Seeking Solace in the Woods
October 9, 2022
This year has been a struggle with the construction of the parlor, adapting to it and being short on milking labor; which has brought me to tears countless times and made me feel lonely and taken advantage of by my in-laws. I sought solace and company in the woods today. After a side stop to the orchard for an apple, I went across the empty corn fields and lush hay field, not following the contour but trying to go straight for the woods. I munched on the apple as I walked. The trees were painted in gold, yellow, orange and green.
I began to cry half way out. Can the woods even lift my spirits, as low as they are? I should have followed Jesse’s suggestion to spend time with my family today – why didn’t I go to Mom’s? Whilst walking the cornfield, I had to be careful to step over the corn stalks.
Arriving at the edge of the field, I dropped down, literally on my belly to crawl under the fence. The ground is terrifyingly dry; these perfect autumn days are nice but I hope the drought ends soon. Gopher mounds piled along the fence. I waded across the narrow pasture strip, the grass still long and thick despite the drought. Squatting, I crawled under the barbed wire fence separating the pasture from the woods. A break in the buckthorn granted my passage. I ducked under clawing branches. The late afternoon soon filtered through the leaves and tree trunks. I paused to admire a spider web. A deer crashed through the thick underbrush somewhere below. I stood upon a huge drop off.
I turned left following a deer trail. I was frustrated by how loud my footsteps were. Praying as I walked, I sought God’s presence and comfort, and hoped to find the rock that gave me such joy last week. I ducked under branches, trying to avoid tripping on others that littered the ground. Moss covered rocks and logs lay scattered here and there. At times the trail was steep and I held on to trees. Beauty surrounded me but my heart did not soar. Rock outcroppings. Fallen trees. Squirrels making incredible noise. I stepped on something hard, I looked down and saw the ivory white of a deer antler. I knelt down and picked it up. It had been chewed on recently. I held it close as I continued to walk. Crows and bluejays chattered in the treetops. I heard the twittering of other birds too but couldn’t identify them. A chipmunk scurried here and there and then disappeared. I came upon the rocks and climbed up.
As I sit on the rock to write I am distracted by a squirrel moving about in the leaves. Bounding closer, it stops and shakes its tail. It paws through a pile of leaves, digging with its little hands. Then it quickly moves on. I am so tired my vision is blurry. The woods exude beauty and peace but yet my crushed heart isn’t rising up, it’s so beaten it won’t soar. The antler and chipmunk nearly did it, but alas, even they weren’t enough. The squirrel is making a fuss, squawking like a duck. As the sun sinks lower on the horizon, reminding me I need to head back soon, so too my heart sinks lower and lower. I am also beginning to get cold. I must pull myself out of the woods now. But I really don’t want to leave. A chipmunk disappeared into a hole under a gorgeous rock outcropping that keeps drawing my attention.
I slid my notebook and pencil back into my pack and ambled down from the rock. I returned the way I had come, taking less time to stop and observe.
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An October Walk
October 2, 2022
I set out through the backyard, down the bit of driveway and road to the pasture. Dandelions nicked by the frost had blackened tips. The pasture was full of clover and thick lush grass. Field corn is being chopped on the hill above. The hoodie was a mistake, as the sun beat down I was becoming too warm. It was just past three o’clock when I set out. The trees ahead beckoned me forward, boxelders and oaks. My ankles turned on uneven ground. I observed a honeybee, grasshoppers, and a cabbage moth. I opened a gate, walk a little to the left, downhill near a bur oak, and onward to the edge of the woods. Under the fence? No, the woods are so thick with brambles, blackberry bushes that would snare me. I skirt the fence along the left, turn a little and keep going. Climbing uphill. I take in the trees along the edge, particularly walnut, aspen and birch. I crawl under the fence where the underbrush doesn’t look so thick. I continue onward, following the contour of the bluff, sticking to deer paths. I stirred up a creature, probably a rabbit. Crows chatted. Twigs snap underfoot and branches brush past my shoulders. I step over logs and fallen branches, duck under limbs, and sometimes nearly crawl; rarely do I take an easy route, no adventure in that. I am appalled at the old tires someone long ago stashed here. Dead trees litter the woods. I enjoy the light trickling through the tree branches. A buck rubbed his antlers on a tree along the path. It is so dry. I keep close to the fence line. Sometimes going further away to the right but steer back uphill. I enjoy exploring new territory. I come to a big ravine, going down and up along a fallen tree. My knees ache. My feet slide in the leaf litter. I am so happy to not be milking – I got outside of the basement too!
The valley becomes increasingly deeper, wider, and prettier. Another ravine. A coyote! I just see its retreating back end but am amazed all the same. Exposed bedrock – my heart really stirs at this; rocks and trees. Moss covered dead trees lay here and there. More rocks. As I continue walking, it becomes more evident I am on a bluff. Sometimes I glimpse the pasture through the trees. I crawl up onto a rock – look down a little to my left, my heart elevated, and laugh. Maple trees. I haven’t spontaneously laughed for no apparent reason for ages. Then I laugh and cry, standing on the rock, a strange feeling – relief, joy, perhaps hope, on top of my world. A bird chirps. Our woods are so big it is fantastic exploring new places and this is another favorite spot for me. The woods are where I belong. Hopefully soon I will no longer have to milk eleven times a week, maybe just four and then I can be outside more and write. I am really close to the road now – I can hear traffic going by. The geography had been undergoing a subtle change the further I walked. Now there was more evidence of this being a bluff.
Though I loved the spot and probably could have lingered forever, I put my notebook away, ambled down off the rock and along the path going a little more to the top of the hill. Subtly the contour of the land turned to the left, and I with it. I must be nearing where Therese and I had walked. I took in the trees and the overall beauty of the woods, allowing the healing power of rocks and trees to wash over me. Maples seemed to dominate. A beautiful basswood. Elms too, I think. Oak. Acorns crunched underfoot. I marveled at a hickory, enjoyed the smell of its fruit, and put a couple in my pocket. I found a walking stick from the myriad lying on the ground, I was in need of the support. Despite my aching body, I enjoyed the trek. There are bits of color in the leaves. A deep red stained some of the oak leaves on a nearby specimen. I could see the road – the downside of these woods. I ambled down the steep sides of a modest ravine, checking out trees with mushrooms. Forest floor is strewn with leaves and sticks. I was stunned by the dryness of the soil – we desperately need rain. I love the smell of autumn; moisture would really draw it out. A log provided a bridge across another ravine. I climbed uphill more but not toward the fence line, headed in a westerly direction. Beautiful patch of ferns. Undergrowth is not very thick here. A few dead trees lie on the ground. A handful of white pine trees gather here. I have often wondered in the past year why I married Jesse, aside from the fact he’s amazing, but why a dairy farmer? – I joked to myself, “this is why!”
An old wire mesh fence ran along the edge of the bluff. I can’t believe they used to allow cows in here. I summit the hill and gaze at the view before me. A deep gorge with a pile of rocks falls away to my right. A ravine plunging into it. I had been expecting to find where Therese and I explored, but wait, is this the ravine where Lexie, Isabel and I stopped? I drew closer. Yes, yes, indeed it was. Now I was even more confused as to where Therese and I had been. I ambled down and up the ravine. Down to the edge, to the dropoff of the bluffside. Yes, that was the trail, those were the two white pine trees. Curious.
Well, I wasn’t sure just how long it would take to return, so I turned to head back. Up the bluff, I climbed, soon breathless and puffing, leaning heavily on my stick despite the stabbing pain in my arms. I walked in the pasture since it was faster – the fastest way would be straight over the hill, through the fields but they were harvesting corn so that would be a very foolish idea. First, I had to figure out where to go under the fence. It was so low, I took off my backpack and camera, and crawled on my hands and knees trying to avoid thistles. Backpack and camera once again on, taking up my stick, I continued along the fence line looking for the gate Therese and I had come to, at the same time admiring the trees that were changing color. Stumbling as I walked in the uneven, tall grass. Thinking to myself how I must have looked – an eccentric naturalist. (Did I mention a machete hung from my backpack?) It was a very long walk back – forty minutes with a side stop to the orchard for an apple which I sat down to enjoy in the backyard, watching the harvest of the sweet corn and corn for silage.
Mushroom Hunting with my Niece
September 22, 2022
Today, Therese and I went mushroom hunting in the woods. I hadn’t been out since last October so it was long overdue and great that Therese got me out there.
Instead of borrowing the ranger or a four wheeler to go across the fields to the woods, I had Therese drive us down the highway and pull off at where I thought the old snowmobile trail had been. We waded through tall weedy plants, ducked under tree branches and paused to plot our course. Clumps of horsetail and ferns populated the area, an emerald wood.
“Well, we could go up the trail over there or go up this ravine. Which one do you think we should do?” I asked.
“You know what, let’s go up the ravine, it looks challenging and therefore fun.”
“Okay,” Therese replied in full agreement and eagerness. I ambled up a pile of small boulders and fallen branches covered in moss and plants, struggling at first without being able to grab a hold of something to pull myself up and nearly losing my footing. Therese followed. I was thinking this was the really big ravine that Lexie, Isabel and I went up even though it didn’t look the same, but I reasoned it was because we hadn’t started at the bottom before and it had been April when everything looked different. We were practically rock climbing; fun and exhilarating. I paused momentarily on the ascent to observe the reptilian looking liverwort.
“Mushrooms!” Therese exclaimed, pausing to cut the small oysters off a boxelder tree, placing them into her bag. The stacked rocks were magical, moss and ferns cascading off of them, spiderwebs stretched between. A few leaves here and there. Passed by a few trees on the climb. Therese found a few more small oyster mushrooms. We carefully maneuvered around a tree and continued the steep, upward trek. Once I was up safely, Therese tossed up the bag of mushrooms. They nearly fell back down, I dove and bent backwards to grab them, almost falling over myself.
“Don’t jump over to save the mushrooms; they aren’t worth dying for.”
“Oh come on, you don’t think so? Why not?” I teased. Once Therese was up too, we looked around. “Wow, this is a really nice spot. I like it. This might be one of my new places.”
“Yes, it’s so lovely,” she agreed. We sat down on rocks to just take it in for a few moments.
I looked up into the leafy, green canopy, blue sky above, “I could sit here for hours, I think. I have a snack, water, and a journal; I am good.”
“I could too.”
We sat on the cold stones, soaking in the beauty. Chatting, unfortunately about death; it had been a rough couple of years for me. Therese was a good sport and understood I was struggling. This outing was a balm to me. I set aside these dark thoughts, focusing instead on enjoying my time in the woods with her.
