The Cardinals Rule

The legend I’ve heard often is that a cardinal hanging around your home represents a departed special spirit visiting.

We have plenty of departed special spirits visiting our old farmhouse up on the Eimon Ridge, if that’s the case.

There was a twinge of guilt in my heart the other evening when I counted a full dozen cardinals male and female devouring sunflower seeds on and around the bird-feeding stations I have outside all sides of the house. That guilt came after hearing friends near and far making note of their excitement in having a single cardinal visiting each of their homes.

It’s apparent I’m hoarding all the cardinals.

Wife Dee told me last summer she thinks I might have become somewhat obsessive in feeding birds around the farmyard – she maintaining that any number of feeders nearing 40 as I had is a sign of some sort of avian over-attraction. I counter that it’s important to keep up the long bird-watching tradition that goes with this place: Erling Eimon, whose family homesteaded this place, and his wife Dorothy are long-time bird lovers.

“I can’t let the Eimons down,” I say, them being some of the greatest folks we’ve known. Yes, that’s my story.

So many different types of birds call our feeders home throughout the year. Though summer’s songbirds depart each autumn to make their ways south for the winters, dozens of finches, bluejays, nuthatches, sparrows and chickadees hang around all year. And those cardinals – oh, those beautiful cardinals – remain at the farm through all seasons.

The cardinals belong here just as surely as they were made to color in hues of reds, tans and black the lilacs and other bushes around the farmyard.

Snow, hoar frost and rime was invented for cardinals to show off.

The cardinals provide us with great discussions about how the subtlety of the female cardinals’ colors is somehow more attractive than the bright red gaudiness of the male cardinals.

They’re the high priests of the birds I’ve known, them cloaked in such ceremonial finery reserved for religion’s most revered. All other birds are stunning and eye-catching in their own ways, but people stop to stare and ponder upon cardinals like few others.

Cardinals’ songs as winter wears on our spirits are those of hope – reminding us that warmer times are to come.

They bring discussions about the cardinals that stayed in the plumb brush-and-apple orchard on the west side of the house at my family’s home farm over at Veefkind. My lack of understanding during my childhood there didn’t allow me to appreciate my mother’s demands that the unruly and overgrown brush not be cut because it provided residence for the cardinals she could see from the kitchen window. I’ve come to feel ashamed for my youthful wishes that the orchard be cleared so our yard could be more open like yards on neighboring farms.

Mother kept saying her cardinals were special; that they meant her departed mother was there to watch over things. It was another thing I didn’t understand back then.

That cardinals come here to hang around our house here on the northern Driftless Area’s Eimon Ridge is of no surprise to me. There’s something specially welcoming about this old building, its first sticks cobbled together 150 years ago, give or take. The old house’s spirits seemed to have called us to be here; they embrace us in the most comfortable ways as we find creativity and go about our day-to-day lives.

This house is home as I’ve never otherwise known home; it gently embraces me and encourages me keep walking toward my creativity. I suspect it does much of the same for the resident cardinals.

During warmer days, one of the most vibrant and brave cardinals made a daily habit to the window next to my writing space, tapping his beak on the window in a greeting and perhaps a reminder to continue pouring sunflower seeds into the feeders.

They’re up early in the mornings and saying “hello” to the farmyard and the house, filling themselves at the feeders before other birds have left their nightly perches; they’re the last to leave the feeders, usually staying deeply into dusk and disappearing into the darkness that settles upon the farm.

They seem polite around the feeders, diligent to clean up the seeds others littered around the ground in uncouth ways; cardinals aren’t impressed by the jays’ bullying but step aside for the blue narcissists.

It’s OK with me if the cardinals bring with them spirits settled or unsettled who seem fit to greet us. I’m ready to oblige and welcome that presence. It’s warming to know that those spirits would find us worthy of their visits.

Mostly though, I’ll simply continue to enjoy their presence in beauty and song.

Along the way, I’ll fight any guilt I feel about being blessed with plenty of the neighborhood cardinals here at the farm.

