath.

My heart sank with the reality that I was watching. I’d been surprised at how the oaks were hanging over its owners’ houses, a break from any number of massive branches threatening to crush roofs.

The oak had to be removed for the safety of the house and its owners.

Narrower and narrower the tree stood as the workers’ saws hummed, until finally only two branches standing most vertically from the stump remained.

The mechanical lift-bucket rose with one of the workers to those two branches. I felt the need to yell a farewell to the tree as they thumped to the soil, its impact felt in my chest on the opposite side of the water.

I looked into the branches of the oak above me and was sure I could see sadness in the leaves. My tree already had bid a farewell to the reflection it saw in the water between; like any being deep into its autumnal life, both trees knew their times were short.

The neighboring tree, hours earlier a symbol of all that can be strong, had been reduced to piles of cut-up wood, its small branches chipped and hauled to a compost pile and its large branches chunked into firewood-sized pieces lying on the ground and in the backs of trucks and trailers.

And then, the massive trunk itself was cut to finalize the tree’s demise.

I hadn’t watched the entire process, in part because there were other things to do in my ongoing life and in part because of the sadness I felt in my misfortune in seeing the tree’s removal. I returned to the base of my oak for a while later on in the day, only to see the crew with a mechanical stump-grinder removing the last signs of the life that hours before had stood in such majesty.

I returned to my tree a bit later, and saw the crew filling the spot with topsoil and green-grassed sod.

The tree and any sign that it had been there were gone.

I turned my face up to again glance into my tree’s branches and leaves, and rain started falling – tears falling from the leaves and onto my face, and then gathering on my face to run down as tears on my own cheeks.

But we smiled at each other, that oak and I, knowing that we still had each other and that it would continue to stand and open its branches in an inviting embrace for me.

The moment made it all-the-more important to schedule another visit with my friend, that oak.

Days would be plenty, even as I stumble more deeply into my own autumn, for me to listen to the oaks on our farm on the ridge in Wisconsin.

Days would be much fewer for visits with that oak along the canal in Florida.

Only selfishness can keep me from giving adequate attention to the oaks in both places.

I made one last visit to the Southern Live Oak and broke off a piece of its thick bark to slide into my pocket. It would be introduced to our farm’s trees; they can share stories about my visits.

— Scott Schultz

The Buzz and Snap

The world was abuzz as I worked around one of our farm’s lilac bushes, their spring bloom fully under way.

The buzz was a constant drone in a variety of keys, with honeybees, bumblebees and a couple hummingbirds doing their morning business on the blossoms of violet shades warmed in the spring morning’s sunshine.

It was easy to know what drew them to that bush. The sweetness draws me toward the lilacs each spring, my variety of choices plenty when it comes to finding an excuse to be near such goodness. Most often, though, I’ve had to admit that my reasons for being near the lilacs were more for pleasure and leisurely contemplation instead of for real work.

I simply enjoy being around the lilacs.

Such simplicity isn’t what draws the flying buzz to the lilacs, though. Their work is of the sort that provides them life-giving nectar and pollen There is no leisure in their presence and me lazing around them too long always has made me feel a little lazy. And, over the years, my presence even has seemed a little irritating to the flying buzz machines

I heard in the morning’s buzzing a reminder of a similar morning when I’d gotten in the way of honeybees’ work along the edge of a cranberry marsh.

On that morning so many years ago, I’d assigned myself to a newspaper story about honeybees that were contracted to pollinate plants – mostly agricultural – across the countryside. I found at that central Wisconsin cranberry marsh some bees that each year were carried in their hives to the South during winter and then hauled on trucks back to the North during summer.

I interviewed the father and son who owned the cranberry marsh, them having been among the growing number of cranberry producers whose harvests depended upon the plants’ pollination by bees managed by a contracted honey producer. Morning warmth massaged my shoulders as we leaned against my truck and talked, the truck’s hood serving as a traveling desk for the notebook in which I excitedly scribbled a record of their stories.

The faint-but-still-distant light buzzing could be heard from the bees, the sunrise already having excited them into full productivity.

The interview completed, I wanted to take plenty of photographs of the farmers, the stacked wooden hives and, of course, the bees working on the cranberries’ blossoms. While I made the photos, I asked the farmers how close I could safely get to the working bees.

“Oh, you should be able to get right down next to them on the plants down at the edge of the marsh,” the father casually replied.

I walked to the edge of the marsh and lay down on its edge, a foot or two from the blossoms’ colors. My old Nikon quietly clicked as I used its macro-zoom lens to pull the bees’ images in closer – and then, closer, and closer and closer.

The bees modeled poses for me, but with a distancing disdain that might be seen in the blank faces of runway fashion-models. They were doing their work; I was doing my work.

But then, a sharp flick snapped onto the back of my neck, just at my hairline. It snapped with the sharpness of a misused rubber band in the hands of an eighth-grade school bully.

And then, another snap on the back of my neck.

I’d gotten in the way of the honeybees’ work, and their rule enforcers were using their stingers to let me know that fact.

Calm.

I knew I had to remain calm and to not further disturb their efforts. I slowly stood to leave the area, attempting a nonchalance that contrasted the pain growing on the back of my neck.

Snap.

I turned and started toward my truck and the farmers.

Snap.

