Northern Driftless music

I reached for the remote-control tuner to turn on some music.

Music and writing always go together well, so while I was writing the only decision would be what genre of music would best fit my mood that day; what notes would orchestrate pulling the words from my heart and push them through my fingers.

Jazz? Classical? Rock? Pop? Country? The choices are many.

I chose geese.

The window beside my writing place happened to be open while I reached for the tuner. As I leaned into my reach, my ear neared the window and I heard the faint abafando harmony of Canada geese moving somewhere between the crisp blue October sky and the rainbowed reds, gold, orange, brown and green of the covering the northern driftless area’s ridges and coulees. As they neared, their fluted calls turned to agitato — a mess of music crossing the sky — and then to affrettando as their tune gained order and hurried across the sky. Pianississimo, mezzo forte, forte, mezzo forte, pianississimo, their music came and went.

Why, I wondered, would I need to turn on the recorded music played on our electronic devices, when I have the live symphony of such a beautiful autumn day?

I cranked the window handle to open it to more sounds, then cranked another window open to hear it even more.

That wasn’t enough, though. I had a taste of the wonderful music echoing across our farmyard, and immediately was hooked. I needed more; in moments the door was open and I was stepping outside to drink in every cord and every note up and down the musical scales.

Listening to the rural countryside’s music through an open window was to hear it through a hand-cranked phonograph.

Hearing it with all the windows opened was to hear it on a portable stereo record player.

Hearing it while standing in the outside doorway was to hear it on a modern surround-sound system.

Hearing it while standing in the farmyard was to hear it while standing at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra director’s stand.

The music drew around me, its fingers and arms holding me with just the right strength so as to allow me to enjoy the moment without feeling overwhelmed by its enormous sound.

Another flock of geese – larger than the first – marched in perfect formation across the sky.

A squirrel chattered away with some harmony, and a red-tailed hawk whistled some notes.

Some percussion was added by a walnut tree, its fruit drumming the soil and rooftops as it was released on perfect cue.

A weaning summer calf bleated a solo, its mother answering again and again in bluesy tones.

I soon found myself in the symphony hall’s best seat, against the south side of a tree where the early afternoon sun warmed me and the orchestra between movements.

And then it was over – but only because I had obligations other than closing my eyes and allowing the autumn orchestra’s musical vibrations to lull me into a long nap. There was writing to do, and I’d found the music to accompany me along the way.

The words were bursting to get out of my soul and dripping from my fingertips by the time I re-entered the house. They would be words coaxed from me like few other and would quickly-but-purposefully flow from me like melodies caressed from an expertly played cello.

They were the notes and words of the northern Driftless Area’s music.

They were the notes and words of place.

— Scott Schultz

Rattling through the corn

The corn has been speaking in its fall dialect, which tightens my skin into autumn goosebumps.

I stopped farmyard work the other day to pause and listen to the corn’s death-rattle calling. And, though the day was unseasonably warm, the corn’s leaf-rattling still carried an October fall chill on the breeze.

The rattling conjures visions of jack-o-lanterns, trick-or-treaters and frosted rooftops.

It rides the breeze hand-in-hand with comforting smells of wood fires that keep neighbors warm.

The rattling even shows the way for the sweetness of the coming harvest, when combines bend stalks to allow the stalks’ inner stalks to sprinkle their perfume into the fall air.

It calls me to the field to explore its inner sanctum.

Walking into a corn field during the fall has long been a necessity for rural kids of all ages. There’s a mystery scratched in the voices of those brittle leaves, and those mysteries must be explored.

Whether it’s been in the flat land of the Veefkind farm where I was raised or here on the Eimon Ridge, where the northern Driftless Area’s coulees continue to raise me, I’ve been counted among those rural kids who feel the calling to enter those fields.

In those fields, plenty of real work happens that goes beyond the whims of an aging fellow fulfilling some sort of primal calling. The fields are there as part of our rural livelihoods, and painstakingly long hours of toil and worry have gone into them – experiences I’ve known first-hand over the years.

Still, that whimsical side flourishes with each leaf’s rattle.

I have to go into the corn field.

