Welcoming the Uninvited

The fires we sit beside on the side of our ridge are most often meant as times of quiet contemplation between Dee and me, and sometimes for my own contemplation.

We’ve invited our share of friends and family to join us there during our years here at the old Eimon Homestead. We’ve even been known to invite groups of writers and artists to join us there for projects through our nonprofit organization, The Heartbeat Center for Writing, Literacy and the Arts.

But sometimes our quiet little parties are crashed by pesky neighbors who, though they lack invitations, we joyfully welcome to our ridge.

We honestly welcome those pesky neighbors’ unexpected visits. Hearing and seeing a fire tell its stories about the land beneath the cover of but-for-stars darkness wouldn’t be the same without those party crashers.

Two of them stopped in during two of our recent nights of under-the-stars fires. They were stealthy each time with their approaches, us not seeing them until they stood and started grazing the grass a few yards from us. Their approach was through the tall grasses and trees down by Timber Creek. The fire’s subtle breaths and its occasional sizzle and pop of damp wood were enough to cover whatever noises the whitetail does’ reddish hair might have been making against the grass or low-hanging pine-boughs.

It was the witching hour, those moments right after sunset when all rural falls quiet in humble honor of the passing day and of the approaching darkness.

The deer tiptoed onto the lawn, their nature-pedicured hooves soundless against the sod.

We made no particular effort to remain motionless, but we sat that way in such silence that the sounds of their incisors snipping grass became audible over the fires’ sounds. They grazed for a few minutes, occasionally glancing up at us through the heat-distorted air rising from the fire’s flames.

Bellies apparently sated, after a few minutes the visitors made their ways back into the grass and trees and then back to the creek-bottom. Perhaps they were seeking more entertainment than we were willing to offer during those cool early August nights. Perhaps wildlife needed to find more wild in their lives than we were displaying beside that cozy fire.

Their ghostly disappearance into the grass and trees could make a mind wonder whether the visitors ever were there. I’m certain that, could I speak with my grandparents – or even my parents – their disbelief would follow my telling them that deer have been coming to visit us and our farmyard fires.

They didn’t know such visits, the farm-country deer population having grown only during my lifetime.

“No, deer didn’t come into your farmyard – especially not while you’re sitting beside a fire,” any of my grandparents would have said. “You’re in Wisconsin farm country, and there are no deer in Wisconsin farm country.”

“I suppose it’s possible, but I doubt it,” either of my parents would have said. “Deer started popping up more around Wisconsin farm country a few years back, but they sure wouldn’t be making a habit of coming to visit you by a fire.”

I wouldn’t bother telling them how several bucks were roaming beside our house on another night.

More uninvited-but-welcome visitors started popping into our little fireside gathering a minute or two after the deer disappeared.

An owl called the first of its nightly hoots from the patch of trees a few yards from the fire; a screech owl trilled its haunting nightly greetings. Coyotes certainly within easy sight of our fire made their presence known with a musical cacophony of yips and howls lasting a minute and then suddenly stopping as though under the power of an orchestra’s conductor.

And then, the quickest of visitors arrived overhead – meteors streaking across the sky, giving us quick waves of “hello” and “goodbye” with their twinkling long tails as they zoomed over Osseo, us, Pigeon Falls and on down to Trempealeau; they made haste in crossing the northern Driftless Area’s sky east to west and north to south, telling us they’d like to stay and visit but have somewhere to be on the other side of the Milky Way.

We plan to sit by more fires in our farmyard as the each day’s sunshine is shortened, Ma Nature’s artists then getting busy to paint a 96-Crayon-box of colors across the aspens, willows, maples, walnuts. There by that fire we know we’ll see that continued array of neighborhood guests – all uninvited, but all welcomed.

— Scott Schultz

Aged elegance

Peony summer 071918
Gone long the peony’s days of spring’s brilliance and hope; gone those days of peony’s bright and charming colors.
Left today but a dulled and tattered green stood against a gray summer sky, your red flowers only memories.
Who sees your aged presence as beauty?
Who knows the real hope held for new springs of lush joy?
Sadness for those who don’t know; sadness for those amazed only in blossomed days.
Dulled and tattered green stood against a gray summer sky, your red flowers not needed.
Today, aged wonders stood in summer elegance.

 

 

The summer mature

Each July has that day when we wake to see summer start to wrinkle with age, its face’s youthful freshness yielding to a weathered ruddiness after too many hours of sun and wind exposure. Summer, we know that day, has pulled us into its greatest depths of heat and humidity despite its inability to show its vulnerability.

The season can’t hide its midlife crisis.