After sitting for about ten minutes, Therese said, “I could stay here all day but I want to look for more mushrooms. We should keep moving.”
“Yeah, we should. And I am getting cold sitting here.” The spot sat in shadow. We stood up to continue our walk. More climbing, how delightful. The exposed bedrock we had to climb was about as tall as me, a bit taller. Moss encrusted a few plants here and there. Both sides of the narrow, shallow ravine were crowded with vegetation and trees. A small decaying log lay across the top of the ravine, from my perspective. Little trees on either side. I ambled up the rocks. Therese followed. Pausing, I observed the green, stringy moss feeding on the log.
“You know what, I don’t think this is the ravine Lexie, Isabel and I climbed.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“The big rock is missing and it isn’t wide or deep enough.”
“Hmm, I wonder where we are.”
“I am not sure. But it’s beautiful.”
“I thought the snowmobile trail was just to our left, but it can’t be if this isn’t the big ravine. Where are we?”
“I don’t know.” Over the log, we stepped up another foot or so of exposed bedrock, as the ravine continued onward up the hill. I turned around to look down the gully, the foliage making it impossible to see very far. So peaceful, minus the traffic on the road below. A peek through basswood leaves, I could see the tree cloaked bluff on the other side of the highway. A lot of young trees fill the hillside; still very green. The gully rocks seemed like they should have a stream tumbling over them.
We scrambled up a few more feet of the ravine, and paused to take in our surroundings. Where were we? The snowmobile trail should be on our left, correct?
“Which way should we go?”
“I don’t know.”
“Should we go west? I thought the snowmobile trail would be over there.”
I led the way, ducking under branches and weaving through skinny, small, young trees. We didn’t go very far before we stopped again.
“Hmm, this doesn’t look right. Maybe we should be going east instead.”
“Okay.” We turned around; Therese let me pass to take the lead. Across the stony ravine. Threading through bigger, older trees. Ferns here and there, ostrich and maiden hair. I looked up into the canopy a moment, sunlight filtering through the green, elm leaves. So peaceful. But where were we? Where is the huge ravine? Where is the snowmobile trail? How are we missing them? A small paper birch, the outer bark peeling off in curls. Several sharp-lobed hepatica (hepatica acutiloba) leaves squat on short stems at our feet. We paused to investigate a mushroom growing on a fallen log.
“It might be a sulfur shelf,” I said.
“But it’s too decayed. And bugs are eating it.”
“Yeah, we should just leave it.”
We continued walking. “Hmm, there’s a man-made trail there.”
“But I don’t think it’s the trail we’re looking for.”
“I don’t think it is either.”
“We could follow it, or we could turn around and go west instead.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe we go back west?”
“Yeah, let’s turn back around and try west. I have no idea where we are.” We traced our steps, sort of, back along a narrow, long log. Leaves were still green, clinging to the trees. We stepped over the log. I believe I observed wild ginger plants here.
“A mushroom!” Therese exclaimed.
“It looks like a lobster. It’s growing on the ground.” We bent over to look at it more closely. Not a lobster. It was too far gone to harvest anyway.
“I wish it was a lobster,” I said.
“It would have been cool.”
“There hasn’t been enough rain this year for mushrooms.”
“Yeah.” We stood under a beautiful oak tree. We turned around again, settling on east as our direction.
“It’s so beautiful,” Therese said.
“People think about the importance of bringing small children outside, into the woods to appreciate it but what about teenagers?”
“Well perhaps there’d be an interest in teenagers that appreciate the woods because they were brought into them as small children,” Therese said.
“That’s true, I have encouraged a love for the woods in you since you were young.” We returned to the trail we’d found a few minutes earlier. Therese marveled in the ferns. They have a light heartedness about them.
“Grandma said the fiddleheads of the ostrich ferns can be eaten, right? Can the others be eaten?” Therese asked.
“I am not sure, that’s more Grandma’s area then mine.” We fumbled down the slope a little to join the trail. Blue ribbon, mostly above our heads, tied to trees, angled down the slope, here and there, like giant spider webs. “What is it?” Therese asked.
“It’s for maple syrup. Kind of like a pipeline to get the syrup to collect at the bottom of the bluff. It’s kind of annoying it’s here all year round.”
“Yeah, it distracts from the beauty.”
The trail slopes uphill, gradually climbing the bluff. The undergrowth is still vibrant; I wonder, is it more dense in the spring? We stepped around a limestone rock protruding from the ground, encased in dark green moss. The tree spacing in this area lets the sunlight almost flood the floor. A few tall, older trees. The trail begins to curve around the bluff, and up. A large limestone boulder rests on the hillside above us, nestled among trees. Its sedimentary layers are evident.
“Perhaps this is the snowmobile trail and we’re close to where Jesse proposed.”
“It’s so romantic. And so beautiful in here. I would love it if my future boyfriend proposed to me in these woods.”
“Well it certainly is romantic and possible you could get engaged here.” We rounded the bend, dirt exposed on the “bank” above us. “I think we’re on the snowmobile trail and somewhere in here is where Jesse proposed.” I paused for a moment, it still doesn’t look quite right. “We’ll follow the trail to the pasture gate, then it’ll make more sense.” We continued upward, short on breath but still conversing. A naked log lay across our path, we paused to observe the patterns left behind by boring insects – cool but they’re destructive.
“There’s the fence and pasture gate!” I almost shouted. We drew up to the gate and peered through the opening in the trees. The azure sky was studded with cumulus clouds. Green pasture before us. Cornfield above it, wrapping around the contour.
“Wait this isn’t right. This isn’t the snowmobile trail, this is the wrong pasture. I have no idea where we are.”
“I think I know. Malachi and I have hunted here. Isn’t the other house right ahead of us, beyond the field?”
“I’m not sure. It could be more to the left or maybe far to the right, and our house is just to the left. I don’t know, I can’t place where we are. It doesn’t make sense. But we’re not lost, follow the pasture and eventually we’d figure it out and find the house.”
“Or go directly down the bluff to the road. I have no idea where we are, but we’re not lost.” Small, young, paper birch trees stood on our left, their white bark almost glowing where the sun hit them. We turned back, following the trail down the slope a ways. Taking in the beauty and peace of the trees. We left the trail, ambling eastward for several minutes, continuing to wonder where we were.
“Sadly, we should start heading back to the vehicle so you can get back home in time.” it was almost 11:30 am, we’d be cutting it close.
“I love going to choir but I wish I didn’t have to so we could stay in the woods.”
“Yeah, I wish I didn’t have to milk this afternoon/evening, and could just stay out here.” Reluctantly, we headed back westward. If we went west and down, we’d find the vehicle. We weren’t lost. I marveled in the maple trees of various age and size as we traversed the bluffside. So lovely. Horsetails grow in clumps in an area of bare soil. Branches and logs lay strewn here and there. The bluffside was steep; each step had to be taken with care. Our feet slid in the loose dirt and leaves. Therese had found nice paper birch limbs for us to use as walking sticks. This sort of terrain was my paradise. Therese was enjoying the adventure but nervous about the difficulty of the trek. She slipped and slid roughly a foot or two and let out a shriek. “I almost died,” she laughed.
“You’re fine. Even if we tumbled down, I don’t think we’d die. Just be sure to go feet first.” I kept walking, turned and added, “Just get low to the ground, maybe even scoot on your butt, then you’ll be less likely to get hurt if you slip.” I had already begun crouching low. Now this is an adventure.
“But these are my nice jeans.”
“Okay, then maybe you shouldn’t scoot on the ground. Your mom wouldn’t be too happy if you wrecked them.”
“Next time I should wear pants that can be beat up.”
“That would be a good idea.”
An intriguing rock outcropping sat ahead and above us. “Look at that rock,” I exclaimed.
I turned around to see how Therese was doing. She paused against a maple tree, leaning on her paper birch stick. “Stay right there, that will make a good photo.” I took several pictures. “Okay. Beautiful.” I also took a picture of the exposed bedrock on the hillside behind her. I just can’t believe I have these awesome woods to explore. Onward, picking our steps with care, slipping often. We paused to observe some red, firm berries, Jack-in-the-pulpit.
“They’re so pretty, but not edible,” Therese said.
I stepped down onto loose rocks near the rock outcropping. “Careful, and follow my lead,” I instructed Therese. The stones were covered in leaves and difficult to see. One shifted, tilting down, nearly knocking me off balance. “Okay, don’t step on that rock.” I gingerly stepped to the ground below. “I’ve got to check out the rock; it’s just too cool.”
“Okay, but don’t die in the process.”
“It might be worth it.” The massive monolith was coated with moss, some colonizing ferns, leaves here and there. I wanted to climb it somehow but that would be too much for Therese and she was already being dramatic about our steep route down the bluff. At least she was still having fun, though she worried our lives were in danger. She was practically crawling on the ground now as she picked her way toward the outcropping. Moss stones littered the bluff just below it. Therese spied a couple, nearly palm sized rocks that were interesting and wanted to take them with. We joked about those two rocks being worth the risk to our lives. Tree limbs and logs spilled over the outcropping. We continued to pick our way around and over the smallish boulders, careful to not go tumbling down. We passed more maple syrup lines, and a beautiful patch of maiden hair. And we were back on the bottom of the ravine we started from. Our steps were still chosen with care around rocks, boulders, branches and logs, along the ravine running parallel to the road. The vegetation was a bit thicker as we neared the spot we had started from.
“Well that was fun. Though I still wonder where we were.”
“Yeah, and despite almost dying several times.”
“We weren’t in any real danger. Also, my hands are freezing.”
“Really? Mine are hot.”
“Hmm, feel mine.”
Therese held my hand. “Wow, they are cold.” We put our rocks, walking sticks, and mushrooms into the vehicle.
“Well we didn’t find many mushrooms, but that was fun. I will dry the mushrooms, powder them and share it with you,” Therese said.
“Okay.” We pulled back onto the road. I scanned the woods as we drove trying to figure it out but was still confused.
September 25, 2021
Late morning, I swung my leg over my bicycle, and proceeded down the gravel road to the other farmstead. Before the old barn, I turned right, down the field driveway to the pasture gate below the barn. I slipped off my bicycle, laid it down, opened the gate and pushed it through and then closed the gate. Back on the bicycle, I pedaled onward through the exhausted pasture, up along and above the east side of the pond. Pedaling through the grass and over the bumps of a cow trail was difficult but I enjoyed it. I almost didn’t make it up the incline above the north end of the pond. I walked my bicycle down the slope to the boxelder tree lying prostrate over the fence, and parked it there. Warm from the effort, I slipped my hoodie off and draped it over my bicycle.