In there, I’ll find a youngster riding on a wagon pulled behind an old one-row corn picker, the youngster dodging ears of corn on a late-October day while his yellow-chore-glove-wearing father looks back from the tractor with wonder about why the youngster would want to risk being knocked on the noggin by the hardened corn-cobs.

I’ll find memories of the horrifying news that a friend’s father lost part of a leg and a hand to the same brand of corn-picker that we used on our farm.

There will be shadows of dancing cornstalks cast by a combine’s headlights during a late-night session of harvesting.

In the field, I’ll discover wildlife that had become too complacent so deep within the corn’s rows – raccoons, pheasants and deer. I might even get to see a black-bear’s bed and wonder how long it’s been since the bear was nestled there.

I’ll see the tracks of farm vehicles and farmers’ feet, left in the spring-dampened soil when the corn’s journey was started – when hope was at its highest.

The corn field isn’t for everyone, of course. I know several people with aversions about those fields, those aversions growing as the corn matures. The death-rattles of leaves on brittle stalks apparently aren’t appealing to those people, and especially not at night and not as Halloween nears. I can accept that, though not fully understanding it; what some of us see as being comfort is the next person’s version of a horror movie.

To those who don’t know or don’t want to know the sense of being called into autumn corn fields, I’ll allow piles of rustling fall leaves. Jumping into a pile of leaves is itself invigorating and a joy for all ages of children. But, as wonderful as those leaves are, they don’t hold the mysteries contained in the corn.

So I’ll willingly walk through the ditch, climb through that barbed-wire fence and boldly step into the corn field that’s calling me with an autumn siren’s sensuality. As in every time I’ve done that, I have no ideas or preconceptions about what I’ll find in there.

Maybe in that corn I’ll find secrets to unlock any untapped happiness in our world.

Maybe in that corn I’ll find a needed solitude.

If there is anything about which I’m certain, it’s that I’ll find yet another needed reconnection with the soil that makes this northern Driftless Area such a spiritual place to live. It’s a connection that’s more life-giving than the oxygen I inhale on each breath.

— Scott Schultz

Knowing fall’s arrival

The calendar tells us the autumn equinox, that fancy name for fall, is upon us.

We of the northern Driftless Area didn’t need a calendar to announce fall’s arrival, of course.

The indications have been around for days and even weeks, those birds flocking, those black walnut leaves yellowing and thinning, and the sumac turning red. Oats-eating combines have been parked for a while, waiting their return to corn fields while forage choppers hum their first clattering turns on the season’s corn.

Acorns and walnuts rat-a-tat through limbs and spatter through leaves on their journeys to season-ending thumps of finality on the duff below.

Sounds of squirrels’ teeth grating against the same acorns they carried back to the trees’ heights give background to the soft trills of unassuming nuthatches and the threatening calls of bullying blue jays.

Supple has been replaced by brittle; grass and crops which through summer soothed us with gentle full-lipped kisses have started to greet us with toothy hen-peck kisses.

Fall’s approach is also announced by clumps of red and yellow on maple-filled hillsides.

It is trumpeted by pheasants whose morning crowing moves from the grasslands into corn fields.

Some of us embrace fall’s splendor, seeing a time when the countryside explodes into a big box of Crayons that more than replaces the hues gone from spring’s and summer’s flowers.

Other people see it as a time of ending, with bared trees the harbingers of winter’s chill.

Count me among those who embrace this season, and among those who absorb all the coming days bring across our ridges and valleys.

The season will be a good time for me to drive a bit west of Arcadia, to see whether I can find that incredible little church about which I wrote many years ago – it nestled within a valley spattered by every imaginable color.

It will be a good time for me to mosey down to Trempealeau to watch the river laze by while I enjoy a nice supper.

This will be the time I reintroduce myself to Judge Gale while visiting Old Main in his namesake community.

I’ll sit at the memorial park and listen for stories from previous generations coming from the quieted voices in the cemetery.

I’ll visit fall art exhibitions and start setting my eyes on the best jack-o-lantern pumpkins.

There will be moments of hurry and moments of coffee-cup contemplation in Whitehall and Blair and all the other places our area’s rural commerce is centered.

