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.
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.
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.
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.
August 2, 2018
After our evening walk in July, Larry and I decided on another evening outing. This time we were going canoeing. We put in at Pritchard’s Landing (Goose Lake) around 6:30 pm. It was mostly sunny with only a few light, cumulus clouds. As always, we brought Hank, the black lab, with us. Larry was doubtful we’d see much – I guess it was just an excuse to spend some time together out on the water at pre-dusk rather than ‘researching’ for my book. It was great to get back in a canoe again after a three month absence, due to the very busy summer. Instantly, I felt my body relax even before we left the dock. Larry had a tiny cooler with some beer in it. “Want a beer?” he always asks even though I’ve never accepted – I prefer wine and cider over beer. My camera was around my neck and at the ready. Since there really wasn’t much to see, too early in the season yet for migrating waterfowl, too far out in open water for aquatic mammals, it was more relaxing than usual – I didn’t have to photograph something quickly before it disappeared. This was a good way to finish out a day. Larry paddled, with no breeze, and nothing to maneuver around, he didn’t need my help. My task was to photograph.
Every outing has something new to offer me – something that seems to be the draw of the trip. This evening it was damselflies. These miniature dragonflies, a relative of those fascinating hoverers, were everywhere and thick! I’ve never experienced anything like it before! It was incredible. They clung to our backs, hats, arms, legs. The vast lake stretched far out beyond us, its sheer size is quite humbling – reminding us humans just how small we are. Greenish yellow scum floated on the surface here and there, most likely a type of algae. If I looked just right, the water mirrored the sky. Far out across the water was a line of green vegetation, some of it lotus plants, the rest were most likely sedges – some quite tall. Far away, on either side of the ‘lake’ were bluffs cradling the valley. With the easy canoeing, the large field of aquatic plants drew near and near at a rapid pace.
Less than ten minutes out we were in the midst of a lotus patch with the wall of grass-like plants before us, they still filled me with awe. Their leaves are large and have a waxy coating. The lateness in the sun’s trek across the horizon added to the beauty and wonder of the plants, bathing them in a gentle glow. Only a handful were still in bloom – I had missed their big production this year. I enjoyed the very few blooms that were still intact. We passed by a swath of cattails, talking about our summer. Each time I spoke, I had to turn my head so Larry could hear me. Neither one of us felt the need to talk continuously so we enjoyed a lot of quiet – both lost in our thoughts, savoring being in a canoe. I continued to marvel at the damselflies, intrigued by their quantity and seemingly lack of fear. They tickled my arm while crawling up it. I accidentally squished one walking on my back, just reflex. I felt terrible when I brought my hand back, holding a severely injured damselfly. Their compound eyes are comically large. Their abdomen is incredibly long, perhaps five times longer than the rest of their body. Their translucent, silky wings extend out over their abdomen while they’re resting but fall short of the end of it. They perch on six legs, three on each side. They were all over the canoe. We went through another lotus patch. Then another area covered in algae growth. Past some lily pads to open, unobstructed water. Another large patch of lotuses at first seemed far away but we approached quite quickly. A lot of these were about done for the season beginning to brown and decay. Coontail grow thick beneath the water’s surface – some stretching just above it. Lots more green film on top of the water. Another isolated patch of cattails. We’d been heading southward, maybe a little to the southwest, Larry had turned the canoe eastward, toward the Wisconsin bluffs. I pulled off my hat to look at the half dozen damselflies hitching a ride on it. One spread out its wings, ready to take off, but then changed its mind. We continued east, past cattails and lotus plants, joined by who knows how many damselflies. Reveling in every moment of it, totally relaxed – well, I guess that’s not true, we’d been in the canoe for almost forty minutes now so my legs were starting to get cramped and uncomfortable. I stretched them out the best I could in the bow and pushed the discomfort from my mind, just thankful to be canoeing again. The sun had subtly begun to set, the golden hour was past by 7:20 pm, although it was still far from dark. It added to the peacefulness of the outing, renewing my spirit. The land east and north of us was completely filled with trees. Somewhere beyond those trees snaked the main channel of the Mississippi river. We went along a narrow path cut between the vegetation. I couldn’t identify all the plants, probably sedges and rushes, and cattails and arrowhead plants. Arrows pointed to the sky. I had missed their blooms too. We continued along the narrow passageway, greeted by blackbird song. There were lotus plants mingling with the others. Here, there were a few more flowers blooming. A section of pickerelweed displayed their purple flowers.
Just over an hour of canoeing and we were drawing near to the landing. I marveled at the green carpet, stretched across the water – did Larry say it was pollen? I watched the landing, drawing closer and closer. Sadly, our time on the water was drawing to an end. How quickly Larry spurred the canoe to cover the distance. We pulled up alongside the dock at about 7:45 pm. I put my camera away. Larry stepped up on to the dock and went to start the pickup and back it down to the landing. Hank hopped out, trotted across the dock and explored the shoreline. I lifted myself up and sat on the dock, feet in the canoe holding it in place and carefully brushing damselflies off of me and my camera bag. Once the truck was in place, we loaded the canoe, checked each other for tag-along damselflies, not wanting to take them with us, removing them too far away from water. Despite our best efforts, we did have a couple stow away in the truck. We tried to get them to leave out the window as we drove, but at least one stayed with us. Again, I was sad to leave – not knowing when I’d be able to get away from the farm again for another visit.
July 26, 2018
It was mostly sunny with a few white, downy cumulus clouds skidding across the azure sky. Temperatures in the eighties instead of the nineties, some relief from the extreme heat, and the humidity had gone down considerably. We had agreed on our last outing, way back in May, that we should get out in the evening instead of the morning. From Highway 84, Larry turned onto Pritchard’s road. We didn’t travel far down that gravel road before he pulled off to the side and parked the truck beside a line of trees, and a rolling prairie on the opposite side of the road. We were parked across from a moderate hill; twenty, thirty feet tall perhaps, I’m not the best at estimating distances. Larry let Hank out of the pickup. Camera ready, hung around my neck, I stepped out, went around the front to the other side. We began our walk at 6:38 pm, crossing the road, heading for the hill. This was prairie I had not traversed before. I was thrilled to be exploring it.
Though prairie, this area was becoming woody, lots of little oak trees are starting to colonize it. We rustled through the grass, beginning our climb. Lead plants immediately caught my attention: thick, silvery green stem, compound leaves, the head fuzzy, tight cluster of flowers. Larry continued to walk while I paused to photograph the lead plant. I only walked a few feet more, when I again stopped, this time for dotted mint. A fascinating looking plant – the flowers it flaunts are in fact leaf bracts that surround the true flower. The leaf bracts are white, shaped almost like daisy petals. A couple of them are stuck on a sturdy stem. Dotted mint is a feast for the eyes. They have character, a look of spunk and individuality, and smell deliciously, of course, like mint but the scent is far more wild than peppermint or spearmint. Pollinators also love this plant. A cluster of individual plants grew together in a patch among grasses and sedges. Larry and Hank were far ahead of me now. Not wanting to lose sight of them, I continued onward. Up, up the steep hill, through plants up to my thighs, past lead plants beginning to bloom; little tiny, purple flowers in tight clusters. It was challenging to focus the camera on the bobbing flower heads so I took a couple of shots. I had reached the top of the knoll and paused to look out. Dotted mint plants were sprinkled liberally in the valley between the dunes, up the slope and on top of a few others. These dunes were quite woody – cedar, oak, chokecherry, and some other short, shrubby plants. Many other prairie plants grew alongside the dotted mint I didn’t know and certainly couldn’t name other than milkweed. I moseyed down the dune to Larry.
“No, we’re not supposed to pick on the SNA [Scientific Natural Area], but we’re trying to kill these things,” he explained while picking fruit off a small tree. I laughed. Larry encouraged, “wander around, take pictures.” Standing near him plucking berries, I began photographing. “Dotted mint is pretty, isn’t it?” He asked.
“Oh yeah, I’ve never seen it in bloom like this. I’ve always only been here in September when it’s done.”
“Mmhmm, it’s great.”
“Oh, so amazing! I love it!” I took several photos of the dotted mint and evening primrose,a tall plant with yellow flowers coming out of tubes. Larry continued to harvest the black ball shaped fruit, placing them into a plastic jug slung over his shoulder with a string.
