Pick, Pick, Pick, Pickin’ Through the Days

Sometime later during his life, my father quipped that people who raise large patches of cucumbers or tomatoes simply are being cruel to their children.

“People shouldn’t have kids just to pick their damned cucumbers,” he said.

I’m still unsure about what brought that statement out of him, or what memories of his childhood were passing through his mind. It was nowhere near a growing season when he uttered those words.

I’m even more unsure about how he seemed to have forgotten the demands he and my mother put upon me and my siblings where a myriad of farm work was concerned. We might not have had any cucumbers beyond those which our mother managed in her garden, but our diverse old family dairy farm had plenty of daily work put upon us on that farm.

All of that came to mind the other day as I straightened my aching old back after picking a few cucumbers and tomatoes from the gardens I keep at our small farm along Eimon Ridge in Wisconsin’s northern Driftless Area.

Moments earlier, I’d considered the contrasts between pulling spring weeds in a garden and picking cucumbers and tomatoes later in the summer. Each brings satisfaction in its own way, I supposed, but both become somewhat tedious after doing it for a while – a notion especially true after doing the pulling and picking every day for several weeks.

A friend has been raising an acre or two of cucumbers every summer for quite a few years at his place down the road near Independence. He’s gone as far as not letting his wife know how many mounds of cucumbers he’s planted in a year; I’ve graciously found acceptable excuses to not accept his invitations to join what he called fun in picking those cukes.

Even the healthful excitement of a well-grown garden can get old.

None of that even brings into play those times when a well-meaning fellow totes into the old farmhouse too many cucumbers or tomatoes from those daily pickings, particularly when the fellow depends too much – admittedly exclusively, in my case – on his wife to process that bounty.

Maybe a then-young lad whose family had a dairy farm up the road from my family’s farm at Veefkind was much more clear in his cucumber-and-tomato thoughts than I’ll ever be.

That lad, Steven, was 12 years old when he happened into our home farm’s machine shed, the farm by then having been taken over by one of my brothers. That day, I’d stopped by on my travels to say hello to that brother as he did some light work in the shed, Steven quietly lingering to catch our discussions about the day’s news.

My father, returning from his daily morning coffee visit to Harley and Elaine’s Bar and Grill down at Chili, saw my truck in the farmyard and stopped to take one of his late-life stabs at trying to impart some of his wisdom into our craniums.

Dad stopped in one of the shed’s big doorways and momentarily studied Steven.

“Hey Steven,” Dad said. “I just drove past your place, and it looks like somebody dropped a disc harrow into that couple acres of cucumbers your dad planted.”

“Yep,” Steven replied, his chest expanding with the measure of pride a 12-year-old might get when he’s about to tell an old neighbor that he’d hitched the disc harrow onto one of their tractors, drove it across the road and then chopped into oblivion the three-plus acres of cucumbers that were at the peak of production. “I did that.”

“Oh,” Dad replied, stepping farther into the shed.

And then, Dad stopped and turned, brow creased, to again look at Steven.

“Wait. Isn’t your dad visiting relatives in Ohio his week?

“Yep, our folks are in Ohio,” Steven responded, his back seeming to straighten in a measure of defiance.

My father’s next question had to be asked.

“Does your dad know you dropped that disc harrow onto the cucumbers?”

Steven didn’t flinch with his answer.

“Nope, and I don’t care,” the young cucumber-destroyer said. “Every day it’s pick, pick, pick, pick pickles. Well, I ain’t going to be pickin’ any more pickles this year.”

There was a pause in the air before all in the shed burst into laughter – Steven’s a laugh containing some villainous satisfaction; a bit of amazement in the laughter coming from my father and brother.

I chuckled to myself about that old story the other day as I rubbed my lower back before reaching for more of my gardens’ summer bounty. An involuntary groan came from deep within my old joints as I bent, my father’s words about cucumbers and tomatoes seeming to have ridden those groans into the steamy summer air.

There would be no way I’d ever destroy something as beautiful as what I was harvesting from those gardens – that I knew as certainty. But the tone of Steven’s laughter echoed in my memory.

Perhaps it was of benefit right then that I don’t have a disc harrow on our little farm.

