Berry picking, and I don’t really care if there are stink bugs on them, always drew my attention, even when I was a snot-nosed kid of 10. If a berry showed up, even a tomato-like ground cherry (an elegant nightshade} or a prickly dew berry on the sandy open fields of Marquette County here in Wisconsin, I ate ‘em. Just plopped them in my waiting mouth as if I were a hunter/gatherer back in the day, you know twenty thousand years ago when my people were drifters.
I suppose it was my Old Man, though born in New York City and raised in Chicago, was always doing it as if he too was just out Africa following his Cro-Magnon genes. Hell, he’d even chew on wheat grass grains. As a result my parents foraging habits, if it was a thimbleberry up north and a half, a wild raspberry, a cantankerous blackcap, into my young mouth they’d go. “Hey kid, look at these huckleberries.” We’d scarf ‘em. It’s never changed.
I’ve got the grandkid doing it now, just like our kids did, and he hunts them down like a Neanderthal looking for a noon meal of grubs and berries (an old favorite I am told). “Hey gramps there’s a bunch of gooseberries in Merlyn’s front yard. What should I do?” He looked at me as to imply the neighbor didn’t know about it and he had a hankerin’. “Better ask.” I said with lifted and twisted brow.
A person can only hunt and gather so much in these modern times, so this last summer, our raggedy troupe hit the commercial berry patches and secured one hell-o-a-lotta berries, big puppies and froze those suckers up. That is why today, in a cold-adverse state, I made a pie. To top it off, part of the sweetener I used was some freshly made maple sugar. Sweet Jesus skipping across the tundra on a rubber crutch, that pie was good.
I know this was not done as if we were still hunter-gatherers, but it was still by our own hands gathered from the land. That is my thought for the day on keeping it simple. Just remembered we had ground up northern pike a few days ago, and the squash Jake grew. Life is good in the slow lane.
Dropping into the hardware store to grab some suet for the waiting woodpeckers or get a paint brush, is a common experience. This is usually accompanied with some chatter, maybe gossip, very possibly advice and a chance for me to offer some under-appreciated life coaching.
In a small town this exchange is important, invariably because there will be someone there I know or someone who needs to be relieved of some fishing information. Standing by the minnow tank it’s possible to hear an angler mumble a few leading words, “Ya, been getting some nice bluegills over on Mykl—b—s.” Pointing an ear, I like to sidle-up, maybe looking at the fan belts up high. “Where you been gettin’ those gills?” “I been getting a few on Brek—, but a little slim picken’.” A subtle inquiry.
I might add that don’t think I’ll be getting out again but just trying to get a feel where they’re at. He might say he’s been getting some good ones on the river. “Ya just out from Plover.”
Well, I heard a ‘mi’ sound in the first exchange and after he leaves, I’ll go to the next source. “Mark, d’you here what Elmer said?”
It just goes like that, unless of course, Elmer just flat offers it up.
So, the other day I went in there for two paint brushes and furniture oil. If I recall it was too cold to fish, I was too lazy, and my mind was generally afuzz. At the back register, and not far from the minnow supply there was a younger gentleman unknown to me who was making an enquiry about percussion caps. “You a black powder shooter?” I questioned, not that it was any of my business. He had a twinkle in his eye and after a short discussion, he told a story about having two very old flintlock black powder pistols he recently purchased. Of course I was all ears, and probably starting to drool over such an exciting find. He was clearly looking to put them back in shooting condition, but not for dueling.
The talk went on and I admitted that our family had been involved in mountain man reenactments and had once upon a time enjoyed blasting away with ancient muzzleloaders. As I was about to leave he asked if we had ever been to the encampment over west next to old man river. “No,” I said we still have all our gear but just can’t seem to get to it.”
As he was about to slip out the back and I out the front, I motioned to him, “Have fun with those pistols.” He paused and said, “It’s never too late to go down to the river.” I walked out the door almost rattled, “It’s not too late to go down to the river.”
I wasn’t sure where that came from but yes, it could mean the Mississippi rendezvous but my suspicions, all tangled in this age of mine, was running too many algorithms through my hard drive. I knew there were religious connotations there but there was also some history wrapped in my younger years.
I could see Springsteen soulfully singing The River.
“That night we went down to the river And into the river we’d dive Oh, down to the river we did ride……”
This is not a pleasant song about small town living to say the least, but the river still was a place of some sort of salvation, a place to hide, maybe a place to cleanse.
