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

Squeezed under 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 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 becoming 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, 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 pre-dawn silence, we will break through the heavy cover that presses upon us in 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.

Tailgating with Erling

When most people talk about tailgating these days, they’re referring to that wonderful practice of firing up grills in stadium parking lots to prepare for football or baseball games. It evokes great memories about heaps of Fourth of July-style food taking the forms of brats, burgers, hot dogs, ribs and potato salad.

There also is, of course, that less-savory tailgating, the sort when the driver behind you demonstrates the inability to remember basic driving rules – or thinks Highway 53 is a NASCAR track – and slides up to your bumper closer than 1960s teenagers at a drive-in movie.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of another version of tailgating, and fancy the thought that it’s tailgating at its finest: The rural-born method of dropping a pickup truck’s tailgate and sitting, usually arms folded across the chest, to discuss the truly important things that are going on across the county’s ridges and coulees. It’s likened to hunkering — that practice of squat-kneeling with a neighbor on a farmyard’s gravel driveway and stick-doodling in the gravel while talking about the day’s events.

One such tailgating session happened out at our farm the other day when Erling drove out to have a look at the property he still owns across from our farm, the homestead on which he was raised.

That afternoon started like any other day. I’d just been in my gardens, getting some daily exercise on the working end of a hoe, when Erling pulled into the driveway across the road named in his family’s honor. I roamed over to say a quick “hello,” perhaps knowing somewhere in my soul that there would be nothing quick about it.

We started by assuming the usual pose for a casual quickly-pass-the-time-of-day greeting, both knowing the time had grown too long between then and our previous tailgating session.

Erling didn’t break the discussion as he dropped the tailgate and took a seat on it.

I continued to stand for a bit because it’s a little-known tailgating rule that the younger of the people in the discussion should continue in the fully upright position until told or invited otherwise. On that day, my wait wasn’t long.

“Sit down for a while,” he said, pointing to the tailgate.

I did as I was told, of course, as much because I knew he’d share good stories as out of respect for the fact that he’d just passed his 90th birthday.

I’ve tailgated in plenty of stadiums’ parking lots in preparation for many sporting events. There were great and not-so-great discussions and bickering about athletes and teams during that tailgating, along with moments of jokes, laughter and general revelry.

As I sat on Erling’s tailgate, though, it occurred to me about how many times the countryside’s problems – the world’s problems, for that matter – could be resolved by any combination of a couple rural folks sitting on a truck’s tailgate and taking part in discussions between gnawing on a piece of grass, or tasting the sweetness of the red clovers’ blossoms.

It occurred to me how that was about the same way we met several years ago, sitting on the tailgate of that same truck and similarly rolling into a dialog about the countryside’s important issues.

We talked about the fox den we found in a culvert.

Birds, as always, were major parts of the conversation, us especially comparing how the orioles were acting this year at the farm and at his place down in Pigeon Falls and about how turkey vultures had set up a nest down the road from the farm.

We covered who was buying land from whom seemingly everywhere from Arcadia to Osseo, and shared our opinions about what might be done with that land.

He continued from previous tailgating sessions his descriptions of which trees he planted where, and reminded me that, many years ago, he’d planted the massive willow tree standing between our house and the road.

Our mutual never-ending attempts to stay ahead of the weeds in our gardens were high on our matters-of-import list, him intuitively reminding me about the importance of helping my wife process vegetables instead of me simply dumping them onto the kitchen’s counters.

And, of course, we talked about our shared love for the countryside and the need to care for it as much as it’s cared for us.

There was much more, of course, time races with a world-class sprinter’s speed when you’re in such a high-level tailgating session. Supper was waiting for both of us.

I walked into the house, my soul smiling.

The smile apparently was reminding me how good a rural tailgating session can be.

Perhaps a good entrepreneur could develop that goodness into a worthwhile project. I envision pickup trucks parked, tailgates dropped, spread across this northern Driftless Area soil. Signs would invite folks to sit together on those trucks’ tailgates and solve all the communities’ important matters.

It wouldn’t even require training. Tailgating in such purity is part of our rural DNA, after all.

 

 

Absorbing rural goodness from new perspectives

The gnats and other little insects so annoying on a mid-June morning stopped attacking my face as I parted the light brush along the pasture’s fence line. The bugs seemed to be taking the same curious pause taken by the cow standing a few yards across the fence from me.

None of those creatures likely ever had seen a person approach the pasture from that place. There were gates, roads, paths and lanes for that. It was senseless to be poking through the bug-infested brush on such a hot, muggy afternoon.

But there I stood, between some trees and the fence, looking out at the cow and whatever else I could see in the pasture.