I paused to marvel in the grand oak tree standing nearby. Some leaves had changed color and fallen to the ground, but there were also some green leaves too. Most of the leaves remaining on the tree were still glowing green. Among the oak leaves, rest elm leaves. At the foot of a tree, just on the other side of the fence, daisy fleabane blossoms were almost spent, their centers beginning to turn brown. I stepped on to the concrete slab resting under the horizontal boxelder. Sitting down, thinking, I slowly laid down, gazing up at the tree limbs. I took it all in for a few moments. Nettles around the boxelder were still lush. Oyster mushrooms grew on a log.
Up again, I strolled alongside the fence, heading southward, back toward the pond, and a little downhill. By the ravine, where the electric fence is higher, I scooted under the fence on my hands and knees. I entered the woods under elm trees. Kneeling down, I admire the still vibrant undergrowth plants; the large leaf of either Virginia bluebells or large-flowered trillium; and either Virginia waterleaf, columbine or Dutchman’s Breeches. I am still learning to identify plants; in the spring when they are flowering, I would have a much easier time. I haven’t been in these woods often enough during the spring bloom to know what is growing here. Young gooseberry plants. Thistles. Sedge. There’s also white clover and several other plants I can’t identify. Ambling up the shallow ravine bank, I savor the texture and character of the elm and oak trees. A couple of the oak trees have some marvelous scars. What happened? I spy another oyster mushroom; it was too decayed to harvest.
I continued to mosey, sometimes stumbling on fallen branches and sticks, frustrated with my lack of plant knowledge – there was so much and very little of it could I identify. I brushed past older gooseberry bushes. Perhaps I will have a summer soon in which I can harvest some berries. The undergrowth was thick, carpeting the forest floor – how different it appeared than it had in mid-April when it was still nearly barren. The stone foundation peeked through the vegetation, beckoning me. Inedible mushrooms feed on a fallen log. A silver maple towers above the stone wall. I had to pay close attention to where I stepped, rocks littered this area, disguised in a green, moss garment. Another beautifully intact oyster mushroom; I cut and place it in my bag. The skeletal remains of garlic mustard grew densely in this area; an edible plant I should forage in the future. I run my fingers along the stone wall as I pass by, following a barely discernable deer trail. Duck under a horizontal boxelder, step over logs, dodge branches, brush past grasping brambles, until a cluster of oyster mushrooms stop me. I harvest these three mushrooms as well.
I am wonderstruck with how thick the woods had become with vegetation since the early spring. Life needs to be more settled, providing me with time to wander in the woods all year round. A cluster of red berries, sitting on the top of the pulpit catch me eye. Jack in the pulpits are intriguing and delightful plants. I lounge across the first ravine slicing through the hillside. Mushrooms of all sorts halt me in my tracks as they demand to be observed. What luck, more beautiful oysters! A spikey cedar grows by the rock. Kneeling down, I examine the space under the rock; the dirt looks disturbed – had something been living here?
Onward. Birch, oak, elm, basswood, cedar. Young sugar maples begin to dominate the hillside. The next ravine gives me pause. I gaze across to the exposed bedrock; it stirs my imagination. Using small trees for support, I make my way down into the ravine, scan the other bank for the best route, and climb up, again holding on to a tree to pull myself up. Brown mushrooms living on the paper birch coated in released spores. Skirting moss covered stones, stepping over branches here and there, I try to step lightly to make less noise. The upside down cow skull that greets me every time I come this way, again poses for a photo. A tree, several feet away, has a large tumor. I wish it was a chaga mushroom. A rock outcropping towards the top of the slope draws me to it. I climb up the layers of sedimentary rock to the top, and take in the woods from this higher vantage point. Moments later, I amble back down and continue my trek.
The sugar maple zone. Most of these trees are young. The understory is quite open. Aside from the myriad branches littering the ground, I can walk with ease – no ducking under or dodging grabby limbs. (Although, it is those difficulties that creates an adventure.) I touch the maples as I pass, enjoying the texture of their bark. Veering to the right, I trudge up the hill to the man-made trail. My time in the woods draws to a close; I follow the trail up the hill to the pasture gate, and climb over, walk along the fence line back to my bicycle. Back along the top edge of the pond, pause to open and close the get once on the other side, up the road to the house.
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October 9, 2021
Last week, Mom and I walked along the wood edge looking for white oak acorns to give to Larry so he could plant them. Mom named tree species we passed; American elm, American basswood, black cherry, aspen, paper birch, sugar maple. Though we passed bur oak and read oak, we didn;t find any white oaks until we reached the “back” of the pasture, well a corner really. We began picking up a few that were still fully intact. Peering into the woods we could see there were more; so we backtracked to the gate and climbed over, and followed as close to the fence as we could manage, rounding the corner to the white oak tree. Bur and red oak grew nearby, we may have picked up a few of their acorns as well. We found out later, we had found an overcup oak too, which usually grows further south. Later, Larry told Mom that it is unusual for all of these species of oak to grow so near to one another. I ventured a little down the almost vertical slope but Mom didn’t risk it. Mom picked up a husk of possibly a butternut.
The possibility of butternut brought me back today. I sit on the edge of the woods, in the pasture. The sunshine is warm and feels wonderful but the air and wind are chilly; I should have brought a long sleeve. I laid down on a chunk of old concrete, wishing it was a boulder instead; under an old, kingly bur oak, my eyes roving over the texture of its furrowed bark. A leaf or two drifts down every once in a while. I look intently at a small, white, fuzzy mushroom thriving on the crown of a dead boxelder. (Perhaps a split gill, schizophyllum commune mushroom.) Sadly the boxelder, my portal into the woods had to be cut in order to fix the fence. I am frustrated by the number of buckthorn in this part of the woods, I would like to remove them. A flush stand of nettles dots the understory. I love the collection of trees. My supplies for the woods include two journals, mushroom guide, tree guide, camera and sketchbook. Birds chirp but I can’t see them, at least two species, perhaps sparrows. Crows in the distance. A woodpecker taps somewhere above. I love the low angle of the October sun. At first I felt guilty, taking a day for myself and the woods but was reassured it’s a necessary and a good thing for me to do. Time to start walking!
I tramp along the fenceline, going south and a little downhill. A chickadee chatters, and something else too but I can’t identify it. Oak and elm gather by the fence. Further down, the head of the huge ravine, below the pond, and on the corner, a tree leans out over the fence and reaches down trying to touch it – its overall appearance has me thinking it is a willow of some sort. I draw near. Walk stooping under dead branches, wondering if I can climb up it and cross over the fence instead of scooting under the fence. Upon inspection of its leaves from the live part of the tree, I confirmed it as a willow – consulting the field guide, it is a black willow. There’s another tree growing under it or perhaps it pushed this tree over. I grab a leaf, and hold it with my mouth. I attempt to climb up, but the small branch gives way under me, so I move down to my right (up the crown). These dead branches nearly touch the ground. I try here; it’s a little unstable, but I walk up the narrow branch, holding onto others, snapping dead branches off, unintentionally in the process. Either the tree or I, or both of us, wobble; perhaps this wasn’t safe, after all I am many feet off the ground. Camera swaying. Possessing a sense of adventure and love of climbing trees, under the fence would have been faster but not as much fun. I step over branches. Some live twigs mingled with dead ones. Tree trunk widens. Some scat sprouting hairs – raccoon? Half tempted to sit and revel in the willow but desire to keep moving. I step off the trunk at the base of the tree. (Wind through the trees and dropping leaves sound like rain.)
Ah, home. Finally, I start to relax and shed feelings of guilt. Why am I happiest in the woods? I desire to share it with someone but also enjoy going alone for solitude and moving at my own pace. I am enraptured by the trees, elm, boxelder, cottonwood, even the dead tree laying on the bank above the ravine. I step down into the ravine, breathe deeply – taking so many photos. A bright colored mushroom, golden brown like a bun, sprouts from a log. I walk a few feet down the ravine, until it curves. Distracted by the trees and then a mushroom, which is everywhere! I admire the ravine – rock strewn, trees growing out of the banks. More mushrooms. Glorious oak tree. So many mushrooms; I wish it were edible. The morning is warming as I walk. I climb out of the ravine, following mushrooms on the ground and trees. (Mindful of how I walk – heels down first. I scared up a grouse or something.) Dense undergrowth. Onward, I press, heading towards the stone foundation, so overgrown from March – very different from my visit with the girls in April. (That story is still waiting to be edited.) Torn between passing by the foundation or walking the ravine. I chose the foundation, somewhat following our path. Passing by the stones, I duck under the near horizontal boxelder. The undergrowth is so much thicker, too dense. Mosquito buzzing. Out from under the boxelder, I look back, momentarily considering climbing it. I would love the connection with the tree and it would be so easy, but I want to keep moving. I am getting hot. The undergrowth nearly obstructed my view of the small ravine ahead. Drawing up to it, legs fully extended, I step over it. Pushing past, ducking under, and dodging branches, I continue onward, arriving at the bigger ravine. I can hardly see the rock formation on the other side, toward the top of the slope. I amble down and back up out of the ravine, holding on to trees. Mushrooms like striped moths adhere to a tree.
A few steps away, I almost stumbled over the cow skull – covered in leaves, teeth revealed. Bright mushrooms lampshade shaped on stalks, glow below the rocks. I pondered climbing the rocks, but decided not to this time. My soul lifts again – maples gorgeous, not much for undergrowth. Brown shelf mushrooms decorate trees. I am overcome with the desire to walk barefoot. Probably not a good idea – oh what the heck. I pause to take off my shoes and socks, tread on a carpet of maple, elm, and oak leaves. Enjoying being barefoot, I can really feel the woods. The sky is becoming overcast. And I am more in the breeze again. I sit down on the soft hillside overlooking the wide ravine, admiring the trees. A maple leaf dangles from a spider’s web, dancing in the breeze. A murder of crows cackle. (One calls another responds – are they talking about me?) I think this is my spot more than by the foundation; I love the openness. I hate the highway noise though. Wish I knew the names of all the plants, running my fingers along the tree bark. I looked through field guides. I had a snack, took notes, and sat for over an hour. Leaves falling on me. Getting cold after sitting awhile, I should keep moving and look for a butternut tree.