We don’t always notice changes such as those that day presents. It’s like not noticing ourselves aging because we see ourselves in the mirror each day – but old friends who haven’t seen us in a while taking quick note about how much we’ve aged.

I notice it here in the northern Driftless Area when I step outside and see corn tassels poking through the top of the early morning haze hanging over the cornfields rolling up and down Eimon Ridge. Those tassels have set into motion the corn’s final processes – moving it from youthful survival and growth to the noble and mature business of creating nourishing seeds.

Seeing the tassels is a signal for me to look in other directions for signs that July’s turnaround day has arrived.

I look down and see the previous night’s dewy sweat glistening on white clover heads, the blades of grass that had been so lush with green having started a mid-summer rest that allows the clover to thrive. The lawn, overall, has become an uneven green sprinkled with a bit of brown and yellow to go with the clover’s white.

Over in a road ditch I see only remnants of the purple clover that a couple weeks ago had been bursting with sweetness. Some of the purple remains, but it’s become less inviting for a farm boy to chew and even less enticing for bees to visit.

The Timothy grass that May and June give us to chew has turned into brittle toothpicks, its seeds starting to drop with every touch.

A grasshopper, still sporting most of its summer green, appears out of the grass and hops across the road. Its appearance makes us remember childhood days of seeing the sticky-footed critters bounding around oats-filled bins, one of the most certain signs that the summer has climbed across the line fence.

One of the local farmers drives through with a combine. The harvests have gone from sweet smells of the first freshly cut hay to the seemingly endless season of second-crop and third-crop haying, with thoughts of crunchy-dry grain harvests coming to mind.

Even the tasseled corn’s leaves’ wind-whispers are getting louder, sometimes overwhelming the whispers heard from nearby trees.

I take a drive and see that even the summer’s road construction has taken a new look. Though such projects are seemingly endless, that July day’s work signals the construction is getting closer to completion than it is to the commencement.

Early summer trips have been completed for many folks I know in our region, them staying home more to celebrate summer’s final weeks with the first thoughts of a new school year starting to enter minds.

Summer sports leagues are heading toward championships.

Crickets make nightly calls for those among us who still can hear them.

We realize a need to arrive at Buena Vista for the brilliant sunsets closer to 8 p.m. than 9 p.m., the moments of daylight waning by a couple minutes every day.

The day tells me the planning is heavy for our late-summer community celebrations.

It would be easy to feel dismay when that July day arrives, us thinking about summer seeming to be passing so quickly. But those who take time to pay attention to this countryside’s ridges and coulees know there’s plenty of summer left, complete with some good spurts of so-hot-and-humid-you-can-hear-the-corn-grow days and with a few cool autumn-like nights.

We see the northern Driftless summer maturing, and it’s up to us whether we want to make the best of what’s left of it or whether we simply want to get the coming weeks out of the way in autumn’s favor.

— Scott Schultz

The loam magnetic

The soil has plenty of magnetic pull, I’ve been noticing as my years progress. It’s been pulling me more closely to it by the day.

There are the obvious and medical reasons for that happening, of course. During much earlier days I studied how we all physically shrink a little each day after having stood our tallest and most upright. Life’s wear and tear on muscles and joints give us that truth.

It also would be easy for some of us to joke about the earth’s magnetic pull increasingly having its way with metal screws and joints we’ve had planted into our bodies to hold us together over the years. But here, I’m talking about the sort of magnetic pull that eludes our comprehension – that sort of pull that reaches out of the soil and grabs us by our very hearts, souls and spirits to tug us back into the loam.

It’s as though the soil is telling us to get home, where we belong.

Those of us reared on the rural countryside’s soil know how we rose from that loam, figuratively and literally. In the earliest of our years, we spend time digging into Mother Earth around our farmyards to replicate what our parents and perhaps older siblings do with machinery out in the fields; digging foxholes to fight imaginary military foes; using sticks to draw pictures into the dirt.

We make mud pies that we sometimes eat by chance or by design to nourish our curiosities.

As children, we unwittingly give in to the soil and allow it to manage us.

And then, as we grow, all of us work to flip that management picture, us trying to show how we know so well what’s best for that soil. We mold the loam and all beneath to fit our conveniences and needs; we add and remove nutrients natural and synthetic; we take all the soil’s layers from where nature placed them in the name of resources for our wants.

We grow crops that we eat only by design to nourish our bodies.

As adults, we wittingly take from the soil and demand that we manage it.

And then, as we get older, we find that the soil always will know best. We pause to smell its mustiness; we reach to touch it for no reason; we find excuses to work in our gardens to be nearer to it. We take time to reflect about the beauty that it is, instead of the beauty in what it could be; we cherish how it holds plants’ roots and our roots. We long to protect it.