Truly, the approach I took made some sense. The Angus cow is one of several owned by my neighbors and is kept at our farm and those neighbors’ adjacent pastures. The cow’s owners had asked if, while they were on a fishing trip, I would check on their cows. The afternoon previous I’d found one of the cows soon after she’d given birth to a calf.

The cow seemed to be having some post-calving difficulties, so my intent was to check on her the next day. When I saw her then, I looked for the best route to approach without startling her.

I hoped I also would get to see her calf.

Getting a closer view of the cow required a round-about approach to the pasture fence – a trek that included a couple stumbles on a decaying windfall and the incessant insect attacks.

Whatever minor inconveniences there were on the way to the fence went away the moment I pushed aside the last couple limbs between me and the barbed wire.

There, in front of me, was a view toward Timber Creek that I’d never seen. I’d been close to that spot plenty of times since we moved to the farm, but it struck me that I’d never viewed the couple-hundred yards from the top of the ridge down to the creek’s beginnings.

Life from the brush behind me and the pasture in front of me oozed into my widened pores and into every sense of my being. The oxygen dripped with honey’s sticky sweetness from the leaves and grass, tickling my nostrils while it surged through my cells.

A meadowlark’s tune carried briefly through the coulee, a couple of crows clumsily trying to add gravely harmony.

Though she stood more than 10 yards from me, the silence allowed the passing of the cow’s cud-grinding chew and an occasional deep breath and sigh from her flexing nostrils.

The cow was knee-deep in the pasture’s tossed salad of grasses, clovers and thistles. Her occasional single step or two rattled the salad gently across her legs, her heavy hooves splitting to grind the mix against the firm soil the same way her large, flat teeth were grinding her cud.

The pasture was still, except for the cow’s occasional sloth movements. But then, there was a wiggle in the middle of a taller spot of grass.

More stillness.

There. The movement in the grass.

Stillness.

Another wiggle. A flick, there.

The calf’s need to rid itself of some of those annoying bugs gave it away. Even in the best hiding places, the twitch of a calf’s ear echoes its location through a visual megaphone. The movement could just as well have turned down the sky’s house-lights and shone only spotlights onto the calf for all of nature – good and bad – to see.

And then, another twitch, in another patch of tall grass.

An unexpected sight, was that spotlighted second calf.

Twins?

The calves remained true to their hideouts until mammalian urges steered the cow toward them.

A few steps toward one of them, and then she mooed gently.

A few more steps, and then another gentle moo.

The calf nearest to her responded with a still-weak bleat, and then stood and did a newborn-wobbly stretch of its legs.

The cow and calf took the final few steps toward each other. Though the day glowed brightly, the instinct that drew them together made it apparent they could have done as well during night’s deepest blackness.

The calf stayed beside the cow as she started moving toward the other calf.

A gentle moo.

The hiding calf’s bleat in reply.

The second calf staggered to its twig-thin legs, just as the first had stood, and wobbled toward the cow.

Their snouts became their eyes, searching for the white treasure that stretched the cow’s udder. Near her middle, to near brisket and then back, the calves’ heads starting to bob in anticipation.

Finally, both found what they sought.

The birds having fallen silent, the calves’ sloppy sucking reached me in a hushed “thshuk, thshuk, thshuk, thshuk…” with the milk spilling down their lower jaws and onto their necks.

The feeding was short-lived, the calves soon each stumbling back to their hiding-spots.

They lie quietly, the only signs of them again an occasional ear-twitch caught through the grass. The quiet around them only was interrupted by the uneven, muffled sound of paper torn from a spiral notebook as the cow’s grass-cutting front teeth harvested nutrition for a later round of nursing.

The calves relaxed, sated by full stomachs and the cow’s motherly instincts. I relaxed, sated by a full heart and the land’s natural instincts.

Without crossing the fence, I was moved to lie on the pasture’s most comfortable spot, drifting with the puffy dinosaur cloud that I watched passing through the blue nothingness above.

A nearby crow in the woods called me back to mortality, alerting me that I was so comfortably leaning against a large oak tree I didn’t notice when I’d arrived. Insects resumed their incessant buzzing of all my senses, signaling that I’d devoured that day’s ration of the land’s nourishment.

There would be more on another day, but for then it was time to re-enter the material world.

I will return to that spot, which will provide a good place for reflection and to absorb all the rural countryside’s goodness. Though we’ve called this place home for a few years, I also know there are many more similar spots to be found here – some maybe only a few feet away.

— Scott Schultz

Walking with friends in the darkness

There aren’t many places where darkness is total these days. Lights of some sort always seem to be there, showing us the way through the darkest hours and filling the night sky with reflections of our human needs for light’s safety.

