Pick, Pick, Pick, Pickin’ Through the Days

Sometime later during his life, my father quipped that people who raise large patches of cucumbers or tomatoes simply are being cruel to their children.

“People shouldn’t have kids just to pick their damned cucumbers,” he said.

I’m still unsure about what brought that statement out of him, or what memories of his childhood were passing through his mind. It was nowhere near a growing season when he uttered those words.

I’m even more unsure about how he seemed to have forgotten the demands he and my mother put upon me and my siblings where a myriad of farm work was concerned. We might not have had any cucumbers beyond those which our mother managed in her garden, but our diverse old family dairy farm had plenty of daily work put upon us on that farm.

All of that came to mind the other day as I straightened my aching old back after picking a few cucumbers and tomatoes from the gardens I keep at our small farm along Eimon Ridge in Wisconsin’s northern Driftless Area.

Moments earlier, I’d considered the contrasts between pulling spring weeds in a garden and picking cucumbers and tomatoes later in the summer. Each brings satisfaction in its own way, I supposed, but both become somewhat tedious after doing it for a while – a notion especially true after doing the pulling and picking every day for several weeks.

A friend has been raising an acre or two of cucumbers every summer for quite a few years at his place down the road near Independence. He’s gone as far as not letting his wife know how many mounds of cucumbers he’s planted in a year; I’ve graciously found acceptable excuses to not accept his invitations to join what he called fun in picking those cukes.

Even the healthful excitement of a well-grown garden can get old.

None of that even brings into play those times when a well-meaning fellow totes into the old farmhouse too many cucumbers or tomatoes from those daily pickings, particularly when the fellow depends too much – admittedly exclusively, in my case – on his wife to process that bounty.

Maybe a then-young lad whose family had a dairy farm up the road from my family’s farm at Veefkind was much more clear in his cucumber-and-tomato thoughts than I’ll ever be.

That lad, Steven, was 12 years old when he happened into our home farm’s machine shed, the farm by then having been taken over by one of my brothers. That day, I’d stopped by on my travels to say hello to that brother as he did some light work in the shed, Steven quietly lingering to catch our discussions about the day’s news.

My father, returning from his daily morning coffee visit to Harley and Elaine’s Bar and Grill down at Chili, saw my truck in the farmyard and stopped to take one of his late-life stabs at trying to impart some of his wisdom into our craniums.

Dad stopped in one of the shed’s big doorways and momentarily studied Steven.

“Hey Steven,” Dad said. “I just drove past your place, and it looks like somebody dropped a disc harrow into that couple acres of cucumbers your dad planted.”

“Yep,” Steven replied, his chest expanding with the measure of pride a 12-year-old might get when he’s about to tell an old neighbor that he’d hitched the disc harrow onto one of their tractors, drove it across the road and then chopped into oblivion the three-plus acres of cucumbers that were at the peak of production. “I did that.”

“Oh,” Dad replied, stepping farther into the shed.

And then, Dad stopped and turned, brow creased, to again look at Steven.

“Wait. Isn’t your dad visiting relatives in Ohio his week?

“Yep, our folks are in Ohio,” Steven responded, his back seeming to straighten in a measure of defiance.

My father’s next question had to be asked.

“Does your dad know you dropped that disc harrow onto the cucumbers?”

Steven didn’t flinch with his answer.

“Nope, and I don’t care,” the young cucumber-destroyer said. “Every day it’s pick, pick, pick, pick pickles. Well, I ain’t going to be pickin’ any more pickles this year.”

There was a pause in the air before all in the shed burst into laughter – Steven’s a laugh containing some villainous satisfaction; a bit of amazement in the laughter coming from my father and brother.

I chuckled to myself about that old story the other day as I rubbed my lower back before reaching for more of my gardens’ summer bounty. An involuntary groan came from deep within my old joints as I bent, my father’s words about cucumbers and tomatoes seeming to have ridden those groans into the steamy summer air.

There would be no way I’d ever destroy something as beautiful as what I was harvesting from those gardens – that I knew as certainty. But the tone of Steven’s laughter echoed in my memory.

Perhaps it was of benefit right then that I don’t have a disc harrow on our little farm.

I do, however, have a large pull-behind rotary bush mower in the shed; it wouldn’t take that long to hook onto the tractor….

— Scott Schultz

The Sounds of Rotten Granite

It was somewhat surprising to me when I looked up from the work I was doing outside and saw a car I didn’t recognize sitting in our farmyard’s driveway.

