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

Winter Drained Away

The rounded top of the shovel’s handle pressed into the palm of my right hand as the weight of my left hand and chin pressed down during my expression of March leisure.

Leaning on a shovel in the farmyard on a warm spring-like day isn’t something most up-and-coming young farmers would want to be caught doing, nor do they generally have the time to take such pause. That’s not the case, however, when you’re an old farmer or even an old farm soul who’s reached his later years. And it’s especially not the case when you’re an old fellow accomplishing one of the most important farmyard tasks during those end-of-winter days: Excavating little farmyard ditches to drain the melted snow’s water away from driveways and walking areas.

I’m unsure when I excavated my first end-of-winter ditch on a farm, but I suspect I’d have been at an age when only a single-digit number described my age. I’d watched my grandfather do it, and then watched my father do it – their internal transits estimating the spots that had to be scraped down a titch to best drain the water. Their work created so many tiny streams that knew their ways to join the newly formed rivulets that made their ways to ditches heading all directions from the farmyard.

The ditching was done on those days when their fuzzy yellow chore gloves were left in the house; their five-buckle boots being traded for short two-buckle models to keep their work boots dry. Their footprints in the farmyard’s softening soil were gargantuan compared with the tracks my Tingly-covered feet left within them, a metaphor that lingers even in years since the physical size of my work boots surpassed theirs.

Most of the ditching I learned involves only the top inch or two of the sun-softened soil, the frost holding rock hard the layers below – one of nature’s jokes put upon anyone who has the misguided urge to dig deeply into the soil of late winter and early spring. The shovel’s steel can be heard scraping against the gravel and rocks at the surface and against the frost below; a pickaxe clanking and thumping against the frost when a ditch of any serious depth is needed.

The balance in all of it is to make the process enough work to feel as though something is being accomplished but to not make it real work.

And then, just as I watched in my father and grandfather, I find myself spending some time allowing my small streams’ gurgles to lull me into a certain satisfaction that I somehow have again saved our farmyard from some sort of spring aqua disaster. But mostly, that gurgling water carries me to contemplation about the past and coming season, complete with the magic in the seasons’ evolution.

And then, I fold my hands over the shovel’s handle and lean my chin upon them to watch and listen for a good long spell.

I’ll have stopped somewhere along the south wall of the machine shed or milkhouse or barn, if I’m fortunate – those spots best soaking in the afternoon sun that’s ever-higher in the southern sky as March deepens.

There, I’ll hear the gurgling coos of a sandhill crane flock moving high over the countryside; a purple grackle will scold in its cackles and a cardinal will sing its soft afternoon song from the top of a tree. I’ll see that the finches’ dull winter feathers are giving over to feathers of bright yellow and red.

There, I’ll note the small piles of snow remaining around the farmyard, remnants of winter work I’d done with my tractor to clear the driveways; I’ll wonder how long those little piles and spots of ice on the north sides of buildings will hang on during the warming weather and rain.

A lilac bush will catch my eye; I’ll wonder whether the warm weather will make it bud early, and I’ll wonder when the walnut, oak, catalpa and maple trees will bud.

I’ll inhale deeply the remaining petrichor from a morning rain that woke me that day with its soft rhythmic snare-drumming on the farmhouse’s eaves. And with the inhale comes the pungent odor of newly thawed bovine and equine waste so wonderfully unique to the farm countryside.

There, I’ll try to estimate the date when the spring weather will pause and give over to winter’s annual last-ditch effort to flex its power with a late-season snowstorm.

And there, I’ll continue listening to and watching that water moving through my new ditches, satisfied that my work might be better than the ditches of yore I’d excavated to drain farmyards here and elsewhere.

— Scott Schultz

The Cardinals Rule

The legend I’ve heard often is that a cardinal hanging around your home represents a departed special spirit visiting.

We have plenty of departed special spirits visiting our old farmhouse up on the Eimon Ridge, if that’s the case.