I do, however, have a large pull-behind rotary bush mower in the shed; it wouldn’t take that long to hook onto the tractor….

— Scott Schultz

An Overdue Visit from Above

The sky came calling late the other night, and I accepted the chance to have an old farmhouse front-porch visit.

It was a long while since we’d had such a grand summer visit. There had been pauses and looks into the darkness to gaze at the moon for a while or to see whether I could catch sight of a meteorite slashing through this old planet’s outer atmosphere.

I’d looked at the stars but for some reason this summer hadn’t taken the real time to count them.

My eyes had gotten a decent eyeful of the sky earlier that night, a couple of hours before it came calling. The Milky Way lit the darkness above, with other stars twinkling their siren sensuality to beckon me to gaze upon them and spend the night with them lighting my primal self.

The waning crescent moon that night reflected only enough of the sun’s distant light to make me aware it was there – though I paused long enough to smile at my mind’s picture of my love sitting in its curve and teasing me with her swinging leg.

There were things to do inside the house. And, though it was August and the air and calendar still said it was summer’s dog days, the day’s toils reminded me how autumn had crept upon my personal being; I was worn out and opted for a rest in a favorite recliner.

But then a far-away rumble caught my attention.

And then, another.

Though facing into the house, I sensed lights flashing behind me, the lightning-bug clouds flickering above. I turned to look up to see how the clouds had come between me and the life far beyond our planet.

Flashing.

Flashing.

Nearer.

Nearer.

Rumbles, and then more defined roars of thunder kettle-drumming nearer as the clouds thickened.

In the rumbling the sky was asking me to stay outside and visit for a while. It promised to tell me its stories if I heeded its request.

I obliged, closing the farmhouse’s door and taking a seat on a Leopold bench parked under a west-side eave.

The misguided relaxation I thought I’d have in the recliner quickly started on that hard bench, the tales the sky told in flashes of lightning that brightened the clouds’ many shades – it rotating electrically charged jolts of daylight with the night’s deep darkness.

My best moments of relaxation have happened during such visits with the sky, I remembered. How could I have forgotten and allowed so many chances for visits to escape?

The clouds and the show within eventually stretched fully over our small farm’s soil, us becoming more comfortable and hospitable as the moments passed.

I’m not certain what in the atmosphere finally made it happen, but the time finally arrived when the sky started to cry – in happiness about our visit, I think.

The tears came slowly, at first, small spatters landing on the August land’s summer-toughened soil. The tears eventually grew and my old friend above let out a full-on deluge of tearful happiness.

The soil seemed to be in special need of accepting that night’s crying sky. I listened and watched as the teardrops massaged into the soil, easing its burdens.

It worked for the soil, so I stepped from beneath the eave and turned my face to the sky to give my full self over to those tears. They seeped into my spirit; they seeped into my soul, cleaning any darkness from the depths of my being.

And then, the crying stopped.

The sky paused in the chatter of its lightning and thunder and tears, the clouds moving along their way for other visits while the old, familiar Milky Way and stars reappeared.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that, as time passes so quickly, we don’t get enough chances to have good visits with the sky during a lifetime. I certainly had been guilty of that very misdemeanor. Thankfully, though, the sky asked me for that night’s visit, and I’m happy I obliged.

The visit was long, and without either speaking a word exchanged stories through most of that night.

The time came when we had to bid goodnight to each other. But as we did, the sky made me promise that our visits would be more frequent.

It was a simple request; it was a noble request.

I pledged that I would, and I fully intend to keep that promise.

— Scott Schultz

The Sounds of Rotten Granite

It was somewhat surprising to me when I looked up from the work I was doing outside and saw a car I didn’t recognize sitting in our farmyard’s driveway.

I watched the car for a few moments, waiting for its driver to get out and explain what he was doing at our farm – an expectation most rural folks have when someone drives into the farmyard. The driver didn’t get out of the car, though, instead backing out onto the road and driving away when I started to walk toward the vehicle.

Such an occurrence likely wouldn’t have been met with a second thought had I been standing next to my house in an urban or suburban community. My relatively short times of living and visiting in cities large and small made me realize that people stopping on the street in front of my house or hesitating while turning around in my driveway are common occurrences. But such activity is – I believe understandably – met with a little more suspicion and concern when it happens out in the rural countryside.

