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