There’s an occasional moonless night on our farm, though, when clouds cover even the stars’ light. It’s not total darkness – something I believe is impossible to find any more in our lower-48 states – but on those nights it gets downright dark.

Such darkness is refreshing and pleasing to the eyes, in many ways.

We had one of those nights a while ago, me having to guess-and-feel my way through night’s thickness between our barn and the house.

The usual chorus of Timber Creek frogs and the dampness from a refreshing June rain earlier in the evening were amplified by senses sharpened by not being able to see my way. Even the normal petrichor of mixed post-rain ozone and soil hung more thickly than normal.

I stopped halfway between the buildings as much to allow my senses to absorb what the darkness offered as much as to gather my physical bearings.

Just then, a brief spark lit the darkness across our lawn. And then, another and another and another.

Like thousands of tiny camera strobes flashed by fans sitting in a darkened stadium, June’s fireflies came to life.

While watching those fireflies, I pondered whether most of my northern Driftless neighbors would admit to youthful summer nights of chasing fireflies across lawns city and rural, and looking with wonder at the complex creatures after capture. Who hasn’t poked holes in a jar’s cover and sprinkled the jar’s bottom with grass for a few captured fireflies?

Such lessons those captured fireflies taught. We quickly learned and re-learned how the fireflies’ survival was sadly short in those jars, and three or four fireflies in a jar could never replace a lantern.

Somehow though, that urge to catch fireflies stays with us, even as we reach our lives’ falls and winters.

That night, my mind created a picture of children young and old skipping crazed patterns as they followed fireflies across the northern Driftless Area’s lawns and pastures.

In my recent years, fireflies have come to mean much more than youthful summer skipping through the darkness.

Whenever our daughter Alyssa was away for summer visits with relatives or attending school or camps, my wife Dee and I sat silently while we waited for each night’s fireflies to appear. In those fireflies’ lights we saw Alyssa here with us, though reality has hundreds or even thousands of miles between us. It’s a tradition that’s continued even since Alyssa’s move into adulthood and her own home.

And in those fireflies’ twinkles we see other important people in our lives who aren’t here beside us.

“There she is,” Dee whispers as each night’s first firefly appears.

As more appear, we see our parents and ancestors beyond, my children Jessica and Jamie and their families, and so many others – some still bound by earthly mortality and others freed from earthly shackles. They dance and play around us with flickering gaiety inviting us to join in their other-worldly celebrations.

Most people look to the stars to see loves who aren’t beside them. That’s a great place to look during frosts of falls, winters and early springs, but not during summers.

On summer nights, craning necks aren’t required to see our loves in the stars above. Instead, during summer the stars above float down on fireflies’ tails to our rural soil, bringing with them light-shows worthy of all the heavens. Even the heaviest clouds in the darkest nights can’t hide their summer follies.

I continued through the farmyard darkness on that recent night, along the way enjoying the fireflies’ visit and determined to tell Dee about how they gave me vision in the darkness. I also considered how well a Helen Keller quote fit so perfectly with my short journey.

“I would rather walk with a friend I the dark, than alone in the light,” she said.

There with the fireflies, I was surrounded by friends.

Dee greeted me with her usual smile and hug as I entered the house.

“There she is,” she whispered into my ear while pointing to the small, flickering firefly’s light outside one of our windows.

— Scott Schultz

 

 

Oak-solid memories at the grand library of evolution

The old oak tree’s leaves rustled the mumble of a humble greeting fit for a being of such age, causing me to pause and look up at its arthritic-twisted trunk and branches.

There, in its gnarled bark, reflected the captured history with faces of the many generations who’d stood there before me.

“He who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than a tree,” Aldo Leopold wrote. “He owns an historical library and a reserved seat in the theatre of evolution.”

The twisted oaks on our farm up on Eimon Ridge have great stories to tell about this place’s people and its land. They have an entire Leopold library full of stories that include all that an old homestead can offer.

They’ve seen several generations of the Eimon family and a couple generations of the Larson and Schultz families enter the front door of the old farm house, which was built in the mid-1800s.

They’ve seen buildings rise and leave the old homestead, some of the spots where old buildings stood marked these days only by a piece of foundation rising out of the dirt or by a simple dip in the farmyard’s soil.

They’ve heard and seen countless gallons of sparkling spring water bubbling out of the ridge and down into Timber Creek.

They’ve seen the good times and the bad times; known wars with few spaces for peace.

They’ve felt the extremes of the Upper Midwest’s cold and heat; felt drought and deluge.

