The Farm….again

This is what the farm looks like, looking west from the little house. You may have seen this photo before. It is not, however, what the land looks like at this moment when I’m writing. Now it looks black. So here’s the story.

Actually, it’s this story because I can’t yet add to the memoir in the last couple of posts. That’s because said memoir wasn’t working with the I/you bit and I’ve had to revise. In the meantime, I’ve been reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Banville’s new memoir, Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, to see how other writers have dealt with the past/present conundrum.

At any rate: the burned farm story. Actually, the farm has been much in my consciousness, phone calls, thinking, and doing for the past several months. It began in January with the taxes. That was the easy part. Okay, done. And then, since the farm is in a conservation reserve program (CRP) and has been lo these past forty years since Dad retired from farming, I had to follow up the taxes with more pressing farm demands. The FSA (farm service agency) rules are such that every few years, I need to get the prairie burned off, all one-hundred-twenty-acres. I recently posted an old story on burning the prairie which adventure convinced me not to try to do it myself again. The other piece of FSA rules was that I needed to get someone to cut trees out of said prairie because once trees get hold, they prosper, and the prairie is no longer prairie. And then one takes these invoices, which we’ve paid, to the FSA and have them logged in so the fall payment for CRP, which supports the farm, will be paid.

So. It has taken me countless hours on the phone to find someone to burn and to cut. Hours and hours. For months and months. Keep in mind, I began the search in mid-January and only now is it done. We had the local fire department do the burn the past few times and gave them a donation of around $1,000 (having a farm in conservation is a pricey business) but they can no longer do it. 1. the men are too old; 2. Kansas law now prohibits fire departments from doing it.

After many many calls and just as many estimates, I found a man who would cut out the trees for around $1100. It turned out to be closer to $1200 but it was done. And at the same time, I was calling leads to find someone to burn off the prairie. One estimate was $5,000. I mean, really???? I finally found a guy with whom I’d been in high school, but he was across the state line at the Liberty Fire Dept. and had several ahead of me in Nebraska and they had to come first but he’d do what he could. Keep in mind the farm is 1/2 mile from Nebraska.

And then, by a happenstance I can’t really remember, I found the Linn, Kansas, American Legion who were burning prairie to raise funds for the Legion. Whew! Linn is about 45 miles from the farm, so I sweetened the pot by adding $400 for a total of $1400. And they burned it and did a great job.

Now, after all that backstory, Stephen, my son, and I went to the farm over the weekend. Cliff had school papers to catch up on so he stayed home, did laundry, and had a good dinner ready for us when we returned on Monday evening. Which, all in all, is a fair trade. Our primary goal was to plant grass and put straw over said grass in the hopes that it would keep away critters and birds until it sprouts.

I’ve no idea where the essay is stored in this copious record of my life on WordPress, but there is an essay, perhaps the one where I pumped out the basement, on what a mess the area around the house became after construction. I’ve been struggling with the five feet times 90 feet of ground around it since. Earlier this year, I guess over spring break, Cliff and I went up, cleared out all the weed stalks/sunflower stalks/weird red berry something or another that seems determined to root, and left bare ground. Which Stephen and I covered copiously with grass seed. A neighbor brought up two bales of straw which we then used to cover said seed. No doubt, at some point in the future, I will update the story on whether or not I finally have grass instead of very tall weeds around the house. In the nonce (doncha love that word) it’s done.

And Stephen and I drove into Marysville, turned in papers to the FSA, re-certified the CRP for the next three years….and learned that the end of 2020 may be our last year in the program as the government has cut funding for conservation and instead is buying bombs and airplanes. I have no idea what we will do then, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, I’ll think about it tomorrow. What I know is that prairie roots are 12-14 and more deep and it’s hard to put it back in cultivation. (Which I don’t want to do anyway. It’s one half section of wild in the midst of corporate farming.) Stephen and I had lunch at the Wagon Wheel Cafe which has done steady business since I was a kid, and then we drove the three hours back to Kansas City.

However, I have to tell you one more story which Cliff said I should tell. Cliff, a city boy from Baltimore, is somewhat tool challenged, in a kind way of putting it. He also began wearing a C-Pap a few months ago which, as all C-Paps do, has a harness. It has strong magnets on the harness which tend to clasp onto themselves and usually, I help him get the harness adjusted. Well. I was on the farm. He had to do it himself. He said it took a while as the harness kept tangling and at one point it was in a knot on top of his head and he said, “I looked like a Polish grandmother with a babushka on my head!”

He was glad I was home.

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On Fire and Family, an essay

Here’s an essay from a collection of essays titled Kansas Chronicles which I mentioned in The Quest, a previous post, and which an international blogger friend, Rambling Rose, read. She asked about conservation and the farm I mentioned. Here ’tis. It’s a long form post, but I hope you will all get a larger understanding of the farm — about which I seem to write often as it turns out.