— Scott Schultz

Snowless Daydreams

The studio headphones were gently protecting my mind from the cold morning air outside and from the cold realities of sounds that might distract me from the work at hand. Through them were flowing the calming sound of broadcast partner and boss Bob’s voice as he told many people across Wisconsin’s rural countryside that the cold December morning again included no snow in the day’s weather forecast.

His secret was ours within the filtered sound of my headphones and those hearty thousands who rise so early – some to work at everything from morning farm chores to driving a truck; some to sit with their morning cup of coffee; some to hear a broadcast legend and his writer-turned-broadcaster sidekick do their morning radio schtick. And somewhere, I knew that morning, could be a young farm boy listening to his family’s barn radio and praying Bob’s take on the weather forecast was wrong.

That boy, I knew, was hoping for a bunch of snow to fall that day and others between then and Christmas Eve.

“Some people are talking about the possibility of an open winter – no snow – but we have plenty of time,” I heard through my headphones. “It’s not like it’s been terribly cold yet.”

We chatted a little more about the still-uncovered soil and the importance of there being snow-cover to protect farms’ alfalfa and all sorts of other plants when winter’s coldest days settle into our land’s bones.

Secretly, my mind drifted to that little boy listening to us; I drifted back many years.

I heard Bob’s voice in my headphones, him introducing a song before I was to breathe some of the day’s news into my microphone.

“It’s that time of the year: The big guy will be visiting soon,” I heard him saying in my headphones as the music started.

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

There was a little farm boy on a cold December night – that boy’s young heart and spirit excited about the chance of working in the family’s dairy barn. It was the work the adults and older siblings were doing, and he couldn’t wait to be doing all of it, no matter whether that excitement would last into future years.

“Santa Claus is coming to town.”

The boy was listening to the barn radio playing the song, that one spilling early morning holiday joy into my headphones. And, he stood there in the old Veefkind dairy barn to stare out at the sky and wonder how there could be no snow so deep into December.

“He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

The old wood on the barn door the boy leaned his shoulder against had been worn smooth by many years of touch by cattle, humans and weather. The boy, deep in thought, scraped a fingernail along the many pointed nails someone in his family had clenched to hold the diagonal boards in place.

“Santa Claus is coming to town.”

He stared across the darkened farmyard, his eyes through the dull yardlight focusing on the roof of the old farmhouse. That house and its roof had known many Christmases since the boy’s great-great grandfather built it during the mid-1800s; it was about to know another.

“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

The roof stood bare. The boy was sure that wasn’t a good thing; his father certainly wouldn’t be happy with anyone parking a sleigh and reindeer on the roof, the same way his father voiced unhappiness when the boy would throw his baseball onto the roof in a one-boy game of catch. How would any gifts be delivered to the house?

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

They dejected boy’s head tilted over and joined his shoulder in the lean into that old barn door. December had brought no snow which, to him, that Christmas Eve night was of great importance.

“Santa Claus is coming to town.”

A booming voice startled the boy into the moment. It was his father, sternly demanding that if the boy was going to be in the barn it wasn’t to simply take up space – that the calves weren’t being fed by the boy leaning against the barn door and gawking into nothingness. The boy pulled his stocking cap down to cover his ears, them warmed and reddened by embarrassment that he’d been caught in daydreams about something as childish as Santa Claus, combined with a measure of anger at life demanding he work while there was serious daydreaming to be done.

“And Scott, what’s that big headline again in today’s news?”

Bob’s sure and smooth voice was coming through my studio headphones with that question, catching me unprepared because I’d been daydreaming about that cold and snowless childhood moment from so many years ago. I verbally stumbled around a bit, and started with the delivery of a news story much different than the one Bob was leading me into.

I realized my error a few words into the story, and caught and corrected myself.

Bob looked at me from across the studio and our microphones; he laughed.

“I wondered whether you were going to sleep over there, or what,” came his words through my headphones.

I reached up and adjusted my headphones to assure they were fully covering my ears, them warmed and reddened by embarrassment that I’d been caught in daydreams about something as childish as Santa Claus combined with a measure of anger at life demanding he work while there was serious daydreaming to be done.