I watched the car for a few moments, waiting for its driver to get out and explain what he was doing at our farm – an expectation most rural folks have when someone drives into the farmyard. The driver didn’t get out of the car, though, instead backing out onto the road and driving away when I started to walk toward the vehicle.

Such an occurrence likely wouldn’t have been met with a second thought had I been standing next to my house in an urban or suburban community. My relatively short times of living and visiting in cities large and small made me realize that people stopping on the street in front of my house or hesitating while turning around in my driveway are common occurrences. But such activity is – I believe understandably – met with a little more suspicion and concern when it happens out in the rural countryside.

I mulled only for a couple moments about why the driver might have picked our farmyard’s driveway to do whatever he was doing.

Perhaps he simply was lost.

Perhaps was assessing the area’s crops.

Perhaps he’d seen a scenic photo possibility and wanted to quickly grab it without remaining parked on our country road.

Perhaps he was reminiscing about times he’d spent at our farm in years long before our arrival.

Those, of course, were among the many at-best scenarios I could paint right then. There also were plenty of at-worst scenarios that ran through my mind.

Maybe he was casing the place for a later visit to hook onto something or steal away with our tools or cattle while we’re away.

Maybe he was the bearer of bad news for one of the neighbors but, being unfamiliar with the neighborhood, stopped at the wrong farm.

Maybe – gasp – he was a salesman who from a distance saw my furrowed brow and realized whatever he was selling wasn’t going to be well-received by me.

All has since seemed to be OK. But I’ve done some farmyard hunkering to consider why that vehicle appeared without my awareness. Part of it, of course, might be that I’ve become a little less aware as I enter these autumn years. But I found the answer as I was talking a walk down the road along our ridge.

It’s the road itself that’s the cause, I decided. It’s paved – a great convenience out in the rural countryside, and a rural benefit I’ve not known for too many years.

I was raised on that crushed granite-covered dirt road, over at Veefkind, and pretty much all the rural town’s roads around were of the same materials.

Even our driveways were covered with the same reddish granite.

There were plenty of negative matters to report on such roads, which today remain with the same surfaces.

Cars and trucks were never clean.

During dry summer days they left plumes of dust that settled on everything within many yards of the roads.

The reddish gravel rocks embedded themselves – some for life – under the skin of anyone having the misfortune of skidding on them during bicycle or running falls.

The roads were filled with washboard roughness in the days between the town’s grader operator using his big, yellow road-patrol grader to smooth them.

There were many good things about them, of course.

They kept traffic low, with sightseeing Sunday drivers who best knew blacktopped and concrete roads not liking to dirty their pristine vehicles.

Law enforcement officers seldom patrolled the gravel roads, leaving unquestioned 12-year-olds who might be driving a farm’s old truck or their older brothers’ motorcycles (um…so a friend told me).

They offered great strength to the legs of farm-born children who struggled to ride bicycles on the sometimes-soft gravel.

Unlike our wonderfully paved road such as that in front of my present abode, the gravel crunching under tires made it difficult for anyone to approach without being heard.

My father likened himself a sort of expert on the crushed granite used on those rural town roads around Veefkind. Him being a town chairman following in the shoes of my long-time town chairman grandfather, Dad could differentiate which road’s gravel came from which pit. He could determine what gravel-and-trucking company crushed the gravel.

Dad didn’t have to tell people about what he knew about the roads’ gravel as we traveled, but he did. He was to crushed granite what Bubba was to shrimp in the “Forrest Gump” movie.

He’s the guy who taught me the crushed granite on our road wasn’t simply crushed granite: The granite for which he and his Town Board cohorts issued contracts was rotten crushed granite from over by Marathon – certainly the best granite money could buy.

“It really binds well,” he was apt to say about the gravel as we made our way down the roads. “You ever get to be the town chairman, be sure you get that rotten crushed granite from over by Marathon.”

I never did fully ascertain what the rotten part of that good crushed granite was about, but some quick research many years ago told me something about it being truly sort of rotten – the rock in it easily flaking and crushing so as to make it “bind well.”

My feelings always have been mixed about having been raised along a road covered with crushed granite, but that wasn’t the case for our old collie cow-dog, Laddie. In his later years, Laddie for some reason found the road’s gravel a nice place to lie during warm summer days – us sure someone would run over him with a car or truck, but those cars and trucks amazingly always slowed and drove around his old being.

I left much of my youthful hide on that crushed granite, and in later years my feet repeatedly beat it as I ran for many miles upon it.

I’m quite happy with the way things turned out, us now living where a blacktopped town road passes our farm. I only wish the blacktop would be better at warning me when unfamiliar vehicles are turning around in our driveway.