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   The roaring crash at my back spins me like an out-of-balance top as the old corn crib crumples, sparks spewing a halo of destruction.
“Come on!” I grab at my grandson’s wrist and pull him after me. At thirteen, he’s too young to battle this blaze. “If something happens to you, your dad’ll kill me!”
We sprint a wide curve around the dying corn crib, head for safety.
“See that field?” I point to the spring green of wheat across the fence line. “That won’t burn. Get out there!”
I run back to the prairie, panting, but the men are gone. I’d whirled from one crisis to the next since tallgrass flared beyond the corn crib. I glance at the March sun, slanting in from the southern sky. How long since we’d set the fire? I didn’t know. Now the corn crib sags into smoldering rage and a towering whirlwind marches west, flame tips flicking ash debris from its edges. Mute, I watch the Old Testament image of God’s saving guidance threaten destruction to any animal not fast enough to flee. Hawks circle. A vulture mounts the vortex, wheels, his dark wingtips limned in sun.
I should have known burning the corn crib was a dicey idea at the least—¬-a catastrophe at its worse. But it seemed a good idea. There were men, you see, whose opinion I respected: my son and nephew, both grown and practical men, and two neighbor farmers who understood things like farms and fires and prairie.
The morning began simply enough. My son, nephew, grandson, and I picked away at the old corn crib, testing the strength of rusty nails frozen in timber, dragging out bent pieces of tin, and debating how, exactly, we might dismember the building enough to push it into a backhoe dug trench—¬-a trench the cousins had begun to fill over the weekend with dead trees and old machinery bits. And then the neighbor brothers drove up, Gary and Dave, and suggested we just burn it down. Dry timber and left-over straw exploded into an inferno, sparks flew over treetops into prairie, and the spirit of the land, dormant for so many years, crackled into freedom.
“You wanted to burn the prairie. We got enough here to watch. I’d say let her go!” So yelled my farm neighbor, Dave.
“Jump on!” Gary said, motioning for my son Stephen to straddle the front of his four-wheeler, and Stephen jumped on—¬-two men on a headless horse to outrun a prairie fire.
Dave grabbed a handful of tallgrass, twisted it into a torch, and began dragging the fire off to the south. My nephew David, the fourth grown man in this, “we got enough here,” grabbed a shovel and followed.
Some instinct beyond my knowing had whipped four men into action while I stood stunned—¬-until the crash of the collapsing corn crib spurred me and I’d dragged my grandson to the safety of an open wheat field.
Sure, I’d set it up, called our wide, multitude of family home for Mom’s 85th birthday, pleaded for help before they all scattered—¬-and for three days, they’d hauled and cleaned on a farm that hadn’t seen much attention since Dad died ten years ago. But some other Master Plan added the themes of death and resurrection and spun them through a family’s legacy with the land.
The four oldest grandsons, grown men, claimed their patrimony on the legacy of memory. They remembered their grandfather, and the farm, alive and working, and they guided the younger ones on forays across the land. Then, like seed, the family scattered, leaving only Stephen and David to come to the farm today.
I feel useless; mostly I feel a fear knot in my chest. Prairie fires become their own force, dangerous and unpredictable. Twisting up a grass torch, I begin inching fire toward the north fence line.
So, Prometheus, was this how it all started, the good idea to set fire free? Fire as gift and curse, creator and destroyer. Was there some mitigating detail you forgot, some invisible silver cord to unite good with evil and keep destruction at bay? As it was, this fire, on this particular farm, stirred ancient echoes of a call I didn’t know I had sounded.
When we were growing up, Dad rarely burned. We mowed, plowed under the stubble, harrowed and disked. A youngster during the Dust Bowl days, he’d been one of the first to build a series of terraces across the land to control erosion; Dad was a careful man, so maybe burning felt too chancy.
I’d thought it romantic and exciting. Springtime smoke towers on the horizon flipped book pages on the winds of imagination: a nighttime’s menacing horizon; Zane Grey’s cowboys outrunning fire; settlers frantically plowing breaks around sod houses, fire storms herding buffalo for Native Americans.
This fire didn’t feel romantic.
Except fire is a natural part of the prairie’s evolution. Some 8,000 years ago, receding glaciers left the central plains rich in top-soil, grass, animals, and enough wide space for really spectacular storms. In those far-off days, lightening set fires, so the prairie hid its tubers and seeds beneath the surface, while grass roots ran twelve-feet deep. Burning rids the matted buildup and renews the land—¬-a symbiosis that allows each to live. But symbiosis needs to be done with care or you risk disaster: humans plus fire minus silver cord.
I hadn’t set a firebreak around the old corn crib; the sparks jumped, and wind wove the fire. With a little luck, the elements have come together of their own accord: fire, wind, earth, and enough men to guard against disaster.