“What are they?”
“Chokecherries. They’re gorgeous.”
“Yeah.” I snapped a couple photos. “What’s that red berry over there?”
“Oh yeah, that’s honeysuckle. Nonnative honeysuckle.”
“Oh.” Hank whimpered. I walked over to the honeysuckle. “I’m not throwing your stick.” We continued onward. A big bluestem plant was about up to my waist. It was thrilling to see such tall grass, a remnant of the days of massive bison herds roaming free across the prairies. I scrambled to catch up to Larry. Grass rustled against my feet and clothes. I halted, again, at a dotted mint; an ant crawled around on a leaf bract. Engrossed, I observed it for a moment. The dotted mint enthralled me. Another evening primrose caught my attention, its yellow blossom a drop of sunlight. Next, a beautiful thimbleweed plant not yet flowering snagged my gaze and admiration. Sedges and grasses mingled. Then I beheld a plant that had fruit bodies looking like apples – looking it up later, I learned it was a rose hip. I weaved my way through thick vegetation, some taller than my waist. Other areas are so dense it’d be a tangled mass to walk through. I paused to photograph bee balm, also known as bergamot. I love their eccentric blossoms, erupting from the head of the plant. Wild grapes spread their vines up and across other plants. I shuffled along for a few more steps before stopping to photograph a yellow flower, partridge pea plant – dancing in the breeze so much, I had to try holding it in place. Hank passed by me. I continued walking, trailing Larry. We ambled up and down dunes – different from over by the windmill, not as tall but thicker vegetation. I came up behind Larry, we paused while he explained what we were seeing, “aspect…more moist, accumulates, it’s steep, in view of the sun. Starts to develop woody vegetation. Just tend to see more wood in those kinds of settings. Once we get the wood it’s tough to get rid of. Get some fire in here a bit more often.”
We brushed past milkweed plants, threading our way through the vegetation. I stayed closer to Larry, until I once again became distracted by goldenrod and a dragonfly down on a blade of grass. It was not a darner, too small, most likely a common skimmer; iridescent blue abdomen, black/dark blue head and thorax, gorgeous wings – black and blue paint splotches, lined. A train rumbled in the distance. We trudged up and down, pushing past plants. A few steps further, I halted to photograph a bush-like plant, no flowers. The path onward was narrow. I tried to photograph the landscape interspersed with milkweed, dotted mint, grass, sedge, and a few trees. Cloud cover increased. Larry identified the plant but I couldn’t hear him.
I walked closer to him, “What kind of cherries?”
“Oh, sand cherries.” It was a low lying bush, woody stem, leaves oblong. I continued walking for a few feet then stopped to photograph more partridge pea plants, they weren’t moving in the wind as much. Their golden blossoms are quite lovely. I looked into the blossom. Yellow heads brightening the prairie. We pressed onward, talking about an author Larry had been reading, and paused to take in the scenery – prairie, plants, green, encroaching trees, and oodles of dotted mint. A train whistle echoed across the prairie. I scrutinized the dotted mint up close, observed an aster of some sort, not yet blooming. Hank panted by our side. We continued walking a few feet, before I paused to photograph a flowering spurge, its white flower has several blossoms to a stem.
Strolling a few feet more, I exlaimed,“Oh, that’s pretty,” wild bergamot, purple flowers – so much character, crazy hairstyle; and dotted mint, grasses, and milkweed. Further onward, waning sun striking dotted mint perfectly, nearby, grew horsetail. And a little beyond that, a larger cluster of bee balm, bergamot and an incredibly dense patch of dotted mint. They marched up the slopes. Some stiff sunflowers not yet blooming. I sauntered onward for a couple of minutes between photos. We came upon a more woody area with bigger trees. Birds sang far above us. I took in the dotted mint up close, glowing in the pre-dusk sun. The golden hour had arrived. We continued strolling, chatting all the while. Larry pointed out a blazing star, a woody plant with little rose-like flowers. I stopped to photograph it. We hiked on for several more minutes.
Larry halted to pick more chokecherries. Cottonweed stood with dotted mint and lead plant, around a patch of bare sand. Cloud cover was increasing. We pressed onward, enjoying the prairie trek. After five minutes of walking, I paused to photograph the landscape again, grasses and sedges, some bushes, but blooming flowers were absent in this section. A windmill perched on top of the hill; I could hear it turning in the wind, creaking. Was it the same windmill we parked near on our other walk? – I should have asked. We’d stopped for Larry to pick more chokecherries. While he picked, “Woa, lots of ants. Very defensive.” He laughed, picking for a couple of minutes more.
“I see them. What kind of ants are those?”
“I don’t know but they don’t like me picking.”
“I’m not sure I’ve seen ants that color.” They were black with very dark red heads and large for ants.
“They’re good sized too.”
“Ouch. I’m going to quit messing with them.” He gave up and we continued walking, chatting about nothing important, wading through the prairie plants. I was getting a little sweaty, and itchy from mosquito bites. I paused at another engaging flower – a tower of white flowers that looked somewhat like white orchids, most likely teucrium canadense. Small, though still taller than me, bushy trees dotted the prairie in this area, rising up out of interesting looking grasses or were they sedges? A tall goldenrod plant. The prairie was getting quite thick, crowded by forbes rather than grass, the path narrowed again. We passed by another evening primrose. “So is this what you want to see?” I asked.
“No. Prefer to see more of the grasses. But on these rich sites, you’re just going to tend to see that [referring to the thick forbes]. Come off the sand on the silts. But it’s fine. We would like to relieve some of the tree pressure…”
“Yeah. Is this goldenrod desirable?”
“Some of it. The native plants.”
It was very thick here. Hardly any grasses. I found little bluestem, and blue bell shaped flowers.
“This is hazelnut?” I walked a few steps, “And this is cherry?”
Larry walked back to me, “Aha, no, that’s a green ash. I’m sorry, that is a black cherry. You’re right.”
“OK.” All of a sudden the forbes eased up a little allowing more grasses through. Milkweed, bee balm, some kind of mint, and something else were abundant. I kept walking. Felt like we were swimming through the prairie plants. I paused to photograph some sedges; walked a little further and stopped to photograph beautiful orange flowers, butterfly weed. Large cluster of partridge pea plants with a few dotted mint plants. Sunflowers without petals, milkweed, and grasses and or sedges joined the mix. Several stiff sunflowers, what an unimaginative name. Larry stopped to pick more chokecherries, “Really pretty cluster. Can you get a good photo?”
“I’ll try but it’s going to be backlit.” I couldn’t get close enough to the cluster from another angle. The walk was drawing to an end. We’d gone up and down, up and down many times and weaved our way around wooded areas, making some sort of loop through the prairie. Back down hill one more time. A fantastic, lone tree caught my attention. “That is a really awesome looking tree!” Then I asked, “So they just quit farming this?”
“Yeah.” Black eyed Susan grew alongside the road. We had to walk down the road a bit to get back to the truck. The last stretch along the road seemed incredibly long, though it was about five minutes or a little less.
Jan 2, 2021:
Thanksgiving day (11-26-2020). A knock followed by the voice of my father in-law sounded on the bedroom door – perhaps the worst thing while sharing a dwelling on the family dairy farm. Jesse had gone out to milk with his mom, Karin, a while ago. Lars at my door, waking me up, can only mean something bad has happened. As I came out of sleep, I comprehended what he was saying, “Karin is in the hospital with an infection [staph] and will be staying for at least a couple of days while the doctors try to get it under control.” And with those words Thanksgiving, which wasn’t going to be much anyway with COVID restrictions, was ruined. – It had already been ruined for the other three by this point. – It was 5:30 am. Sadly it was also one of the few mornings that I had fallen soundly back to sleep after Jesse got up. Regrettably my emotional response was quite selfish. I thought I’d be able to sleep in and then begin leisurely preparing food for the meal the four of us were to share, with time to go for a walk and perhaps read or even better, write; those plans have been altered and I must admit one of my biggest faults is being extremely cranky when my plans are ruined. Again, regrettably quite selfish – trying to grow up and be less selfish is ongoing with great strides forward only to have something set me back further than the progress made.