I mulled only for a couple moments about why the driver might have picked our farmyard’s driveway to do whatever he was doing.

Perhaps he simply was lost.

Perhaps was assessing the area’s crops.

Perhaps he’d seen a scenic photo possibility and wanted to quickly grab it without remaining parked on our country road.

Perhaps he was reminiscing about times he’d spent at our farm in years long before our arrival.

Those, of course, were among the many at-best scenarios I could paint right then. There also were plenty of at-worst scenarios that ran through my mind.

Maybe he was casing the place for a later visit to hook onto something or steal away with our tools or cattle while we’re away.

Maybe he was the bearer of bad news for one of the neighbors but, being unfamiliar with the neighborhood, stopped at the wrong farm.

Maybe – gasp – he was a salesman who from a distance saw my furrowed brow and realized whatever he was selling wasn’t going to be well-received by me.

All has since seemed to be OK. But I’ve done some farmyard hunkering to consider why that vehicle appeared without my awareness. Part of it, of course, might be that I’ve become a little less aware as I enter these autumn years. But I found the answer as I was talking a walk down the road along our ridge.

It’s the road itself that’s the cause, I decided. It’s paved – a great convenience out in the rural countryside, and a rural benefit I’ve not known for too many years.

I was raised on that crushed granite-covered dirt road, over at Veefkind, and pretty much all the rural town’s roads around were of the same materials.

Even our driveways were covered with the same reddish granite.

There were plenty of negative matters to report on such roads, which today remain with the same surfaces.

Cars and trucks were never clean.

During dry summer days they left plumes of dust that settled on everything within many yards of the roads.

The reddish gravel rocks embedded themselves – some for life – under the skin of anyone having the misfortune of skidding on them during bicycle or running falls.

The roads were filled with washboard roughness in the days between the town’s grader operator using his big, yellow road-patrol grader to smooth them.

There were many good things about them, of course.

They kept traffic low, with sightseeing Sunday drivers who best knew blacktopped and concrete roads not liking to dirty their pristine vehicles.

Law enforcement officers seldom patrolled the gravel roads, leaving unquestioned 12-year-olds who might be driving a farm’s old truck or their older brothers’ motorcycles (um…so a friend told me).

They offered great strength to the legs of farm-born children who struggled to ride bicycles on the sometimes-soft gravel.

Unlike our wonderfully paved road such as that in front of my present abode, the gravel crunching under tires made it difficult for anyone to approach without being heard.

My father likened himself a sort of expert on the crushed granite used on those rural town roads around Veefkind. Him being a town chairman following in the shoes of my long-time town chairman grandfather, Dad could differentiate which road’s gravel came from which pit. He could determine what gravel-and-trucking company crushed the gravel.

Dad didn’t have to tell people about what he knew about the roads’ gravel as we traveled, but he did. He was to crushed granite what Bubba was to shrimp in the “Forrest Gump” movie.

He’s the guy who taught me the crushed granite on our road wasn’t simply crushed granite: The granite for which he and his Town Board cohorts issued contracts was rotten crushed granite from over by Marathon – certainly the best granite money could buy.

“It really binds well,” he was apt to say about the gravel as we made our way down the roads. “You ever get to be the town chairman, be sure you get that rotten crushed granite from over by Marathon.”

I never did fully ascertain what the rotten part of that good crushed granite was about, but some quick research many years ago told me something about it being truly sort of rotten – the rock in it easily flaking and crushing so as to make it “bind well.”

My feelings always have been mixed about having been raised along a road covered with crushed granite, but that wasn’t the case for our old collie cow-dog, Laddie. In his later years, Laddie for some reason found the road’s gravel a nice place to lie during warm summer days – us sure someone would run over him with a car or truck, but those cars and trucks amazingly always slowed and drove around his old being.

I left much of my youthful hide on that crushed granite, and in later years my feet repeatedly beat it as I ran for many miles upon it.

I’m quite happy with the way things turned out, us now living where a blacktopped town road passes our farm. I only wish the blacktop would be better at warning me when unfamiliar vehicles are turning around in our driveway.

— Scott Schultz

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