There was another country song out there that went,
“I’m going out to the country, gonna bury my head in the creek I’m gonna jump in that water, baptize both my feet ‘Cause everywhere I’ve been walking, I’ve been getting in trouble deep I’m going down to the river, gonna wash my soul again”
I tried to discard the songs because I, for one, didn’t think I was a sinful man needing a cold bath. I had to shy away from the tunes. There was just too many of them and I found myself singing that religious number from Oh Brother, “ As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way…” I was going religious right then and there and I could almost see myself back in the church choir, loving to sing—- and snapping the bra strap of the cutie in front of me—was that a sin?
That’s when Huck Finn came to mind, Ya, Huck Finn floating down the river—and this shopper was talking about the Mighty Mississip. Right? There it was the river of life, the flow line to adventure, and the stream of wonder for an aging man just like as it was for a young ratty kid full of what was to come.
The guy was a messenger from Huck Finn telling me it ain’t over yet. Forget about cleansing anything, get a boat in the water, don’t sit around procrastinating and complaining, get on with life, start a motor, you don’t even need to be clean. Maybe I’ll even rewrite the sad song from Bruce.
“This morning we went down to the river, and to the river we did hike, went down to the river, down to the river for pike.”
That sure felt better and my mind now, not rattled, has settled and will ramble and flow on forever.
Determination comes in many forms and is probably not confined to just human behavior but to all living things. For those organisms less conscience of their own being, like the liver fluke or the ragweed down the street, I’m thinking it might have more to do with survival and proliferation. But, for humans, the top of the animal kingdom, it can take on another meaning that I suppose is more complex and all-encompassing.
After just receiving a phone call from Glen, who at that very moment was standing on the shore of Lake John in the mountains of northern Colorado, I found myself asking some questions, almost about his sanity, but also about his actual motives. Why this determination?
He explained he had the entire lake to himself but admitted the ice along the shore, the 30 mph wind and maybe the 36 degree weather was the cause of no other fishermen. He was also very excited about the eight pound brown trout he just caught. I asked, “Why didn’t you send a picture, you know how I get off on that? His response, “I tried but I couldn’t get the camera to work because my hands had gone numb,”
I paused. This guy, and I have known him for a long time, is determined to fish and to this day I’m not sure if it is his anthropological drive to provide food or if he thinks he will gain community prestige. He doesn’t keep many and he seldom struts about town displaying his monster catches. However it is, from my point of view an admirable trait.
This almost reminds me of a story the great writer Farley Mowat mentions in his book Tundra. He learned that Eskimo men would commonly sit over a single open seal breathing hole for as many days at it took to spear that one seal. Worked for them, and had for ten thousand years. Determination.
The other day we attended a Christmas show at our Jensen Center and couldn’t but sit back and go, “Just how much work does it take to pull this off, not only work but talent?” It’s not that it was perfect because I remembered the last time I was in it, and my effort could not be called perfection, but still it seems a hundred folks were involved and probably 1000 folks enjoyed the four shows. At the heart of it was Janet, a fireball of determination. Unlike Glen’s fish the results seemed more a community thing but no less daunting.
Just yesterday I walked through the kitchen and there in the window was this ratty-assed prickly plant seeming to be fighting it out with life in a miserable unnatural setting, poor light and a confining pot. There on top of the spiky stem were a few small flowers acting as though they had real purpose. They intended to make seeds but in truth needed insects to help them along. Unknowingly to them, there were no insects, or I don’t think there were other than those four- inch cock roaches (just kidding). They were determined and a week from now they will still be there. I know that is an unconscious determination driven by that DNA, probably the same for Glen.
I also thought of the Falcon Pride effort put on by the community to build and maintain a rather impressive athletic system realizing that many other schools in central Wisconsin can hardly field athletic teams. Here the roster and stands are filled, the crowd is smiling and hundreds of earnest youngsters are out tearing up the turf, smacking balls and running until it hurts. Many of us got a call from Gregg and I saw the promotions, all of it reeking of determination to make this a better place. Genetics?
Some years ago, Jake was in a dither, if I can call it that. He wanted soccer as an alternative, an opportunity that could still bring out more student involvement. Oh, he pushed and shoved and plenty of folks will tell you, “That guy has determination!” But damn, only a few years later we had varsity soccer and kids kicking the balls all over the grounds. He did the same thing with cross country skiing. It just happened. He probably spent his own money, didn’t even get a parade, but the area got one more amenity others do not have.