I believe a little background explanation of the situation with my still fairly new husband and his parents, and the farm is needed to understand my feelings and the utter disappointment to find out I have to milk cows when I thought I would have it off. Jesse and I married on July 21, 2019. In January 2018, a few months before he proposed, and after dating for seven and a half years, we joined his parents for a family meeting with a professional psychologist who worked with families trying to farm together (adult children farming with their parents in the idea of taking over the farm when the parents retire; an incredibly stressful and challenging thing to do given that the two generations have different ideas/directions for the farm.) to talk about the future and what Jesse and I wanted to do. Jesse and his parents were uncertain about my fitting into it given that I work for my mom on her farm and am quite loyal to her. Karin perhaps was hoping I would just take over for her so she could retire (and perhaps part of Lars was thinking the same thing to a degree). Jesse went back and forth on whether or not he wanted the two of us farming together; his biggest concern was money – he thought I could milk full time for them and make more money than working for my mom. I wanted to continue working for Mom, but perhaps scale back a bit and do some milkings to help out my new family as well. However, milking isn’t my thing, and especially not the way their set up is: a tie stall, where there’s a lot of up and down or bracing myself against a cow hoping she doesn’t knock me over or kick me. (Also their cows are huge compared to the ones I am used to at my mom’s and milking takes a lot longer.) So I told all present I would be more than willing to help with a few milkings a week as long as we had a parlor. (Side note: all four of them thought I was crazy thinking I could work on both farms – they were probably right to an extent.) Jesse also wanted a parlor, which would mean no more bending over/kneeling or squatting down to milk so there wouldn’t be as much wear and tear on the body, it would be safer without going in between cows since they would be milked from behind and below with a strip of metal to protect you from being kicked, the speed is incredibly faster and the cows would no longer spend most of their lives tied up in a barn but on pasture and in a barn where they can move about freely. So Lars and Jesse embarked upon a journey of research and visiting numerous parlors, most of which were built into existing tie stall or stanchion barns. But it wasn’t until June 2020, when Lars and Karin finally agreed to putting in a parlor. Inexperience, hesitation, finding the right contractors for the job and COVID restrictions further pushed the project back, added to the decision (perhaps for manure code reasons and satisfying the permit guy in that regard) to build a bedded pack barn before the parlor meant that though the parlor should have been and needed to be built in the autumn of 2020 it was not. The need for it being the increased herd size; we’d been milking 104 cows in an eighty stall barn which meant having to switch cows in and out costing a lot of time, and the numbers were continuing to grow, especially since there weren’t just cows to freshen (calve) but also lots of heifers too over the course of the autumn, winter, and spring. The other thing was Karin was scheduled to have surgery on her hand in December and it was just her, Jesse and I doing all the milkings which required(s) two people, which given how long each milking took wasn’t enough to get the job done without wearing ourselves out too much. We desperately needed the parlor completed before Karin’s surgery. However, with all the delays, the ground to prepare the site for the bedded pack barn wasn’t even broken until late autumn and wasn’t finished before winter set in pushing the project to spring. So, I was frustrated and sad the whole autumn with this going on and wishing they had gotten the ball rolling sooner on the project and had even tried getting Lars to ask if we could put the parlor in first and build the barn in the spring, to no avail. This doesn’t justify my selfish feelings on Thanksgiving Day but it helps at least set the scene.
The usual terrible human emotions that go along with such things welled up inside of me, reeling out of control – annoyance, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, worry, fear, and of course, self pity. Beyond my own struggle with the unhappy turn of events, I was concerned about how Jesse was handling it. I rushed to the barn, arriving about ten minutes after that fateful knock. Overly dramatic? Perhaps but even so my world has been turned upside down because of it. (If you think I am being dramatic, consider: I went from putting in somewhere between twenty six and thirty nine hours of milking in about two – two and a half weeks time to just shy of fifty hours in a week and a half between Nov. 16th and 28th, and then in the following ten days fifty four hours. Doesn’t sound too bad right? Well at the same time I was also working on Mom’s farm. – Now I am not boasting or looking for pity but just wanting to explain. Also, milking cows in our tie stall barn is like doing three hours of hardcore workout without a rest. In addition, Thanksgiving marks the start of the down season. Instead of working sixty – seventy five hours a week it should be more like thirty five to forty five, providing time to rest up for the next growing season and to write (continue work on my book). (In fact, I had planned to push myself to write a lot over the weekend and go to the woods everyday, which was completely dashed. I had also planned to do a lot of writing for the next three weeks before Karin’s surgery.)
Jesse was pretty upset too. And poor Lars was very concerned. I cried a few times throughout milking and internally cried out to God – why did this have to happen? Why couldn’t the pieces have come together such that the parlor and barn could have been built by now making milking a whole lot easier? I cried when I texted my mom and siblings later. I cried when I made the food (minus the turkey) for our Thanksgiving meal – finding myself in not a thanks giving mood but rather one of self pity. The uncertainty of it all was a smothering cloud wrapped about us. Two days later, when Karin had to have surgery to prevent the infection from reaching the bone which would have resulted in losing her finger, I was in an even sorrier shape – just a complete mess.
She came home the following Monday but what had started as a couple of days turned into a week, which then turned into five weeks thus far. (And the original surgery that was to take place on December 18th had to be postponed – she had to be six months without infection for the surgery to happen.) She had another weekend stay at the hospital in the middle of December with an allergic reaction to antibiotics for a fungal infection on top of the staph, which added nearly an additional month to her being able to come back to the barn. – She has a pic line in so being in the barn is dangerous for her right now. The past five weeks have been just one unending milking and a time of barely holding it together. Random tears still make an appearance unbidden. Jesse, Lars and I have been living in survivor mode. Thankfully, we received help almost immediately. Beyond milking cows, Karin was also feeding calves, the two combined was a bit more than a full time job – a challenge for us other three to even jointly take over (Jesse was already helping with nearly every milking and I helped with about four a week) because we each already had/have more than full time work. (We were also, with Karin’s help, sorely in need of another person milking about five times a week as it was.) Two of our friends, married to each other, helped milk a couple of times. A cousin feeds the calves now. My nephew is helping milk while home for winter break. And a high schooler from our church is helping until mid January.
In this struggle though, the cows that I had viewed as Jesse and Lars’ have now become mine. As help has come, I have worried about the cows if I am not the one milking them. A couple of nights, I have lain awake worrying if whoever is milking in the morning would take care of the cows with special needs – plugs, quarter milkers, manual. I find myself reassuring a cow who’s not feeling too hot, calling her dear, honey or sweetheart and gently stroking her hide. I have enjoyed some of the most glorious sunrises and sunsets I may have missed if I hadn’t been in the barn. Taken in the beauty of the frosty mornings in the waking sun. Jesse and I have had a chance to work together under extreme pressure, while we’re not at our best emotionally and survived, and without harming each other. We’ve had to struggle with whether or not we really want to keep milking cows – reassuring ourselves and each other the parlor will be built in the spring and after we and the cows are settled into the new system, milking will become much easier.
Dairy farming, with a small dairy farm, is not for the faint of heart and it doesn’t recognize holidays, weekends, overtime, and well laid plans. Things go wrong often: much relied upon and needed equipment (with no backup options) break down, calves die, cows get sick (struggle with calving, die), the animals escape their fences, etc. – I stood helplessly and hopelessly watching Jesse struggle against a cow in labor, arm buried inside of her, trying vainly to untwist the crooked calf, with hope of saving the calf and cow waning with every pressing moment. The one thing I could help with was running to the house to get his phone and run back with it so he could call the vet. And this at the end of evening milking on Christmas day. (I don’t mean to complain or whine about our circumstances or belittle the difficulties of other people. And some people would and have asked, if it is so very bad why not sell the cows and find another job? Selling the cows is like totally changing careers but is even more than that – people who dairy farm, particularly in this manner (keeping it small and in the family so the owners are actively involved) seem to have it coded in their DNA – giving up the cows would be giving up a part of ourselves.) A cow down with milk fever on Christmas eve. Three cows battling toxic mastitis and several more with less harmful strains. Frustrated that we have to work in this system – this isn’t exactly cow friendly. But we’ve come together as husband and wife to take care of our cows.