About to put my shoes on, nah, I keep going barefoot. (Like the difference between walking in nature and driving through it – more connected.) Crows caw. Sadly, my foot falls aren’t any quieter barefoot. Up the slope to the trail, I walk across the dead tree. This is amazing. Half tempted to ditch my shoes, will be back this way; but what if I need them. I check out the trees and rocks. I round the bluff. A sugar maple had fallen across the trail. I consider climbing it, but duck under and around the branches to keep going instead. A buck scat, careful not to step in it. Searching for a butternut tree, I focus down the slope and find what I think is it. I ditched my pack and shoes, and picked my way down the slope, maneuvering between trees for support. The terrain is steep and hazardous. I paused to take photos and then climbed back up the slope.
Further down the trail, I found more. I stopped at a deep ravine, and sat for a while at the edge. Backtracked to pack and shoes. Climbed up the hill to the base of the fallen sugar maple, trying to identify oak trees. Up on to the maple tree, I walked along toward the crown – didn’t feel great on my bare feet but fun anyway. At the base, I put my shoes on and continued up the slope to a big oak by a rock outcropping. Reaching oak, I wrapped my arms around a thick branch, pulled myself up and wrapped my legs around it with some difficulty, trying to swing up but not strong enough, bark digging into my arms. I used to be able to do this as a kid. I drop down, and keep going. Back to the trail. Up to the gate and over it. Along the pasture to my bike. Ducks drift on the pond. I was in the woods for five hours; where’d the time go?
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Woodland Trek in Mud Season (Part II)
I walked down the hillside toward the huge ravine. My footsteps in the snow are way too loud. Photographing and touching trees as I mosey past. Despite the trees and plants still being dormant, it is so beautiful. The ravine widens. I head towards a snowless area just above the ravine. Blue jay cackles, such a wild sound. A tall, stately eastern white pine tree beckons to me like a lighthouse – as a moth to a flame, I go to it, like the prodigal son going home. I approach. It’s a bittersweet thing – I am transported back, perhaps twenty years or so, to a place and time lost to me (when I had a dad and paternal grandparents). I pick up the familiar pine cone that is my childhood, softened by winter. Its scales are shaped like those of fish. I want to cry, tears of joy and sadness, it reminds me of my thinking tree, an eastern white pine. (You can read this story at https://bethanybenike.com/2014/04/11/eastern-white-pine/). I can smell it, feel the summer air. Picture the yard around me. I touch the bark, run my fingers across it, a blast from the past, like being able to touch a ghost, someone who is long gone from my life. (A feeling, a sense of something, overcomes me – something that is out of reach, no longer attainable – as if for a moment I am back there, I am home; I can’t explain it very well, but it’s like a part of me was left behind, back there on that other farm long ago and I didn’t know or maybe I did, but that I’ve been trying to get back. So much hurt, pain, trauma. The source of all my insecurities, my anxiety, fear, self doubt, feeling inadequate, like I can never be a functional adult (Why Jesse and I fight, and why I can get so crushed); I am stuck at this age, somewhere between four and thirteen – when I was sexually abused frequently by my brother and then dad, when dad would say I am beautiful but could never know if it was a healthy compliment or sick perversion, so I’ve never known I am beautiful. – Wow, I hadn’t been thinking about writing that.) I want to sit against the tree like I used to do with the one in the yard but it is wet. I sit on its foot, roots, feels like sitting on Grandpa’s lap – I can’t believe he’s gone. How can a tree bring up so much feeling? I miss back then, somewhat – minus the abuse, challenges of school and growing up. I have been pushed too much this winter; Thelma said I have experienced a lot of trauma these past six months – hadn’t thought of that. (A bird that sounds like a frog croaking, like a squeaky handle, interrupts my thoughts. More woodpecker drilling. My feet are falling asleep.) I stroke the soft pine needles, smell the sweet scent. How do I heal? How do I write what I want to about my childhood and do so quickly? – remembering the good stuff and how it made me feel and then keep moving forward. Will I ever be free of guilt and shame, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and fear (induced by interacting with people)? Here in the woods I felt free (until these musings popped up), safe, like I was myself. Perhaps it is time to pray and ask God some big and challenging questions. (My current perch isn’t working for me though.) No answers, my own inner voice was being too loud.
Time is fading, it’s after 2:00 pm – I should be heading back. Should I text Jesse and ask if he wants me to milk? Or just go back? – I do both. But which way to go? Follow my footprints or up the man made trail and through the pasture? I begin following my tracks. The snow has become slick in the past hour, heading back up the hill is extremely difficult, feet sliding. Change in plans, I go more directly up to the man made trail, and over the top of the gate. I am really hungry but even so not ready to go back. There’s lots of snow in the shadow of the trees, I follow the fence line, still photographing. Suddenly, I heard rushing water, not trickling – curious, I want to go back to the big ravine, but don’t, I have to keep moving. Not seeking out the running water is killing me. I pass a small pond, water flowing through a pipe into the small ravine. I keep going. Beef cows are on this side now, watching. I come to the large washout, water rushing down it – tear myself away after several photos. Step over, up the dike, around the pond – I don’t have to milk tonight. Turn back, sloshing through the snow. Pretend the washout is a massive river filled gorge, taking me back to childhood again when I played in gushing torrents of waterways in the spring. I scamper down the washout, leap over it (impact too jarring), slither under the fence, and make a pit stop on a dead tree for a snack. Then down the slippery slope of the ravine, I didn’t go down too far, stepping on rocks and logs, having a blast with each well thought out step. I love flowing water. I balanced on a couple of logs. Found a bone- strange. Past the stone foundation. Should I keep going? It’s getting late and it could be at least a twenty to twenty five minute trek back up the ravine if I keep going and I want to do some more writing.
Up the hill I go, past the stone foundation. Keep going or stop again? I pause and sit down on a log – wait this is where I began. Still in the warmth of the sun. Wispy spiderwebs criss-cross between the skeletal remains of wild mustard, and tree branches, catching the late afternoon sunshine, shimmering. The seat on the log is starting to get very uncomfortable and my neck is starting to ache, but I can’t bring myself to head back to the house yet (despite gnawing hunger too) – I am under a spell and am not ready for it to be broken. But the breeze is getting cold – I am so indecisive right now. When will I be back? Next week or next month? But I am so hungry – I must head back. Maybe there is somewhere else I can go, closer to the house.
I walked on the east side of the hill to be in the sunshine, observing turkey tracks. So much mud. Maple trees are blooming. I was out there for about six hours.
Woodland Trek in Mud Season (Part I)
March 6, 2021
At 11:13 am, I sat down in the sun on a fallen tree to enjoy the woods and write. An eagle flew over my head, so low I could hear its wings. I heard squeaking and looked up, a nuthatch in the tree walked around a branch. There was another high pitched bird. And perhaps blue jays. I heard a small flock of Canada geese, maybe just two. Too much vehicle noise seeped into the woods. Water trickles somewhere nearby. I should check it out. I grow cold sitting here, the sun has moved past me. I should move too. How long will I stay? No idea. (My butt was getting numb.) I hear a tractor – someone feeding the beef cows perhaps.
I bicycled to the other farmstead around 10:45 am, just before the barn, by the driveway curving down below to the beef cow pasture; too muddy to go further. Sunny, no clouds in sight, not even a wisp, forty two degrees Fahrenheit when I left and a southwest or west wind. Uphill starting out, it was challenging and I was out of breath quickly. It was easy going once I got up the hill. I had packed water, two snack bars, a sketchbook, three journals, pencil pastels, and my camera. I sauntered down the curving field/pasture driveway, opened the gate, walked through, shut gate, wading through mud; luckily, I had worn boots. I love the spring smell of earth, mud and old, composting manure. I warmed up while strolling further down into a shallow valley. Beef cows on the hill above watched with mild curiosity. More snow covers the ground further down into the depression, my feet slipped in thawing mud and noisily crunched through grainy, melting snow.
I reached the actual pasture, and opened and shut the gate. I halt, photographing ice from meltwater flowing down the valley and then also the frozen pond it’s headed to. A crow on the opposite slope cawed. My heart sang, wishing I was more musical to put words to it. With every step my heart lightens, enthralled by the pond. I shuffle along its west side. Step one foot on the ice to see how solid it is – cracks a bit but doesn’t break, maybe still frozen enough but I wasn’t going to take a risk. Beef cows are still watching. I snap photos of them, the pond, and crow tracks in the snow. The dike looks to be messy, very sticky clay, a combination of deep red orange and saffron yellow in color, across the top, I mosey along the north side taking photos. Becoming myself. I squat down for better angles. I can’t resist photographing a shallow washout. A crow cawed. Quiet, peaceful. I am myself again. A wise woman, my surrogate grandma, told me I should always be myself – but too often I am afraid of being hurt, and therefore am withdrawn.
I pause to study the rocks in the washout and photograph the wood’s edge, deciding where to go in – across the boxelder tree leaning over the fence, resting its crown on the pasture ground. The light is perfect. Grass and leaves, smell of autumn decay mingled with spring earth. I observe oak, elm and maple leaves. A woodpecker is at work; I can somewhat see it but not enough to identify it. Photographing trees for identification – I want to work on that this summer, being able to identify trees and other plants I am seeing, and birds by sound.
Is the water flowing in the ravine? Should I look? I slid off the log and resumed walking at 11:55 am, touching trees as I passed. I ran my fingers along the cool, textured, stone foundation and photographed it. A little bit of water flows down the ravine. I follow a deer trail, lots of droppings along it, and dip under a boxelder. A red tail hawk screeches. I tilt my head, crane my neck to see it but catch only a glimpse. No way to sneak up on a hawk. I keep rambling along the deer trail, pushing past brambles with thorns that grab at me. Admire and photograph trees – touch the ones I pass. A buck used the trail, bigger droppings, will I find a shed? Piece of a hollow tree stump sits on the side of the trail; I peek inside. Limestone outcroppings – good storybook inspiration. I cross a narrow ravine with flowing water, admiring trees. Snow crunched loudly underfoot. Two trees entwined and grew together. A nuthatch cheeped somewhere. A cow skull nearly buried in snow. I halt at a deeper ravine, considering how to traverse it. Squatting down, I pull out my journal and jot down a few notes, my backpack on a fallen tree trunk. I caught a glimpse of a woodpecker while writing – why didn’t I bring a longer lens? Downy or hairy? (I heard the sound of a large bird, particularly its wings as I wrote, wish I could identify it. Woodpecker drumming. Other birds sang in a high pitch. A squirrel stirred in the leaves somewhere.)