We grow appreciation that we eat by chance or by design to nourish our spirits.

As older adults, we unwittingly give in to the soil and allow it to manage us.

I suppose there’s a great likelihood that many folks don’t notice the time when the soil starts calling us to return. But I’ve felt the pull as my summer days shorten and my physical being starts teetering – or already has tipped — toward its autumn.

Of late, the time I spend in our gardens seems more precious than ever. There, the soil seeps under my fingernails and into my hands like a medicine show’s greatest life-giving ointment.

I’ve had the urge to sit child-like out among the tall grasses to regain a bit of the summer innocence that’s been given and taken by life’s daily grind.

I’ve given in to the soil pulling me onto the lawn’s grass in the shade beneath our old catalpa trees, the loam allowing me to alternate between a novel’s words and gazing up at wispy clouds brushed against the azure above.

And oh, how I gaze across the ridges and coulees in wonder at the goodness the glaciers left touched across this northern Driftless Area.

Those of us who allow ourselves to feel the soil drawing us back into it know the contentment, fear and joy it triggers – the acknowledgment of life and mortality all rolled into one emotion. So often during our extended years we’ve heard, after all, “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

I’m in no particular hurry to get fully back to the dust, me rather enjoying the way things are going on this side of the sod. But I’d be a fool to not acknowledge realizing that the soil wants us more than some folks would like to admit.

In the meantime I’ll continue to enjoy the life we’ve been building out here on Eimon Ridge, giving an occasional nod to the soil’s magnetic pull.

And a strong pull, it is.

— Scott Schultz

A fireside chat

He slowly inhaled a large breath of the evening’s cool air. Each measure of the life-giving oxygen he drew could be seen as it fed through his corpuscles, first in deep amber, then in red and then healthy glowing pink.

A slight wheeze could be heard the air moved, his aged cells having turned rough and brittle. Whatever moisture that remained in him sputtered with subtle aquarium-pump gurgles.

He held the breath for a few moments, seeming to consider whether it would be good to allow something so good to leave his being. But as the breath’s oxygen was spent, he released it back into the air for the nearby trees to snatch and rejuvenate with more oxygen to be used in future breaths. The glowing pink, and then the red and deep amber, left with the exhale.

And then it was repeated, another deep breath with renewed life and color. Another exhale.

Thoughtful, he was, listening to those around him babble with their nonsense while he carefully considered what to say. Watching him breathe had a sort of hypnotizing effect that drew senses toward him, and then into him. With every inhale, he reached within and touched the soul – first cautiously touching it to allay fears, then gently wrapping his fingers around it. And then, like a thief in the surrounding darkness, he withdrew the soul, and bared it for all to see. His intent wasn’t to harm the soul, but only to open it to life’s truths. He then gently soaped the soul in gently warmed water to wash away the grime of the daily worries soiling it.

It’s easy then, your soul in his care, to become mesmerized by his actions.

But as quietness and stillness grew, he surprised with a bull-whip’s snap that called the need for those mesmerized to pay attention. He had something to say.

He turned aside and spat, more of habit than of need, to assure that he had his audience’s complete attention. The bull-whip snapped again, and he threatened the sting of a white-hot coal unto anyone not listening.

Finally, he spoke in a rough whisper quieted to not disturb the owl that started its own discourse from a nearby tree. The sound of his voice brought sporadic light applause from the surrounding leaves; applause polite to fit the moment without whistles or yells. The depth of what he would say, the leaves knew, required digestion that would make his fans want to yell, “Bravo! Bravo!” not this night, but tomorrow.

His words came clearly, with the air of those spoken only by the most learned teachers. There are learned who can’t teach, and teachers who aren’t learned, but he what he spoke immediately made it apparent that he certainly was learned and certainly could teach.

The words were firm, gentle, joyous and melancholy all within each thought.

He spoke to his audience about things that should be known, things that shouldn’t be known; about youth lost, youth still held; about pains, pleasures; about love lost, love found; about lows, highs; about sickness, health; about debts, riches; about coldness, passion; about the past, present and future.

He tickled smiles and he pricked tears.

The depth of his inhales and exhales intensified as he spoke, taking his complexion far beyond its previous ambers, reds or pinks. The moment turned him a pulsating white-blue with heat – colors that in another setting might mean cold or death, but which then sparked the peak of living. That life visibly swirled within him, his soul’s ghosts revived with each thought he espoused.

The audience intently listened to all he said. Each time he’d spoken, all walked away feeling better than before, and this night promised to be no different.