Echoes of alma maters will be heard on college campuses during weekday events and football Saturdays.

There will be moments of wisdom-seeking while my back rests against an oak in the woods.

Night will start to become our home as much as the daylight, the moon and stars shining more brightly and the daytime sky opening to brighter shades of blue.

Some weekday morning, we’ll suddenly notice the steam from our breaths as we make our ways across farmyards and fields. We’ll start noticing in the air whether neighbors are using oak or elm in their furnaces.

The morning dew so refreshing in summer when it soaked through shoes and into trousers will instead send goosebumped chills through our bones.

All won’t be leisure, of course, and I’ll be happy if I find time to do even a few of those things I mention. Besides the normal day-to-day work we all have, the season will be filled with preparations for what’s to come – finishing harvests and assuring that shelter is ready for the next season’s snow and cold.

Weatherizing will again become an important word.

We’ll remember where we stored our flannel shirts and bedding, and will exchange shorts for blue jeans.

It’s all a routine that’s evolved into us in these parts – routine that adds an extra bounce in our collective step, but which comes with some extra work that thickens the callouses on our hands.

There’s not really a need for the season to be noted on calendars. Call it the autumn equinox or fall or anything else you’d like, but we definitely know when the season has arrived in the northern Driftless Area.

Summer break

The blankets pulled snugly around me on that August morning, in a laughing dare for me to get out of bed.

An August mornings too often are of miserable heat and humidity, that of the sort which make rising from bed as good of an alternative as any in the old Eimon Homestead farmhouse. It’s when summer happens, with so much to do before the day’s heat pulls itself around every breath a being tries to draw.

A hint of autumn seemed to be in that morning’s air; the sounds of a gentle summer rain pattering on the old house’s roof and on the leaves of the willow, oaks and walnuts added comfort to my spirit.

Even the birds around the farmyard’s trees and at our feeding stations seemed to tell me what I was feeling as I pulled the blankets ever-so-closer around my body, a couple families of about 20 young grosbeaks talking about it at the feeders in soft-toned “mweep, mweep, mweep.” The birds that morning were low-key in their voices in the same ways I was feeling low-key.

The conscience of the old farm inside my spirit reminded me that this wasn’t the sort of day that the corn on so many of our ridges would need. This time of the year, the corn begs for a few extra sweltering days of sun and humidity – those summer dog-days when little more than the corn and a few heat-miser humans like. It was the antonyms of the sorts of summer days when Dad would have said, “Yep, you can hear the corn growing today” in response to my whines that the day was too hot.

My conscience also reminded me that most parts of our county wouldn’t need the extra rain that was falling, parts downstream from our ridge already having been oft-flooded by this season’s overflowed banks of ditches, creeks and rivers.

One of our dairy-farming neighbors across the ridge confirmed later that day how I was right about my worries that the crops other than our farmyards’ lawns were gaining much on a day such as this; another soul south toward Old Man River confirmed that we didn’t need more rain.

As I started to gather my morning wits I started wondering what, then, might be joyous in my feelings about such a cool and otherwise rainy and drab summer morning? It was too early in August to even declare that the morning was an arrived-too-early precursor to autumn’s cool splendor.

It eventually occurred to me that my very physical response to what I’d woken to was the answer: This day is one in which nature has called a short time-out to allow us to recover enough to help us be ready for the month’s single final push of summer.

Sometime near the end of each May, we and everything around us downshifts and revs our collective engines’ RPMs to make a big push into the late spring and through summer. All goes high-velocity and high-paced to make things happen – playing, growing crops, gardening, doing home repairs, community festivals, livestock shows, the county fair, fixing highways…. We start in a rush and keep the pace fast until we start to feel autumn’s cool days.

We even seem to relax in a hurry.

Long spans of daylight allow us to pick up the pace even more, especially when we start to see the daylight faltering ever-so-slowly and we start to hear the distant sounds of school bells.

We nearly panic as we hear the click-clack of high school football players’ cleats hitting sidewalks as the players head toward their schools’ practice fields. If football season is nigh, how soon can it be before we see leaves changing colors and falling from trees and then feel the onset of winter’s freeze? It’s click-clack time, then, to get all that’s summer packed into what remains of summer.