Time to cross the muddy, steep ravine. Carefully, I proceed down the side of the ravine, my feet slipping and sliding in the muddy earth, clinging to trees for support, to keep from tumbling. Intrigued by the curled bark of a paper birch log, I pause at the bottom to take photos and ponder where to amble up the other side – it’s perhaps seven feet deep, and steep, muddy with sticky clay. I shuffled a few feet to my right, grabbed hold of a tree and pulled myself up; it felt so good holding on to the tree, like holding a friend’s hand and not wanting to let go, I needed this comfort. The trees are like beings, consoling, loving and withholding judgment, with no expectations of me.
Snow blanketed the ground. I pressed onward, up to the rock outcropping. Individual strata clearly visible. Limestone covered in moss and lichen, a geological phenomena in progress, the breaking down of rock to form soil. I amble up the rocks, grabbing hold of the course limestone, using trees here and there, wondering about snakes. (I love to amble up rock outcroppings.) The stones are cold to the touch. Water drips from melting snow. I needed this too. I feel like a child again, I feel safe. After a few moments, I climb down, nearly losing footing on a patch of ice, holding on to trees to get down.
Thoughts of Grandparents
Note: Like my previous post this is a bit too long – it’s a series of journal entries but it didn’t feel right to post them separately. And again, I would love for you, my readers to enjoy reading this but mainly it was written for myself.
For a while now I have wanted to glean stories from Grandpa Benike but Grandma’s death pressed me with urgency. I would have loved to have visited him right away in August or September but I have been so busy with the farm work. Also, others were spending more time with him, including my dad. I finally have time to visit Grandpa but his health is failing so now I’m not sure I will be able to collect all his stories, however I am praying I will. I am interested not only in Grandpa’s stories but also his parents and grandparents, as far back as he can go; also if he knows anything about Grandma’s family history, I would love to hear that too. Questions I desire to ask:
- How did our family come to live on the farm? When? Where did they come from? Why did they come? Tell me about them, their story. (The photo on the wall, who are they?) Did they homestead the land? What was the reasoning for choosing this farm? Was the landscape of the farm different then? How so? How did they farm? Tell me stories about your grandparents and parents – how they lived? Who were they? I want to know everything you know.
- Tell me about your childhood. What it was like. Fond memories, bad memories. What chores did you have to do? What was your playtime like? – Hunting? Fishing? Pranks? – What were your thoughts? How were holidays celebrated? What was school like? How did your parents farm? What was farm life like when you were very young? How did farming change? What was daily life like? Born in 1930 – depression, World War, electricity and household appliances, improvements of farm equipment, are just many things that occurred – what was it like?
- Meeting Grandma. Courting. The wedding. Early years. Farming as a husband and father. Changes to your farming methods. Gardening and preserving too. Daily life. Specific memories. Celebrations. Fun. Did you live the life you wanted to? Feelings? Thoughts?
- Life as a grandfather and great grandfather.
More notes and questions: Born just a few months after the start of the Great Depression, so your whole childhood was overshadowed by it. (Although perhaps the farm helped.) Only fifteen when the U.S. entered into World War II – what do you remember of those times? (Rations?) Changes to farming – horses to tractors, milking by hand to having machines, ect. Electricity, indoor plumbing.
October 13, 2020
I called Grandpa on Tuesday to see if I could come visit him but he didn’t answer. I was bummed. On Thursday, I found out why I couldn’t get a hold of him; he was in the hospital having trouble breathing. I prayed. I prayed all weekend he would make a quick recovery and would be back home on Monday and feeling well enough for a visit within the week. However, this morning, I saw I missed a text from my brother, Jonathan last night which read, “Dr. says that Grandpa has days, might be weeks to live, Grandpa wants to come home to be with family.” Noooo!!! Not Grandpa too, dear God, not Grandpa too, no yet! I sobbed, even as I told Jesse, who immediately pulled me to him and held me tight, trying to comfort me. He said, “Doctors are often wrong about that, they’re only going off numbers, stats, room for error.” It was a challenge to stop the tears. (I was about two weeks too late.) I prayed the doctors had it wrong, that it would be many months, perhaps a year or more. Jonathan, Mom and I prayed together for Grandpa’s recovery – our hearts can’t handle it so soon after Grandma.
October, 25, 2020
Grandpa came home on Wednesday the 14th, and I was able to visit him on Friday. He was tired, his voice softer and with less authority or something. He was happy I came. John and Dianne were there looking after him. Dad arrived; I had to walk right past him to leave – that was difficult and uncomfortable. It was hard not to cry, seeing Grandpa not ready to die but figuring he is because the doctors said so. I cried on the way home. How will I get alone time with Grandpa now? And his stories? I prayed. I was back on Wednesday and then again Friday this past week. Grandpa said to come again. On Friday, Mom and I picked the apples still on his tree. I have cried many times and pray many times a day that he would recover and stay around for at least another year. I desperately need to be able to collect his stories from him directly – it would help with closure, give me and the rest of the family a piece of Grandpa to hold onto and be here long after we are gone.
November 1, 2020
I didn’t visit Grandpa this past week, but I thank God he is still alive and hopefully I can drop in this week even though it will have to be short. Still praying for complete healing of his lungs and strength for his heart. Sorrow still threatens to overwhelm me and it is challenging living in limbo, wondering if the next text will be the bad news.
I feel like a lesser child of the least child. Dad was a mistake, a surprise after five years thinking they were done having kids. Dad grew up feeling worse than unloved, unwanted. Now, due to human failure at good communication, a person can be loved, and be told they are loved and yet not know they are because they don’t feel like they are. I won’t judge my grandparents, but I have been told that Dad became their scapegoat. Actually, after the abuse and he was arrested, I had to struggle with anger toward them because they raised him – he left their house depressed, with multiple personality disorder, so they played a role, however unintentionally, in the hell I went through. After Dad’s arrest they didn’t treat Mom very kindly – but they were hurting and processing too. So in my young teen years they weren’t in the picture much. But slowly, I forgave them and invited them back into my life.
Grandma and I had never been close. I always felt like she was disapproving of me, that she thought I wouldn’t amount to much, that I was always falling short (of what I have no idea). My early memories of Grandma were of a cold, harsh, scary woman. I suppose we just didn’t click or I was so different she didn’t know what to do with me. (I may not have been an easy child, I don’t know.) She seemed very critical – but she was a woman who spoke her mind and I have always been someone who can’t handle criticism even when it is given constructively. I have struggled for most of my young life wondering why Mom and Dad gave me her name as my middle name; even often angry about it – I feel like we were just always at odds. And yet I know she loved me. She always wanted a hug, and as she got older a kiss, and she verbalized it. I can’t recall if she said “I love you” when I was a child but every time I said goodbye to her in the last ten years she said it and meant it. As Grandma began to lose her short term memory, slowly over the last five years or so she became softer, more tender, a better listener. I have comfort in the fact that she was proud of me for being the wife of a dairy farmer, a noble status in her mind. Also a source of comfort, Grandma was at my wedding and enjoyed herself – even though she didn’t remember it five months later; she enjoyed looking at the photos. I envy the close relationship my cousins had with Grandma. I think our lack of close relationship is why I am struggling with her death so much, why nearly three months later my grief is still very fresh and at times overwhelming.
November 1, 2020
I want Grandpa to answer these questions for me; I want to sit together one on one and have the stories come pouring out of him. His children can probably tell me some of the stories but it wouldn’t be the same – the feelings and thoughts about experiences would be missing. Also the connectedness, the experience of listening to Grandpa’s storytelling would be missing. Unfortunately though, it is now looking very unlikely as Grandpa is fading away – they said he won’t make it to Thanksgiving. It would take a miracle, an act of God. I can visit Grandpa but only for ten minutes or so and then I am supposed to do most of the talking. What little he can tell me about the past is a sentence here and there. And there’s no chance with my aunts hovering nearby. It may be a story about how I didn’t get Grandpa’s stories from him but rather piece it together from various family members and fill in the gaps with speculation guided by historical knowledge and what people tell me about Grandpa’s character, opinions about things, and how they think he felt and thought. I would much rather listen to him. He has an excellent voice for storytelling and I love listening. It would provide rich memories for me to hold on to in the years to come – and I could play back the recording of his voice, so it may never fade from my memory – and I could share the gift with the rest of my family.
Grandparents (December 29, 2020)
Grandparents have a special place in your heart, even if you aren’t (weren’t) particularly close to them, or perhaps more correctly they have a special place in your being, in the very fiber that makes you you. They impact you, who you become, what kind of person you become – they leave a mark. Hopefully a good mark, but sometimes benign (neutral) and unfortunately bad. Even great grandparents whom you’ve only heard stories about have an impact on who you are and what you’ll make of your life. (I feel as though I live in the shadow of my great grandparents’ disapproval – they thought a couple should only have two kids (ideally a boy and girl) and were aghast that after my grandparents had two, one of each, that they had three more, something they never got over, apparently. And here I am, the sixth child of the fifth child – so in their eyes, I’d be pretty undesirable.) Almost everyone has experienced the death of a grandparent, or will eventually. Despite knowing it is inevitable, as soon as you are old enough to understand death and contemplate it, that one day you will have to face the death of a grandparent, somehow you hope they’re immortal and will live forever and therefore are knocked off balance when you hear of their death. How can life go on? My world has just been shattered. And yet, with lots of tears and one foot in front of the other, one moment, one day at a time, you do go on, life keeps moving forward. I can’t believe the shock I felt when my mom told me of my Grandma Benike’s death. I had started the week off with an excellent weekend with Jesse (my husband), his siblings and their spouses; I was on an emotional high. Then Thursday evening approached and WHAM, Grandma is dead. I was perhaps the happiest I had been all summer and then this. It took an hour or more for my brain to register anything beyond shock.
Tears begin to flow. How can Grandma be gone? A cloud of sadness engulfed me, hovering too near for the next three months, only recently beginning to lessen – of course exacerbated by the news that Grandpa is dying and only had days or weeks to live, and wouldn’t live to Thanksgiving (so far he’s made it to Christmas).
Jan 3, 2021
I dreamt of Grandma again this morning. She was comforting me. She stood in front of and facing me, holding both of my hands in hers – not a gesture Grandma ever did with me. She didn’t look like herself but somehow I knew it was her.
We didn’t play outside at Grandma Benike’s as much as we did at Grandma Mullin’s, and often when we did either Grandpa or Grandma was close by watching us, or at the very least Grandma watched us from the kitchen window. It seemed like there was a little less scope for the imagination than at Grandma Mullins; we often played outside there, with very little or no supervision with a lot to inspire us – but that is its own story. (Mom told me a couple months ago that the reason why we played inside more unless we were supervised, at Grandma Benike’s, is because she was so concerned about us kids running onto the very busy highway and getting hit by a car.)