— Scott Schultz

Those of the Soil

Dad’s eyes were closed as though he was in a calm sleep as he lay that evening in the hospice facility’s bed, him finishing the last of his mortal days. I considered how it was one of the few times he’d really looked calm in a few weeks — the pain from the cancer gnawing his bones mixed with pain-killing narcotics and the truth that death was so near feeding him a steady stream of uneasiness.

And then, his right hand lifted from its resting place on the thinned bones of his rising and falling chest, which for most of his life was covered with muscle and sinew of a lifetime of farm work. That hand’s work-gnarled fingers made a somewhat familiar motion, and then his hand started moving as though it was pulling a handle for a short distance up and down.

I watched in wonder for a while until the familiarity of that motion reminded me about what he was doing: He was working the ratchet of a socket, the depths of his subconscious apparently pulling forward some sort of memory of working on one piece or another of our farm’s machinery.

It wasn’t the first time such a memory had roused through the conscious of his unconscious condition. Early that week, in other phase of sleep, he’d asked my oldest brother to harness the team of work horses – work horses that hadn’t walked across our farmyard and fields for more than 50 years.

Those moments came to mind while I was sitting out and contemplating the land on and around our farm on Eimon Ridge. It was World Soil Day that day of my contemplations, and I’d gotten to thinking about different ways folks have treated and mistreated the soil since us two-legged critters crawled out of the water and started treading upon this old terra firma. Most of all, though, I thought about how that soil can change a person’s life if that person is ready and willing to recognize and understand how we’re all really part of that soil, like it or not, and how the soil really is part of us, like it or not.

The soil, more than any other thing that can get into your system, is powerful once you realize it. Watching my father’s mind take him through the day’s farm work even while he was lying on his death bed was a good enough indicator to convince me of that reality.

Folks get other stuff in their blood, of course, and that’s all fine and cute. Some have the sea soaked into their beings; some have flying in their systems. Having spent the better part of my life writing for newspapers, old-timer newspaper folks have told me I have printer’s ink flowing in my veins; I’m proud to accept that claim.

But oh, that land; oh that soil.

We are of the soil; the soil is of us.

I considered how my old bones won’t be returned to a drum of printer’s ink when I’m fully used up and I get called from this life. Instead, it will be that beautiful soil out there that will be absorbing my mortal bones, hide and all.

We always go back to the soil.

Some really smart folks have been pointing out to me during the past decades of my life that there are many people who are a few generations removed from the land. They’re referring to those people who don’t know how food is produced and might even think that it’s somehow made in the aisles of a fancy grocery store. Those smart folks, I suppose, are right in that it would be better if those far-removed from the land would return every now and again to get a little silt loam lodged beneath their fingernails and in their nostrils.

That seems like a grand idea mostly because maybe the people will better appreciate what it takes to feed the hungry masses of critters biped, quadruped, winged and swimming. And then, maybe they’ll push for more care of the soil on which they’re plodding along, assuring that it doesn’t erode and that its caretakers take special measures to assure that all the good and natural biological stuff that makes the soil tick is properly maintained.

On the other hand, though, I figure we might as well simply realize that nobody who lives is any more than the next step away from the grand soil. A soul can deny it as much as wanted, but we can find ourselves headed back to that soil at any minute.

Those of us who’ve had good doses of soil running in our systems throughout our lives know what it’s like to understand the soil’s true goodness – that it isn’t there for our convenience and that it’s only been temporarily loaned its attention. We understand that it was there for a long time before we ever were around and that it will be there for long after we’re gone.

Those of us who are of the soil know all too well that there’s no leaving the land; we always manage to make our way back to work on it or to simply spend our time fawning over it.

Those of the soil will understand why their father is doing farm work while lying on his death bed.

— Scott Schultz

Winning the Big Prize

A memory that forever will amuse me crossed my mind this morning while I considered friends’ “my-political-point-view-is-right-so-you-won’t-change-my-mind-but-I’m-sure-I-can-change-your-mind-even-though-you-think-you-won’t-change-your-mind-but-think-you-can-change-my-mind” opinions.

