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.
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.
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.