Jan 9, 2021
Although I was probably there often, my memories of Grandma and Grandpa’s from an early age are few and vague. But here’s a few things I do remember. Meal times. Spaghetti. Grandpa would cut our spaghetti noodles into small pieces with the edge of a fork, making sound effects as he did it. Bibs that were merely just towels with a head hole, would cover our entire laps. Chocolate milk, we only got that there, and apple juice. Toast with strawberry jam and usually Grandma’s chocolate cake, a family recipe. There was something about sitting on those kitchen chairs. The smell and ambiance of the house. Grandpa reading books to us with added sound effects, fighting over who got to sit in his lap (I don’t remember but we probably took turns at that.) Grandpa washing our hands and faces with a wet washcloth. When we were there by ourselves, no cousins, we had the whole big place to roam with the toys – legos in the sitting room, racing cars in the dining room, little people climbing the buffet as their mountain. (We very rarely played with our cousins, other than maybe share toys and space with them because Isaiah, Jonathan and I were between cousins in age such that seven of the cousins were much older (closest being a couple years older than Isaiah) and four were a bit younger (a year or two younger than Jonathan), which didn’t make for closeness.) There used to be a tropical tree in the corner of the dining room, which became part of the play. Playing with the little fisher price, round people in the playroom. Playing “house” with the dolls. Extravagant plots with the barbies upstairs in the bedroom. Big slinky down the stairs – sliding down those stairs on our backsides. (Sometimes Isaiah and Jonathan played with the cars or legs and I played by myself with other toys. The cars and tractors weren’t as fun to me.) Often Grandpa played with us, lying on the floor zooming cars, pulling tractors and plows, or even walking lego guys. Grandma often sat knitting nearby. We played games like Hungry hippo and a fishing game. If you ran through the house with socks on, you could slide – Grandma did not encourage this. There was a big, all black house cat, we probably tried playing with it, but it would not tolerate us.
Outside. If I recall correctly, when the whole family gathered, when it wasn’t winter, there were a few ball games played. I wouldn’t have gotten in on these, I don’t think. Whether the whole family was present or Isaiah, Jonathan and I were there being babysat, we played in the sandbox, situated between four trees. A picnic table was often near it, probably so Grandpa could sit and watch us. We had big trucks and tractors for that, and old kitchenware too which I preferred. There was a double glider swing too that we loved – it seemed so big, I remember being scared of getting on and off of it. Grandma preferred either her or Grandpa to sit on it with us when we were small. The former summer kitchen was a source of imaginary play too, it was somewhat our playhouse. Cats roamed the yard, often becoming part of our play if we could catch them. I am not sure if the old barn and granary were strictly off limits or if because we were always closely monitored we never explored and played in them, because they would have been excellent morsels for the imagination and as forts. Of course cold weather was not a deterrent to playing outside. We’d bundle up and play in the snow with such tools as sleds and toy shovels. When we went in, being on the verge of becoming icicles, we were served something hot. Again, my memories are vague and incomplete – I can feel it, especially those darkening winter nights, so wonderful, but I can’t describe it.
I wouldn’t want to do childhood over again, particularly school and the pains of growing up, and yet sometimes I wish to go back to it, maybe just a visit – and then record in writing every detail, especially feelings and thoughts I had and a complete account of the elaborate stories I came up with for my brothers and I to act out in our play, the dialogue especially, some of it was quite clever. If only there was a way to recreate it or go back and observe, listen and record. I would love to be a little girl again, tucked in on Grandpa’s lap and him reading a book to me. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by nostalgia and what had been. (If I had only known then that I’d wish to have a written account of those times, of time spent with Grandma and Grandpa, his sound effects he made to everything, what we had played, and then actually had written it down.)
The hardest part about Grandma’s death and Grandpa now living on borrowed time is that it feels incomplete, I feel as though there was more of my life I wanted to share with them, particularly my writing and photography once (if) they become more than a hobby. And what will happen to the farm? Will I still have access to it? Oh, how I miss Grandma, and even Grandpa, how he’d been five months ago.
Feb. 15, 2021
Regret. After guilt, shame and pain have diminished, regret lingers on, threatening to overcome you. Life can’t be lived without regrets, sadly, at best you can try to minimize it and not dwell on it. I wish I had spent more time at Grandpa and Grandma Benike’s, especially as an adult, further along the path of healing, and by myself. I wish I had asked them to tell me their stories, everything they could, and listened intently and recorded it. I wish I had gone through old photos with them and asked all my questions. But I didn’t and now it is too late. In less than six months they both passed away. It is a regret I may always live with, but see, I didn’t know or feel like I could visit them whenever I wanted to and certainly didn’t know I could ask them to tell me their stories – I didn’t realize until too late that I was welcome anytime. I loved them and they loved me and yet I was always unsure about our relationship. But they were there for me at school programs and plays, birthday parties, and my wedding.
Feb. 16, 2021
Grandpa’s funeral was too short – not enough was said about him in my opinion. The pastor talked about Grandpa’s faithfulness but it wasn’t enough. No mention of him going to the grave in a coffee can. Not enough said about his playfulness. Grandpa read us books – we used to fight over who got to sit on his lap – with extra sound effects (rubbadubdub in the tub or something like that.) Pushing us on the swings, playing in the sandbox, little machinery on the dining room floor. Hugs and kisses. The sweet smell of his tobacco; I am going to miss that smell. (Ps. In June we had a meal with the family again to honor Grandpa and sure treasured stories and memories of him – it was a sweat time.)
December 28, 2022
I still dream of them, alive and well. I wake with hope that they’re both still alive and then reality comes crashing in; they’re gone. But perhaps those dreams are a gift because they are kept alive in me through the dreams.
Death Comes Suddenly
This isn’t my best work; I wrote it more for myself rather than you, my dear reader, but I wanted to share it too. Writing about my feelings and relationships has never been my strong point but I needed to write this for healing. I am sure everyone can relate to the death of a beloved grandparent. (Sorry, this is three in one but it didn’t feel right posting them separately.)
Christmas Day. Our family of nine pulled into the snow laden driveway, several feet blanketing the yard. Our van joined at least five other vehicles in Grandma and Grandpa Benike’s yard. Snow crouched under our feet as we filed up the drive and cement side walk. Always, Grandpa was at the door, holding it up for us, greeting each of us with, “Merry Christmas”. Boots or shoes piled up just inside the porch door. More greetings of “Merry Christmas” came from aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around the TV, though not all were watching intently. Some aunts and Grandma were probably in the kitchen. Somebody was assigned to taking the coats upstairs to lay on a bed, although sometimes Grandpa did it himself if he wouldn’t miss someone else’s arrival. The house was beautifully decorated. The tree, never was there a more lovely Christmas tree, in the old fashioned parlor, was girdled with colorful gifts of every shape and size. Every room seemed to have a dish with candy – my favorite were blueberry candy canes. Grandpa herded everyone toward the kitchen, more than half of us spilling into the dining room, to pray before the noon meal. We lined up for the food laid out buffet style, being careful not to stand in the door way with someone else, for there was always a mistletoe. The food was amazing. Tables were scattered throughout the dining, play and utility rooms. Gift opening would come later, with its delightful chaos. Trays of cookies showed up. I remember stretching out on the couch in the parlor drifting off to sleep with the late afternoon sun sinking low before the dread, “it’s time to go home”.
September 7, 2020
Grandma died on August 13th. My first reaction was shock. I had known for at least a year and half now that she wasn’t doing very well but that knowledge didn’t make it any less shocking. You expect, or rather desire and hope your grandparents to be immortal, that they will always be there – and I think it is all too easy to take their life for granted. Done with work for the day, I was just preparing to leave Mom’s when she told me the bad news. Shocked and stunned, I drove home. I hadn’t seen Grandma since Christmas – how could she just be gone? At that point all I knew was that she died at home. It wasn’t until an hour or more after I was told that it really began to sink in, shock became sadness and disbelief. Tears began rolling down my cheeks, then streamed, then poured. Why now? I hadn’t seen her in months. I had no idea if she had been proud of who I am. You know that one day your grandparents die and yet you hope they won’t. I managed to collect myself, perhaps the tears were momentarily spent, before Jesse came in from milking. My thoughts swirling with how to tell him. He came in and immediately we began to argue over a trivial matter, where I had parked the car. He stepped into the bathroom to wash his hands. When he stepped out, tears were flowing down my face. He was irritated that I was crying over something so small.
Around a sob and tears gushing, I blurted out, “Grandma Benike died today”.
All anger, irritation, and frustration disappeared from him instantly. Which were replaced with love, compassion, concern and sympathy, “Babe why didn’t you just say so?”
It was a full-out flood, the gates had been opened. My words were barely intelligible through the torrent, “I haven’t seen her since Christmas. I wanted to go visit them but with covid and being so busy I didn’t. I thought I’d see her again. she’s gone.” I sobbed. Jesse sat down beside me, lovingly caressing my back and arm letting me cry. How does the human heart have enough durability to experience so much pain and grief? I couldn’t have imagined her death would have hit me so hard and left me so shaken – I’ll explain later.
Jonathan texted me that grandma died. I replied that I had already been told and couldn’t stop crying. He was crying uncontrollably too. Texts between us siblings were exchanged late into the evening. Aleesha shared the details of how grandma died and we tried to console one another. Grandma had fallen on the sidewalk outside their house, hit her head and died instantly. They were trying to determine if a stroke or a heart attack had killed her or if it was quite simply the fall. Hearing how she died renewed my tears. Poor Grandpa! They had been married for 69 years. The funeral was set for Tuesday, with a meal for the family to follow.
Tuesday was to be a day of mixed emotions for me. For me, this brought up more than just the death of a beloved grandma like it did for my cousins. Dad was there. Aside from a brief chance sighting at KwikTrip one time, it was the first time I’d seen him in at least 6 years, perhaps even 7. (My dad sexually abused me when I was a child – I wrote about it in my wedding story.) Over the weekend, I had thought about the fact that he’d be there and what that would be like; with these thoughts my emotions were all over the place: apprehension, sadness, longing, hurt, and perhaps a bit of fear. This fear was more over Jesse seeing him, and his struggle with my dad being present. Jesse never saw him before aside from when he would have been a very small child. I wanted to know what was going on in Jesse’s head. And yet added into the mixture of pain and discomfort was the excitement for the family meal afterwards since we were unable to get together for Easter. But I was also nervous since Jesse wasn’t going to be accompanying me to the meal (I have extreme social anxiety and it was the first time I would be hanging out with the extended family on my own).