I was a high school student who was fairly interested in politics when my next-older brother’s friend invited that brother and me to attend the meeting of a rather radical political organization in which the friend’s family was (and likely still is) quite active. I won’t prolong the story to name the organization, other than hinting that the fellow after whom the organization is named shares a moniker with a tree that’s covered in white, paper-like bark.

I went because I’ve always believed in listening to other people’s political points of views and weighing them within my views, trying to keep a truly open political mind.

The meeting didn’t offer much more than I already knew about the organization, though it hammered into me their beliefs about what religious group and which oligarchs own the world banking system. They also did a great job of hammering home their point that, within a couple years, the United Nations would be snatching our sovereign rights (which they originally said would happen around the time of their late-1950s founding, the failure of accomplishing that one-world system coup certainly an indication that the U.N. is an unworkable monstrosity).

And, of course, I can’t forget about those dirty-bastard-red-pinko commies who were snatching our country away from us and most certainly likely were infiltrating the room that very night.

I listened to each of their droning points, doing my best to not light my mind drift to the college-aged daughter of one of the organizers who sat by the door and handed us little raffle tickets as we entered the hall. But then my ears perked up when the speaker mentioned those wonderful words we all long for at every meeting and convention: “OK, take out your tickets, because it’s time for door prizes!”

I pulled the ticket out of the my high school letter jacket’s pocket and got set. Maybe the cute young woman was my lucky charm; maybe her smile would bring extra luck to me in this drawing.

Zero. Three. Nine. Six. Eight. Three.

They announced my number! I won the main door prize!

The walk to the dais was more of a glide than a walk. I’d do my best, I told myself, to act cool despite all the excitement that was churning my innards. The 50 or so steps to the front were surreal and seemed like 50,000 steps, the clouds I walked on lifting my weight from the hall’s hardwood floor.

Possibilities of what the prize might be flashed through my mind.

Would it be a portable television? A transistor radio? Gawd, maybe they’re giving out one of those newfangled CB radios or an eight-track tape player!

The emcee had a huge smile as I approached, and made note into his microphone about how wonderful it was to see new youth interested in the organization. He reached into the box containing the main door prize and pulled something out.

It was a big bag filled with pamphlets, flyers and any other imaginable form of written propaganda the organization could scratch together. Gaaaaaaah!

I hid my disappointment and dutifully held an appreciative grin — doing my best to hide that grin’s sarcasm — as we waited for the meeting to close and then left. There was some consideration of leaving it on the chair, but from my earliest days I despised people who littered buildings and the countryside with such trash; I thought it would be rude of me to make the organizers hear the heavy “bonk” of the metal trash can sitting beside the exit door.

I didn’t want to disappoint that young woman, still at the door and melting me with her eyes and smile. I squared my shoulders and puffed my chest a bit as I passed her, returning her smile with mine and clutching my prize in a way to acknowledge that it was because of her luck that I’d won the prize.

The prize went home with me, where my growing political curiosity drew me into reading it. I dumped the bag’s content onto my bed and read with wonder some of the greatest political fiction known to humans and, when I was done, I slipped it all back into the bag and slipped it under my bed — taking a quick glance out of my farmhouse bedroom window just to be sure that no commies were lurking outside as some of the materials had suggested would be happening.

I never again pulled those grand-prize materials from their bag.

There have been times since then when I’ve wondered what would have happened if the pamphlets and booklets were right and the commies or the United Nations or the FBI or the CIA would have raided our old farm house before I left it for the Marine Corps. What teenager would dare to keep such reading materials in a bag under his bed, after all?

I don’t know what eventually happened with that bag of propaganda. I will, however, admit to being proud of myself for having read every piece of it to learn a little more about that organization — if only someday to have ammunition for arguing the idiocy of its members’ radical points.

And besides, I had to read it because it was the night’s major door prize.

— Scott Schultz

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