01 July 2009
Voices of the North Farm
The Voice of the Cottonwood Elders
Wind magnifies as it rustles through the cottonwoods bordering the North Farm. I stand below them, tip my head all the way back so when I look up I see only tree and sky.
I close my eyes, pretend this powerful hiss of wind through leaves is the sound of water, waves on some ocean salty and distant. The sounds sound much the same--audible motion and influence.
The wind seeks form in the shimmering leaves. The voice of the cottonwood elders finds form in the wind and says, “See what time does?”
They are right, of course. They have stood here all along. They can see as well as I that this place a shambles.
But when my father was born here--slipping breathlessly into a world of white wind in April 1925--this Iowa farm was dignified. The implements and rolls of fencing wire neither antique nor rusted. No lavender-topped thistles reached up through the livestock’s water trough. The water pump held its handle then, and the big-bladed windmill wheel whirled high. Now it lies where several springs ago a tornado tossed it. Now the tick of an electric fence beats the contemporary pulse of this place.
The farm house caved in. The wood-shingled roof laid down in the tall marijuana plants seems an absurdly placed dance floor.
But though everything appears broken or corroded, reclaimed by the land, a certain blend of reverence swirls with the dismay about this old farm. Even the stumps seem sacred.
I notice yet another tree downed near the front gate. And the breathy voice of the cottonwood elders repeats--over and over, again and again--“Birthplace. Death place.”
The Voice of the Fruitless Apple Trees
Neglect is the sin of omission. Nobody replanted the apple orchard. No saplings survive the originals grown from seed probably planted by my grandfather and my father--his eldest son.
Now their barkless white wood rots toward dust, the apple trees able only to whisper, “Remember that autumn?”
I remember. My brother Daniel and I had driven to the North Farm to check on long-shot fruit. Expecting nothing, we found abundance, discovered growing thickly in clusters like grapes apples bulbous and scarlet against a high September sky sapphire blue and equally precious.
We plucked bushels, filled the trunk of his car. All our aunts and uncles and cousins were amazed at all those apples produced from the decaying North Farm orchard. And nobody quite believed or understood when we told them about the tree struck by lightning, split and nearly completely dead save for one branch jubilantly burdened with swan song apples.
Dan and I, from uneasiness at the eerie sight, had laughed and laughed. And we had talked of planting saplings.
At the kitchen table my mother sat with her biggest bowl in her lap, deftly peeling and slicing apples as I’d seen her do each autumn as a child. My mother always baked deep dish apple pies even in the dead of winter.
When we were children, each autumn on afternoon after school had started again, my parents took us on an excursion to the North Farm to harvest apples. We drove to the small orchard, fruitful in those days. We stood atop our blue station wagon and picked apples from laden branches. Danny climbed a tree, tossed apples down to the rest of the brood. We caught them in our softball gloves, laid them gently in heavy brown paper grocery sacks.
Each trip my mother would tell us, “Watch your step. Don’t step in a cow pie.”
We loaded up our harvest. My brothers and sisters and I got packed in with the sacks of apples--some of which we’d polish on our sweatshirts and eat, saving the cores to throw into the Winnebago River as we drove over the East Park bridge on our way home.
Early one autumn evening I lay in bed with a sour stomach and disturbing girlhood dreams of aproned Black Angus in our kitchen kneading dough for their pies.
The Voice of the Hay Barn Burned
When lightning struck the hay barn the summer after my grandfather died
on the night of my First Holy Communion, I assumed we suffered under a curse.
Following phone calls in the night, the extended family gathered at the North Farm.
The fire was an impostor of the dawn.
My cousins and I walked back to the orchard, picked green apples to eat while we sat on the corral fence watching the barn burn. One of the men from the Plymouth, Iowa Volunteer Fire Department had a dented head. He let me wear his hat for awhile. His name was Smoky. Uncle John and a neighbor-friend started a water fight with fire hoses--hoses so powerful the spray nearly knocked down even those Hoss Cartwright-like men. Despite the destruction, the devastation, everybody laughed to see grown men acting like kids thumbing their noses at Mother Nature.
A few years later, Uncle John was destroyed, too. Something else zigzagging and crashing out of the sky--a small plane. The curse continued. Every family, I now realize, has their horror story.
Now only a vestige limestone foundation attests to a barn once presiding over the North Farm. A foundation of limestone, chalky and gray, no mortar--just flagstones fitted one atop another, creating an intricate organic puzzle pattern. Flagstones from the adjacent Shell Rock over which fishing golden eagles--and one spring an osprey Dan sighted--soar and dip into the currents.
The hoarse voice of the hay barn burned says, “Even fire cannot destroy sound foundations.”
The Voice of the Milk House-Toolshed
From here my grandfather took freshly drawn milk to my infant father. I am able to imagine this only because I’ve heard my grandmother refer to this small, now faltering structure as the milk house.
The building doubled as a toolshed. I found here one morning some tools I could not identify, tools that bore the unfamiliarity of certain antiques to the young.
I tried but could not make those tools at home in my hand. I showed them to my dad. My father is not a sentimental man but he took those tools, closed his eyes and clutched those tools as talismans then looked at them fondly. Some objects have a way of triggering the spill of memories, renewing a time, conjuring a place.
My father kept those tools. Nothing was ever said.
I found, too, in the milk house-toolshed a rusty tin can of rusty square nails.
I keep three of those nails up on a shelf with a geode, Iowa’s deceptive state rock.
I keep those old nails thinking they might hold together the North Farm and me. I hold on to those rusty, square nails because I found them on the land where my roots are earthed, sprawling, decaying.
Along a wall in the milk house-toolshed Iowa license plates hang uniformly.
On the opposite wall a “38” painted in red. Above a crude workbench a swallow has built a nest notice only because the bird flew into the shed and, startled by my alien presence, screamed then flew out again.
The voice of the milk house-toolshed is contained in that swallow cry. Something here, I sense, deserves fear. I look out the shed’s door, wary of the natives: snake, skunk, ‘coon, wasp. Even the cattle, I see now, resent my intrusion;
they have fled to the far corner of the pasture where they wait, lowing angrily.
I remember being an early morning adolescent girl waking to the low of Angus and the bitter coffee smell at my grandparent’s farm. I peered out the window at the foot of the bed. Beyond branches, the fields thickened with the harvest of corn and soy beans. The ditches filled with tiger lilies and wild roses. Dust puffed off the gravel road as a pickup truck passed.
In the shady yard, in the shadow of the brick house, I had stood on my head during the lavender time, my bare feet against the gnarled bark of an oak tree. I imagined the landscape upside down. I waited then for branches to become roots, and roots, branches. I pictured the ground as sky; the sky, blue earth. And I saw out of the corner of my eye the incandescent flash of a goldfinch in flight, confusing my vision.
Goldfinches dart about the North Farm now, too. I think of my brother Dan dead. A car crash, and no saplings planted. My mother dead, too. Cancer. No more deep dish apple pies in winter.
Now this old farm, deserted like so many, this life is lost to me. I regret what has happened here. I regret what will happen here. And I do not belong here, and the North Farm no longer matters except in memory. The homestead, just as well, belongs again to goldfinches and flying grasshoppers, to goldenrod, to ground cherry.
So I look for apples, as I came to do. I look for apples, but find none. Not one.
Only wild plums: small and green and bitter.