The family milled about in the churchyard before the funeral; chatting and catching up. Asking before hugs were exchanged; no one declined a hug despite the pandemic. I observed my dad coming out of the church and go stand by my brother, Seth. I wouldn’t have known it was him if it wasn’t for the context clues. It was difficult to see him, knowing I couldn’t interact with him. I couldn’t run up to him and tell him all about my life or introduce Jesse – torn between anger and pain that we no longer had a relationship. But I had Jesse, Mom, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles greeting and embracing me. As the time drew near we filed into the church. The family crammed into the chapel to receive instruction on how we were to walk into the sanctuary. The pastor wanted the grandchildren (my generation) to go according to age but we mostly entered with our siblings instead. The service proceeded.
My grief was heightened by my cousin, Rachel’s speech, her memories of Grandma, how fondly she remembered her, and how close they had been. My dad stood up to speak as well – talking about what a gift Grandma had been. A jumble of emotions clattered about inside of me as he spoke, a voice familiar and yet a distant memory, altered by time. I hadn’t heard that voice in several years. I wondered what Jesse was thinking as Dad spoke. It just felt strange to be in the same place as him, practically strangers now. He hadn’t been my father in years; other men had played that role and done so far better. If Grandma’s death hadn’t caused enough pain and feelings to work through, the complication of Dad’s presence there had added to it. He had been sitting with his siblings; when he stepped down he sat removed from them.
We gathered around the burial plot in a semi-circle. Dad and Don lowered the urn into the hole. Although we grieved, we were able to smile, joke and enjoy one another’s company. Afterwards, Don and Sheryl hosted a meal for the family – just Johanna and Seth were there from my family and I didn’t talk to them (I am not close to these two of my siblings). Nervous about being on my own, I stood alone at first; it was challenging not having Jesse or Aleesha to hide behind. I sat with my cousins and began to talk with them. It was amazing. (There were thirty nine people present, and thirty eight absent – from just two people. We haven’t all been together for perhaps eighteen years.) My own immediate family aside, I felt an overwhelming wave of love and connectedness flow between all present, and flow freely. Strange, but I hadn’t realized until that intimate gathering celebrating the life of Grandma, just how much this family loved me, and each other. It filled me with warmth and pride, the free flowing exchange of love and connectedness and the talk of God being a part of it without being painfully deliberate. My cousin, Jeremiah knew who I was, my personality and interests, he understood who I was – talked about the woods I have now that I married Jesse – close even though 12 years apart in age. Rachel overflowed with love, it could be felt how much she loved each of us, the closeness to one another and the presence of God just seeped from her on to us. I just felt so much love and connection sitting there surrounded by cousins. – had it always been there and I just then became aware of it? I debated with myself over and over again if I should talk to my dad but decided it would be best if I didn’t. In a conversation with Uncle Jon, I was overwhelmed by his interest in my writing and photography; he especially likes them together on my blog – I felt so loved, and understood, appreciated for who I am. Interactions with Kris were overflowing with love and care – I had a feeling I was very precious to her; in fact I felt like I was getting that from everyone. Sadly, I only got a few minutes to talk to Grandpa.
People slowly began to leave until I was the only one left with Don, Sheryl, Hallie and Tracie. I had nearly left several times and was about to do so again when Sheryl asked if I wanted to stay so that I would miss milking – I said yes. An act of God, a gift of grace. (Tracie and her kids left perhaps an hour or so after Sheryl invited me to stay longer.) The intimate conversation between us was one of those incredible things God brings out of bad circumstances. I learned and discovered so much in that time, it may have been one of the most important conversations I have ever had to aid my ongoing healing. The biggest discovery was finding out just how much I am loved by them. I had spent most of my life thinking they didn’t love me, or rather didn’t like me, that I didn’t fit in, but I don’t think that was ever the case. It was ingrained in me when I was a child – a misunderstanding between my parents and the rest of the family due to poor communication and misconceptions. Rather than being unloved or disliked, I have been treasured; they’ve all just been concerned for my well being and that I’d be ok. (Most people don’t seem to realize that sexual abuse isn’t something you ever get over, at best it may fade a little bit but it’s with you forever, even with therapy – I am constantly working through it. And then of course, sadly, most people don’t know what to do with people who have been sexually abused – don’t know how to behave around us.) I have never had an intimate conversation with these three and for so long and by myself – it was a huge breakthrough for me. I am so loved and cared for. It was also amazing to be talking about it, openly and honestly because most people tend to just not talk about it, pretend it didn’t happen. I was overwhelmed and exhausted with emotion – it was the best bad thing.
October 4, 2020
I am still struggling with Grandma’s death – sometimes grief threatens to overwhelm me. While praying with Mom yesterday morning, I began to cry. Today, sadness is still hanging over me like a heavily overcast sky. Lying in bed, due to the combination of exhaustion from work and grief, unable to bring myself to either get up, nap, or even read, I am filled with nostalgia. Scanning my brain for memories of Grandma. In my mind’s eye, I walk through their house, room by room, recalling even the smell.
Upon entering the four season porch is the rich smell of pipe tobacco, cherry. That is the sweet, musty smell of Grandpa. I love that smell. In that long and narrow porch, Grandma used to sit; in earlier days she may have been knitting, working on a blanket perhaps, for one of her eighteen grandchildren. She was a short woman, somewhere around five feet or less, but not fragile or frail, and plump. Her hair was so dark it appeared black, gray speckles increasing with age but never taking over, in my lifetime, short, curly and puffy. Her skin was light brown with moles here and there. She had a round face – a face that lingers on in at least one of my aunts and a little in my sister, Johanna. She had prominent crows feet around her eyes from that smile that wrinkled her nose just a bit; as she aged her face grew more and more wrinkled and yet, she aged gracefully – Jesse said she seemed quite youthful in looks and personality. Grandma had a dry sense of humor. She always spoke her mind, and there were plenty of times she said things that should always be left on said, but that was one of her characteristics that made her her. Her voice was deep and sounded of rolled marbles; intimidating and commanding, often reprimanding it seemed. She was the scariest person I have ever encountered when she was upset. Grandma was often barefoot, toenails always painted, red stands out most in my mind. Aside from a basket of yarn and a part of a blanket or scarf in the works, were various magazines of which I can’t recall the names. The TV was often on. The porch was arranged differently when I was a child than it is now, and I am not sure I trust my memory to describe the change. There was a wooden cabinet chest filled with games, the doors of which opened hard and made a click when they were closed. ( I think instead of being solid wood the doors had curtains.) The couch from childhood was dark brown leather that swallowed you when you sat on it. Above the couch hung old, black and white photos of the farm – I have always loved looking at those. The east wall is a row of windows, watching over the road and driveway, people arriving are observed several minutes before they park the car. An old fashioned fold down desk with two shelves below holding the most amazing collection of children books – I wish I had told Grandma how much I would have loved those books before they disappeared. A wooden bench beneath the window next to the door – a small patch of linoleum around it where piles of shoes would gather when the whole family was there.
Through the wide open doorway, lies the expansive dining room, no carpet here, some sort of tile – a good place to zoom toy cars if there aren’t too many people. With the absence of the whole family it is a rather big room, however, it drastically shrank when there was thirty, forty, fifty people crammed into the house. Most memorable things about the dining room, the large buffet and table that could be stretched out, the large south window, the old roll top desk, the china hutch, and the cuckoo clock. A tree was in the corner when I was a child, a piece of jungle in the house. High ceilings.
Large doorway into an elegant sitting room. A big wooden display case full of Shirley Temple memorabilia. Soft carpet that you’d sink into. The dining room and sitting room didn’t smell like tobacco; I am not sure how to describe the delightful scent other than I think it smelled more like Grandma and less like Grandpa. (How I long to go back to those late Christmas afternoons, the day growing dark, the whole family crammed in – those are the moments you want to last forever.) An old, elegant, well taken care of blue sofa, a gliding rocking chair, and an old wingback chair, a corner table with knick knacks and a candy dish in one corner, in another corner a wooden shelving unit with knick knacks, an elegant coffee table, and below a picture window on the north wall (which was always drafty) an ottoman (usually used as a seat during gift opening). I loved the smell, cold, and elegant feel of this room.
Back in the dining room, still along the north side, just past the sitting room, another cabinet or shelf with knick knacks and sometimes a candy dish. Some houses the knick knacks are so overwhelming they look and feel tacky, or are just tacky, but Grandma’s was beautiful, well done and tasteful. Grandma didn’t do tacky. A few more steps is another doorway leading to a small nook – straight ahead were light green carpeted stairs, to the left a room, in between more old, beautiful furniture with some knick knacks. This room was once used as Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom but in more recent history a playroom. It had two windows fairly near each other, one on the north and another on the west – it was a narrow room. The windows made it feel bright and airy in the afternoon; it was cold in the winter. I enjoyed the view of the windows, which really opened up the house – both gave a view of the yard and busy highway; there is a row of trees between the house and highway and another perpendicular row extending across the backyard.
Now the stairs, those green, soft, lush, carpeted stairs – I just loved sitting or laying on them for their smell and softness. Speeding up them to play with my brothers. Scooting down them on my backside. Releasing a metal slinky to somersault down them. As you ascended, the temperature dropped. There’s a small landing halfway up and a narrow window in the north wall, then turn left to keep going up the stairs. The banister along here painted white, a thick wood, smooth to the touch; I loved the look and feel of it. At the top of the stairs the hallway, though still narrow, opens up a bit. To the immediate left, the banister continues to the wall, providing a nice overlook on the stairs. A chest was sometimes here and a small wooden chair occupied by an antique collector’s doll in the corner. The hallway was lined with various objects that I can’t recall well enough to describe but they were tasteful and vintage. During the winter, a quilt of a snowman, made by Mom, hung on the wall. To the left, my grandparents’ bedroom, sparsely furnished, but everything vintage and yet stylish, windows on the north and east wall; bright but cold. To the right, a large, bright, carpeted bathroom, with a big free standing tub (I don’t recall there being a toilet, just the tub). Past the bathroom, a narrow door, and behind that, narrow stairs, which turn halfway up, going the other direction to a true attic, used for storage. I have only been on the stairs, never in the attic, but I have longed to go up there, partly out of curiosity and the family history I may uncover, and partly because it seemed shrouded in mystery and forbidding. There are two more spacious, square bedrooms with good closet space, further down the hall. Both warmer and lighter than the first with a good amount of windows. My brothers and I played often in the one in the southwest corner. From the south window, we could step out onto the roof of the utility room and bathroom. Then walk down a narrow, slanting part of the roof that meets the ground on the west side – it was tried a few times, every time we were in big trouble with Grandma.
Back down the hallway and stairs, into the dining room, through a large doorway was the kitchen, and Grandma was often there. The most alluring part of the kitchen is the large, west facing, bay window, with a view of a naughty child coming down off the roof (often a cat would play there too). Even now, I am enticed to climb up, or down from the roof. The kitchen window also overlooked a row of beautiful silver maple trees, a glider swing, what used to be a sandbox. And beyond the maples, a row of evergreens (used to be large pines or spruce, they had to be cut down but new trees were planted in their place), and a field alternating between corn and soybeans from year to year. I love that view; I want to photograph it – especially in the afternoon (I believe there were bird feeders as well). I also loved the old, oak, round table in the kitchen, that, like the dining room table, can also be stretched out. The kitchen is a bit dark and yet I love the feel of it – so full of memories, and on holidays, people. The layout changed when I was about sixteen but I can barely remember the changes well enough to describe them. As you walk in from the dining room, on your left is a doorway into the big, light, utility room. Laundry is done here, two large chest freezers and the way to the main bathroom – which is very small and narrow. Through the utility room and turning right, down a few steps, left turn out of the house; right turn down into the cellar – another place I’ve never been. Over here smells like Grandpa’s tobacco too.
As I made my mental tour, recalling the feel and the smell of the house, I was completely overcome by nostalgia, followed by a consuming wave of grief. Tears threaten to overflow. Grandma will never be in the house again. How can she be gone? I have to go and visit; I need to walk through the house. I need to visit with Grandpa, just the two of us – perhaps it will help me process and give me closure concerning Grandma. I will visit Grandpa this week, just give him a call and stop in. I really want to record Grandpa’s stories, everything he remembers and knows about the family history, growing up on the farm and everything he can tell me about Grandma. Yes, I must go see him this week. I am utterly consumed by grief, battling back sadness for nearly two months – sometimes crying can’t be stopped.
Walking with A Niece (Part II)
Onward, we hiked, somewhat following a deer trail; I led. Having Therese along with kept me from taking too many photos, but I did pause to take a couple, here and there – I just can’t help it. There are so many interesting patterns, textures, trees and rocks, I want to capture it all. Ducking under a boxelder tree, its upper trunk is more horizontal than vertical. Pushing past clawing buckthorn. Trying to avoid my hat being stolen by grabby, low lying branches. Sometimes taking a few or several steps to either right or left to find the least challenging path. Being mindful of not getting poked in the eye and yet also marveling in the beauty around us. We chatted as we walked. We crossed a washout, walking to our right, further up the slope before doing so, to cross where it was narrowest.
“ These washouts and ravines can be treacherous when it’s wet, especially in the spring. In May, I was across the highway, exploring the woods over there. I had crossed and climbed up a deep ravine. On the way back, I almost slipped and fell and could have gotten hurt. And I doubt I had cell phone reception, no one knew exactly where I was, just the general area. And yet, I found it a bit thrilling.” I paused to take in the brilliantly white clump of paper birch and a chunk of limestone just hanging out in the open. I love these exposed rock formations. Therese shared with me that there’s a spot in my Mom’s woods (her grandma) that she really loves. I agreed that was a pretty neat spot but that Mom’s woods just don’t have the scale of ours nor the exposed rock formations. We looked across the large ravine below, to the other hillside. We stopped our progress again, I couldn’t resist photographing a woodpecker’s hole in a tree.
Therese said, “Oh, I guess this is where the dead cows are brought.” We had stumbled upon the old cow graveyard.
“Yeah, but not anymore. Now Jesse composts them by the manure pit.” I dropped to my knees to photograph a skull. “Grandma [mom] says what makes my photography so great is I see things as beautiful and interesting and therefore photograph them when most people wouldn’t.”
“I’m sure most people would think the cow skulls creepy and gross but I find them fascinating.”
The sunlight illuminated this skull perfectly, I had to take advantage of it. I stood up and shifted position to get a different angle and closer shot. Bones sprinkled the area. I walked a few steps to my right and knelt down to photograph a long bone, probably part of a leg. “I like to photograph things with a different perspective so it’s hard to tell what it actually is,” as I spoke, I took an up close shot of the bone, so the photo could be of a stone, with the ridges and grooves. Next, I approached an upside down skull, teeth facing up to the sky.
Therese commented, “Their teeth are so different from ours, but they have to be because of what they eat.” Large and flat, for grinding instead of tearing.
“I always thought cow teeth were fascinating. When I was a kid, I would keep a few that I found in a box, along with feathers, rocks, a block of wood, and snake skin.” We’d continued walking.
“Like a treasure box?” Therese asked.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t always the same box.” A few feet ahead, we arrived at another washout, deeper and wider. This one wasn’t as simple as stepping across. It was a challenge to cross without slipping and sliding. I picked up a long sturdy stick to help stabilize my footing in the soft, crumbly dirt as I took a few steps down into it, a step in the middle and then a leap of sorts up the other side. (Perhaps only four feet or so wide.) Therese followed behind. I kept the stick as a walking stick, enjoying the way it felt in my hand, and providing a task for my hand, also momentum. We paused to take in another rock formation – the layers clearly visible, the pages of an ancient history book. We pointed out unique trees, individuals with character. We would halt and linger, just to soak it in, feel it course through us. – Peace and refreshment. I really need to figure out ways to spend more time in the woods even around a crazy, insane farm schedule, I always feel better, safer, at peace in the woods. And it would be good for Therese to come on more frequent walks with me. If only we didn’t have to rush back to milk cows. (It seems like over the past month my life has become just a countdown to the next milking, but we will get through this difficult time.) Rocks, uneven ridges stick up out of the ground, like spikes on the back of a sleeping dragon, completely covered in green moss. The trees in here are younger, tall and skinny. I believe this area had been logged – we’re not far from the man-made trail.
“It doesn’t seem like this is a huge bluff until you go down into the ravine in this area and then climb back up. It is much bigger than you’d think. The problem with going downhill is you have to come up again and that’s a workout,” I said.
“We could go down and explore the ravine but then we’d have to walk back up the hill.”
Neither one of us were too excited about walking back up the bluff. Our somewhat meandering walk took us downhill a little but not very far. We were getting close to the highway, our silence dissipating as we came nearer to it. I pointed out the man-made trail to Therese, and the gate at its head. But we weren’t heading that direction just yet. Down the slope many feet from it, two rock platforms rested. We each sat upon one, halting to take in the woods. I thought we just might pull out our journals or sketchbooks, but we didn’t. We talked, at least half of which was strictly between confidants, family stuff, some processing. I still had the stick in my hand and dug in the dirt a little with it. Then I picked up an acorn and rolled it around in my other hand, torn between just sitting and chatting or either writing or sketching. Just sitting felt too good for me to feel motivated enough to slip my backpack off my shoulders and open it, let alone to write or sketch – plus Therese and I don’t very often have much time to chat.
I commented, “I feel like I should be writing or sketching, but I’m not feeling inspired enough – I mean, just sitting here feels too good.”
“Yeah, and I’m not sure how to describe this to capture it,” she replied.
Yes indeed, that is the challenge. Oak leaves and acorns littered the ground around our limestone seats. We were close to the highway now, so every few moments a car would go by, intruding on our silence – the only drawback to this part of the woods. Trees of various species march down the hill in no discernable formation. Funny thing, I would have been equally content there by myself as with Therese, I thrive on alone time with my tree friends. Of which, I haven’t had enough of this year. I need a whole day of no obligations, more than once a month (at least) to spend as much time in the woods as I want; field guides, journal, sketchbook, and camera to make the most of the opportunity and to learn. I am famished for learning as much about the natural world I live in as possible and then sharing that knowledge with anyone willing to listen. I desire to know everything there is to know about the inner workings of the forest on this bluffside, down to the tiniest microorganism and its relationship to the fungi, and the trees. How was it formed? How old is it? What sort of relationships are occurring unseen around me to form this ecosystem that has us awestruck? How do I go about learning these things? Where do I begin? I suppose a good beginning would be by reading every textbook on my shelf: biology, geology, and chemistry, and then narrow it down: ecology and botany and then a little more again. Now how do I set aside time to do so, around working on two farms, trying to keep up with writing and exercising, photography, family and friend time, household chores, and some down time? With deliberateness, I suppose.
With the deadline of milking cows and needing to eat before that, we reluctantly got up and resumed our walk. We climbed back up the slope a few yards to the man-made trail. “I find this dead tree fascinating; I have photographed it many times,” I commented as we bypassed the fallen tree in the middle of the path. Before the trail began to wind around the hill curving to the east, we departed it, going west and downhill.
“You have to see just how big that ravine becomes.” Minus the traffic noise from passing vehicles, I love this spot. Among young maple trees is a random stately eastern white pine tree. There’s a rocky outcropping below us, with a grand view of the ravine, we head for it. Standing on the overlook, my heart soars, I feel like I should be bursting into song, dramatic, profound, uplifting song. Therese was impressed, wonderstruck by the depth of the ravine and the height of the bluffs.
“We could actually just amble up the ravine, it would be a slightly more gradual climb back to the top of the hill. But not today,” I said. It would be adventurous, requiring some ambling over rocks.
We lingered there for a few moments. Then we tramped back up the slope; I was out of breath – I needed to get into shape I think. I didn’t notice if Therese was winded or not. My walking stick was quite helpful in the ascent.
We gained the trail and followed it around the end of the bluff, and walked into a maple forest, with a few oaks here and there. “The leaves are so thick in here, I’ve contemplated going barefoot.”
“Okay,” Therese said doubtfully.
She delighted in this tiny lane through the maples and was awed by the steep bluffside below us, nearly vertical. Another ravine, long ago, tore through the path making a good stopping and turning around point. Although we had no desire to leave the woods, it was time to start making our way back.
The trail took us to a gate. I left my walking stick in the woods and climbed over the gate. Therese, doubtful of the integrity of the gate, crawled under a high spot in the fence. We’d come into the pasture. With less distractions and easier footing, and no obstacles, we made better time traveling the pasture. However, unwilling to head back in just yet, we paused and sat down on a log and chatted some more. But we were rapidly running out of time to eat lunch before heading to the barn, so after several minutes on the log, we continued our trek. Climbing up the hill to the four wheeler. Situating ourselves on it. Turned around and headed back through the pasture. Stopping long enough for Therese to dismount to open and close gates. The cows were a little less interested in us. Then we took the gravel road back to the house, sadly ending the day’s woodland adventure.