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.
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.