Back to the cows that have special needs: a plug, quarter milker, manual, (or are just mean) for those cows we write that need on a yellow piece of tape and stick it on the vacuum line above them. I was concerned that people milking without me there wouldn’t know which cows were mean. So I thought maybe the mean ones needed tape too with a note, but there are degrees of meanness. Some cows are mainly just dancing around, and although it’s annoying they won’t kick you. Some lift their legs and even swing but aren’t aiming for you, so that if you’re mindful of it you can avoid their hooves. A small handful though will take aim and strike out at and collide with you. It is important to know the difference, it helps in avoiding getting hurt and being overly nervous or scared; she responds best to gentle confidence. There are also different types of kicks: one cow pedals, we call her bicycle cow. A number of them will do short, rapid, close kicks (I like to call them soccer kicks, which are hard to avoid especially since they’re often done by short or low uddered cows, and usually connect with your hands and arms – mostly irritating more than anything else but still painful). Perhaps worse of all in terms of force and therefore pain, the fast, hard, rapid swing, the full out strike; these are the dangerous kicks, they have the ability to inflict incredible injury, possibly break a bone. (It often takes weeks for the point of contact on my leg to fully heal so it is no longer painful and tender to the touch. – and some of them left me nearly limping for a couple weeks.) Now, if you know the cow is likely to kick in a certain manner, you can attempt to avoid being hit by standing up to milk her, trying to stay out of reach of that leg but still have a hand on her back, scratching her. The problem with that is you may not be able to stand out of reach and now that you’re further away if she does strike out aiming for you, the distance will give her more force thus hitting you harder and causing more damage. Jesse says it’s best to be as close to the cow as possible (your whole body) so that there won’t be much force behind the kick, and basically just take the hit. However, I struggle with getting close to a cow that I know is likely to kick. I’m not sure I am actually a good milker because I am scared of cows. Rule number one is don’t be afraid, that being said though, you must be aware of their size and ability to kill you and respect them – they aren’t pets; the most dangerous bovines are the ones people treated as pets. If you’re afraid, they are afraid, which means they get antsy or defensive. To write a warning though for these cows really wouldn’t work so well because I feel like I would have to write a detailed description of the way in which the cow kicks. The other thing is, some cows are choosy about who they want milking them – just because that particular cow kicks me, doesn’t mean she’ll kick you or anybody else besides me. But some cows are mean to everyone.
The other “rule”, as it were, to milking cows is know the cows. Each has her own personality (though some are bland, or not very noteworthy – like some people), knowing who you are milking and her personality will aid you in being a better milker – it’s good for you and the cow. If you know she is a nervous cow, give her plenty of warning you’re there, make sure she sees, hears, and feels you, and don’t make any sudden movements. Talk lovingly and sweet to her. Being aware of who the cow is and her personality can save both of you. The best thing for mean (or nervous) cows is having a second person there, scratching the base of their tail – this helps calm them down.
A cow named Fun seems to just enjoy life – eat, dance, and be merry. If she isn’t eating she wants you to stroke her forehead or cheek. She dances while you’re milking her but she won’t harm you. Now, 418, she is a crazy cow, either she’s trying to kill you or she won’t take any notice of you at all; she kicks, headbutts and even bites the other cows. 530 is gentle and calm; she just wants to eat and be milked. Fudge is a brown swiss holstein cross so she can be cantankerous at times but mostly just fussy – she will take whatever stall she pleases, whether or not it was already occupied, and she will make it challenging to put the milker on her but only sometimes actually strike out at you. Nadine is a beauty, another brown swiss, and is terrified of everything. She does more than dance, most of the time she will swing her entire backend around, all the way over to one side and then back again and keep going back and forth until you manage to get the milker on her. 373 may or may not hurt you, that depends on you and how you put the milker on; don’t squawk it and don’t be slow – she will stomp her foot though just as you’re about done putting the milker on, so be ready lest it falls off. 12 is patient, calm and kind; she only lifts a hoof to let you know her teat hurts but won’t strike. 310 is gentle and doesn’t pay you much mind…and so it goes, as I said, each with her own personality.
These cows are dear to me, even the mean ones. It is hard to see them sick with mastitis, pneumonia, milk fever, etc., or uncomfortable because of a stomach ache (generally a twisted stomach). I care about them; Jesse cares about them- their health, comfort, cleanliness, and quality of life. And not because they are the source of our income and milk, but because they are living beings.
It is interesting that of all my siblings, I am the one who is a dairy farmer. I guess you could understand why if you read my blog ‘Raised in a Barn’. A couple of years ago, Mom’s cows were all dried off at once, so we had two months without milking and it was great, there wasn’t the daily “drop what I am doing” to milk cows. However, when those two months were up and I was squatting down between them, I felt this is what my life had been missing – it is just a part of who I am and I can’t change it. I love and hate milking cows; life would be easier if it was one or the other. I know dairy farming is time demanding and challenging but it shouldn’t be this bad and won’t be this bad forever – just have to get through. ( I desire to milk half as many times for half as much time.
It’s the way of life. Very busy and crazy at times and yet quieter and more peaceful than other jobs. I enjoy the communion with the animals. The rhythm and flow of the prepping and milking process: dip twice, massage into the teat, strip the teat to squirt the milk, three squirts will do unless there is mastitis or a blood clot, dip again, wipe with a towel, hold the milker claw with one hand, with the other carefully slide the inflation onto each teat. The comforting, steady pulsating and wishing of attached milkers. We take care of the cows and they take care of us. Being able to work with family, especially my husband and nephew. Having to be more in tune with nature’s rhythms. Putting your needs and wants aside to meet those of the cows’ first. Watching the successful delivery of a new calf. Observing contented cows grazing in their new pasture. Pouring milk on your cereal that came from across the yard by your own efforts, you personally know the cow nourishing you. Teaching others in the local community how to work and care for other creatures. It is hard physical and spiritual work, back breaking, knee injuring, sometimes spirit crushing work that is also rewarding. And the decision to sell a cow is never an easy one; you always want to give her another chance. But sometimes, actually almost always, it is better for her to send her away. We are filled with sadness, even when it is an infamously mean cow, because that is another life, a sacred thing. Our cows are far more to us than mere means to an end, they are fellow beings, comrades even. (I don’t know why, but I often refer to the cows as people when I address them.) We have a mutually beneficial relationship. I believe dairy farming, small family owned and operated, is one of the truest forms of farming. Animal farming completes the nutrient/energy cycle. The best farming is dairy, with a garden, chickens and pigs. (We don’t have a garden yet but we do have an orchard – it’s easier to get food from Mom’s gardens right now.) It’s a sticky truth but society (civilization) needs farming; without it we wouldn’t have the means for culture.
Postscript: The construction of the bedded pack barn began in late April, three weeks later than promised, and due to continuous revisions to the manure system and the delay in installation of gates wasn’t completed and ready to use until mid-September. Starting in May, with the coming of each month, we thought for sure this would be the month the parlor is built. And with the final day of each month, still no parlor, we were completely crushed. The contractor told us he would for sure get to it in December, so we thought ok, we just have to make it through until then. Karin came back to milk in late February and a young woman milked five times a week for us, so although it was far from great, at least we had some help and Jesse and I were able to have a few Saturday nights off together. However, this ended when the woman was offered another job; we knew we had been lucky just to have her for a few months but it was still a loss. (A cousin had started doing some morning milkings in August but was absent in the fall for harvest and then sick with covid at the end of November.) Jesse and I have felt like we aren’t really living, just merely observing other people living, from a distance. On November 28th, when we thought Lars would be telling us they’d put in the parlor next week, he said it was put off until March. Jesse said, “It is like we’re inmates in a prison and our release date has come. We’ve just been handed our belongings, standing in front of the gate, waiting for it to open and just before it does, an officer rushes out and tells us another four months has been tacked onto our sentence.” We’re dangling from a cliff, losing our grip, down to a fingernail holding on, and just when we think we will be rescued, the would be rescuer turns away. Karin had surgery on her finger in December. Thankfully, my nephew came and helped out with a few milkings while home for winter break, otherwise we were totally on our own. A gal has been coming to milk Sunday nights, which is amazing. And the cousin is back to about four milkings a week. Which we are incredibly grateful for, however, it isn’t enough, and we’re still barely holding on. Hopefully, the parlor will be built in March and we won’t be disappointed yet again.