Our beloved northern Driftless Area is a place where most of us take pride and happiness in living life at a pace that’s a bit slower than in many other parts of this big old world, but even here we can find ourselves in a constant road-race everywhere between Osseo and Trempealeau.

And then that cool and rainy morning arrived in early August, it holding the summer coolness and moisture that we didn’t necessarily need. Its arrival slowed us down for a while, the morning reining some of us to a complete stop.

Life went on as usual, and there certainly were those whose pace couldn’t be slowed by that morning’s coolness and steady summer rain. But as I finally pulled the blankets from my chin and rose, I think I heard a collective sigh echoing across the northern Driftless Area’s ridges and valleys.

The land, its people, its crops and even the air got an ever-so-brief moment to rest from summer’s fast pace — a pace I noted as I pulled the blankets higher and drifted back into a morning slumber.

— Scott Schultz

 

 

Covenants with the land

There are times when it’s important to consider the covenants we have with the soil and all that’s on it. Such a time came the other day as I stepped into a forested piece of the rural countryside.

The air was a little heavy with July’s humidity, the summer heading into its dog-days when rural kids are told to stay away from their local swimming holes but splash in the warmed water anyway, despite their parents’ warnings.

The air immediately closed tightly around me as I entered into the woods, seeming to make my breathing even more difficult.

My head lightened a bit, making me worry that the forest’s air had become so thick with summer’s lushness that it was closing around tightly and suffocating me.

But then, a new awareness emerged from the leaves – an awareness I remember feeling on so many other visits to that forest: The light-headedness I felt was the result of intoxication from the wonderfully cleansed oxygen the trees produced.

The forest’s air drips with that oxygen, and I remembered how the forest is a place for renewing my oxygen reserves, and not a place of suffocation.

The forest is a place that inhales all the deadly carbon monoxide waste my breath offers, filters it and exhales its purified oxygen to sustain life for me and so many other beings.

It would be easy to know we have such a life-giving agreement with the forest, but lucky are those among us know that the covenant’s fine print offers more.

Some of us know that, like our breath’s wastes, the forest can take into its floor’s duff-carpet the daily worries of a person’s spirit. And just as the forest filters our breathing waste into life-giving oxygen, it filters our worries and renews the heart with a cleansed spirit.

That covenant also has language in which the forest filters the day’s noise and turns it into gentle leaf-rustles, calming us with the gentle sounds of big-water waves moving against the horizon.

I again considered that agreement early on a late July morning.

The air again weighed heavily in that previous night’s summer heat. I’d negotiated then with the land that I’d honor it in verse if it would open itself to show me that autumn somewhere in the future.

The air still was heavy with humidity that morning, but in a way that brought the sky and the soil into one. The Timber Creek coulee below to the north was covered with a morning haze, as were the trees in the woods to the south. The ridge, somehow, was left clear.

I worried at first that the land wasn’t honoring our agreement until I carried my cup of morning coffee into the farmyard to get a better look at what the day was offering.

There, a clip of cool air slapped my bared arms.

Steam rose from the hot coffee.

Somewhere in that air lingered the autumn mornings for which I so lust during the years’ hottest days. It still would more than a month before its reality, but that morning I felt its presence.

The soil again had kept its part of the bargain.

The air was inviting enough to draw me to one of the farmyard’s Leopold benches to share my coffee with nature’s morning richness.

I gleefully accepted.

It was a few minutes before the sun rose fully in the east and started to pull the white haze from the slumbering creek and trees. They yawned a “good morning” greeting to me on a gentle breeze of cool morning air.

Words dripped from the breeze as it caressed my being, those words helping me honor my part of the agreement:

“I find an early morning moment to laze on a Leopold bench among the blossomed hostas. Mourning doves provide soothing music as I contemplate the azure beauty above and the verdant shades a gentle breeze moves across this northern Driftless Area soil.

The hum of frenzied work on honey bees’ wings among blossoms and of hummingbirds at nearby feeders threaten to belie the lazed mood. Instead, they only add to the land’s soothing music.

