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

An Overdue Visit from Above

The sky came calling late the other night, and I accepted the chance to have an old farmhouse front-porch visit.

It was a long while since we’d had such a grand summer visit. There had been pauses and looks into the darkness to gaze at the moon for a while or to see whether I could catch sight of a meteorite slashing through this old planet’s outer atmosphere.

I’d looked at the stars but for some reason this summer hadn’t taken the real time to count them.

My eyes had gotten a decent eyeful of the sky earlier that night, a couple of hours before it came calling. The Milky Way lit the darkness above, with other stars twinkling their siren sensuality to beckon me to gaze upon them and spend the night with them lighting my primal self.

The waning crescent moon that night reflected only enough of the sun’s distant light to make me aware it was there – though I paused long enough to smile at my mind’s picture of my love sitting in its curve and teasing me with her swinging leg.

There were things to do inside the house. And, though it was August and the air and calendar still said it was summer’s dog days, the day’s toils reminded me how autumn had crept upon my personal being; I was worn out and opted for a rest in a favorite recliner.

But then a far-away rumble caught my attention.

And then, another.

Though facing into the house, I sensed lights flashing behind me, the lightning-bug clouds flickering above. I turned to look up to see how the clouds had come between me and the life far beyond our planet.

Flashing.

Flashing.

Nearer.

Nearer.

Rumbles, and then more defined roars of thunder kettle-drumming nearer as the clouds thickened.

In the rumbling the sky was asking me to stay outside and visit for a while. It promised to tell me its stories if I heeded its request.

I obliged, closing the farmhouse’s door and taking a seat on a Leopold bench parked under a west-side eave.

The misguided relaxation I thought I’d have in the recliner quickly started on that hard bench, the tales the sky told in flashes of lightning that brightened the clouds’ many shades – it rotating electrically charged jolts of daylight with the night’s deep darkness.

My best moments of relaxation have happened during such visits with the sky, I remembered. How could I have forgotten and allowed so many chances for visits to escape?

The clouds and the show within eventually stretched fully over our small farm’s soil, us becoming more comfortable and hospitable as the moments passed.

I’m not certain what in the atmosphere finally made it happen, but the time finally arrived when the sky started to cry – in happiness about our visit, I think.

The tears came slowly, at first, small spatters landing on the August land’s summer-toughened soil. The tears eventually grew and my old friend above let out a full-on deluge of tearful happiness.

The soil seemed to be in special need of accepting that night’s crying sky. I listened and watched as the teardrops massaged into the soil, easing its burdens.

It worked for the soil, so I stepped from beneath the eave and turned my face to the sky to give my full self over to those tears. They seeped into my spirit; they seeped into my soul, cleaning any darkness from the depths of my being.

And then, the crying stopped.

The sky paused in the chatter of its lightning and thunder and tears, the clouds moving along their way for other visits while the old, familiar Milky Way and stars reappeared.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that, as time passes so quickly, we don’t get enough chances to have good visits with the sky during a lifetime. I certainly had been guilty of that very misdemeanor. Thankfully, though, the sky asked me for that night’s visit, and I’m happy I obliged.

The visit was long, and without either speaking a word exchanged stories through most of that night.

The time came when we had to bid goodnight to each other. But as we did, the sky made me promise that our visits would be more frequent.

It was a simple request; it was a noble request.

I pledged that I would, and I fully intend to keep that promise.

— 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 Buzz and Snap

The world was abuzz as I worked around one of our farm’s lilac bushes, their spring bloom fully under way.

The buzz was a constant drone in a variety of keys, with honeybees, bumblebees and a couple hummingbirds doing their morning business on the blossoms of violet shades warmed in the spring morning’s sunshine.

It was easy to know what drew them to that bush. The sweetness draws me toward the lilacs each spring, my variety of choices plenty when it comes to finding an excuse to be near such goodness. Most often, though, I’ve had to admit that my reasons for being near the lilacs were more for pleasure and leisurely contemplation instead of for real work.

I simply enjoy being around the lilacs.

Such simplicity isn’t what draws the flying buzz to the lilacs, though. Their work is of the sort that provides them life-giving nectar and pollen There is no leisure in their presence and me lazing around them too long always has made me feel a little lazy. And, over the years, my presence even has seemed a little irritating to the flying buzz machines

I heard in the morning’s buzzing a reminder of a similar morning when I’d gotten in the way of honeybees’ work along the edge of a cranberry marsh.

On that morning so many years ago, I’d assigned myself to a newspaper story about honeybees that were contracted to pollinate plants – mostly agricultural – across the countryside. I found at that central Wisconsin cranberry marsh some bees that each year were carried in their hives to the South during winter and then hauled on trucks back to the North during summer.