But March has come and gone and not even the demolition for the parlor has been undertaken. The only task toward the construction of it is that the pipeline was moved on Tuesday in preparation for demolition. (I promise the next few posts will be more fun and back to nature; these past two are more or less to explain my long absence.)
November 7, 2020
Wow, it’s been awhile since I have written anything in my journal or otherwise. Crazy might be the best word to describe the past eight months! Unlike most people, aside from March – May, the COIVD-19 virus shutdowns and restrictions had very little to do with it. However, March and April were much more chaotic than usual due to the pandemic; food scarcity was actually a blessing for us with a vegetable farm. Our hoop houses were full with beautiful produce and people in desperate need for food with no access to it meant we were extremely busy harvesting, washing, packaging and delivering vegetables (what made it really crazy was packing for pre-orders because we had never done it before and had to work out an efficient system.) It was the most profitable time ever for our business but we’d put in sixteen hour days to accomplish it. In addition, I was working part-time milking cows on Jesse’s, my husband’s family farm as well and trying to work on my book (a never-ending project).
As we rolled into May, a woman, Isaiah’s girlfriend (who was more like a sister to me than just a friend – the whole family loved her) brought her two daughters to Minnesota and was planning to marry Isaiah in August but left before June and never came back and cut all ties with us – breaking all our hearts. Also in May, I switched from helping run our stall at the Rochester Farmers market to Mill City Farmers market which makes for a longer day but has been easier on my social anxiety. In June, while my heart was still trying to mend, a dear aunt of Jesse’s died. (There was also the riots in Minneapolis which affected us since we know a lot of people from there and we do business there.) We spent the summer trying to catch up on the gardens and greenhouses but never got there until the close of the season.
August brought another blow to my heart (our hearts) Grandma Benike died suddenly; which hit me harder than I thought possible (more on that in a later entry). Faith, my niece (Jonathan’s daughter; my brother who lives on the farm with Mom and Isaiah, working there around his full-time job) was returned to us after her mother kept her away for roughly fourteen months, only to be ripped away again. (Custody of Faith was finally granted to Jonathan, first in December 2020 on an emergency basis and then permanently last autumn. – Faith is the family sunshine; she puts a glow in all of us; we were all devastated with her absence and worried about her safety and well being.)
September was a race to get things done: harvesting fall crops out of the garden before the first freeze, while at the same time getting greenhouses planted for winter. I slipped in a visit to Thelma in September (and October), my surrogate Grandma. I had the task of securing a combine ride for my nephew Leo, wanting to be an awesome aunt (combines are his favorite thing) but botching it when I didn’t get a photo of him with the combine. Mom and Isaiah also had a fourth greenhouse constructed. And yet another emotional blow, we were told Grandpa was dying (I visited him a few times in October and Mom and I picked the rest of his apples despite our crazy schedule). – I was struggling with his looming death, especially so soon after losing Grandma.
Life was in turmoil at Jesse’s farm too (I guess it’s my home too – still wrapping my head around that). There was a promise of a new milk system but hadn’t happened yet because of high lumber prices, apparently, and so many hoops to jump through for the permitting. Jesse’s mom, Karin will have surgery in December and yet I can’t replace her but somehow will have to do just that. Although the election doesn’t affect me too much (at least emotionally or what have you), it added more stress and strain to relationships I think – well it mattered more to other people and I didn’t like seeing them so divided. I also have been trying to schedule a hayride with Aleesha’s (my sister) family since we haven’t had a chance for them to come hangout as a whole family at my new home. (I have been trying to be a beekeeper, writer and photographer on top of all that – oh and a wife! I am a woman of too many passions I suppose. – I want to draw too and of course read more. At least I discovered audiobooks on my Ipod through the library (I am technologically impaired), which has been a Godsend; it has helped me through really long, busy, sad days. I’ve really been getting into Steinbeck – introspective – hope I can write at that level, with the philosophy: “Nearly everyone has had a box of secret pain, shared with no one…” – this just fits too perfectly. Pain is a good word to describe May 30th through the present. I wonder how I can handle any more pain this year, beg and cry out to God to let Grandpa stay here longer, another year or more and to recover his good health.) The last eight months in a nutshell.
Today was my first Saturday off since the middle of April – a gift from Mom (and Jesse since he didn’t ask me to milk tonight) and a much needed break. I thought I’d have the day to myself but spent an hour and a half with Jesse late into the morning (we didn’t eat breakfast until 10:00 am) and I helped him for an hour outside, opening and closing gates and hooking up and unhooking wagons while he fed cows.
At 3:00 pm, I headed out for a walk, exploring the woods, armed with a camera, water bottle, journal, and sketch pad. I wasn’t sure if I was going to take my bicycle, the four wheeler or walk to the woods. While I was deciding, I became sidetracked by Jesse greasing the manure spreader and hooking it up – I like to watch him at work. (Watching anyone perform a task they are especially good at so it’s like an artform, is one of my favorite things.) It’s a twenty minute walk to the woods so I wasn’t keen on walking, preferring to spend more time in the woods. Jesse said we had only the one four wheeler right now, so I went in search of my bicycle. Karin had moved it; I found it in the lean-to on the old barn. Tires were low. Fortuitously, Lars was putting air in the grain drill tires. I asked him if he’d do my bicycle tires too. And while I had his attention, asked if he’d drive the tractor for a hayride tomorrow. He said yes to driving. With full tires, I set off on my bicycle. As I pedaled beyond the protection of the buildings, I was nearly blown over by the gusting wind. But undeterred, I cycled up the driveway to the other farmstead, and down the lane to the pasture. The gate was closed though cows are nowhere near this pasture – rule of the farm, close every gate you open just to be on the safe side. Bicycling along the eastern top edge of the hill, traveling uphill, was quite the workout – long time out of practice.
Leaving my bicycle behind, I walked down the hill towards the woods, snapping photos along the way – just in time for the golden hour. I ducked under the fence where it was high, at the mouth of the ravine. Pausing ever so briefly to take more photos. I feel like a kid – although, anxiety aside, I rarely feel thirty one. A light feeling sweeps over me, a great weight lifted; entering the woods always feels this way. (The day was warm, seventy degrees Fahrenheit, sunny, the breeze kept it from feeling hot.) Inspired, I desire to explore, play, draw, write, photograph. I walk a few steps and halt, fascinated by a large, fallen tree. I sit down and begin to write.
After awhile, the sun fades and is gone, I will have to chase it by going higher up and further in. I am mindful of hunters – the one blot of exploring the woods at this time, I am sad to share them. I haven’t been to the woods since May, so I desperately needed it. – The best medicine for my tired, sad soul and my mental health, and spiritual health too. This is where I belong – creativity and childlike wonder and abandon can flow. Thought I’d draw but I think it is too late now – hopefully in a couple of weeks I’ll come back. Trees creak in the wind. Leaves rustle, retained only by oaks. Getting cold now that the sun has moved on, I set my pencil down to chase the last bit of it before I must head back to beat the dark.
I had sat too long writing, the golden light for good photography had gone. But it was only 4:40pm so I walked through the woods, pushing back tree branches and ducking under others, trying not to get caught on buckthorn. With the fading light, I took less photos than I otherwise would have. I find what I think is a dried up oyster mushroom on the boxelder tree I like to use to get over the fence. I yank it free and immediately smell it; and then put it in my pocket to take home and if I remember, to show Mom. I continue on, stepping over branches, sticks, and stones. Hear a few gun shots. Constant background noise of the neighbor’s corn dryer. The ground is blanketed in gold and brown leaves. My footfalls are obscenely loud. I approach the old stone foundation and can’t resist taking some photos. (I watched the golden sun rays shrink away, retreat northward, and then fade away while I sat.) I ran a hand along the stone before I walked away; surprisingly it was quite warm. Again, I think about how it would make a perfect childhood fort.