I remembered how panicked bees released pheromones to call upon winged, stinger-wielding friends to defend their territory.

Snap.

Snap.

Snap.

Snap.

The count of snaps was disappearing in the water running from my eyes and running on the water flowing down my cheeks. The formed pain was found in the histamine-induced mucus flowing from my sinuses.

Snap.

The farmers understood my anguish in the language of my histamine-induced sneezing.

Snap.

Finally, I reached the safety of my truck and the farmers.

The father and son were laughing at me and the situation; I might have been laughing, too, had it not been for my worry that I might be heading toward the sort of allergy-caused death about which I’d so often heard and read. I wondered whether it would have been a good idea to carry one of those antihistamine-shot pens when I travel to interviews on farms.

“It looks like you got stung a few times,” the father said, pulling from his pocket a clean handkerchief to wipe my face.

“I thought you said the bees wouldn’t bother me if I got down there to take the pictures,” I mumbled through the handkerchief.

“Hell, I guess I was wrong,” the father said. “I didn’t really know for sure, but that’s what somebody told me a while back. Well, I guess we know, now.”

The farmer pulled out the jackknife he carried in his pocket, me making note through my discomfort that he’s a good farmer because all good farmers carry a jackknife in a pocket.

He offered to use the knife’s blade to scrape from my neck any stingers the bees might have left there. I accepted and my physical systems started to return to normalcy as he worked.

My right hand was massaging the back of my neck as my mind returned to the sweetness and buzzing within our farm’s lilac bush. A smile formed on the corners of my mouth with the silliness of my memory and the foolishness of judging the fellow’s advice about photographing those bees.

It was time, I reminded myself, to walk away from the lilac bush before I got into the bees’ way the same way I’d gotten into the way of the bees working at that cranberry marsh.

“Work well and travel safely, friends,” I said to the bees, and then headed to other work in the farmyard.

— Scott Schultz

Finding Peace With A Fox

The vixen pranced back and forth, her auburn hair dancing in the spotlight with every step as she pranced along.

I don’t really like turning the old farm house’s yardlights on when I go outside at night, me enjoying the darkness and the chance to see more what’s in the sky over our rural place so much more brightly than what can be seen through the lights of even the smallest of street-lit villages or cities. But I’d forgotten something in the farmyard and that night needed the light on to retrieve it.

The light startled the fox that had been visiting the lawn in front of the old house. Perhaps she’d been there seeking some exquisite evening dining fare on one of the many rabbits that each night visit the soil around my bird-feeding stations.

Maybe she’d just stopped to say hello.

Whatever drew her there, her nervous pacing just a few feet in front of me – back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – made me wonder what I’d interrupted. I decided to question a little more; I retired to the house and shut off the lights to allow her to go about whatever business she was tending.

That wouldn’t always have been the case with her or the many other fox from her family that have visited this homestead on Eimon Ridge in the decades since we started borrowing this land from the soil’s spirits. Until recent years, we had what gently could be described as a Hatfields and McCoys relationship.

Oh, that fox family.

We met when Dee and I added chickens, ducks and turkeys to our small farm’s menagerie and immediately didn’t see eye-to-eye – especially on that morning when I was woken by a chicken’s squawking right below our bedroom window. The sunrise was just tickling the ridge’s east horizon when I leapt from bed to see what was going on. That’s when I literally locked eye-to-eye with a fox standing immediately below the bedroom window, it holding a mouthful of tail-feathers from the chicken that had escaped its grasp.

The fox did its best third-grade look of innocence.

“I didn’t do anything,” its eyes said. “This mouthful of feathers is nothing. We were just playing. Yeah, we were just playing. I was kidding around.”

I disengaged our stare and sprinted sans trousers to my gun safe to put an end to that fox’s nonsense. The resident fox and its friends the fishers already had decimated our flocks for three straight years, and I was determined to put an end to it.

That fox and I played hide-and-seek for several hours around the farmyard, corn fields and woods. In the end I was…well…out-foxed.

Neighbor Jeff stopped in later that day to ask whether I’d noticed the family of fox that were living around our farm’s granary. He’d caught sight of them the day earlier, and it softened his curmudgeonly soul.

He sipped his coffee at our kitchen table and paused to contemplate his words. I expected him to mention how we need to rid the farm of those marauders.

“Man, those little ones,” he smiled through the coffee’s steam, “they’re cute as hell.”

I went to the barn later that day and peered around the corner. It took a while, but eventually they came stumbling out a gap in the granary’s concrete footing. One by one, they appeared, still-fuzzed little kits finding the sunlight after having spent much of the day in the darkness of the crawl-space beneath the granary.

There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have hesitated at eliminating an entire family of those chicken-killing bastards. But that day I sat, mesmerized, watching the kits and their mother romp only a few yards from me on the lawn between the granary and road.

During that time, what would be another generation of chicken-killing-sons-of-bitches were our old cow-dog’s puppies; they were the kittens I’d find as a small boy exploring the hay-bales’ crevices in our family’s old barn over at Veefkind.

Those kits – those tiny foxes – somehow belonged on this old Eimon Homestead farm in the northern Driftless Area.

I swallowed my pride, that morning, and remembered the innocent eyes of that vixen’s early-morning look at me through our bedroom window. Maybe it wasn’t a look of want-to-be innocence, I thought: Maybe her eyes were expressing she and her family were hungry, and our farm’s chickens were the best source of food she could find that day.