I interviewed the father and son who owned the cranberry marsh, them having been among the growing number of cranberry producers whose harvests depended upon the plants’ pollination by bees managed by a contracted honey producer. Morning warmth massaged my shoulders as we leaned against my truck and talked, the truck’s hood serving as a traveling desk for the notebook in which I excitedly scribbled a record of their stories.

The faint-but-still-distant light buzzing could be heard from the bees, the sunrise already having excited them into full productivity.

The interview completed, I wanted to take plenty of photographs of the farmers, the stacked wooden hives and, of course, the bees working on the cranberries’ blossoms. While I made the photos, I asked the farmers how close I could safely get to the working bees.

“Oh, you should be able to get right down next to them on the plants down at the edge of the marsh,” the father casually replied.

I walked to the edge of the marsh and lay down on its edge, a foot or two from the blossoms’ colors. My old Nikon quietly clicked as I used its macro-zoom lens to pull the bees’ images in closer – and then, closer, and closer and closer.

The bees modeled poses for me, but with a distancing disdain that might be seen in the blank faces of runway fashion-models. They were doing their work; I was doing my work.

But then, a sharp flick snapped onto the back of my neck, just at my hairline. It snapped with the sharpness of a misused rubber band in the hands of an eighth-grade school bully.

And then, another snap on the back of my neck.

I’d gotten in the way of the honeybees’ work, and their rule enforcers were using their stingers to let me know that fact.

Calm.

I knew I had to remain calm and to not further disturb their efforts. I slowly stood to leave the area, attempting a nonchalance that contrasted the pain growing on the back of my neck.

Snap.

I turned and started toward my truck and the farmers.

Snap.

I remembered how panicked bees released pheromones to call upon winged, stinger-wielding friends to defend their territory.

Snap.

Snap.

Snap.

Snap.

The count of snaps was disappearing in the water running from my eyes and running on the water flowing down my cheeks. The formed pain was found in the histamine-induced mucus flowing from my sinuses.

Snap.

The farmers understood my anguish in the language of my histamine-induced sneezing.

Snap.

Finally, I reached the safety of my truck and the farmers.

The father and son were laughing at me and the situation; I might have been laughing, too, had it not been for my worry that I might be heading toward the sort of allergy-caused death about which I’d so often heard and read. I wondered whether it would have been a good idea to carry one of those antihistamine-shot pens when I travel to interviews on farms.

“It looks like you got stung a few times,” the father said, pulling from his pocket a clean handkerchief to wipe my face.

“I thought you said the bees wouldn’t bother me if I got down there to take the pictures,” I mumbled through the handkerchief.

“Hell, I guess I was wrong,” the father said. “I didn’t really know for sure, but that’s what somebody told me a while back. Well, I guess we know, now.”

The farmer pulled out the jackknife he carried in his pocket, me making note through my discomfort that he’s a good farmer because all good farmers carry a jackknife in a pocket.

He offered to use the knife’s blade to scrape from my neck any stingers the bees might have left there. I accepted and my physical systems started to return to normalcy as he worked.

My right hand was massaging the back of my neck as my mind returned to the sweetness and buzzing within our farm’s lilac bush. A smile formed on the corners of my mouth with the silliness of my memory and the foolishness of judging the fellow’s advice about photographing those bees.

It was time, I reminded myself, to walk away from the lilac bush before I got into the bees’ way the same way I’d gotten into the way of the bees working at that cranberry marsh.

“Work well and travel safely, friends,” I said to the bees, and then headed to other work in the farmyard.

— 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

Life Viewed from the Caboose

“It’s good to finally meet you.  I know exactly where you grew up; I was in your front yard a couple times a week, for many years. I worked on the Soo Line, and spent a lot of time in the caboose.”

Few words have rattled me as much as those spoken by a nice fellow called Red, he then a member of a central Wisconsin city’s council that I was covering for the first time.

It took plenty to concern me during those years. Somewhat fresh out of the Marine Corps and at the age when young men think they know much but often are too foolish to realize how much they don’t know; I was charging forward into my journalism career with a new job at a daily newspaper. The newspaper was the perfect fit right then, its base city only about 15 miles (as the crow flies) from the Veefkind farm where I was raised.

The work I was to be doing at the newspaper focused on state and regional news and features, most often taking me out of the office and onto the soil I loved. But I also occasionally would be pitching in to cover some city issues and meetings.

It was at my first city council meeting where I met Red, a fit-looking fellow of about 60 in age with a slight wave in red hair that was shifting to silver-gray. He was pleasant from that moment, always greeting me with a smile from that evening we met until age faded us into different realms.

Everything about Red was pleasant, except for those first words he spoke to me – especially the “spent a lot of time in the caboose” part.

I waited for the hammer to fall; for Red’s eyes to darken into crimson and for his jaw to set before he set me straight about things he’d seen me do during my childhood. I’d have deserved it.