My brief stop under the oak came to mind the other day when one of our neighbors mentioned that they were likely going to take down the old red dairy barn on their family farm.

The reason has never totally been defined, but hearing those words always make rural folks step back and assess things. Few ever want to see the demise of an old barn, even knowing the removal is important for everything from aesthetics to function and safety.

Nostalgia runs thickly, good or bad, through the veins of folks such as us here in the northern Driftless Area. That’s especially true when we look at our beloved barns, which long have stood so proudly as symbols of all the hard work that happens on the soil of our ridges and coulees. All that happened on the land was done in homage to those barns.

I think back to the barn built on our old home farm over at Veefkind, and all that building has meant to me. It was built with beams hand-hewn by Henry Borne Veefkind, my great-great grandfather. A day will arrive, I realize – perhaps yet in my lifetime – when that barn also will have to be removed from the landscape.

Should the old Veefkind barn be razed in my lifetime, I hope to save at least a few splinters or even an entire piece of its beams to occasionally touch. Such a thing would be my way of linking the spirits of six generations of my family who’d also touched that hand-hewn timber.

I suspect my neighbors will do something similar, if they decide to have their old barn removed.

Whether I ever get a piece of the Veefkind barn’s beam or whether our neighbors keep a few pieces of their family’s old barn is inconsequential in the big picture, I suppose. Our ancestors who built those structures left behind structures much older than ours to find new soil to mold and nurture.

Though important to so many of us, the nostalgia we feel about those barns will pass with our own demise; we being but blinks in time’s eyes.

What goes on here is of some import to those of us who reminisce but, after our short stays, only the soil and those old oaks will be left to decide what was important.

Someone a couple generations from now will look into that old oak’s bark and see its memories of our short presence. In it will be the structures that were built and then disappeared, dreams realized and dashed, and hope lost and found.

And someday down the line, even that twisted old tree will be but a memory added to the soil.

— Scott Schultz

Comfort in the Haze

That night’s rain and dew made the soil cry teardrops beaded on the May morning’s grass. Thick fog that had hidden in the night’s darkness was exposed by the morning light diffused by the fog on the eastern horizon.

No tractors disc harrows, grain drills or corn planters would massage the northern Driftless Area’s hillside farmland that day. There would be no din that’s the rumbling of trucks hauling fertilizers and herbicides.

There would be no smell of freshly cut grass that day, because no lawns would be mowed under such conditions; the tulips and dandelions would hold their petals closed in wait for the sun to find its way through the fog.

School playgrounds likely would be empty of joy, their normally enthusiastic clientele remaining within indoor climes with warmth and dryness the outside air wasn’t providing.

Even nature’s voices were muted by the blanket draped low between the soil and the sky – songbirds ever-present and recently arrived not finding the notes to brighten the other creatures’ spirits.

There was no spring morning bounding-for-joy prance in the calves’ legs as they rose to suckle their dams in the pasture, their approaches instead dutiful strides.

The air, that blanket of fog and haze pulled over us from Osseo to Trempealeau, seemed to be closing in to stifle and suffocate all that’s May.

But then, something seemed to change in what the day was bringing to me as I crossed the farmyard and entered the creaky old house here at our Eimon Homestead farm. The feeling of being stifled and suffocated shifted to the feeling of being lovingly hugged.

It wasn’t one of those hugs that old friends give after long separations, those that threaten to break ribs and most often include hands pounding on backs; it wasn’t that sort of head-spinning hug of passion that entangles lovers.

The hug I felt was more like that of a mother comforting her young son after he skins a knee; the hug was loving trust passed between a long-married couple.

It was a hug of comfort, telling me all was safe.

The feeling made me smile as I went to my office in the southwest corner of our house, that place where I’ve long felt safe to allow words to pour from my fingers. There, I looked out at the farmyard and at the old willow while contemplating the newly realized feeling of that foggy blanket’s hug – ignoring echoes of my parents’ long-ago admonitions that I shouldn’t think so much about such matters.

I considered how I’d so often been finding such reassurances in this corner of the Driftless Area, whether it be while looking over a lock-and-dam on the Mississippi, sitting beside a spring-fed creek, meeting with folks at the café in Whitehall, snacking on chicken gizzards in Independence, strolling the shore of the mighty Pigeon Pond, getting my hands dirty with a few hay bales or in this ridge’s soil…. Oh, so many times I’ve felt such reassuring hugs from this land and its people, whether it be night, day, cloudy, sunny or – as I’d learned that morning – under the heavy comforter that was a foggy blanket.

My contemplation was broken by a bright flitting around one of the bird feeders near the office’s window. It was a newly returned oriole making the season’s first appearance.