I walk onward, touching a few trees here and there, ducking, crouching, and stepping over forest debris. I somewhat follow a deer trail, sometimes a very definite trail and at other times it is less obvious. I zig-zag through the trees, searching for the easiest path. The soft uneven ground turns my ankle and my feet have been slipping around inside my shoes, creating sore feet. I also bruised my shin trying to climb up on the log earlier. I cross the first ravine at its narrowest point, the second one is a bit trickier. It strikes me as odd that I haven’t heard any bird sounds. Leaves on the ground, several feet away, rustle, either a passing squirrel or deer. Strange how animals of vastly different size make about the same amount of noise. I pause briefly by the big limestone rocks – I just love them. Along the top of the hill is the fence and soon I am near the gate, which had been my destination and yet I am not ready to quit walking; I just started. Why hadn’t I come out sooner? Well, I’ll go a little further. I step onto the man made trail – follow the yellow leaf road. I imagine it had been carpeted for me: a nice, soft, plush layer of golden brown maple and oak leaves – such a delight to walk on, very noisy though. I have a burning desire to walk barefoot, but don’t. Down and around the hill I mosey, wishing the sun wasn’t disappearing so I could keep walking. I amble along the side of the hill, marveling at the graceful, slender maple trees. (I should take off my shoes and socks and walk barefoot in the leaves, really feel a part of it, but again, I don’t.)
Now that I was walking in the woods I really wanted to keep walking. However, I don’t want to get caught out in the dark, so I stop and turn back at the gaping ravine that puts an abrupt end to the path. On the way back, I walk more quickly. I follow the trail all the way up to the gate, climb up and over. Down on the other side I walk through the pasture, up the slope and along the top, following the fence line, unable to resist taking a few more photos, as I return to my bicycle. I didn’t realize the easy bicycling was over, almost entirely downhill on the way out, meant that bicycling back would be challenging. I don’t get very far before I pause above the pond to photograph the sunset. But now I have to give it all I’ve got to get up the hillside.
I pause again, and then with considerable effort keep going up and around the pasture hill, and then a short, gradual decline to the gate, I am careful not to wipe out on the deep tractor ruts on the hillside. Since I have to stop to open the gate to get through and close it again, I take a few more photos. I throw my leg back over the bicycle and stand to pedal up the long incline of the field/pasture driveway, proud of myself I don’t have to get off to walk my bicycle up the slope. Finally, I pull up on to the main driveway, connecting the two farmsteads to the highway. I thought it’d be easier going being gravel instead of dirt and grass, not so. I groan inwardly when I remember the gravel road has a slope too, yet another long challenging incline – just half a mile away now. I struggle up this slope too, standing to have more leverage. Around the group of maple trees by the bend in the road and soon I am finally going downhill again. It is almost dark when I cycle between the shed and dairy barn to the old bank barn near the house, on which the lean-to was built where I’d found my bicycle. I struggle to get it back in but manage the task.
I lay down in the grass under the yard light, across the driveway from the barn, worn out. It may be the last time this year to lay in the grass, so I linger. That was a good exercise – I need to ride my bicycle more often. Unfortunately, I may not get another opportunity with winter fast approaching and the uncertain weather of November; and it may very well be Thanksgiving weekend before I have another chance. My backside is sore but surprisingly my legs are not. I long to have more free time to exercise and to write.
May 4, 2018
We turned off of Highway 84 on to a very small, minimum maintenance road, actually to say ‘road’ paints the wrong picture, it’s nothing more than a bumpy driveway, and even ‘driveway’ seems a generous description, barely big enough for Larry’s truck. A farm was on our left. The little road went into a grove of trees, privately owned land on either side. The road plunged down a sketchy slope – I’m not sure a vehicle without four wheel drive could have made it. The lane was a tight squeeze. We continued to jostle along the road, over small branches and down and up out of ruts. The lane was sand, not gravel or black top or even dirt, sand. Not far after the plunge, the landscape opened up on the right. Prairie, gently rolling, dotted with trees. Trees flanked our left, most were quite scraggly looking. The truck climbed up a gentle slope. The trees on our left gave way. A parking area was designated by green, mowed grass and a couple of wooden fences. A windmill loomed on our left. Larry parked the truck.
The windmill stood as a sentry over the prairie, standing watch over the past and the present. The presence of the windmill made me thoughtful. This had been a farmstead, the Lamey family homestead. I chatted with Gene a couple of times but regret I hadn’t started the conversations years before, perhaps I would have a clearer picture of his family’s history here. No time to linger and ponder though, I had to keep up with Larry; we had another mission for today’s walk.
Larry and I decided to walk on the prairie this morning instead of canoeing because I wanted, needed, to see the spring flowers, particularly pasque flowers while they’re in bloom. I keep missing the passing of seasons of the prairie – especially the various wildflowers in bloom. And right now, the pasque flowers were blooming.
We began our walk at 7:15 am. It had rained the previous evening, and the prairie was still wet. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. A train whistled in the distance. Birds twittered around us. The prairie grass rustled against our feet. Larry talked about the prairie as we walked. We found our first flower blooming. “Prairie buttercup,” Larry identified the plant. It has a long, round, stocky, green stem, long narrow leaves,and small yellow petals. The center of the petals was green. Each plant had a few stems with several blossoms. Water droplets clung to the plants and the blades of grass, adding beauty to each plant. The prairie buttercup plants grew in clusters together. I paused to photograph them. Larry continued to walk. Bird song filled the air, excited over the arrival of spring. I only took a couple of photos before ambling on. I had to walk fast to catch up with Larry. We paused to look at a sedge plant – its flower petals long. We continued walking and found another patch of buttercups peeking through the tangle of matted grass. Again, I paused to take a couple of photos. I found a violet plant not yet in bloom. We continued onward, each step a noisy ruckus in the dried, dead grass of last year.
Larry spotted the first pasque flower and drew my attention to it.
“They look like fairies!” They’re the perfect first flower to bloom in spring – ethereal and ephemeral. Their satin petals seemed almost to glow. They reminded me of jellyfish. Pasque flowers are otherworldly. I circled around the first patch of blooms. I was elated – I had wanted to see these for many years but kept missing them. Now, here they were before me; lovely and elegant. The photos I’d seen hadn’t prepared me for the experience of seeing them.
“Beat up by the rain. Pretty though. They do have a lot of blossoms this year. Many times they don’t,” remarked Larry. He added, “Must have been a good growing year last year for them.” Birds twittered around us.
“Yeah.” I took several photos. “I think they’re extra pretty because they seem random and are in a cluster. They’re not sprinkled everywhere.”
“I know it. I know it. Makes them more precious.”
“Yeah.” Like the buttercups, they peeked up through the grass.
“Good seeing them,” added Larry.
I enjoyed being serenaded by birds as we chatted and while we walked. We’d pause for a couple of minutes taking in the first cluster of pasque flowers. Larry turned away first and I followed after him. Hank, the black lab, wasn’t as interested in the flowers. – We hadn’t walked very far before we stopped at the next flowering plant. “Looks like some kind of cinquefoil,” observed Larry. The blossoms weren’t yet blooming but they seemed on the verge of doing so. We continued walking for another minute. “More pasque flowers.” I bent down to take a couple of photos.
Larry pointed out another plant, “Rose hyssop.” We’d halted our walking. Larry spoke again, “Got old dug ways in here, you know, what we walked in on. And a road through here. Find an old photograph and look for the road.”
“OK.” As Larry spoke, sandhill cranes were calling. A group of cedars dotted the little bit of prairie in front of us; about ten trees. The little bluestem was golden, patches of green carpet between each individual clump.
“Meadowlark,” observed Larry. Robins, redwing black birds, chickadees, and song sparrows also filled the morning with song. We continued walking, the grass rustled and crinkled against our feet. Birds sang continuously, merry it was finally spring. Again we paused, this time admiring some sedge plants. “I find these sedges as cute as can be,” remarked Larry. The beads of water droplets, still clinging to the grass was beautiful.
“Aleesha says sedges are hard to identify.”
“They are difficult but…” Larry trailed off.
“Another good photograph, that little white flower.” A Lyre-leaved rock cress.
Meanwhile, Hank was trotting about, too quickly to enjoy flowers, instead searching for sticks. “Leave it to Hank to find a stick,” I laughed. We’d barely continued our walk before we again paused, just long enough to photograph another cluster of buttercups. Hank whimpered, wanting to play instead of just walk. Onward we went.
“That’s a lot of pasque flowers,” observed Larry.