I walked back to the farm house and contemplated what I was about to do.

The vixen and her kits would be allowed to use the granary’s crawl-space as their home. After all, I wasn’t planning to get another flock of meat-chickens or laying hens because I wasn’t as savvy as the foxes or the fishers – or, for that matter, the occasional owl or hawk that would snatch life away from one of the present poultry.

Weeks and months passed, and the family abandoned its under-granary home as autumn’s leaves tickled the land.

Wisconsin’s traditional whitetail deer hunt arrived in late November, and I took my seat against one of the farm’s old oaks to see whether I could harvest a little extra protein for that winter’s freezer. Daylight had just arrived when I heard a rustling in the leaves over my right shoulder – my senses springing to life with the chance that it was a whitetail buck shuffling itself toward me.

It wasn’t a deer. Instead, a small fox moseyed toward me and then stopped about five yards from me.

The fox turned its head side-to-side, studying me and seeming to consider his safety.

And then, the fox sat on its haunches.

The fox sat that way near me for the next 20 minutes; it eventually rose and stretched. It started to roam away from me, but then stopped to look back over its shoulder.

“Thank you,” the fox said in its glance, and then walked away.

I sat and chuckled at the fox’s moxie.

Was it brave?

Was it an idiot?

Was it really visiting to thank me for allowing the family to live beneath our granary?

Did it know the choices I’d made?

Those answers, I knew, only could be answered by the spirits of this land, and I’m not one of those spirits.

The fox family has lived under that granary every year since – each year bringing another batch of fuzzy red puffs that prance in that space of lawn between the granary and the road.

I gave a nod of wondering approval to the vixen as I crawled into bed and picked up a book to read after our encounter that recent night in the farmyard’s light.

“Hunt well,” my mind whispered to her. “You’re a spirit of this place and I’m happy we can share this land.”

— Scott Schultz

Life Viewed from the Caboose

“It’s good to finally meet you.  I know exactly where you grew up; I was in your front yard a couple times a week, for many years. I worked on the Soo Line, and spent a lot of time in the caboose.”

Few words have rattled me as much as those spoken by a nice fellow called Red, he then a member of a central Wisconsin city’s council that I was covering for the first time.

It took plenty to concern me during those years. Somewhat fresh out of the Marine Corps and at the age when young men think they know much but often are too foolish to realize how much they don’t know; I was charging forward into my journalism career with a new job at a daily newspaper. The newspaper was the perfect fit right then, its base city only about 15 miles (as the crow flies) from the Veefkind farm where I was raised.

The work I was to be doing at the newspaper focused on state and regional news and features, most often taking me out of the office and onto the soil I loved. But I also occasionally would be pitching in to cover some city issues and meetings.

It was at my first city council meeting where I met Red, a fit-looking fellow of about 60 in age with a slight wave in red hair that was shifting to silver-gray. He was pleasant from that moment, always greeting me with a smile from that evening we met until age faded us into different realms.

Everything about Red was pleasant, except for those first words he spoke to me – especially the “spent a lot of time in the caboose” part.

I waited for the hammer to fall; for Red’s eyes to darken into crimson and for his jaw to set before he set me straight about things he’d seen me do during my childhood. I’d have deserved it.

The Soo Line railroad had a spur line of about 30 miles that ran through central Wisconsin farmland, marshes and woodlots between Marshfield and Greenwood. It ran smack through our farmyard, our family’s farm built at the hand of Henry Veefkind, my great-great grandfather. A small community with a general store, post office and a couple mills had popped up there along that spur line, that unincorporated place dubbed Veefkind.

The lumber mills, general store and post office were only memories held by the older folks by the time I arrived on the scene, the post office having been saved and moved a few yards to house the chickens we kept on our dairy farm.

And though reasons for the spur line’s train to stop at Veefkind were gone, the line remained active during my childhood with the train passing through a few times a week to make its deliveries and pick-ups at the Spokeville feed mill five miles down the line and at the small cities of Loyal and Greenwood where farm-country commerce still thrived.

The railroad line only was about 50 yards from our front porch. It was part of my life, bordering on being part of my DNA.

It occurred to me that I might have stopped breathing for a few seconds while waiting for Red’s next words. There was a somewhat awkward pause before I forced a smile and uttered a jumbled introduction.

“Yeah,” Red continued, “we always got a kick out of how you’d flip your yardlight on and off when we came through at night; we made sure to blow the horn a couple times to let you know we’d noticed.”

A sigh of relief might have joined my breathing-now-returned. It seemed Red truly was ready to recall the good memories he had of seeing me and the other Veefkind farm-neighborhood hellions coming of age along the spur line.

I certainly did often run to the yardlight switches in the house or barn when the train passed through during darkness. Though in the countryside, the train’s engineer was compelled to blow the train’s horn when approaching the crossings angled across our driveway and the road a couple-hundred feet up the track. The engineer was kind in adding two or three extra honks of acknowledgement when the light was flashed.

That acknowledgement was grand for a youngster who was more apt to know about ways of cows, hogs, chickens and the soil than about the other-worldliness a train engineer might have found in what was sure to have been a lifetime of broad travel and adventure.

The blinked yardlight was a child’s signal that he’d need to see and learn about many places to help him understand his place on the rural soil; those two or three extra train-horn blasts were approving nods.