When I was young, my solitary wanderings took me beyond the fields through the pastured woods. I became adept at listening for the crack of a twig, a rustle of leaves from some small animal’s hunting story. I’d hear a meadowlark mother scrabbling, crying pitifully, as she lured my feet from her nest. Perhaps five hundred years ago, as second daughter with little dowry, I’d have walked my life inside a convent’s stone walls and prayer and found my place and reason. There, then, the questions that fill all the silent spaces: Who am I? What defines me?
How is it that this farm, now owned by our far-flung family, defines me more than my accomplishments or my years in New York or Mexico or Hawaii or any of the other places I’ve lived? Most of us evolve from our story of origin, for good or ill, but why this farm, this family?
Below these burning grasses, burrowed into the black dirt, hides life that blooms with each spring’s rain. Maybe that’s what the farm, the family, cultivates: deep roots that allow me to bloom with each changing season.
While I ruminate on my own connection to the land, nephew David returns to check in, tell me Dave drove over to the west side. He asks if I’ve seen Stephen.
“No. I haven’t.” The knot tightens in my chest. I glance at the sun. It’s lower.
I don’t tell him how worried I am, how useless I feel, but I know my nephew as well as he knows me. We’re both worried. Stephen could be trapped anywhere – the tree stand, the plumb thicket.
“The fire jumped the draw—¬-started up the west side. That’s why Dave took off. I think I’ll go on down and see if I can find Steve,” David says.
“Okay. Thanks.”
I watch him go, turn back to the work I’ve been allotted, wonder at the uncountable hours I’ve spent in my head as I drove a tractor along a furrow, daydreaming stories. The same impulse arises now to distract myself.
The fire is fierce and I am afraid for my son.
A matted clump of tallgrass flares and I jump aside. Michael is picking a path down the waterway toward me.
“You okay, Grandma?” A frown etches his forehead—-the same kind of frown my sons make when I do something less than sensible.
“Yeah, Michael, I’m okay. You want to learn how to do this?”
He nods—¬-so brief I could have missed it if I didn’t know him. An only child, he’s well-protected, hasn’t yet learned risk. Yesterday when his parents left, he struggled in deciding whether to stay with me or leave with them.
“You’ll be okay. The wind’s behind us and these are the clean-up fires—¬-not so big. Look, turn this way.”
I shift my body so the wind blows at my back. Michael follows.
“Can you feel the wind on your neck?”
Michael nods.
“And the fire’s in front of you?”
He nods again.
“That means the fire will blow away from you toward the field already burned. You’re okay. Now watch what I do.”
The worried look disappears as he watches me twist a torch, light it from a burning clump, and drag it along the base of unburned grasses.
“See? Think you can do that?”
A one-shoulder shrug accompanies his nod.
“Yeah.” He walks beyond me. As his torch catches, he flinches and drops it. Tearing off another handful of grass, he repeats his actions. This time, the tallgrass flares.
I watch him inch the fire northward. With each spent torch, he creates another sentence in his own fire story.
“That’s pretty cool.” Soot, rather than frown, streaks his forehead.
I measure our progress—-about twenty yards from the north fence, I guess. I turn to survey the burned grass behind us. A Kansas homestead—-a quarter of a mile wide, north to south, and a mile long, east to west: one hundred and sixty acres—¬¬-this much is ours, down through five generations, down through roots running deep.
Chill catches in the sweat of my neck. The wind has shifted to the northeast—-a good sign, blowing the fire back from the north fence line and away from jumping into the neighbor’s pasture.
I grunt as I bend to resume working. My mother gives these same little grunts, both as she lands herself in a chair and as she gets up. On her, it’s charming; on me it sounds old.
“Grams!”
I look up. My nephew strides back along the fence line, a shovel riding his shoulder. The sun hangs a hand’s breadth from the horizon.
“Hey, Auntie!” he calls.
“Hey, David. Where’s Stephen?”
He chin-points in the direction he’d come. “They’re heading this way.”
He trades his shovel for my torch and begins pushing the burn north. I lean on the shovel, stretch my back. The fear knot relaxes.
Stephen tops the rise, walking along the fence line. He swings a length of wire with something burning at the end, lighting grass. Gary follows on his four-wheeler and Dave in his truck.
The sound of calves bawling for feeding time drifts across the fields; the evening call of wild turkey comes from the cedars in the east pasture. Stephen reaches the end of the fence line and turns to meet his cousin. Their fire lines meet at the tip of a V, smolder into ash.
Two men face the west and the burned off land, watch as the last strip of grass withers to smoke.
Michael and I walk over; Gary and Dave join us. We stand as farmers do at the end of a day, talking, reliving the story.
“You see how that wind shifted?” Dave said. He shakes his head. We grin.
“Couldn’t beat the timing,” Gary agrees.
Stephen demonstrates his bailing wire tool—¬-an old leather glove soaked in kerosene, wrapped in wire.
“I gave it to him when I drove around to the west side,” Dave says. “Saves your back.”
Night creeps into our quiet conversation and erases our shadows. Yard lights blink across the countryside. We linger, reluctant to leave, to break the spell that holds us.
But the world demands action: Michael and I to travel east to our Kansas City homes; Stephen and David to begin their drives west; Gary and Dave to evening chores. We nod farewell. We’d done our work and reclaimed the farm.
And the spirit that bound us in a ritual of fire stretches, sighs, flows back into the land.