And then, there was another oriole – and another and another and another. An entire little flock of them were making their much-welcomed return to their old summer home.

Moments later, I glanced up to see a hummingbird sitting on one of the feeders we keep on the house’s eaves. Undoubtedly exhausted from such a long migration, he seemed to inhale nectar while the words “welcome home, my little friend” crossed my lips.

By the end of that day, I’d feel the comfort of having our entire Eimon Ridge family all within our farm’s safety. I hoped all felt the place’s and land’s embrace as I was feeling it.

The hug continued and has yet to set me free. There might be times when a spirit might feel the need to be released from a hug but, for me, this hasn’t been among those times.

I needed such an embrace, that of the sort different than those given by those with whom we share the greatest love. The sort of hugs given by this place and its land reach into you and love-spackle any chips and cracks life has left on your heart. Knowing such a slight difference between the warmth of human hugs and the land’s hugs is like knowing the differences between a lover’s hug and a mother’s hug.

Comfort comes in many forms.

It’s taken me longer than it should to realize that, around these parts, warm and comforting hugs of safety are easy to find even within what might seem like the most dreary days. Though not always quick to remember that, I’m certain to find reminders when I look at the comfort it gives wife Dee and all those creatures come home.

— Scott Schultz

Glories in the Gallery

I stopped in my tracks out in the farmyard to watch the eastern horizon starting to blush.

Standing in that spot or thereabouts is something I’ve done often since we’ve lived out on this ridge, me facing the east to watch such blush of pink appearing with sunrises — the reds and oranges and goldenrod yellows soon following.

But that was a moment of the sun’s rising. Instead, it was setting.

The matter caused me to do a double-take of sorts, momentarily worrying that the onset of another birthday brought confusion about which direction I was facing. I assured myself that I was, indeed, looking to the east.

What then, was causing this colorful eastern sky?

A quick consideration crossed my mind that perhaps the large greenhouse operation over by Northfield to the southeast already was casting its purple light-reflection off the light clouds Sunset2 061317streaking that part of the sky. But the eerie colored light pollution we’ve come to know during the past few months – a phenomenon to which we’ve become somewhat accustomed and which startles the unknowing – wasn’t the cause.

Something from behind told me to turn around, where I realized the cause.

The sun settling into its evening resting place along the western horizon was putting on a light show that rivaled any I’d seen at any point in the world I’ve gotten to know.

Such sunsets have occasioned us here in the past, me committed to never take for granted such art. But seldom have even the most spectacular sunsets splashed the entire sky with all combinations in the color-wheels; all the paint-cans’ covers jettisoned as the hardware stores’ mixers were quaking in their greatest violence.

Glances back and forth, west to east and east to west, I turn to watch the morning’s horizon and turn to watch the evening’s horizon.

What souls have stood on that spot over the years, getting the same show? This soil has told me that those here before me definitely had stopped to see similar spectacles, no matter how busy the day and no matter whether it was time for the cows to be milked.

That hasn’t been the case in all places I’ve been over the years, but it seems to be something that’s a habit in these parts — most folks I know around here being the sorts to have stopped and watched as I watched.

As yet another northern Driftless Area art exhibit drew to a close, I went into our old farmhouse and anticipated the many stories and images I’d be hearing, reading and seeing in the exhibit’s critique. There likely only would be positive critiques, I suspected, those attesting otherwise having little understanding of our fortune for having an artist so renowned show her best work in our humble gallery.

Those critiques didn’t offer any disappointment, them being plentiful and positive.

In other venues, they’d include audiences in standing ovations uproariously applauding with yells of “Brava!” Here though, the ovations were in the form of friends’ texts and calls to ask whether we’d seen the exhibit; they were in social media postings in words and photographs.

We’d seen similar shows but didn’t know whether they’d ever be matched and certainly didn’t think they’d ever be topped as they were tonight, we so many agreed.

This has to be one of the most incredible pieces of countryside to live upon, we so many contended.

“How could this ever be topped?” we so many asked.

“This season has painted our senses with sunrises and sunsets,” we so many spoke the obvious.

We gave thanks for the show, we so many the thankful.

Dusk closed the gallery, and we looked away as darkness drew its curtain over the show; bright gallery lights were replaced with twinkling stars’ security lights.

Like the gallery’s security guard, I made one last visit out into the darkened venue. And there through a wispy cloud’s haze shined that night’s moon, it in a half-winked bedroom-eye dreaminess.

It’s always wonderful to see the artist installing her next show.

Brava, dear artist of this soil. Brava.

— Scott Schultz