“Oh wow!” It was a jackpot. Their white, silvery satin blossoms dotted a slope, among clumps of bluestem. We halted so I could photograph them. So beautiful. I knelt down for a better perspective. The leaves, stems, and even petals were covered in fine, white hairs like hoar frost. A blaze of yellow stamens stood in the middle of the petals. Water droplets clung to them, beads on a wedding gown. I walked around them, knelt down, took a photo, and stood, walked around again looking at them from different and better angles. A train whistle sounded in the distance. Birds sang. Hank whimpered and whined, not at all interested in flowers but wanting a stick thrown for him. Larry finally caved and threw a stick, “Go get it Hank! Get it!” He took off. I laughed at his energy and eagerness. A patch of sumac grew on a slope, miniature trees, arms reaching up, waiting to be clothed. Our fifteen minutes of walking took us up and down grassy sand dunes. We’d paused on top of a tall dune looking down into a valley. The little bluestem on the opposite dune were golden tongues of flame licking at the slope. Gopher mounds dotted the opposite incline, like a bumpy skin rash. “You can see the importance in the different aspect up here. Shadow. Captures a little bit more snow. Shaded, you know. By the time the sun gets up here. Creates a little microclimate.”
“I wonder how the woody stuff gets in. Aspen drifts from the bluffs and along the river. You get plum, the stone, you know, travels pretty good. Kind of the first ones here. Then you get these oaks. How do they keep going? Oak wilt on some of them. There’s a meadowlark.” It was the golden hour of morning, the whole slope glowed gold in the morning sun. We continued walking. I marveled at the power of the sun to turn everything it touched, at 7:30 am in May, to gold. I listened to the joyful birds – grateful spring was at last here. Down one dune, up another, it was tricky walking in the sandy soil. I heard a sandhill crane in the distance.
“Did I tell you I picked up a dead snake off the road?”
“Had a pit tag. Called Anne to bring up the database – she kept it – one she’d followed for a couple of years.”
“Ah, like a friend.”
“It’s hard when it’s one that had been pit tagged.”
We paused our walking. “Oh, that’s pretty!” A buttercup plant, blossoms open, was bathed in golden sunlight. There was a cluster of the plants.
“With the sun on it.”
“Sun and water droplets.”
We continued walking. Birds sang all around us. “Oh, look there’s a pasque flower.”
“Ah, little pasque flower, look at you there. Free you from that grass.” Larry spoke tenderly and affectionately as if he was talking to an animal or a child. Once the flower was freed we continued walking, until we paused at another pasque flower, perfectly washed in sunshine. There were several clusters of them, all perfectly steeped in flaxen sunshine. I walked around them to capture the best angle of light. Walked a few steps to photograph another, knelt down, took a photo, stood up, walked a few more steps to a different plant, knelt down, took a photo, stood up, repeat. I repeated the process several times, with an intermission of standing to capture several clusters together. Each plant was awe-inspiring and all the more so in the honey light. A few buttercup plants grew near the pasque flowers. It was like finding fairy rings sprinkled among amber little bluestem. only they didn’t form rings. The birds sang on. I had to walk to be on the right side of them so I wasn’t casting a shadow on them. Somewhere in the distance swans warmed up their trumpets, a great wild sound; though their call sounded more wooden than brass. We continued on our way. “There’s something. A little violet.”
Larry came over, “Let me see.” He squatted down, “Sure doesn’t look like a bird’s foot. Huh.” Perhaps it was a prairie violet instead. “Look at these mounded, velvety moss.”
“Moss is cool looking.” I knelt down to get a closer look at the moss and photograph it, and then I stood taking in the rolling prairie. We continued our stroll. A post from surveys stuck in the ground, interrupting the flowing prairie. I paused again at a patch of violets, either bird’s foot or prairie. The blossoms were a pale purple. Larry didn’t stop, and after taking a few photos, I walked fast to catch up with him. He paused at a short tree. I came up beside him. “Little tree. It was nibbled on by the deer and it’s a poor place for it to grow.” Its leaves were just starting to burst out of their buds. A cedar tree grew underneath it. Again sandhill cranes called in the distance. Song birds continued to chirp and twitter. “Good choice to come out here this morning,” remarked Larry. We continued onward.
“Whoa, that looks cool!” Fungus, moss, or lichen organism, I’m not sure which. I paused to photograph it. Across the way was a wall of trees encroaching on the prairie. We heard another train. Larry played with Hank. I was enjoying the bird song and the opportunity to walk on the prairie. Hank searched for a stick. A couple minutes later, “Here’s some British soldiers,” I said.
“I think so.”
“They look like it, but it doesn’t seem like the right place for them.”
I saw a mint plant. There was a patch of open sand. We’d continued walking after taking a close look at the British soldiers. Lyre-leaved rock cress caught my eye along with several buttercup plants. I paused to photograph them, and then followed after Larry.
“This afternoon would be a good snake day,” observed Larry.
“Oh yeah.” I wished I could stay or return in the afternoon in hopes of seeing a snake. We walked up and down and back up dunes. Climbing uphill can be challenging enough, but it was quite difficult and tiring to walk up sand dunes, the sand isn’t stable; our feet slipped and slid as we climbed. Standing on top of a dune, we paused to look out over the sand prairie. It never ceases to amaze me how vast the prairie is, and yet it is only a small fraction of what it used to be. Larry was also enjoying the bird song, “Quite the repertoire.” We continued walking. Larry reached down and picked some leaves and put them under his nose to smell them, and then he put them under my nose.
“It smells almost like a mint crossed with lavender,” I noted.
“Smells more minty.”
“Mmm, yup.” While Larry smelled the mint, I was studying a couple other plants. A sedge plant looked like a shooting star. Pussy toes, white fungus-like plants, almost looked like something from under the sea. “More pasque flowers,” I reveled in their beauty. We strolled onward. A couple of minutes later, “This is bluestem, right?” I asked.
This area of prairie was a patchwork of grass, moss and wildflowers – awe-inspiring. We continued walking. “Imagine trying to find cows out here with all the dips,” I said, thinking about the challenge.
Larry held a plant up to my eye, “Here’s an eyelash for you.”
I laughed softly then asked, “What is that?”
“Grama grass. Eyelash. Do you want to take a picture?”
“Mmhmm.” I took a photo of it and we continued to walk. Birds sang. We paused again.
“This is mountain mint. I think. Well it might be dotted mint.”
“Mmm, smells good.”
“Dotted mint.” We resumed walking. We didn’t get very far before halting again so Larry could talk about the prairie. “See, most of this good prairie is, you know, clumpy. Primarily little bluestem. Some big grass, either Indian grass or big bluestem. But mostly the small stuff. There’s some beech grass along the top up there that are bit taller. But most of it is short. If you look at a lot of restoration stuff, there’s a lot of big stuff in there…when we harvest, get a lot of big grass or the spores are there and we restore it.”
We continued walking, rustling grass. “Pasque flowers. Good bloom.”
“Yeah.” I paused to photograph interesting dried plants.
A little further ahead, Larry halted. “Something went on here. Got washed rock, small rock, and sorted. And a big rock too. So what do you think?”
“I don’t know. Something happened.” I squatted down to photograph it and walked around them. “The big stones almost look like they’re in a circle. And those little rocks come out to here a little bit.”
“Here’s a…,” began Larry
“…piece of wood,” we both said simultaneously.
“Huh,” said Larry.
“Doesn’t look like the kind of rock…”
“They’re hauled in from somewhere,” puzzled Larry.
“Yeah, but they don’t quite look like building rock.”
“No. But something happened, something went on here.” We walked around the area, taking it in, puzzling over it. “Go back in the photographs and try to find this spot and keep going back to find a structure or a road, the history.”
“Yeah.” I thought it sounded like a lot of work to try to find photos and then that location – seemed impossible – and I didn’t even know where the spot is.
“This would have been a nice spot!”
“Yeah.” We began walking again. I listened to birds singing as we walked, took in the vastness of the prairie. It began to cloud up, but light fluffy clouds. We walked through a sea of little bluestem, past occasional mullein plants. We’d come upon a wooded area, pushed through low hanging branches, scratching at our coats, ducking to avoid being clothes lined or hit in the head. I felt thankful to be wearing a coat. A pesky bird seemed to be yelling at us.