There was a twinge of guilt in my heart the other evening when I counted a full dozen cardinals male and female devouring sunflower seeds on and around the bird-feeding stations I have outside all sides of the house. That guilt came after hearing friends near and far making note of their excitement in having a single cardinal visiting each of their homes.

It’s apparent I’m hoarding all the cardinals.

Wife Dee told me last summer she thinks I might have become somewhat obsessive in feeding birds around the farmyard – she maintaining that any number of feeders nearing 40 as I had is a sign of some sort of avian over-attraction. I counter that it’s important to keep up the long bird-watching tradition that goes with this place: Erling Eimon, whose family homesteaded this place, and his wife Dorothy are long-time bird lovers.

“I can’t let the Eimons down,” I say, them being some of the greatest folks we’ve known. Yes, that’s my story.

So many different types of birds call our feeders home throughout the year. Though summer’s songbirds depart each autumn to make their ways south for the winters, dozens of finches, bluejays, nuthatches, sparrows and chickadees hang around all year. And those cardinals – oh, those beautiful cardinals – remain at the farm through all seasons.

The cardinals belong here just as surely as they were made to color in hues of reds, tans and black the lilacs and other bushes around the farmyard.

Snow, hoar frost and rime was invented for cardinals to show off.

The cardinals provide us with great discussions about how the subtlety of the female cardinals’ colors is somehow more attractive than the bright red gaudiness of the male cardinals.

They’re the high priests of the birds I’ve known, them cloaked in such ceremonial finery reserved for religion’s most revered. All other birds are stunning and eye-catching in their own ways, but people stop to stare and ponder upon cardinals like few others.

Cardinals’ songs as winter wears on our spirits are those of hope – reminding us that warmer times are to come.

They bring discussions about the cardinals that stayed in the plumb brush-and-apple orchard on the west side of the house at my family’s home farm over at Veefkind. My lack of understanding during my childhood there didn’t allow me to appreciate my mother’s demands that the unruly and overgrown brush not be cut because it provided residence for the cardinals she could see from the kitchen window. I’ve come to feel ashamed for my youthful wishes that the orchard be cleared so our yard could be more open like yards on neighboring farms.

Mother kept saying her cardinals were special; that they meant her departed mother was there to watch over things. It was another thing I didn’t understand back then.

That cardinals come here to hang around our house here on the northern Driftless Area’s Eimon Ridge is of no surprise to me. There’s something specially welcoming about this old building, its first sticks cobbled together 150 years ago, give or take. The old house’s spirits seemed to have called us to be here; they embrace us in the most comfortable ways as we find creativity and go about our day-to-day lives.

This house is home as I’ve never otherwise known home; it gently embraces me and encourages me keep walking toward my creativity. I suspect it does much of the same for the resident cardinals.

During warmer days, one of the most vibrant and brave cardinals made a daily habit to the window next to my writing space, tapping his beak on the window in a greeting and perhaps a reminder to continue pouring sunflower seeds into the feeders.

They’re up early in the mornings and saying “hello” to the farmyard and the house, filling themselves at the feeders before other birds have left their nightly perches; they’re the last to leave the feeders, usually staying deeply into dusk and disappearing into the darkness that settles upon the farm.

They seem polite around the feeders, diligent to clean up the seeds others littered around the ground in uncouth ways; cardinals aren’t impressed by the jays’ bullying but step aside for the blue narcissists.

It’s OK with me if the cardinals bring with them spirits settled or unsettled who seem fit to greet us. I’m ready to oblige and welcome that presence. It’s warming to know that those spirits would find us worthy of their visits.

Mostly though, I’ll simply continue to enjoy their presence in beauty and song.

Along the way, I’ll fight any guilt I feel about being blessed with plenty of the neighborhood cardinals here at the farm.