A young rabbit joins my party, settling a few feet from me in its mute nose-wiggling contentment of sampling the farm-yard’s grass. Together, we watch in silence the cardinals, jays, grosbeaks, orioles, buntings, grackles and finches quietly foraging at a feeding station.

In this place I find my peace with relaxed sips from a favorite coffee mug. Life just then has slowed to the best of unwound moments.”

I’m sure there are many things I haven’t read in the covenant, and my life likely will end before I know all that’s in the agreement. That, of course, will require steady returns to the forest to learn more – and, to take advantage of all the renewal I already know it offers. It will require constant negotiations so I’m allowed to take parts in moments that so allow the unwinding of whatever self-made tensions might be in me.

The only thing of which I’m sure is that this land and all around it is open to wondrous deals that bring fullness to me. It’s important that I remember to take the time and be willing to negotiate.

A well-done deal with the soil is life itself.

— Scott Schultz

 

 

Feeling summer’s weight

It’s easy this time of the year to feel as though things are closing in around us, nature itself getting a little too close to us for comfort.

Even the breath we draw in the morning has a closeness to it, the heavy mid-July air pushing heavy against our chests as we take in life-giving oxygen that’s still laden with the past day’s heat, and which soon will be steamed with the coming day’s heat. On a steamy mid-July morning, what in other seasons is a freshness in the air can make us wonder whether this is what it’s like to breathe under a pile of heated bricks.

Barns are dampened with the inescapable humidity, the floors slickened to make treacherous walking for Holsteins and humans alike; haymows become rural saunas.

These, the start of the dog days of summer, are times when even the water down at the old swimming hole – that water that a couple weeks ago was so refreshing to our beings – is uninviting. And at beaches and pools, children’s feet are singed by sand and cement that have collected the very sun that they’re trying to avoid.

Even the smallest of critters, the gnats, “no see-ems” and skeeters, close in around us and push heavily against us. Any time outside, especially with the heavy darkness of the night-air’s lead-weight blanket pulled over us, requires age-old bug repellents that we’re never sure are good for us and always sure is uncomfortable for us. But we use the repellents in hopes that we can stop the unending swatting and flailing that has been so ineffective in pushing the critters away from us.

The shelters that at other times protect us from other seasons’ elements become either ovens that we don’t want to be in, or jail cells with cool air that keeps us trapped within. Front porches were built for times such as these; porch swings and rocking chairs invented for people who hope to find the margin between being trapped inside while still escaping the weight of the mid-July air.

Iced tea. Cold Coke. Well-chilled beer. A simple, refreshing glass of water on ice. All of which pour droplets of temple-cooling wetness down the outsides of containers.

We know to not go into the woods unless we absolutely have to, an excuse being to retrieve a renegade calf or the like. There, the gnats and skeeters that push themselves onto us in the open air seem minor to the thick swarms of biting flies, and an entomologist’s dream of other bug species that weigh down upon us. The deer choose the risk of cars’ headlights instead of remaining in the close confines of July’s bug-laden woods, so why would we want to go there unless we absolutely have to be there?

Though we don’t necessarily want to be in the woods, even a walk down some rural roads brings the woods to us. The trees, bushes, shrubs and ferns reach out to press against our space while we take morning or evening walks. That which will draw color-seeking tourists in two months are mere waves of deep green, an ocean reaching out to drown us in fauna.

Where other times invite us to the earth, mid-July certainly makes the earth foreboding.

But then in the evening air we see sparkles of light that remind us that entering the depth of summer has positive values. Sometimes it takes watching the carefree and random movements of light from summer’s fireflies to remind us how summer also can make us carefree and random.

Just when we think the weight of summer’s air is unbearable, we can look to those fireflies and see the openness of a cloudless night sky – in it, so many distant stars that light escape routes to lead us away from summer’s earthly fires.

And unlike so much around us this time of year, we see the fireflies’ twittering lights moving away from us, each removing from our chests a little piece of the summer air’s burdens.