Red and I went about our business that first night. He’d occasionally revisit matters about the spur line during the next years when we’d see each other professionally or socially.

Red would ask who was on which farm along the way, whether the Loyal cannery still would be operating that season; whether the Spokeville feed mill and country store were in operation. He’d cast a few memories about the Veefkind general store or the long-gone Spokeville cheese factory.

Red never mentioned the matters that made me so nervous during our first meeting at that city council meeting.

The coming-of-age boys from farms along a couple miles of our gravel roads were plenty and of good imagination. Those imaginations included that the man sitting in the train’s caboose needed to be harassed.

Daisy Red Rider BBs lobbed lazily from sniper positions in farmyard trees and haymows rattled against the caboose’s outer walls as the train passed, the young shooters being most careful to assure no BBs would hit and damage the small windows of what the boys called the caboose’s crows nest where the caboose-man sat in apparent mid-summer day slumber.

Apples green and ripe were heaved and thumped against the caboose – when throwing the apples seemed boring, the boys contrived massive bicycle-tire-innertube slingshots anchored by oak-tree branches. The slingshots could fling apples hundreds of yards, making for accuracy and effectiveness against the passing train.

Had Red known those assaults were being made against the train and its caboose, and was such a polite fellow that he never saw fit to bring it up? Or, did the boys’ ambushes against the train not have the effectiveness that could be part of 11-year-olds’ imaginations?

I wondered whether Red ever looked out of his caboose-window to see shiny metal on the tracks, where boys had taped heaps of pennies onto the rails to see how many pennies could be stacked and effectively crushed to an unrecognizable flatness under the train’s wheels.

Had he seen the little 6-year-old boy at Veefkind sitting, relieved, on his farm’s small Ford tractor after nearly running into the slow-passing train because the boy wasn’t heavy enough to effectively step onto the tractor’s brakes? Maybe Red even knew that the boy hadn’t told his parents that he was driving the tractor across the tracks and the road to check on cattle-tank water in the heifer barn.

I considered what Red might have thought when he saw the wild farm boys around Veefkind burst from the right-of-way brush to yell goofiness as they ran to chase the train – never thinking about what might have happened had the engineer decided to stop the train.

But Red never mentioned any of those matters; for that I don’t know whether I should be grateful or ashamed.

I’m OK knowing that the fellow in the caboose seeing a young man who’d grown up and who was happy to share the good memories about life along that track and the countryside that surrounded it. He saw a young man who’d grow to know the importance of his actions that night and since.

The rail line was shut down many years past. But the lessons of the track and of a guy folks called Red will endure.

Red helped me realize the importance of seeing the world from a train’s caboose.

— Scott Schultz

The Milkhouse Morning Light

The milkhouse window’s glow was something I noticed a few years ago; it’s become an early morning companion.

The glow in that east-facing window first caught my eye when I stepped outside to do a pre-dawn appraisal of the farmyard. Its appearance brought concern about whether I’d left a light on in the milkhouse or whether there was a fire somewhere in the east.

A glance to the east started to put my mind at ease, but not without question. Logic was telling me the glow was a reflection of the morning’s first orange-yellow light peeking over the east horizon, but something in my mind initially didn’t allow me to believe such a dim glow growing in the east could be casting such a bright reflection into the window.

I wondered again whether I’d left a milkhouse light burning the previous day. And then, the brightening glow on the window reassured me that it truly was the morning light’s reflection of that growing sunlight.

The reflected light shined into my being and made my heart glow with a little extra warmth on that cool spring morning.

Such joy has been mine to have a means here on this ridge to see the sunrise whether I’m facing east or – thanks to that milkhouse window – facing west.

The window’s sunrise glow most often greets me while I’m working in the farm’s office on the southwest corner of our old farmhouse.

When the glow appears, I most often wait a couple minutes for it to brighten a bit, and then turn to look to the east as best I can through the office’s south-facing window. Each morning’s opening is a little different than the others on that east horizon, this time of the year making me walk to one of the house’s east windows to get a better view – the earth’s May tilt being such that the best view is farther north than during other times of the year.

No matter the splendor in the east, though, most days I take a few extra glances at the milkhouse window to watch the colors shift and mix in it. And, I watch those colors spread like oil on water, first small on the window and then sprawling to cover the full window and then the entire milkhouse wall and then the barn and adjacent shed.

I figure that I’ll someday mosey into the milkhouse when the morning glow arrives on that window, to have a look out from the inside if only to see what the window sees on that east horizon.

I’d be sure to note what light is cast across the milkhouse’s inner sanctum, wondering whether it might bring to light visions of Erling Eimon or his ancestors working the bulk-tank, milk-cans and milking equipment there in that place made holy in communion with the soil the Eimon family homesteaded.

I’d be sure to note what light is cast on that spot, wondering whether it might bring to light visions of earlier people who borrowed this land before the Eimons or the Larsons or my wife and I borrowed this spot on the ridge.

I fear, though, that the window also would glisten light onto tears the milkhouse cries for memories of what had been – that of bustling activities of cows and people; tears of toil and loss; tears of successes and joys.

There are so many reasons that mornings shining in that milkhouse window are so important to a soul such as mine – reasons that go far beyond the simple beauty and joys found in another sunrise over the grasses, trees and water of such breathtaking rural countryside.