— Scott Schultz

Snowless Daydreams

The studio headphones were gently protecting my mind from the cold morning air outside and from the cold realities of sounds that might distract me from the work at hand. Through them were flowing the calming sound of broadcast partner and boss Bob’s voice as he told many people across Wisconsin’s rural countryside that the cold December morning again included no snow in the day’s weather forecast.

His secret was ours within the filtered sound of my headphones and those hearty thousands who rise so early – some to work at everything from morning farm chores to driving a truck; some to sit with their morning cup of coffee; some to hear a broadcast legend and his writer-turned-broadcaster sidekick do their morning radio schtick. And somewhere, I knew that morning, could be a young farm boy listening to his family’s barn radio and praying Bob’s take on the weather forecast was wrong.

That boy, I knew, was hoping for a bunch of snow to fall that day and others between then and Christmas Eve.

“Some people are talking about the possibility of an open winter – no snow – but we have plenty of time,” I heard through my headphones. “It’s not like it’s been terribly cold yet.”

We chatted a little more about the still-uncovered soil and the importance of there being snow-cover to protect farms’ alfalfa and all sorts of other plants when winter’s coldest days settle into our land’s bones.

Secretly, my mind drifted to that little boy listening to us; I drifted back many years.

I heard Bob’s voice in my headphones, him introducing a song before I was to breathe some of the day’s news into my microphone.

“It’s that time of the year: The big guy will be visiting soon,” I heard him saying in my headphones as the music started.

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

There was a little farm boy on a cold December night – that boy’s young heart and spirit excited about the chance of working in the family’s dairy barn. It was the work the adults and older siblings were doing, and he couldn’t wait to be doing all of it, no matter whether that excitement would last into future years.

“Santa Claus is coming to town.”

The boy was listening to the barn radio playing the song, that one spilling early morning holiday joy into my headphones. And, he stood there in the old Veefkind dairy barn to stare out at the sky and wonder how there could be no snow so deep into December.

“He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

The old wood on the barn door the boy leaned his shoulder against had been worn smooth by many years of touch by cattle, humans and weather. The boy, deep in thought, scraped a fingernail along the many pointed nails someone in his family had clenched to hold the diagonal boards in place.

“Santa Claus is coming to town.”

He stared across the darkened farmyard, his eyes through the dull yardlight focusing on the roof of the old farmhouse. That house and its roof had known many Christmases since the boy’s great-great grandfather built it during the mid-1800s; it was about to know another.

“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

The roof stood bare. The boy was sure that wasn’t a good thing; his father certainly wouldn’t be happy with anyone parking a sleigh and reindeer on the roof, the same way his father voiced unhappiness when the boy would throw his baseball onto the roof in a one-boy game of catch. How would any gifts be delivered to the house?

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.”

They dejected boy’s head tilted over and joined his shoulder in the lean into that old barn door. December had brought no snow which, to him, that Christmas Eve night was of great importance.

“Santa Claus is coming to town.”

A booming voice startled the boy into the moment. It was his father, sternly demanding that if the boy was going to be in the barn it wasn’t to simply take up space – that the calves weren’t being fed by the boy leaning against the barn door and gawking into nothingness. The boy pulled his stocking cap down to cover his ears, them warmed and reddened by embarrassment that he’d been caught in daydreams about something as childish as Santa Claus, combined with a measure of anger at life demanding he work while there was serious daydreaming to be done.

“And Scott, what’s that big headline again in today’s news?”

Bob’s sure and smooth voice was coming through my studio headphones with that question, catching me unprepared because I’d been daydreaming about that cold and snowless childhood moment from so many years ago. I verbally stumbled around a bit, and started with the delivery of a news story much different than the one Bob was leading me into.

I realized my error a few words into the story, and caught and corrected myself.

Bob looked at me from across the studio and our microphones; he laughed.

“I wondered whether you were going to sleep over there, or what,” came his words through my headphones.