Listeners always learned more about themselves, others and the land than they knew before listening to him.

Though he would have so much more to say, his audience could stay no longer. Lost in his messages, the audience hadn’t realized the late hour that brought the night’s dew onto brows. Even the owl had concluded its speech, perhaps in favor of a seeking that night’s dinner. Gnats and mosquitoes earlier omnipresent had given up their bloodthirsty quests and disappeared into the blackness.

Fireflies that earlier provided a disco-ball background to his teachings had ascended to add to the Milky Way’s twinkles.

Understanding the need for his audience to depart, he quieted into midnight’s stillness. His breathing slowed. Without speaking, he decided to have a late-night smoke – unfiltered – and on an exhale blew rings of smoke toward his departing audience.

On the smoke he returned the souls he’d taken under his care. Though cleansed, the souls re-entered their hosts much more clumsily than they’d been withdrawn, stinging eyes and irritating coughs.

There would be other nights for him to say more, other nights for him to cleanse and give care to souls. But for then he was left alone in the early morning darkness to enter an ashen slumber.

— Scott Schultz

A fireworks community

There might not be a synchronized Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” involved, but we might be found at one of the area’s Fourth of July fireworks celebrations.

The celebration calls for a trip across the town of Hale to Pleasantville, for sure.

I’ve always been amazed how those celebrations pull together people in even the smallest communities. There might be things about the Fourth of July and the signing of the Declaration of Independence about which historians might have some disagreements, but there’s little to disagree about when it comes to how people are drawn to those events.

Dee and I kicked around that phenomenon a bit over the years, especially as we’ve sat patiently waiting while dusk settled in and other activities ended so the annual fireworks could begin.

I figured many years ago that I’d eventually give up on the excitement of those Fourth of July oooohs and aaaahs. It never occurred to me that my parents might be making the 10-mile drive from our Veefkind farm and into town because they wanted to see the fireworks – me believing they were doing favors for me and my siblings.

There were some Fourth of July fireworks displays around the nation that impressed me as a young adult and, when I had children of my own, I figured their attendance was a good enough excuse for me to hear the booms and bangs and to see the sky lighted with sparkling and twinkling colors. It also seemed like a good excuse to make a massive bag full of popcorn and sit with them on blankets in parks to watch their eyes light up with amazement about the display, always making that popcorn taste a little better.

Our children all have grown, so I’m out of excuses. I have to admit that we go to them because I like to go to them, and I’m fairly sure Dee also likes to go.

We probably will again go this year, likely fighting some Wisconsin summer humidity, mosquitoes and – if we choose to watch it from the car – occasionally foggy windshield glass. We might be the folks in one of the cars, listening to old-time radio shows in the moments before the fireworks start.

And, though the pure child-at-heart enjoyment of seeing the fireworks together is a good enough reason for our continued attendance, it will be a time for community bonding in unspoken ways folks in rural communities best understand.

People who live in rural communities like their special mixes of quiet solitude while enjoying an occasional boom of excitement. Fireworks, as I think about it, represent everything about the rural countryside.

We like having neighbors while watching the fireworks, but manage to withdraw into our own small worlds of personal peace, metaphorically and physically. We know our neighbors are out there somewhere in the darkness, and we’re fine with that – but don’t mind the occasional burst of light to remind us where that they’re not far away.

We like the moments of silence, the neighbors and sky hushed in anticipation of what’s to come and then sharing smiles and those oooohs and aaaahs when the moments of noisy excitement arrive.

There’s little talk when the fireworks end and people go to their homes in small towns and countryside. Maybe that’s because of fatigue, fireworks’ grand finales generally being later than the normal bedtimes for us folks rising to the top of the age-scale. But I also like to think there’s silence because the fireworks already said all that needed to be said.

When people in the rural communities such as those in our northern Driftless Area leave a fireworks show, they’ve shared in few words, reactions, and knowing smiles and head nods that we’re all in this thing together.

The people leaving our area’s Fourth of July fireworks displays will go back to their business of slogging through rural life in each person’s unique way. But for those few minutes all that is different among us is ignored and neighbors become community.

Maybe we’ll see you, our community, somewhere at dusk on the Fourth of July; maybe in Pleasantville. I’ll only ask you to ignore my head nodding in tempo to the fireworks because, in my mind, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” will be accompanying every boom.

— Scott Schultz

The beer and the land

A guy’s excitement about moving from Chicago to Appleton isn’t necessarily the sort of topic a fellow might expect to find in a country tavern in the northern Driftless Area, but that’s the very subject a bunch of local guys were kicking around the other night over at York.