Those who’ve had fortune to know dairy farms in their purest forms understand how the milkhouse is the belly of a farm. It’s the place where the farm’s controls live, and the place to where the white-gold milk flows. It’s the place where meetings are held, elbows leaned on bulk-tank lids to negotiate sales or to spend a good visit with a neighbor.

The milkhouse is the farm’s central gathering place for all a dairy farm was, is, and will be. It’s the farm’s soul and holds the land’s spirit.

Maybe the real reason I occasionally hesitate when I see the milkhouse window’s morning glow isn’t because I’m wondering whether I’d forgotten to flip a light-switch.

Maybe the real reason is because I learned in my youngest age about how the milkhouse is that soul and holds that spirit.

Maybe, in that milkhouse window, I’m seeing the farm’s aura starting to shine for yet another day.

It all makes me look forward to tomorrow, when the milkhouse window glow shines life into me and asks me to join that new day.

— Scott Schultz

Fanning Mills of the Mind

My inherited it-didn’t-register-right-away trait initially made me miss what Dee asked the other day as we drove down a local highway. It was appropriate that what she asked took a moment to sift between my always-stirring thoughts.

“That thing with the ‘for sale’ sign sitting on the edge of that driveway,” Dee pressed. “What was that?”

I considered for a quarter-mile or so of our travels while she described it as a sort of wood-box machine with a round part on it.

And then, I remembered seeing what she was describing; it took a little thought to remember what it’s called because I hadn’t used one for quite a few years.

“It’s a fanning mill,” I replied. “It’s used to clean oats that’ll be used for planting.”

I told her how oats would have been poured into the machine’s top and sifted down through a couple of shaking screens that allowed weed seeds to drop through the screens. A fairly large fan blew chaff and any other unwanted dust and grit from the oats. The oats left the bottom ready to be bagged to later be carried to a grain drill for sowing.

There is pleasure in being able to tell Dee about such equipment, her a spirit of the soil but still being introduced to some of the old dirt and equipment she hadn’t known during her early years. I’m continuously learning from her about words, art, music, food, life, love, teaching and so much more – cherished are those moments when I get to tell her about farm equipment and methods, or about the rural countryside.

My excitement in telling her about the fanning mill was interrupted by the building need to cough that was growing in my chest and throat. That was followed by me quietly laughing at myself — me knowing the need to cough was the near-instant reflex memory of youthful days when such a machine was used on our farm.

The fanning mill sat on the bottom level of our old Veefkind farm’s two-story wood granary building, there fed by grain shovels or a chute that dropped oats from the upper story’s wooden floor polished smooth by so many years of oats moved across its wood-grains.

Recalling such a place of the soil, in a building built by my great-great grandpa Veefkind’s hands, always brings peace to my being.

Recalling the realities of such a place also can bring aches, coughs, sneezes and even thanks that such work is but that: Memories.

Work using the fanning mill required functional farmers’ kerchiefs of red or blue to cover our faces, that work resulting in us being covered with chaff, dust and grime. Kerchiefs dampened by our breaths would be caked in black filth of that chaff, dust and grime. Removing the kerchiefs showed nostrils and mouths not as filthy as all else about us, but still dirty.

Itching.

Sneezing.

Coughing.

I’ve wondered whether my lungs and sinuses hold some of that granary grime these five decades later.

The urge to cough passed as Dee and I continued to travel along the highway. Her being the driver allowed my mind to slip to the more pleasant recollections about the mill, those memories involving my earliest explorations of the granary and finding for myself the mysteries about how the fanning mill sorted the oats from the seed and chaff.

The mysteries of that granary and the fanning mill whet my curiosity to learn about the corners and crannies of all buildings around the farm – those beyond the dairy barn that didn’t hold nearly as many mysteries for a young mind because the barn served as a sort of second home.

There were explorations of the small building that had become our shop, it with the large old wooden pulleys, long shafts and wide belts used in earlier days to operate the windmill-driven pump for the farm’s well. It held a large tool chest containing great-great grandpa Veekind’s woodworking tools; it held a large hand-cranked drill press that kept a young farm boy’s hands busy for endless hours.

Veefkind’s old post office had been moved across our farmyard to become the farm’s chicken coop, and in that building I explored loose wall-boards to see if some old mail might accidentally have been caught there years earlier.

During visits to the farm run by the Fisher family up the road from our old Veefkind farm, I sorted through mysteries in a shed that held such wonders as a hand-crank blacksmith’s forge; there I played nonsensical music on a precious old pump organ that inexplicably made its way into that shed.

Dee’s words snapped my attention back to the present, me hoping she wouldn’t again mind speaking again because I’d again allowed my thoughts to drift. We’d reached our little farm up on Eimon Ridge, and I gathered that the conversation was about my need to deal with a couple of farmyard trees that needed to be removed.

Yes, those trees. I need to deal with the trees, as I’d long ago promised Dee.

The issue with those trees, it seems, is that the need to explore rural places for what they hold never seems to leave some of us. There’s much to explore on and within the countryside.

Fanning mills, it seems, are all across the land whether they be in a granary, shed, rural driveway or a pasture. They don’t even always look like fanning mills — sometimes looking more like grasses, the water, the sky, corn, wetlands, trees and animals.