The Soo Line railroad had a spur line of about 30 miles that ran through central Wisconsin farmland, marshes and woodlots between Marshfield and Greenwood. It ran smack through our farmyard, our family’s farm built at the hand of Henry Veefkind, my great-great grandfather. A small community with a general store, post office and a couple mills had popped up there along that spur line, that unincorporated place dubbed Veefkind.

The lumber mills, general store and post office were only memories held by the older folks by the time I arrived on the scene, the post office having been saved and moved a few yards to house the chickens we kept on our dairy farm.

And though reasons for the spur line’s train to stop at Veefkind were gone, the line remained active during my childhood with the train passing through a few times a week to make its deliveries and pick-ups at the Spokeville feed mill five miles down the line and at the small cities of Loyal and Greenwood where farm-country commerce still thrived.

The railroad line only was about 50 yards from our front porch. It was part of my life, bordering on being part of my DNA.

It occurred to me that I might have stopped breathing for a few seconds while waiting for Red’s next words. There was a somewhat awkward pause before I forced a smile and uttered a jumbled introduction.

“Yeah,” Red continued, “we always got a kick out of how you’d flip your yardlight on and off when we came through at night; we made sure to blow the horn a couple times to let you know we’d noticed.”

A sigh of relief might have joined my breathing-now-returned. It seemed Red truly was ready to recall the good memories he had of seeing me and the other Veefkind farm-neighborhood hellions coming of age along the spur line.

I certainly did often run to the yardlight switches in the house or barn when the train passed through during darkness. Though in the countryside, the train’s engineer was compelled to blow the train’s horn when approaching the crossings angled across our driveway and the road a couple-hundred feet up the track. The engineer was kind in adding two or three extra honks of acknowledgement when the light was flashed.

That acknowledgement was grand for a youngster who was more apt to know about ways of cows, hogs, chickens and the soil than about the other-worldliness a train engineer might have found in what was sure to have been a lifetime of broad travel and adventure.

The blinked yardlight was a child’s signal that he’d need to see and learn about many places to help him understand his place on the rural soil; those two or three extra train-horn blasts were approving nods.

Red and I went about our business that first night. He’d occasionally revisit matters about the spur line during the next years when we’d see each other professionally or socially.

Red would ask who was on which farm along the way, whether the Loyal cannery still would be operating that season; whether the Spokeville feed mill and country store were in operation. He’d cast a few memories about the Veefkind general store or the long-gone Spokeville cheese factory.

Red never mentioned the matters that made me so nervous during our first meeting at that city council meeting.

The coming-of-age boys from farms along a couple miles of our gravel roads were plenty and of good imagination. Those imaginations included that the man sitting in the train’s caboose needed to be harassed.

Daisy Red Rider BBs lobbed lazily from sniper positions in farmyard trees and haymows rattled against the caboose’s outer walls as the train passed, the young shooters being most careful to assure no BBs would hit and damage the small windows of what the boys called the caboose’s crows nest where the caboose-man sat in apparent mid-summer day slumber.

Apples green and ripe were heaved and thumped against the caboose – when throwing the apples seemed boring, the boys contrived massive bicycle-tire-innertube slingshots anchored by oak-tree branches. The slingshots could fling apples hundreds of yards, making for accuracy and effectiveness against the passing train.

Had Red known those assaults were being made against the train and its caboose, and was such a polite fellow that he never saw fit to bring it up? Or, did the boys’ ambushes against the train not have the effectiveness that could be part of 11-year-olds’ imaginations?

I wondered whether Red ever looked out of his caboose-window to see shiny metal on the tracks, where boys had taped heaps of pennies onto the rails to see how many pennies could be stacked and effectively crushed to an unrecognizable flatness under the train’s wheels.

Had he seen the little 6-year-old boy at Veefkind sitting, relieved, on his farm’s small Ford tractor after nearly running into the slow-passing train because the boy wasn’t heavy enough to effectively step onto the tractor’s brakes? Maybe Red even knew that the boy hadn’t told his parents that he was driving the tractor across the tracks and the road to check on cattle-tank water in the heifer barn.

I considered what Red might have thought when he saw the wild farm boys around Veefkind burst from the right-of-way brush to yell goofiness as they ran to chase the train – never thinking about what might have happened had the engineer decided to stop the train.

But Red never mentioned any of those matters; for that I don’t know whether I should be grateful or ashamed.

I’m OK knowing that the fellow in the caboose seeing a young man who’d grown up and who was happy to share the good memories about life along that track and the countryside that surrounded it. He saw a young man who’d grow to know the importance of his actions that night and since.

The rail line was shut down many years past. But the lessons of the track and of a guy folks called Red will endure.

Red helped me realize the importance of seeing the world from a train’s caboose.

— 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