This time of the year in the countryside, if we allow summer’s weight the chance to buckle our knees, it certainly will. But with the spirit our rural fathers passed to us, we’ll continue to look toward the fireflies or any other little sign that this too will pass.

We know that a few short weeks from now will bring us new openings in the air, the soil and even the woods. It will again feel good to do physical labor, to be out in air that’s light and fresh. We’ll even get to see the daytime sky without the thick haze that July pulls across the horizons.

Like a robin’s song breaks a summer morning’s predawn silence, we will break through the heavy cover that lays upon us in mid-July. And then, like all other seasons, we’ll even bank some pleasant memories that we found when it seemed all was closing upon us.

— Scott Schultz

Photographing the land’s moments

Wild flowers and wild fires combined a while ago to present some of the most splendid photographs imaginable. Even the rawest photographic rookies were bound to capture hazy beauty cast on the region’s wild flowers blooming in smoke drifting south from large Canada wild fires.

Those nature-provided special effects especially were apparent during northern Driftless Area sunrises and sunsets, when the smoke combined with deepening summer ozone to filter the sun’s bright heavy-metal screams into soft-orange meditative symphonies. No computerized digital enhancement could improve the spectacles shown to us.

A similar moment flagged my attention the other morning as I was driving along an area highway. The sun was peeking through a hole in the clouds, allowing only sprays of silver light to streak from the darkened sky. Shadowed green fields and woods slow-danced in the breeze under the mirror-ball lights darting from above.

I glanced toward Dee, who was riding in the front passenger’s seat, to share the moment with her and ask whether she could grab the camera and photograph the scene. But a busy previous night and that day’s early start had gently taken her hand and playfully led her down slumber’s dreamy path, so I remained quiet and went back to focusing on driving.

Focusing on the highway became increasingly difficult as the clouds opened further to allow more of the sun’s lasers to hopscotch the corn’s leaves. Fields and trees otherwise monotone turned into a summer morning’s garden salad of greens.

Dee stirred, and I again hoped she was waking to share the splendor falling from the heavens. But she repositioned herself on the seat and continued to sleep; her face turned and exposed her right cheek to caresses by one of the sun’s extended fingers.

I laughed to myself about how it wouldn’t help to ask Dee to use the camera, only then remembering that we’d left the camera back at our farm. The idea of using the camera on one of our cell phones crossed my mind, but I didn’t want to do that while driving and I was staying with my conviction of allowing Dee that much-needed rest.

Instead, I took the photograph with my eyes and allowed my mind to process it deeply into my being. It would be, for the time being, a photograph that I’d hold within while it developed into words I could use to paint the picture.

There have been plenty of moments during my time when that’s happened, and there are times when I decide to not share with others the pictures that result. Mostly, though, I feel a need to share what I’ve seen – a personal thing for which I won’t criticize or deny others when it comes time for them to make such choices. Some people, I know, are content in holding their eyes’ pictures for only themselves.

The concern I have is that we do that too often, keeping too much to ourselves without preserving some of today for generations to see tomorrow.

The scenes change here in the northern Driftless Area, no matter how we want them to remain the same. I look at photographs of our old Eimon Homestead farm and see trees where 100 years ago there only was grass, and see grass where 100 years ago there were trees. Buildings at the farm have come and gone and come. I’m happy people took photographs so I could know this place so much better than I could if I hadn’t known what formed it and what leaves enriched its soil.

It’s too easy to take for granted that generations will know what our ridges and coulees held and what our hands did to reshape the ridges and valleys into what they’ll have become, good and bad. And, it’s too easy to believe all we see is only for me and not for us.

Sometimes, though, I’ll go with using only my eyes to photograph something so spectacular as the sun beaming through the hole in those clouds, allowing that moment for me.

The hole in the clouds closed a couple minutes after it had allowed me time to enjoy their games with the sun and to take the special photograph I’ll carry with me for the rest of my mortal days.

Fireworks in the windshield

We sat slightly reclined in our car’s bucket seats and listened to some old-time radio shows while we waited for Pleasantville’s fireworks display to start the other night.