Halted among the trees, “This is what happens, starts getting woody. Doesn’t burn well. …Pines. Took out the last of the pines. There’s these little oaks. We burn them. Can’t kill them…I should really come in here, cut ’em, treat the stumps,” explained Larry.
The bird continued to squawk. We went onward, ducking under branches, pushing others aside, trying to squeeze through. And the bird squawked on. I was growing weary from the vigorous walk but enjoyed it. We paused again.
“Now we cross that line, more degraded part of the restoration. It’s getting sorted out…” We continued walking, falling into silence other than our feet rustling the grass. The birds kept up the conversation. Only a minute passed before I found another object of interest and paused.
“Oh.” I squatted down to take a better look at a turkey egg. Bigger than a chicken egg, white with brown specks. A part was missing, a doorway for the poult, baby turkey to climb out of. An ant crawled on it, near the gaping hole. A tiny slug investigated it, moving in slow motion, well actually perhaps not even moving. It lay on top of an assortment of oak leaves. Green grass grew up through the leaves and dead grass. I wondered about the turkey family. Where was it? Was there just the one egg that hatched? Is the young turkey still alive? We continued walking, up another incline, and down. Up again, down again. The dunes in this area weren’t quite as dramatic, the upward climb not quite as much of a challenge. Sometimes the grass sounded deafening beneath our feet and against our clothing. We were approaching the windmill again, though it was still several yards away. We paused one more time.
“Cool season grasses. Lot of quack grass.” Walked a few more steps, stopped. “I speculate this area had livestock and this was wintering or feeding area. Nutrients are higher which makes prairie restoration tougher.” This area was certainly less appealing. We continued walking, up the small slope to the windmill and truck, sad our morning adventure was nearly over. We hadn’t made a circle but a loop of some sort.
Larry unlocked the truck doors. I opened up the passenger side to put away my camera. He pointed to the mailbox. “Probably a registry. You can sign it, say you were here. Pasqueflowers in bloom.”
“OK.” I went and signed the registry, dated it, recorded some of what we heard and saw, the beauty of the day. I got into the truck, Larry and Hank were already in and waiting. We bounced along, back down the narrow, sandy lane to the highway. Before we were ready to leave the prairie, Larry took us down Pritchard’s road and pulled into the landing, then turned the truck around after a glimpse of Goose Lake.
Back by the bridge, Larry stopped the truck. A couple of guys had a motorboat out on McCarthy Lake and were fishing. Larry was pissed and threw out a string of profanity to describe the guys.
“Are they allowed to be in there?” I asked.
“No, they’re not supposed to be out there.” Motorboats are quite disruptive to the delicate ecosystem of the marsh. And I’m not sure there is a large enough fish population for fishing to occur without being detrimental. But at least if you’re going to fish out there, take a canoe. The trees on the marsh were still naked. And the aquatic vegetation hadn’t yet taken off in growth. Spring was certainly late this year.
Larry and I left the prairie. As always, I was sad to leave, never quite ready to go. Who knows how long it’d be before the next time I could escape the farm and visit again. There’s never enough time to do all the exploring I want to.
We were really close to the road now; this was new territory for me. Birds continued to twitter. Red-winged blackbirds kept singing their conk-la-ree song.
“Looks like a beaver’s damming the culvert.”
“Yep, the beaver has decided it doesn’t like that water going through here.”
I laughed a little at that, beavers are so determined. A moment later, “Looks like a scent mound.” A pile of dirt mingled with dead rushes, a mini mountain. It looked fresh. It was exciting to see several signs of beavers.
“Mmhmm,” responded Larry.
I loved the trees in this area; they had so much character, beings standing in the marsh. Beings of untold wisdom. I wanted to reach out and touch them, perhaps they would impart some of that wisdom and tell me the story of the marsh; perhaps they could recall the history better than any person.
We went around a bend, turning right. There was green! A couple of cattails had begun to grow. A train rumbled by, taking a few minutes to pass. Somehow the train was less disruptive than the airplane. It didn’t mask the bird sounds – twittering of sparrows, red-winged blackbirds’ conk-la-ree, squawking of geese. We were quite close to the train track now, well, we were still many yards away, but close. We could see the train passing by. Larry turned the canoe again, a slight bend to the right, and we were facing north. Vegetation crept into the water. Another big area of open water was ahead of us. I spotted a duck; I was unable to identify it for I only saw its back and at a distance – black down its back, up its neck and head, and brown sides. It flew away at our approach.
“This is interesting; the water is coming real fast up from the river and flowing back in here.”
“Oh!” I took in the trickling water, enjoying the sound. It was curious watching it essentially flow backwards. “Yeah, that is pretty cool.” I heard a duck quack. We stopped at what looked to be and probably was a beaver dam – sticks, rushes, piles of mud. It certainly seemed placed there to regulate the water flow. However, it wasn’t working properly with the water level so high since it was flowing backwards, upstream. I wished we’d had time to pull the canoe over the dam and continue following the meandering channel upwards. I yearned to keep going. But alas, there just wasn’t enough time to. Larry turned the canoe around, retracing our path. Though we were backtracking there was still plenty of things to observe, it provided a different perspective and I noticed things I didn’t while coming from the other direction.
“There’s another scent mound.” This one was a bit larger and further away. “Beavers are busy in here.”
“Mmhmm,” agreed Larry.
The lone goose continued to squawk. Where was it? And what was bothering it? Red-winged blackbird called out again, hoping for a female to notice. Another bird twittered. The naked trees provided an unobstructed view of the road. A couple of trees had buds beginning to open. Their lovely forms were reflected in the water. Another airplane flew over. We went along slight bends and curves in the water. Vegetation encroached on both sides of the channel. Hank whimpered. Dogs barked in the distance. Snag branches stuck up out of the water in some places. The canoe bumped up against some snags and plants, emanating a scratching sound. A noisy goose flew over head. Red-winged black birds continued to call. Relaxing and refreshing; my spirit soared.
“There’s another painted turtle,” I pointed out. We began to hear the purring of the leopard frogs again. I continued to marvel at their song. The barking dogs grew increasingly louder.
“Little too breezy!” stated Larry.
“Yeah.” The sun was warm but the air cool with the breeze. Hank groaned. I laughed at the strange sounds he was making.
“Sit. Sit down. Sit,” Larry gently but firmly commanded Hank. I was enjoying the rock of the canoe and let the sound of leopard frogs wash over me – trying to ignore the barking dogs, taking the opportunity the lull in conversation provided to lose myself in the song of the leopard frogs, that incredible gravelly purr. The bridge came into view – signaling that our time on the water would all too soon draw to an end. Another lone goose flew overhead squawking. A train whistle blew. Hank continued to whine and whimper but at least the dogs had ceased barking. “Conk-la-ree,” another red-winged blackbird called.
“Another painted turtle,” pointed out Larry.
“Where? Oh, I see it.” The turtle had crawled out on to a snag; lying in the water. Like all the other turtles it quickly slipped back into the murky depths. The bridge continued to loom closer. Birds twittered and chirped. There was another lull in the conversation for a minute or two – listening, just listening.
“There’s a big bass right there.”
“Do you see it?”
“No.” A little sad I was unable to see it. I heard the train whistle again, further in the distance this time. I saw another duck, perhaps a lesser scaup – it had a black head, gray back and beak. I didn’t really get a good look at it. However, it didn’t look like the ones I’m comfortable identifying. I’m not sure Larry saw it. The barking of the neighbor’s dogs resumed. Hank whined. A mourning dove cooed. A car drove by on the road. We were now fast approaching the bridge. I observed another small flash of green – a couple more cattails beginning to grow. We were in the shadow of the bridge. Larry pushed the bow of the canoe as close to the bank, at the landing, as possible so I could step out. I had already put my camera away, slung the bag over my shoulder, grabbed my water bottle and stepped out. I pulled the bow up on to the bank.
Larry said, “OK, that’s good.” I quit pulling. He walked to the front of the canoe and jumped out. Hank jumped into the water for a quick dip then ran up the bank and shook off, flinging water everywhere. Larry and I lifted the canoe, carried it to the truck and loaded it. Larry said, “Next time we should go out in the evening.”