Please excuse my inattention if my mind happens to drift into exploring them.

— Scott Schultz

Warmed Shelter from Cold Winds

The wind sliced from the north and pierced clothing normally worn while working around a farmyard on an early May morning; that wind’s edge honed sharp enough to make light gloves and an extra layer of jacket the preferences for any old spirit spending a decent amount of time out there.

That day was one of deceit – the azure sky fluffed with a few clouds and the sun’s spring warmth soothing. It was to be a day of some chores and then of sitting out with pen and paper to inhale the fragrance of words carried on the season.

But oh, for that wind.

All was perfect but only if there was shelter from the wind, maybe on the sun-splashed south side of one of the farm buildings, or on the base of an old oak’s south side. I didn’t have time to linger long at such places and instead went about the light work that needed to be done and then made my way to find warmth in the old farmhouse’s safety.

The old house greeted my spirit with a hug from Dee when I entered, and kissed my cheek with a warm cup of coffee in hand extended to me.

There were projects that needed to be dealt with in the house, some of them of unsavory mathematics and numbers and calculations I so abhor. Instead of turning attention to those things I allowed my eyes to drift to the beauty on the other side of the windows’ glass. My being followed and, though still sitting in the house, I still felt the wind scratching its cold fingers through my shirts.

I reached for a heavier shirt. An old photo was on the table where I’d cast the heavy shirt the previous night. After I pulled it on, I reached to pick up that photograph, a relic that I’d known for most of my life but which I’d only regained possession during more recent days.Scott and Ring on porch

There in the fuzzy black-and-white image I stood as a 2-year-old boy with Ring, the first dog I’d known at our family’s farm at Veefkind. My mother told me many years ago that the photo was taken on an early spring day, with snow still on the old Veefkind farmhouse’s back porch where Ring and I were standing.

Photograph and coffee in-hand, I roamed to the kitchen to continue warming myself with daydream-gazes outside through the windows and with the memories carried in that photograph.

Dee added additional warmth with her offering in a porridge of grits her southern-born brightness so taught her to master.

All was there, right then – my past and present – giving me no excuse for my body to know warmth.

I recalled that old Veefkind porch, so simple and small but to a child of young age a grand place to spend hours. It was the sort of warm place I’d been seeking while outside only moments earlier; memories of long hours of childhood daydreaming on that south-facing porch while in repose with the sun and Ring and favorite dog Laddie who followed.

That porch provided warmth when all around could seem cold. It became a sort of headquarters for me in those youngest years. And then, even during coming-of-age years it was a place where I could find the sun’s gentle embrace even when all in a boy’s life starts to become so overturned and confusing.

That porch has been considered many other times during my life. I’d often found warmth from it when the cold of confusion seemed so overwhelming.

I’ve wondered whether we’ve all needed to hang onto a place such as that rickety old porch, it gone from reality for so many years.

There always will be some warmth from a cold spring wind found on the old Veefkind porch, and I’ll always hold that in my spirit’s photographs. But I’ve found the greatest and most fulfilling warmth here at our home on the Eimon Ridge.

There’s a spot in one of our gardens that provides such protection from those cold spring winds. The protection is on the south sides of those old oak trees and around corners of the house and barn and machine shed. It’s hunkered on the south side of the small hill that rises a few feet west of our house. Those spots allow the youthful thoughts and dreams brought by the old Veefkind porch, but they also allow fulfillment of needs for more mature contemplation about life and this land.

And then, on that May spring morning, I felt the gentle touch of Dee’s hand on my shoulder as I sipped the warm coffee and spooned the hot grits she’d offered when I’d come back into our old farmhouse – that which is home as we’d never known. It brought a reminder that I’m warmed here in the present and will be until my old bones are returned to the soil.

I am warmed, then, in spirit and in body by all I know on this ridge.

— Scott Schultz

Answers of the Flower Moon

No invitation was needed to draw me from the confines of our old farmhouse during the couple hours before the May morning’s sun would light another day on our ridge. The brightness already there, reflected from the full Flower Moon, cast a spotlight across the countryside that was too appealing to ignore.

I followed the moonlight into the farmyard that morning, the moon already making its slow fall to the west horizon to allow the sun its own splendor on the opposite horizon. The moon and I stared at each other with hypnotic eyes through the light wedding veil cloud-wisps between us.

Moonset2 050720

There was a connection between us that spanned all decades of my life’s many seasons. Right then, we were the long-married couple at a comforting dinner, reading each other through candlelight. We were the couple who’d come to finish each other’s sentences and even know each other’s thoughts; each other’s weakness; each other’s strengths; each other’s habits.

We breathed together, the moon and I, in a gentle visual embrace.

The decades had been long, and we had questions plenty in hopes of learning even more about each other.

The moon asked why I hadn’t arrived sooner to gaze into its beauty and fawn over its splendor.

I asked the moon why more people weren’t turning back to the land’s comfort during troubling times.

The moon asked why I wasn’t caring more for the countryside we were borrowing from the spirit.

I asked the moon if she could help with weather to bless the soil with great fertility and the waters with blessed pureness.
The moon asked what drew me to this land so sacred that even the glaciers left it untouched.

The horizon pulled more quickly at the moon, its light softening from the whiteness of higher altitude and into a gentle amber.