— Scott Schultz

New and Lost Southern Friends

I made a new friend that week and mourned the loss of a friend I never got to know.

The new friend was made in the small back yard of the Florida house in which My Love Dee was raised, it in the few feet of green between the house and a canal that leads out into Tampa Bay. That friend, a big old oak tree, filled my heart on that recent week when words from a favorite tree were required; it embraced me much in the same ways I’m held by the gnarled old oaks at our farm on the Eimon Ridge.

The oak was a wonderful place to sit on a recent morning to watch the sun rising across the canal, light fighting through morning clouds that might help keep that June Florida day reasonably cool.

The place has its own beauty in the same way our Wisconsin farm has its own beauties. I paused under the oak to wonder what the place was like, though, before such human development that’s arrived – before the constant buzz of human activity and whooshing cars passing near the house and its grand tree.

The oak was so familiar in its twisted and gnarled branches spreading wide from its massive trunk to shade the soil below, those branches inviting young spirits to climb and explore the tree’s heights. Its bark feels and looks much like my familiar old oaks at the farm, though the leaves are different and stay green through most of the year instead of bronzing and eventually dropping as the farm oaks’ leaves during autumns and winters.

It’s a Southern Live Oak, but its heart and DNA are oak just as the farm’s Burr Oaks, White Oaks and Red Oaks.

It’s an oak, and that’s all my soul needs to know.

Soon enough, we’d be returning to our beloved farm with the glories of its ridges and valleys, and with its solitude and quiet. And though I long for our farm and soil so familiar to me, I knew our departure would cause me to miss those things I’ve come to know at the place of Dee’s roots.

I’d certainly miss her father Randy, with his stories of wisdom and wit. I’d also miss that old oak tree and its wisdom.

The tree’s words dropped onto me with some of its old and dried leaves as I sat beneath it, me sipping my second cup of coffee of the morning.

The tree told tales of the large recreational boats that have made their way to that end of the canal, the boats’ passengers filled with fish and fun from the big bay, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

It told me stories about Dee and her family sitting beneath it during her youngest years, them yet so young and with so much life ahead of them.

It described years of fighting hurricane winds howling across the bay, and of searing days of southern sun with blistering heat and steaming humidity; of massive lightning bolts and then nights of mystically starred nights.

That old tree reminded me of the days we celebrated the life of Dee’s mother at that house, reminding me of time taken beneath that tree to reflect upon her joyous mortal days.

I considered as I sat beneath it how the oak would remind me that we need to be here more often to allow Dee to recharge her soul with time in the place that raised her – with her father, mother’s memory, the big water and that tree.

My coffee mug emptied, I took leave from the tree for a refill to continue gathering the tree’s words and to watch the morning continue to unfold before me. Upon my return, I made note of a work-crew across the canal.

It didn’t take long before I realized that the crew was there to remove from a neighboring back yard a tree nearly cloning the one I’d been visiting. The neighboring oak and its likeness to my new friend-oak had caught my eye a few days previous, it also sprawling wide across that neighboring soil.

The workers’ saws buzzed through the morning, carefully dropping branches from its heights so it wouldn’t fall upon any buildings beneath.

My heart sank with the reality that I was watching. I’d been surprised at how the oaks were hanging over its owners’ houses, a break from any number of massive branches threatening to crush roofs.

The oak had to be removed for the safety of the house and its owners.

Narrower and narrower the tree stood as the workers’ saws hummed, until finally only two branches standing most vertically from the stump remained.

The mechanical lift-bucket rose with one of the workers to those two branches. I felt the need to yell a farewell to the tree as they thumped to the soil, its impact felt in my chest on the opposite side of the water.

I looked into the branches of the oak above me and was sure I could see sadness in the leaves. My tree already had bid a farewell to the reflection it saw in the water between; like any being deep into its autumnal life, both trees knew their times were short.

The neighboring tree, hours earlier a symbol of all that can be strong, had been reduced to piles of cut-up wood, its small branches chipped and hauled to a compost pile and its large branches chunked into firewood-sized pieces lying on the ground and in the backs of trucks and trailers.

And then, the massive trunk itself was cut to finalize the tree’s demise.

I hadn’t watched the entire process, in part because there were other things to do in my ongoing life and in part because of the sadness I felt in my misfortune in seeing the tree’s removal. I returned to the base of my oak for a while later on in the day, only to see the crew with a mechanical stump-grinder removing the last signs of the life that hours before had stood in such majesty.

