Leaning On A Friend

His pulse surging through every fiber pushed rhythmically against me as we leaned back-to-back the other day.

Sitting back-to-back was something I’d done often with other Marines during some of our times afield, the barren countryside bereft of chairs reclining or otherwise. When waiting – there were times when the waiting seemed endless – our choices were to lie on the ground, sit in a spine-tiring forward lean, or sit upright and lean back on our elbow-locked arms.

It was most comfortable and comforting to sit while leaning back-to-back with a Marine of approximate similar size.

There was comfort because our backs shared the stress of sitting upright on the ground, thereby removing pressures from our tired muscles and joints.

The comforting part was because it was an indication that another Marine literally had my back in a way those of family and brotherhood can ever understand.

And then, the big old oak tree down near the spring by the pasture fence-line heaved a grand sigh as we leaned against each other the other day to watch, hear and feel spring’s approach. We’ve made each other comfortable and have been comforting often during recent years, the oak taking time from its busy schedule of guarding the lower part of the ridge from whatever might be approaching from the creek in the valley below.

The mighty old tree had been working on that spot for nigh a century or so before my arrival, its grand trunk split on its north side in an apparent friendly invitation to squirrels and maybe a mystical gnome or two. Lesser trees would know its demise by such a gap in its lower trunk, but it’s long healed with bark solid still clothing the oak on any spots exposed to my sight.

Its south side is that perfect place I’ve found to share its lean, us supporting each other. But unlike with those Marines, neither of us is waiting to go anywhere.

We’re perfectly content to have gentle conversations carried on each whisp of late-winter air, the oak telling me about how its sap and the sap of all the nearby trees has thawed to life and again pulses through their veins.

We watch together as a couple of nearby aspens start to show buds which, in a few days, will open to expose the season’s first leaves.

And I watch the oak release the final handful of last year’s gold-brown leaves it held tightly through the winter; they pirouette toward the duff to feed another season of life.

The oak and I together hoped for its own buds to appear soon enough and provide another plentiful crop of leaves and acorns.

We feel warmth of the mid-March sun hanging ever-higher in the afternoon sky, us appreciating how this grand globe is being tilted ever-so-slightly to make us cheer the light’s warm massages.

Wonder is offered about when the concern will be how much shade the old tree can offer on the hottest of summer days.

We ask each other how we’re feeling. I hold my right hand high and spread it to the azure sky to compare my aging digits with the oak’s gnarled twigs and branches.

We laugh as the oak invites me back into boyhood dreams of climbing high onto its sturdy branches for me to appreciate the view from my grand old friend’s heights.

We share joys and losses of recent and past; we laugh and we allow tears to flow.

But mostly, we quietly and simply sit back-to-back, each feeling the other’s pulse flowing rhythmically through our beings.

I quietly inhale the oak’s exhales and it quietly inhales my exhales

There will be a day not so long from this when one of us no longer will be there for the other. I suspect I’ll be the one who’s first to not show up and lean my back into the oak’s strength, it having felt the backs of several generations of transients like me.

But, there’s always that chance that I’ll someday look down from our old farm-house on this ridge and see that life’s forces have taken the oak to its demise ahead of me – a worry that’s not of concern on one of those sunny March days when I’ve made time to sit back-to-back with that favorite tree.

— Scott Schultz

Finding Peace With A Fox

The vixen pranced back and forth, her auburn hair dancing in the spotlight with every step as she pranced along.

I don’t really like turning the old farm house’s yardlights on when I go outside at night, me enjoying the darkness and the chance to see more what’s in the sky over our rural place so much more brightly than what can be seen through the lights of even the smallest of street-lit villages or cities. But I’d forgotten something in the farmyard and that night needed the light on to retrieve it.

The light startled the fox that had been visiting the lawn in front of the old house. Perhaps she’d been there seeking some exquisite evening dining fare on one of the many rabbits that each night visit the soil around my bird-feeding stations.

Maybe she’d just stopped to say hello.

Whatever drew her there, her nervous pacing just a few feet in front of me – back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – made me wonder what I’d interrupted. I decided to question a little more; I retired to the house and shut off the lights to allow her to go about whatever business she was tending.

That wouldn’t always have been the case with her or the many other fox from her family that have visited this homestead on Eimon Ridge in the decades since we started borrowing this land from the soil’s spirits. Until recent years, we had what gently could be described as a Hatfields and McCoys relationship.