The Fourth of July had taken its toll on us, so we decided to relax in the vehicle to watch the community’s population swell far beyond its capacity as the annual celebration was carried into dusk, and then to use the car’s vantage point to watch the fireworks.

Sitting in the car that way to watch fireworks usually doesn’t cross the minds of most people from birth through their child-rearing years. But, there apparently comes a time in a person’s life when it’s OK to put away the lawn chairs and blankets and sit back in the solitude of your car. That night I looked to our left and then to the right to see folks a bit older than us doing exactly as we were, occasionally getting out to grab popcorn or other goodies from the park’s concession stand and then return to their cars.

I quickly realized the car was a great place to have an overview of a community’s entire celebration, the windshield and windows providing a muted snow-globe look at the scene and its events.

Softball teams’ players moved in sporadic darts.

The crowd moved with collective inhales and exhales around the concession stand and shelter.

Parents carried their smallest children to and from their cars, cat-herding their toddlers along the way.

Young men showed off their mechanical strength by revving loud-mufflered vehicles while moving slowly between people walking on the county highway’s fog-lines.

Hormone-dazed teenagers roamed the road hand-in-hand, not knowing whether they should be walking to the north, south, east or west — knowing they eventually should be walking in some direction but, in the moment, direction not mattering.

All celebrated in their own ways, but the coming fireworks were the only things that mattered to any of them. No matter how any among those couple-thousand people might disagree, the fireworks were what that night was all about.

Fireworks on or about the Fourth of July are part of our small-town DNA, firing our rural-community synapse as surely as freshly-cut hayfields and noon fire sirens.

From our vantage point we saw flashes echoing across the sky from other area communities’ fireworks and from some of the area’s farmyard fireworks that started ahead of Pleasantville’s display. And, of course, there were the always-expected occasional whistles, sizzles and bangs produced by small-scale explosives and pyrotechnics produced on the park’s perimeters by the neighborhood BYOF (bring your own fireworks) people.

The night dampness settling in, I had to start the car a couple times to run the defroster to assure we could see out the windows. It was reminiscent of youthful moments watching star-studded blockbusters on drive-in theaters’ big screens. That night’s feature, “Pleasantville Fourth of July Fireworks,” was played on the big screen of rural life and starred Trempealeau County’s people of the soil.

The day’s last softball game ended, and the park darkened. Within moments of the softball field’s last flickering light, a stream of colors poured skyward and then burst into an oblong pattern of red, white and blue to relight the park.

The fireworks show was on.

Most of us have seen big-city fireworks in our time, a constant pour of colors and shapes filling the sky and the sounds arriving so quickly they become a constant rumble. But the Pleasantville fireworks, as a rural community’s fireworks should be, were fed to us in savory sips instead of drunken gulps.

The display was paced correctly to allow the proper reactions of oooos and aaaaaahs reflexively emitted from our inner beings. When fireworks are spaced correctly, even the hardest of souls can’t fight the involuntary eruption of youthfulness the booming colors pull from within us.

At Pleasantville, we had that rural fireworks display moment when we uttered, “What, that’s the end?” — only to be surprised by the sudden eruption of a quick-hitting orgy of colors. Within moments, as though scripted, we were returned to the pace to allow the properly-paced oooos and aaaaaahs.

And then, they were finished, us heading into those few minutes of guiding our car among other cars making their ways into the countryside’s darkness, and being vigilant for young parents bent on getting overtired children into vehicles.

Finding our space along county Highway E and then county Highway EE, we agreed that Pleasantville’s fireworks was worthy of praise as rural communities’ fireworks go. Our sporadic conversation occasionally broken by deer-sightings, we also agreed that we’d return during coming years – along with some of those displays offered by our county’s other communities.

We might even watch more while sitting in our car and listening to old-time radio shows.

Weeping for the willow

There’s a hole in our farm’s heart, a hole that’s easy to see directly from the south window in my office of this old farm house.

I’ve been looking out of the window during recent days, somehow hoping that time could be turned back and that hole in the top of our grand old willow would be re-filled with its long tangles of twigs and leaves. Instead, the tree weeps of branches wrenched from its being during a mid-June storm that pillaged and plundered its way across this northern Driftless Area’s soil.Willow tree2 102214

The storm of wind, hail and rain stretched every fiber of the old willow, the tree’s leaves still turned pale compared with the lush fullness I’ve admired on past summers’ days. Occasional leaf-tears flitter through its Rapunzel branches and spatter on the grass below.

