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


Fanning Mills of the Mind

My inherited it-didn’t-register-right-away trait initially made me miss what Dee asked the other day as we drove down a local highway. It was appropriate that what she asked took a moment to sift between my always-stirring thoughts.

“That thing with the ‘for sale’ sign sitting on the edge of that driveway,” Dee pressed. “What was that?”

I considered for a quarter-mile or so of our travels while she described it as a sort of wood-box machine with a round part on it.

And then, I remembered seeing what she was describing; it took a little thought to remember what it’s called because I hadn’t used one for quite a few years.

“It’s a fanning mill,” I replied. “It’s used to clean oats that’ll be used for planting.”

I told her how oats would have been poured into the machine’s top and sifted down through a couple of shaking screens that allowed weed seeds to drop through the screens. A fairly large fan blew chaff and any other unwanted dust and grit from the oats. The oats left the bottom ready to be bagged to later be carried to a grain drill for sowing.

There is pleasure in being able to tell Dee about such equipment, her a spirit of the soil but still being introduced to some of the old dirt and equipment she hadn’t known during her early years. I’m continuously learning from her about words, art, music, food, life, love, teaching and so much more – cherished are those moments when I get to tell her about farm equipment and methods, or about the rural countryside.

My excitement in telling her about the fanning mill was interrupted by the building need to cough that was growing in my chest and throat. That was followed by me quietly laughing at myself — me knowing the need to cough was the near-instant reflex memory of youthful days when such a machine was used on our farm.

The fanning mill sat on the bottom level of our old Veefkind farm’s two-story wood granary building, there fed by grain shovels or a chute that dropped oats from the upper story’s wooden floor polished smooth by so many years of oats moved across its wood-grains.

Recalling such a place of the soil, in a building built by my great-great grandpa Veefkind’s hands, always brings peace to my being.

Recalling the realities of such a place also can bring aches, coughs, sneezes and even thanks that such work is but that: Memories.

Work using the fanning mill required functional farmers’ kerchiefs of red or blue to cover our faces, that work resulting in us being covered with chaff, dust and grime. Kerchiefs dampened by our breaths would be caked in black filth of that chaff, dust and grime. Removing the kerchiefs showed nostrils and mouths not as filthy as all else about us, but still dirty.




I’ve wondered whether my lungs and sinuses hold some of that granary grime these five decades later.

The urge to cough passed as Dee and I continued to travel along the highway. Her being the driver allowed my mind to slip to the more pleasant recollections about the mill, those memories involving my earliest explorations of the granary and finding for myself the mysteries about how the fanning mill sorted the oats from the seed and chaff.

The mysteries of that granary and the fanning mill whet my curiosity to learn about the corners and crannies of all buildings around the farm – those beyond the dairy barn that didn’t hold nearly as many mysteries for a young mind because the barn served as a sort of second home.

There were explorations of the small building that had become our shop, it with the large old wooden pulleys, long shafts and wide belts used in earlier days to operate the windmill-driven pump for the farm’s well. It held a large tool chest containing great-great grandpa Veekind’s woodworking tools; it held a large hand-cranked drill press that kept a young farm boy’s hands busy for endless hours.

Veefkind’s old post office had been moved across our farmyard to become the farm’s chicken coop, and in that building I explored loose wall-boards to see if some old mail might accidentally have been caught there years earlier.

During visits to the farm run by the Fisher family up the road from our old Veefkind farm, I sorted through mysteries in a shed that held such wonders as a hand-crank blacksmith’s forge; there I played nonsensical music on a precious old pump organ that inexplicably made its way into that shed.

Dee’s words snapped my attention back to the present, me hoping she wouldn’t again mind speaking again because I’d again allowed my thoughts to drift. We’d reached our little farm up on Eimon Ridge, and I gathered that the conversation was about my need to deal with a couple of farmyard trees that needed to be removed.

Yes, those trees. I need to deal with the trees, as I’d long ago promised Dee.

The issue with those trees, it seems, is that the need to explore rural places for what they hold never seems to leave some of us. There’s much to explore on and within the countryside.

Fanning mills, it seems, are all across the land whether they be in a granary, shed, rural driveway or a pasture. They don’t even always look like fanning mills — sometimes looking more like grasses, the water, the sky, corn, wetlands, trees and animals.

Please excuse my inattention if my mind happens to drift into exploring them.

— Scott Schultz

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