A Quest

The simple task of finding my college transcripts became an overwhelming quest. One of the gifts of my life is that I have an entire writing room for myself. It is also my curse. Seven very full bookcases line the walls; a portable file stand sits beside my desk; it, too, is full; two folding tables sit in front of the portable file stand, and creep across the edge of one bookcase; both are stacked with books and papers, mostly the research I’ll need to do if I ever get around to writing the Kansas Chronicles and the notebooks and files for the Mexico book if I can ever get around to writing it; a glass-topped table sits beside my matching metal and glass-topped desk, where I have the laptop and a lamp and a microphone for the times when I teach online classes, and is covered in Post-it notes, a dish with paper clips, a flashlight (and you ask why I need a flashlight if I have a lamp on my desk? good question); other piles of papers relating to who knows what, miscellaneous mostly, sit under and in front of the desk lamp.

I have too many saved words.

I found one of my college transcripts, but not the other. Why couldn’t I have stored them together? One wonders.

One of the books on the folding tables of Kansas research is named It Happened Here. Does it ever. Nominally, the very thick book is a history of Marshall County, with photos, by a woman who was, no doubt, as obsessed as I am. Marshall County is where the farm lives.

Speaking of which, the farm that is, I still need to find someone with a bobcat and a tree cutter in the front to go over the tallgrass and cut out volunteer trees so we can burn the prairie in the spring or I’ll lose the contract for conservation the farm has been in for the past forty years. Oh, yes, and do farm taxes before my sister, who lives on Maui, writes and says she is ready to take their taxes to an accountant and needs her copy of the farm taxes. Now.

I have at least six professions, if you count farm manager, which I count because it requires attention and all our widespread family is somewhere else. Along with the portable files here in the writing room, there are four file drawers in two cabinets in the “office” our name for what would be in a normal family, the baby’s room. We do not have a baby, we have file cabinets, which hold up a plywood desk top which I first sanded and varnished and set upon said file cabinets when first I moved to Santa Fe in 1992. And bookcases. There’s two in there, too.

Is it any wonder I write memoir?

I still don’t know where my graduate school transcripts are; I’ve thrown out some papers, thankfully, and tomorrow I will call St. John’s and ask them to send me a copy. You see, I miss teaching, and for some degenerate reason, I’ve decided to apply to UMKC as an adjunct in the Arts and Science department, a job whose requirement is that the applicants have some background in international peoples and countries, which I do. One of the things I do is teach pronunciation, and have, since I lived in Mexico, but if I get off on that story, well….that would require the story of Pepe Lobo (American name Joe Wolf), manager of the travel office where I worked, and who went to Mexico after the revolution when pesos were pure silver as big as…and he’d demonstrate with middle finger and thumb a circle about 2 inches in diameter, and stayed, and who said, one day, “I didn’t hire you for your typing skills; I hired you for your looks.”

But as I said, that’s an entirely other story, the Mexico book, which God willing and the creeks don’t rise, as my farm grandpa used to say, and I don’t die, I will, eventually, write.

And then maybe I can throw away some papers.

The end.

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With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

                                                                               William Wordsworth

While you’re reading this, snug in your morning rituals, I’m snug on the farm. If you want a view of said farm, go here, or here,  or here. There’s more. All you have to do is search “prairie” or “farm” and you’ll find them. There’s probably links to some of them at the bottom of this post.

That’s where I am now. For two whole glorious and quiet days out of the city.

I’m writing, as you read this, no doubt. And that’s what On Writing is about. Finding the place and the silence and the peace (no Internet, cell phone reception spotty, six miles from the nearest paved road).

But if you’ve read the other posts, you already know that. Imagine me in front of a window looking out on that prairie. That’s where I am. Writing.

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