I reached up and adjusted my headphones to assure they were fully covering my ears, them warmed and reddened by embarrassment that I’d been caught in daydreams about something as childish as Santa Claus combined with a measure of anger at life demanding he work while there was serious daydreaming to be done.

— Scott Schultz

Those of the Soil

Dad’s eyes were closed as though he was in a calm sleep as he lay that evening in the hospice facility’s bed, him finishing the last of his mortal days. I considered how it was one of the few times he’d really looked calm in a few weeks — the pain from the cancer gnawing his bones mixed with pain-killing narcotics and the truth that death was so near feeding him a steady stream of uneasiness.

And then, his right hand lifted from its resting place on the thinned bones of his rising and falling chest, which for most of his life was covered with muscle and sinew of a lifetime of farm work. That hand’s work-gnarled fingers made a somewhat familiar motion, and then his hand started moving as though it was pulling a handle for a short distance up and down.

I watched in wonder for a while until the familiarity of that motion reminded me about what he was doing: He was working the ratchet of a socket, the depths of his subconscious apparently pulling forward some sort of memory of working on one piece or another of our farm’s machinery.

It wasn’t the first time such a memory had roused through the conscious of his unconscious condition. Early that week, in other phase of sleep, he’d asked my oldest brother to harness the team of work horses – work horses that hadn’t walked across our farmyard and fields for more than 50 years.

Those moments came to mind while I was sitting out and contemplating the land on and around our farm on Eimon Ridge. It was World Soil Day that day of my contemplations, and I’d gotten to thinking about different ways folks have treated and mistreated the soil since us two-legged critters crawled out of the water and started treading upon this old terra firma. Most of all, though, I thought about how that soil can change a person’s life if that person is ready and willing to recognize and understand how we’re all really part of that soil, like it or not, and how the soil really is part of us, like it or not.

The soil, more than any other thing that can get into your system, is powerful once you realize it. Watching my father’s mind take him through the day’s farm work even while he was lying on his death bed was a good enough indicator to convince me of that reality.

Folks get other stuff in their blood, of course, and that’s all fine and cute. Some have the sea soaked into their beings; some have flying in their systems. Having spent the better part of my life writing for newspapers, old-timer newspaper folks have told me I have printer’s ink flowing in my veins; I’m proud to accept that claim.

But oh, that land; oh that soil.

We are of the soil; the soil is of us.

I considered how my old bones won’t be returned to a drum of printer’s ink when I’m fully used up and I get called from this life. Instead, it will be that beautiful soil out there that will be absorbing my mortal bones, hide and all.

We always go back to the soil.

Some really smart folks have been pointing out to me during the past decades of my life that there are many people who are a few generations removed from the land. They’re referring to those people who don’t know how food is produced and might even think that it’s somehow made in the aisles of a fancy grocery store. Those smart folks, I suppose, are right in that it would be better if those far-removed from the land would return every now and again to get a little silt loam lodged beneath their fingernails and in their nostrils.

That seems like a grand idea mostly because maybe the people will better appreciate what it takes to feed the hungry masses of critters biped, quadruped, winged and swimming. And then, maybe they’ll push for more care of the soil on which they’re plodding along, assuring that it doesn’t erode and that its caretakers take special measures to assure that all the good and natural biological stuff that makes the soil tick is properly maintained.

On the other hand, though, I figure we might as well simply realize that nobody who lives is any more than the next step away from the grand soil. A soul can deny it as much as wanted, but we can find ourselves headed back to that soil at any minute.

Those of us who’ve had good doses of soil running in our systems throughout our lives know what it’s like to understand the soil’s true goodness – that it isn’t there for our convenience and that it’s only been temporarily loaned its attention. We understand that it was there for a long time before we ever were around and that it will be there for long after we’re gone.

Those of us who are of the soil know all too well that there’s no leaving the land; we always manage to make our way back to work on it or to simply spend our time fawning over it.

Those of the soil will understand why their father is doing farm work while lying on his death bed.

— Scott Schultz

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