Oh, that fox family.

We met when Dee and I added chickens, ducks and turkeys to our small farm’s menagerie and immediately didn’t see eye-to-eye – especially on that morning when I was woken by a chicken’s squawking right below our bedroom window. The sunrise was just tickling the ridge’s east horizon when I leapt from bed to see what was going on. That’s when I literally locked eye-to-eye with a fox standing immediately below the bedroom window, it holding a mouthful of tail-feathers from the chicken that had escaped its grasp.

The fox did its best third-grade look of innocence.

“I didn’t do anything,” its eyes said. “This mouthful of feathers is nothing. We were just playing. Yeah, we were just playing. I was kidding around.”

I disengaged our stare and sprinted sans trousers to my gun safe to put an end to that fox’s nonsense. The resident fox and its friends the fishers already had decimated our flocks for three straight years, and I was determined to put an end to it.

That fox and I played hide-and-seek for several hours around the farmyard, corn fields and woods. In the end I was…well…out-foxed.

Neighbor Jeff stopped in later that day to ask whether I’d noticed the family of fox that were living around our farm’s granary. He’d caught sight of them the day earlier, and it softened his curmudgeonly soul.

He sipped his coffee at our kitchen table and paused to contemplate his words. I expected him to mention how we need to rid the farm of those marauders.

“Man, those little ones,” he smiled through the coffee’s steam, “they’re cute as hell.”

I went to the barn later that day and peered around the corner. It took a while, but eventually they came stumbling out a gap in the granary’s concrete footing. One by one, they appeared, still-fuzzed little kits finding the sunlight after having spent much of the day in the darkness of the crawl-space beneath the granary.

There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have hesitated at eliminating an entire family of those chicken-killing bastards. But that day I sat, mesmerized, watching the kits and their mother romp only a few yards from me on the lawn between the granary and road.

During that time, what would be another generation of chicken-killing-sons-of-bitches were our old cow-dog’s puppies; they were the kittens I’d find as a small boy exploring the hay-bales’ crevices in our family’s old barn over at Veefkind.

Those kits – those tiny foxes – somehow belonged on this old Eimon Homestead farm in the northern Driftless Area.

I swallowed my pride, that morning, and remembered the innocent eyes of that vixen’s early-morning look at me through our bedroom window. Maybe it wasn’t a look of want-to-be innocence, I thought: Maybe her eyes were expressing she and her family were hungry, and our farm’s chickens were the best source of food she could find that day.

I walked back to the farm house and contemplated what I was about to do.

The vixen and her kits would be allowed to use the granary’s crawl-space as their home. After all, I wasn’t planning to get another flock of meat-chickens or laying hens because I wasn’t as savvy as the foxes or the fishers – or, for that matter, the occasional owl or hawk that would snatch life away from one of the present poultry.

Weeks and months passed, and the family abandoned its under-granary home as autumn’s leaves tickled the land.

Wisconsin’s traditional whitetail deer hunt arrived in late November, and I took my seat against one of the farm’s old oaks to see whether I could harvest a little extra protein for that winter’s freezer. Daylight had just arrived when I heard a rustling in the leaves over my right shoulder – my senses springing to life with the chance that it was a whitetail buck shuffling itself toward me.

It wasn’t a deer. Instead, a small fox moseyed toward me and then stopped about five yards from me.

The fox turned its head side-to-side, studying me and seeming to consider his safety.

And then, the fox sat on its haunches.

The fox sat that way near me for the next 20 minutes; it eventually rose and stretched. It started to roam away from me, but then stopped to look back over its shoulder.

“Thank you,” the fox said in its glance, and then walked away.

I sat and chuckled at the fox’s moxie.

Was it brave?

Was it an idiot?

Was it really visiting to thank me for allowing the family to live beneath our granary?

Did it know the choices I’d made?

Those answers, I knew, only could be answered by the spirits of this land, and I’m not one of those spirits.

The fox family has lived under that granary every year since – each year bringing another batch of fuzzy red puffs that prance in that space of lawn between the granary and the road.

I gave a nod of wondering approval to the vixen as I crawled into bed and picked up a book to read after our encounter that recent night in the farmyard’s light.

“Hunt well,” my mind whispered to her. “You’re a spirit of this place and I’m happy we can share this land.”

— Scott Schultz