I returned to my tree a bit later, and saw the crew filling the spot with topsoil and green-grassed sod.

The tree and any sign that it had been there were gone.

I turned my face up to again glance into my tree’s branches and leaves, and rain started falling – tears falling from the leaves and onto my face, and then gathering on my face to run down as tears on my own cheeks.

But we smiled at each other, that oak and I, knowing that we still had each other and that it would continue to stand and open its branches in an inviting embrace for me.

The moment made it all-the-more important to schedule another visit with my friend, that oak.

Days would be plenty, even as I stumble more deeply into my own autumn, for me to listen to the oaks on our farm on the ridge in Wisconsin.

Days would be much fewer for visits with that oak along the canal in Florida.

Only selfishness can keep me from giving adequate attention to the oaks in both places.

I made one last visit to the Southern Live Oak and broke off a piece of its thick bark to slide into my pocket. It would be introduced to our farm’s trees; they can share stories about my visits.

— Scott Schultz

The Milkhouse Morning Light

The milkhouse window’s glow was something I noticed a few years ago; it’s become an early morning companion.

The glow in that east-facing window first caught my eye when I stepped outside to do a pre-dawn appraisal of the farmyard. Its appearance brought concern about whether I’d left a light on in the milkhouse or whether there was a fire somewhere in the east.

A glance to the east started to put my mind at ease, but not without question. Logic was telling me the glow was a reflection of the morning’s first orange-yellow light peeking over the east horizon, but something in my mind initially didn’t allow me to believe such a dim glow growing in the east could be casting such a bright reflection into the window.

I wondered again whether I’d left a milkhouse light burning the previous day. And then, the brightening glow on the window reassured me that it truly was the morning light’s reflection of that growing sunlight.

The reflected light shined into my being and made my heart glow with a little extra warmth on that cool spring morning.

Such joy has been mine to have a means here on this ridge to see the sunrise whether I’m facing east or – thanks to that milkhouse window – facing west.

The window’s sunrise glow most often greets me while I’m working in the farm’s office on the southwest corner of our old farmhouse.

When the glow appears, I most often wait a couple minutes for it to brighten a bit, and then turn to look to the east as best I can through the office’s south-facing window. Each morning’s opening is a little different than the others on that east horizon, this time of the year making me walk to one of the house’s east windows to get a better view – the earth’s May tilt being such that the best view is farther north than during other times of the year.

No matter the splendor in the east, though, most days I take a few extra glances at the milkhouse window to watch the colors shift and mix in it. And, I watch those colors spread like oil on water, first small on the window and then sprawling to cover the full window and then the entire milkhouse wall and then the barn and adjacent shed.

I figure that I’ll someday mosey into the milkhouse when the morning glow arrives on that window, to have a look out from the inside if only to see what the window sees on that east horizon.

I’d be sure to note what light is cast across the milkhouse’s inner sanctum, wondering whether it might bring to light visions of Erling Eimon or his ancestors working the bulk-tank, milk-cans and milking equipment there in that place made holy in communion with the soil the Eimon family homesteaded.

I’d be sure to note what light is cast on that spot, wondering whether it might bring to light visions of earlier people who borrowed this land before the Eimons or the Larsons or my wife and I borrowed this spot on the ridge.

I fear, though, that the window also would glisten light onto tears the milkhouse cries for memories of what had been – that of bustling activities of cows and people; tears of toil and loss; tears of successes and joys.

There are so many reasons that mornings shining in that milkhouse window are so important to a soul such as mine – reasons that go far beyond the simple beauty and joys found in another sunrise over the grasses, trees and water of such breathtaking rural countryside.

Those who’ve had fortune to know dairy farms in their purest forms understand how the milkhouse is the belly of a farm. It’s the place where the farm’s controls live, and the place to where the white-gold milk flows. It’s the place where meetings are held, elbows leaned on bulk-tank lids to negotiate sales or to spend a good visit with a neighbor.

The milkhouse is the farm’s central gathering place for all a dairy farm was, is, and will be. It’s the farm’s soul and holds the land’s spirit.

Maybe the real reason I occasionally hesitate when I see the milkhouse window’s morning glow isn’t because I’m wondering whether I’d forgotten to flip a light-switch.

Maybe the real reason is because I learned in my youngest age about how the milkhouse is that soul and holds that spirit.

Maybe, in that milkhouse window, I’m seeing the farm’s aura starting to shine for yet another day.

It all makes me look forward to tomorrow, when the milkhouse window glow shines life into me and asks me to join that new day.

— Scott Schultz