I asked it to not leave yet, beckoning as I has so many more questions for the moon and it hadn’t answered any – just as the moon must still have so many more questions for me and I hadn’t answered any.

That night’s full Flower Moon was giving into the restful allure offered on the horizon’s bed; I was left standing in the farmyard to consider all the questions asked and unasked, and of all the answers still left unknown.

So many questions of me.

So many questions of love.

So many questions of life.

So many questions of nature.

So many questions of spirit.

So many questions….

I wanted to know that the joys I know in connecting with this land will continue to bring joy and understanding.

But the moon kept drifting toward its resting place.

I remembered, then, how a middle-aged fellow had been running 26.2 miles the previous Saturday — the distance he’d have been running had a marathon he’d been training to run that day not been canceled. Some folks asked the fellow’s father-in-law why the guy still would go ahead and run that distance despite the marathon’s cancellation.

“If you have to ask, I doubt you’d understand the answer,” answered the old father-in-law, himself literally and figuratively the veteran of many marathons.

As with that father-in-law’s insight, it occurred to me that the questions I sought from the moon weren’t for the moon to answer, but for me to answer; perhaps the moon’s questions also were my own and only for me to answer.

Truths being sought that morning dwelled only within my spirit. I’d sought answers in the moon, until then not remembering that the moon’s very glow only is a reflection of light shining from the sun. The answers were, and will continue to be, here with me on this place of ridges and coulees. And, because I’m of the soil, the answers will be here in this wonderful dirt.

I am my own questions and answers.

The soil is my own question and answers.

I blinked away the final hints of light from the moon now slumbered on that horizon. I’d found so many answers in it, but not as I expected. I’d rest easily the next evening, knowing the full Flower Moon would greet me that night and leave me to know the answers to so many of my own questions: those the answers reflected by the moon.

The full moon, as it always does, would fade into darkness during coming nights, the cycle of lightness and darkness we all find in our own places. Blessed are those who know their own light is here on the land – for me, on this little farm’s ridge. It’s knowing place, and knowing place is knowing self.

— Scott Schultz

Ages of Picking Up Rocks and Feet

It took two or three plodding strides to catch my balance after catching my work-shoe’s toe on the rock barely protruding from the barnyard. The long-gone voice of my father made a small chuckle emit from my lips, his sarcastic tone saying, “pick up your goddamned feet, old man.”

His echoing words were good advice, of course, and made me hear him during his last years cursing at his own inability to pick up his feet, so he wouldn’t trip on a rug or a field stone.

Whether a soul of my autumn years should remember to pick up my feet so as to not stumble on a somewhat hidden field stone that day was important, but inconsequential. While taking a moment to catch my breath and bearings in the barnyard, I considered how field stones have been tripping me in bad ways and in good ways since the youngest of my years.

The first memories I have of tripping on those rocks are among the earliest held in my rural being. They take me to the rock pile at our family farm over at Veefkind, the first of those rocks diligently picked from the land’s heavy loam to make more room for the crops on the farm built by my great-great grandfather Henry Veefkind.

There, I rested my young bones on those rocks during a spring day, them sharing with me the warmth they’d absorbed from the May morning’s sun. Our Farmall Super M buzzed in a nearby field with spring tillage under way, and our small Ford tractor hummed under my older brother’s guidance as it pulled our old green Oliver oats drill on another nearby field. Daydreams of me someday being grown enough to drive that farm equipment ahead of the dust-puffs they left hanging in their wakes were interrupted only by my curiosity about what treasures might lie within the rocks on my comfortable rock-pile place of rest.

My muscles responded to my curiosity by pushing my tiny hands to move one stone, and then another and then another. The stones pierced the air around me with razor-sharp clacks as I moved them from place to place on the pile. My senses worked to make note of the variety in sizes, though most had a similar weather-worn smoothness born of countless centuries of being moved in the farm’s soil and in being washed by so many years of rain.

And the colors.

Some of them had bright colors streaked within, and some had speckles of reds; some were fully muted red and some were tan and other shades to offset those of the dull gray I’d noted in the cloudy sky on a previous fall day.

I dropped one of the stones, and it firecracker-clacked hard against another, shattering a piece from its potato-shaped end. That required me to pick up the same stone and smack it against the others to see whether more might be prompted to break. I enjoyed the prehistoric stone-against-stone clattered hammering – an excitement that ceased when one of my forefingers found its way between my stone hammer and its anvil.

The stone pile’s deceit throbbed in my forefinger as I headed toward the farm-buildings to see what mischief I could find among chickens, hogs or Holsteins while older family-folks’ collective attention was directed toward the fields.

I’d return to the stone pile many times during that next year or two, often with the same treasure-seeking-broken-stone-hammering-finger-smashing results.

A couple more years passed until I was a ripe old 5-or-6-year-old. Early on a spring day at that age, I heard the directive that had seemed to never come soon enough: My father told me to climb aboard the spring-supported seat of our Farmall Super M and drive the tractor while the rest of the family picked rocks from the field and tossed them onto the wagon being pulled by the tractor.

The job was to hang onto the tractor’s steering wheel to assure that it didn’t veer much to the left or to the right. The machine was creeping along at the very slowest it could move, it in low gear with the throttle fully closed down. I could have reached the throttle, but had been admonished to not touch that lever lest my ass be warmed by Dad’s wide leather belt; there would be no stopping the tractor until my father re-boarded it with me because I couldn’t reach the clutch.