In the story, the Chicago guy said he’d visited the Fox River Valley area a while ago, and found Wisconsin to be refreshingly quiet and peaceful. He liked it there so much that he picked up his urban stakes and moved to Appleton.

The discussion, as we in this area might suspect, was primarily about what in the Fox River Valley he found to be so quiet and peaceful.

The guys in the tavern seemed to have the same notion as me where such quiet and peacefulness is concerned. I suppose peace and quiet can be found plenty in the Fox River Valley though I never really found it there while running several of their marathons over the years.

There’s a good chance, even, that things are much more peaceful when you’re not fighting through a marathon.

No matter, I had to nod my head in agreement about what the guys were saying in comparing most of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan corner with what we know over here toward the old Mississippi. It seems to them and to me that there’s always been quite a lot less hubbub going on out our way than what’s always been going on over that other direction. Historically, people left the areas of huge population to go there, and then came out this direction to escape things even more.

These days, maybe only the middle of the north’s forest-country is as quiet and as peaceful as the majority of days we have here in the northern Driftless. I’m not trying to stir civil unrest between the east and west, of course, but facts are facts.

Somewhere during that tavern discussion, the subject came up with the guys about what it would take to get them to sell their rural northern Driftless properties and move to another area.

What if someone offered you several million bucks to buy the land and mine it?

What if you won the lottery and could afford to live anywhere you wanted?

I’ve been around those discussions before, and they generally end up with folks saying there would be some hard decisions to make, if those sorts of things ever fell onto their laps. Maybe an island in some warm clime would be a nice place to live; maybe selling the land for a couple million would provide their young’uns with anything they’d ever need.

Such wasn’t the case with that night’s group, though.

Those fellows, whose fingernails have deeply-imbedded soil from Northfield to Pleasantville, took turns to righteously proclaim their commitment to never leave their parcels of quiet and peacefulness.

One of the guys took a long, slow drink from his bottle of Old Milwaukee, and used his free hand to wipe a drip of brew from his chin as his other hand gently returned the bottle to the bar’s surface.

“I don’t care if somebody offered me $6 million for my 120 acres,” one of the guys said. “That land means more than that, to me.”

There’s the quiet and peace that’s found out in our part of the countryside, but such an opinion runs much deeper, another of the guys offered. The ridges and coulees offer much more, he said.

“Have you ever really stopped to look around at this area?” the second gent said. “There’s no place in the world as beautiful as this.”

Some of what came from that group could have been passed off as things said by folks who’ve never really seen some of the world’s most grand sights. All of them were fully the products of northern Driftless Area soil, for certain, but all of them had been in many places around the globe. They’ve seen the greatest mountains, great valleys, jungles and icebergs.

“What he said,” a third guy piped in, his thumb pointing toward the previous speaker. “I’ve seen a lot of the world, but there’s been nothing like this, right here.”

Another of the men had quietly been looking straight ahead, barely showing that he was listening to comments made by the others. His measured words finally broke his silence.

“Why, if I won millions of dollars, the only land I’d buy would be all around mine, just to keep it like it is. I’d let people hunt there and everything, but I’d make sure nothing ever changed about that land.”

I know that group doesn’t represent everyone’s feelings about this grand countryside, but it was interesting to not find anyone of a different opinion in that place.

I had pressed them, and one of them felt compelled to return the favor and press me.

“Hey,” said the guy who’d been least vocal of the bunch. “You’re that guy who’s always writing. Why don’t you write something about us?”

“I believe I will,” I answered. “I believe I will.”

— Scott Schultz

A July unraveling

I came unraveled this afternoon, and it felt good. There was much to do but I stood in the garden and, for a while, ignored the weeds to instead watch the corn grow.
 
My eyes closed as I turned my face to the sky and extend my arms into a sun-soaked form of a cross. The spinning world’s many hands were reaching for me, fingers slightly out-of-reach or only brushing gently against my fingertips.
 
A turn at any degree would allow me to choose the direction I wanted to go; which of the world’s hands I wanted to accept.
 
Such unraveling can only happen on such a perfectly moderate July day. Other days’ cold makes me draw tightly to preserve warmth; other days’ heat makes me draw tightly to remain cool.
 
This day’s unraveling allowed me to have it all, while allowing me to have none.

— Scott Schultz

Finding self on the soil

The rural countryside and its people offer much to us. The greatest of those things, if we seek it and allow it, is finding who we are and what our places are on the land.

Let’s explore the countryside together; let’s use the soil to teach more about who we are and what we’re about. We’ll even have some fun along the way.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton