Walking with A Niece (Part I)
December 12, 2020
Last Friday night, Therese came over to spend the night, staying until after evening milking on Saturday. She had come to help milk; her presence casting a warm glow on a gloomy situation. Between milkings on Saturday though, we went to walk in the woods. To provide more time in the woods, we decided to drive the four wheeler as far as the woodland edge. Thus our adventure began with the four wheeler. I remarked, “I hope it has enough gas.” We climbed aboard. I turned the key while holding the break, it fired to life. “Well, the gas is low, just one square left but I think we have enough. At least I have my phone with me in case we need rescuing.” I spun the four wheeler around and followed the gravel drive between the end of the barn and shed, and round the corner of the shed. I looked again at the gas gauge, all of a sudden even the last square was empty. I informed Therese.“We better turn back and put gas in, better not to risk it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Now we have to figure out how to put gas in it. I haven’t used that gas barrel before.” I spun the four wheeler around again, retracing our progress and then a bit further beyond, to the gas barrel. The four wheeler jerked a few times as we approached, as if it were struggling to move forward. I think we’d totally run out of gas just as we pulled up to the barrel – good thing we hadn’t tried to go further. We disembarked from the four-wheeler and began searching for the gas tank, an embarrassingly dumb moment. After practically circling it, Therese exclaimed, oh it’s right here, pointing to the front of it, just above where I’d been seated, below the steering. We laughed at ourselves wondering why it took so long to notice it. We felt dumb but grateful no one had been watching us.
Laughing still, I said, “now I have to figure out how to pump the gas. Jesse showed me once but I forgot. Well first I’ll pull this out,” I grabbed the hose. “I think it was something to do with this lever.” I flipped the lever up and a motor whirred on, that was easy. Unscrew the gas cap, insert the nozzle, squeeze the trigger and there. We continued laughing at ourselves.
“It’s a good thing no one was watching us,” Therese said.
“Yeah, Karin’s the only one in the house, nobody else is around.”
“She could have looked out the window and seen.”
“Yes, but it’s unlikely. She’s probably resting on the couch in the living room.” I screwed the cap on, held the lever down and placed the nozzle back where it had been. “Alright, now we are ready to go.” I climbed back on, throwing one leg over the other side but remained standing to give Therese more room to get on and swing her leg over the other side as well. “Ready?” With her affirmative, we continued ahead, leaving by the other driveway, past the house. I paused at our dead end gravel road, “which way would you like to go? Down the road or through the field?”
“I don’t care, either way is fine with me.”
“Okay, let’s go across the field then, give you a chance to see more of the farm.” At first, I began following the contour but then I realized I didn’t need to and we could get there faster if we didn’t. We saw a large bird sitting in a tree in the woods along the pasture edge. I pointed it out and she asked, “What do you think it is? A crow perhaps?”
“I think it is a crow.”
We remarked on the difference between my driving and Jesse and Malachi’s driving; I was much slower, still not very comfortable with driving ATVs. Well actually, I am not comfortable with driving anything really. As we followed the hill around, I pointed out the trees along the pasture fence line, telling Therese what we owned, or rather in some areas that the property line was in there somewhere but it’s a bit wonky. I also explained how all our pastures wrap around the farm and connect, even though there are four separate systems.
Partially cloudy, with the temperature hanging between cool and warm, made the four-wheeler ride cold. But the clouds began to clear on our drive. We reached the corner of the fence and began turning back the other direction, just following the contour of the hill.
“Oh, I just remembered there isn’t a gate over here and we can’t really scoot under the fence. I guess we’ll have to keep going.” Now we were headed south, back in the direction we had started out from. I was going to take us to a corner gate, somewhat in the middle of the pasture but was stopped by the temporary, winter fence for the beef cows. “The beef cows are let out onto the fields for winter so that they don’t wreck the pastures,” I explained. “I forgot it was here. I guess you’ll see even more of the farm. We probably should have taken the other direction.” I followed along the single strand wire fence feeling a bit foolish.
“I don’t mind,” replied Therese.
“There’s no gate in the temporary fence, so we will have to keep going around.”
Therese exclaimed, “The beef cows are so cute”.
“I always found them a bit scary; they look scary and are more wild than the dairy cows. They’re quite interested in us because people on ATVs or tractors usually mean something is happening, like more food. I am glad the bulls were sold a couple of weeks ago.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We turned again, downhill toward the gate, almost there. Then I turned the four-wheeler to our right and finally we arrived at the gate, once again facing north. I stopped and I asked, “Can you hop off and open the gate while I drive through? And then shut it again.” I stood up to give Therese more space to pull her foot up over the seat.
“Okay.” She slowly got off the four-wheeler and opened the gate. I drove through and stopped to wait for her to shut it again and climb aboard. Some of the cows moved closer to us, thankfully though, they didn’t mob us. Once Therese was settled in place and holding on, I drove forward, parting a black sea of cows; they moved at the last possible moment, comically darting out of the way. A few moments later, we stopped at another gate. Again, Therese slid off to open and close it after I drove through. Now we were finally in the pasture, which separated the fields we had been driving in from the woods. I drove along the slope, a bit nervously, skirting the large pond. I explained, “If it were up to Jesse and I, we would sell half the beef cows, get the herd to about 40 animals and then construct, perhaps temporary/moveable fences in each pasture to divide them up into several paddocks so that the cows no longer overgraze, destroying the pastures each year. The grass runs out by August. By having lush, healthy pastures, we’d be able to graze well into October, maybe even November and cut down on feed costs and labor to feed the beef cows.” The pasture in its current state looked sad, barren of any grass in too many places, with lots of signs of erosion – it’s actually a bit embarrassing, but one project at a time. (Get the new barn and parlor built for the dairy cows and then we’ll talk to Lars about cutting down the beef herd and intensively managing those pastures for better health and erosion control.) We began climbing up the hill, above the pond and soon past it.
“Now, I need to decide where I am going to leave the four-wheeler,” I said, just as much to myself as Therese. A little further up the hill and northward, by the fence on the upper side of the pasture, along the field edge, “This is good.” I stopped the four-wheeler and cut the engine. We disembarked. Each of us had a backpack filled with a journal, sketch pad (just in case we were inspired), and a bottle of water. We both had cameras. “So how would you like to enter the woods? We have two options. Either we can walk down that way [pointing southward to the pond] into the washout and go under the fence or we can walk over on that boxelder tree?” I pointed to a tree laying across the fence – the route I most often choose.
“Well, it’d be challenging for me to crawl under the fence, and I don’t feel like crawling under.”
“Over the tree it is!” I exclaimed, leading the way. More sunlight began to filter through, the clouds scattering for the time being, so the woods glowed warm with the low hanging December sun. I stepped onto a branch resting on the ground, starting at the top of the nearly horizontal boxelder, walking down the trunk to the base. “This is one of my favorite ways to enter the woods. I found oysters on this tree.”
“I’d like to find oysters. So far the only mushrooms I’ve found were Dryad’s saddles.”
“Those are easier to find.” I struggle to pass over the myriad small water spout branches that nearly cover the trunk. “Let me through,” I managed to break off a couple of dead ones. “The problem with boxelder is all these water spouts, but the nice thing about it being a boxelder is that I can prune them off…”
“Without damaging the tree,” Therese added.
“Precisely. And more will just come back.” The trunk gradually widens as it goes down to its base, or rather tapers off to the top. I stepped around a much larger limb. A few more steps and I am at the bottom and hop off, Therese is close behind. “A lot of farmers don’t like boxelders because they grow along fence lines and grow rapidly, often falling on their fences. But I like them. They are native and are pretty cool looking. They serve a purpose.”
Now that we were in the woods, we paused to soak it in. So quiet. It was a rare day of no wind, not even a whisper of a breeze. The trees were motionless and silent. No birds sang, which made me sad – hopefully it was just because it was in the middle of the day and December, not because there weren’t any. Even the squirrels were absent. Despite the seeming absence of wildlife, I reveled in the quiet, in the silence, it was a soothing balm to my weary, at breaking point soul. I had desperately needed this and had planned to spend time in the woods each day over Thanksgiving weekend before my world came crashing down Thanksgiving morning. (Read https://bethanybenike.com/2022/04/03/the-life-of-this-dairy-farmer/) – I had been looking forward to this writing and wood walking filled weekend since the first Saturday in May kicking off summer farmers market season, being the first weekend without a market since. Sometimes it is still a challenge to not be upset with these turn of events, especially since December is supposed to be a time of getting caught up on sleep and writing. These days I have to push through heavy eyelids that just want to close, force myself to write a bit or edit stories for my book, between milkings and on days I don’t go to help on my Mom’s farm, and then hope what I have managed to write is decent and worth reading. But, I don’t want to just complain, vent, rant, whatever nor dwell in misery. Everyday is a struggle to keep going, combating extreme exhaustion and depression, beating it back and trying to keep it from taking hold – especially with no light at the end of the tunnel as far as when Karin will be able to resume her former role of main milker. And yet I try to grasp ahold of joy and hope, letting them lift me up, and acceptance; this is my life right now and I just have to live it with a positive attitude and make the best of it. Such as my weekly pay more than doubled the last few weeks; even though it’s working hours, I spend more time with my husband right now (and we’re getting through together). Also, I am not sure Therese would have been able to spend the night and then the whole day here if it wasn’t for our desperate need for help milking cows. And if she hadn’t been here to spend the day with me, I wouldn’t have gone to the woods despite longing to do so, rather I would have lounged on the couch between milkings. So yes, the hush of the woods quieted and soothed my heart. And sharing my beloved treasure, my spot, with Therese was a bonus healing salve for my soul, especially since I know she’d cherish and love the woods too.
Therese was awestruck and enchanted by their beauty. Awed, she remarked, “it is so beautiful in here.”
I turned to her and then back to the trees around us gesturing to them, “This is my special spot,” sharing a secret, unbarring part of my soul to her. (Funny, I am her aunt and yet I often feel like we are peers and best friends despite huge differences in personality, worldviews and religion. Despite being seventeen years older than her, I often feel as if I am younger than her, aware of how much more advanced she is than me – I am thirty one going on not fifteen but a lot of times ten or so and Therese is fifteen going on thirty. Much of that is probably due to my traumatic childhood and a personality that’s terrified of everything.) In addition to the silence that brought me peace, I marveled in the sunlight streaking through the naked tree branches, highlighting the woods. I remarked, “One thing that’s great about the shorter day lengths in December is the directional light of the early afternoon sun, perfect for photography. In the middle of the day in July it would be too bright.” I lead the way to our left, heading southwest, sharing, “These dead trees are my bridges; I have crossed the ravine by walking on that one.” One of my favorite things, I’ve always enjoyed walking across fallen trees.
”I am too scared to try. I worry it wouldn’t be able to support my weight,” Therese replied.
“That makes sense.”
She was interested in exploring the ravine but we got distracted. We’d walked closer to it as I talked about crossing over, however, we then turned back to look at the slope we’d come down. “I love that oak tree over there. It has so much character.”
“Yeah, it’s lovely.”
We walked back up the slope part way and turned northward. “It seems like this would be a good place to find edible mushrooms, especially morels with all the dead trees, but I haven’t found any in here.” Then I said, “Wild garlic mustard covered this area in the spring”.
Therese touched one of the dead plants that remained standing, “There must have been a lot of it.”
I explained, “Larry said that there’s too much here to try and eradicate but in a couple of years it won’t be as prolific.” Garlic mustard is a nonnative invasive plant. We continued walking, avoiding tripping over fallen branches and such.
“Is that the ruins you were talking about?” Therese asked, pointing ahead.
“Yes it is. Cool, huh?” leaves crunched under our feet. Walking around dead trees and moss covered rocks, we approached the old stone walls. “This is my spot.”
“This is so neat. I can’t believe this is on your farm,” Therese sighed.
“I know, it’s so awesome. Jesse often says we should go to Whitewater to hike, but I tell him we don’t need to, we have our own woods. Although Whitewater is really great too; but here we have the woods to ourselves.”
We both couldn’t resist taking pictures of the stone walls. As always we speculated whether it was a house or barn.
Therese commented on the large window. “It looks like there had been more on the other side.”
I took her around to have a look, “see that looks like it had been a wall.” She agreed and was fascinated. The woods seemed to stir Therese’s heart like they did mine.
“Isabel said trees without their leaves are ugly. I disagree. Without their leaves, their shapes and forms can be seen – it’s a different kind of beauty.” Branches become more scraggly at the top. The sky above is so blue. Still a few green plants alive and well. Dried leaves carpet the ground. There isn’t much color left and yet there is beauty in the nearly dormant woods.