My sadness for the way the tree looks since the storm is replaced by me counting the coins of fortune that the tree stands at all, and that our Eimon Ridge farmstead wasn’t damaged more heavily by that storm. Others across the countryside didn’t have such fortune.

Photos from that night are plenty, including people holding hail the sizes of golf balls and baseballs; the hail punched holes in houses’ siding and shredded the green from some fields, trees and gardens.

Trees were broken at their trunks and even fully uprooted.

Corn fields, some of which already had been replanted after flood-causing rains, were gullied and washed down hillsides.

A neighbor’s small shed was blown off its foundation.

That such damage was limited to here-and-there places doesn’t matter, as I count my fortune-coins – if the storm created a hardship for a handful of one of us in this countryside, they’re hardships felt by all of us on this land. It seems we all realize our turns at knowing such hardship.

Our sickened willow also fared better than that of a willow owned by a writer-friend on the other side of the state. Later that night, the same storm had totally blown over his farm’s grand willow.

Though the perspective of our good fortune helps me cope, it still gives me pain to see the suffering of that tree.

Erling, whose family arrived from Norway and homesteaded this ground during the mid-1800s, tells me he planted the tree in his earlier years, using a cutting from previous generations of the farm’s willows. It’s risen to stand guard over several generations whose souls haunt this old house.

The willow is home to critters beyond my count, the orioles and grosbeaks hanging sideways from those Rapunzel branches and hiding nests in its safety. Squirrels use the tree to nest and enjoy walnut treats from other nearby trees. The list of animals using it as a home seems endless.

Its striking majesty and girth have given it a sort of public celebrity over the years. Passersby traveling by automobile, on horseback, on bicycles or afoot occasionally stop on the road to gaze at the old willow.

The tree also has long been a point of goodhearted contention among those who’ve lived on this farm. Among that group, every three words of praise are met with a word of complaint about how the Rapunzel limbs tangle people and equipment caring for the farmyard under the tree.

Though we’ve already spent a few years of borrowing this place from its soil, it wasn’t until this spring that I realized the tree’s importance on our farm. On that evening, Dee and I rode our utility vehicle to the top of the ride on the next section over. We stopped for a while to take in what spring offers, noting how the trees were gaining their season’s green.

And then, looking down to our farm’s buildings, we seemed to notice simultaneously how the old willow dwarfed our house and everything else on the farm. The willow tree is the farm’s queen, a title bestowed not by mere humans but by nature itself.

I’ve considered the reality that my concern for the old willow is as more about my mortality than it is for the tree’s mortality. We all understand how long it takes such old trees to grow, after all. We imagine all of what it might have seen.

So, my mortal being asks, if trees such as grand old willow and other aged trees – those figures to which we’ve seen represent such strength – break and fall, how are we weak beings expected to continue standing long with any strength?

Beside trees so strong live we, the weak.

Though the old willow stands with a hole in its heart, it’s through that hole that today I see the sky’s blue and through which new rays of sun shine. I suspect the sky and sun will help heal that hole, eventually re-filling it with new branches and new life. And, I suspect the leaves’ deep green will return, inviting the tree’s resident critters to return home.

I hope that healing happens, at least, because I don’t feel ready to weep for our willow.

— Scott Schultz

The delicate art of catalpas

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Delicate whipped cream,

the catalpa’s flowers stubbornly gripping strong branches

glowing among oversized leaves.

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Flowers of art within,

palettes attracting bees’ background symphony

to nature’s gallery.

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Like kindergarten parents reluctantly shooing children to buses,

the gnarled old trees releasing them

to parachute on the summer breeze.

 

In the grass,

whispering sirens’ music in the new summer air

their beauty seducing us to hold them.

 

Heeding their calls,

only for their molded cream to melt through our fingers,

reminding us how from strength can come life,

needing such gentle touch.

— Scott Schultz