I drove while the others sweat, bent, straightened, bent, straightened and sweat in a process ad nauseam. I tired of trying to turn and watch the process behind me as I’d seen the older family members turn on the tractor’s seat to watch the equipment being pulled during other field-work, it all quickly becoming too boring.

The spring sun’s warmth eventually caressed my eyelids to a drooping slumber; I was jolted awake as Dad jumped onto the tractor to stop it because we’d reached the field’s end.

“Just go back to the house,” he said with a cock of the seed cap sitting crooked on his head pointing me on my quarter-mile walk back to the farm buildings where I worked to find more of my daily mischief among the chickens, hogs and Holsteins.

The seasons of being on the other end of the rock-picking process came soon enough and, while driving the tractor seemed boring, at least it wasn’t  sweat, bend, straighten, bend, straighten and sweat in a process ad nauseam.

We managed to add a couple more generations’ worth of field stones and our own treasures onto the Veefkind farm’s rock pile during my years there, like so many farmers of that era wondering why the rocks seemed to be the best crops grown on the fields. And, while tedious, we realized the importance of that chore when we’d hear a rock clatter through the forage chopper’s blades, rendering the blades dulled and ineffective.

I’ve occasionally thought over the years about the rocks on that pile – about all the mysteries they held within themselves and within the pile. What had they experienced during the ages, and how had they formed; how did they find the surface of our farms’ fields and allow us to gather them to our barnyard pile?

I’ve occasionally thought about the stones’ individual beauty and how they could have been transformed into a beautiful wall or fireplace.

I’ve occasionally thought about how I should remember to stop at the Veefkind farm while I can, to gather one or two of the rocks to hold as a family heirloom in honor of my family’s toils on that land.

The Veefkind farm’s rock pile disappeared sometime during the last 40 years or so, bulldozed back into the soil and covered in the barnyard’s duff. Perhaps someday, though, some fellow in the autumn of life will be walking across that soil and catch his foot on one of those rocks again risen – the echo of an old man’s voice saying, “pick up your goddamned feet, old man.”

— Scott Schultz

Land Symphony No. 1

A somewhat strange work schedule had me awake well before the sun rose on that Sunday morning in early May.

Though my schedule often has me working that time of the day, the work doesn’t normally allow me to stop and appreciate the seasons’ early mornings as I should. We should, after all, take every opportunity to pay homage to the land and all life that’s with it.

That Sunday morning, I filled a mug of coffee and went out for a seat on one of the resident Leopold benches. The countryside around our farm was still, but for a bit of breeze that would splash sounds of imagined seas through the budding leaves on the trees in the woodlots and around our farmyard. A trusting cottontail rabbit ignored my presence and then casually departed as I took my seat on the bench.

And then, a moment of hushed air followed by the songs of the peepers in our valley’s creek, and then the song of a robin and then of another robin ad then another. A cardinal joined in, followed by a mourning dove and then a wren.

Their songs built a mixed cacophony of the orchestra warming up for the symphony to greet morning. A purple grackle’s “caack-caack-caack” was the conductor’s baton tapped on the land’s music stand; the music slipped into a more organized prelude.

The curtain cracked open the slightest to the east horizon, a dull glow of light bringing hope of a show worthy of standing ovations and unending encores.

The slight breeze rejoined the performance, it carrying a beautifully subtle fragrance I knew the land was sending to calm my spirit: A neighbor had planted corn in a field across from our farm, planter-coulters having split the soil ever-so-slightly to allow perfectly measured seeds into the dirt. I’d also started work in one of our gardens the previous evening; together, they gave me the meant calm.

I closed my eyes for a few moments to listen to the symphony’s slowed second movement and to inhale the earthy perfume in the air. My mind drifted to the earliest days when I’d known such a moment – that while on a tractor pulling a three-bottom mouldboard plow through sod at our family’s old Veefkind farm, the tight soil cracking open under the old Farmall’s groans and emitting a burst of its perfume as I sat quarter-turned on that tractor’s seat.

That latest Sunday’s perfume-soil was much gentler than the beauty of those earlier times, but it reminded me how I needed to be in the theater to be part of the morning’s performance.

The light was turning the east horizon grapefruit golden as the bird-and-land symphony turned to its minuet movement, and all around me – the branches, the birds, the grass and the water on the creek in the valley below joined in dance. My pulse picked up and the pace of the rising light quickened in dance with the morning song.

And then, the symphony’s sonata with the sun having fully risen and all senses – that of mine, the land, the sky, the water, the plants and the sky – having fully opened to the day.

I took in the day’s new brightness over the small swirl of steam rising from what was left of my coffee, and then rose to track through the dew-glistened grass to check on the garden I’d tilled the previous night. My hand reflexively reached to the soil and I gathered some in my hand.

The hand rose close to my face, and I inhaled its perfume before tossing it back onto the garden.

The performance had been perfect for what I needed on that Sunday morning. The performance again helped the land’s spirit land fully onto my soul.

I stopped at our farmhouse’s front door and reflected a bit before reaching to open it. In that moment, I scolded myself for not having remembered to partake more often in such morning symphonies.

That will change, I admonished. The land won’t let me forget.

Bravo, dear land. Bravo.

— Scott Schultz