How does this all tie in, this individual determination? The word altruism comes to mind for sure. That would mean by definition, a selfless concern for the well-being of others and maybe in the biological world a behavior that benefits another at its own expense. Hummmm. The community efforts make sense. The little stinking plant was just following genetic orders. Glen? I’m now suspecting the latter two are setting an example of celebrating all that is good, maybe with determination and a selfless love of life. It’s all a stretch, I suppose, but good things do come with effort.
It is the first of the year, the water is getting hard, the stove is warm and the books are most interesting. Just a little determination and many things will shine—even if one’s hands get little numb.
There in front of me was a plate, full of steaming, wonderfully garnished squash. Here and there was a spattering of crispness, all colored in handsome golden brown. Steam rose from this main course much like a wisp of vapor from the geysers of Yellowstone and the aroma hinted of maple syrup and a magical touch of sage. It was a grand presentations rendering the making the vegetable both elegant if not regal. Denise, the quietly smiling cook, had in her way made a statement, almost philosophical presentation that seemed to say, “Here is the world as I see it.”
The first bite brought together all of the robustness of this fine dish. But, it was the sage that wrinkled my brain. It is the simple spice of the garden, and interestingly, wild prairies and woodland openings. It was just magic there nestled in the golden flesh of nature’s bounty, the squash, the gift of Wisconsin’s natives.
In truth, the dinner was also set off by the lifting of a few drafts of fine wine and that too also enhanced the overall ambiance. I remember pausing and reflecting on the Wild West we once settled on the high plains of Colorado. We had a tepee then and there was no way to avoid the wild plants and the many smells of the chamisa and sage, and the wild sunflowers of late fall. It was there we learned to use the grey-blue leaves of wild sage, to smudge the canvas lodge for a quick spiritual cleansing— more likely a crafty method of ridding the place of the smell of musty dogs and wet kids. It was an odor never forgotten and here it was on the squash.
With the plate full of squash consumed along with the other offerings, we drifted off to conversation possibly moved by the culinary delights. “Doesn’t that sage take your mind to drifting?” I said. Next to me, I think it was Rick remarked, “I suspect you just want to be a sage.”
“A sage?” Well, that is not a bad idea but it was not where I was going.
I looked at him apparently puzzled but enjoying the jump of language. I’m sure I lifted an eye and twisted a lip but he held with an inquisitive grin. This is the guy whose favorite book is Crime and Punishment. Was I about to get sage stuff from him? I thought a sage was a positive sort of an individual, not some Russian literature-lover who enjoyed trudging through a heinous crime singing the Volga Boatman.
While whiffs of the seasoning and the faint hint of the Wild West crossed my mind’s paths, others heard the word sage being bantered about and out of nowhere a sage want-to-be at the end of the table, Jim of New Hope, leaned forward and with some fanfare made the following statement, “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” He thought it was Aristotle but later said Socrates. “Hey man, that was very sage like.”
All of us sitting the table round were old enough to be sages but had never really given it a real thought probably because there was not a real call for sages. Still? Pontificator?
In thinking about a possible new career, a sage did have a certain ring to it and the instantaneous recognition the Sage of New Hope had just garnered, certainly indicated that some community hierarchal gain might be available to a well versed pontificator/sage, even though there would likely be no financial rewards—free wine maybe.
It was then while thinking of sagedom, Tom made knowledgeable references to Nepalese monks finding comfort in simple surroundings and non-materialistic life. I was sure the holy ones said many sagey things.
For a brief moment I suspect we all expected to experience a pause, a quiet moment and Tom would begin by saying, “Grasshopper.” He had our attention but probably sensed we were not grasshoppers. Thoughts flew around. Books were mentioned and we drifted off trying to understand the plight of man while still immersed in the smell of the sage infused squash and the fine taste of that well executed Old Fashion.
Being a sage could be rewarding and I am still working on it. Right now I will be sticking to enjoying the wonderful flavor over squash, the fancying the faint smell of sage drifting across a Wisconsin prairie, and contemplating the history and magic of burning sage. Then too, there are real sages offering us words to guide our lives, or at least to pause in reflection.
“If and when everyone is mindlessly stupid, will anyone notice?” Buddhist saying
“In this world shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas, virtue if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Melville, Moby Dick
“Science reminds us that we dwell in a mystery that is ultimately more to be savored than to be solved,” Overbye
“From such crooked wood from which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned.” Kant
“Those that make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” M L King
“The highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly.” Evasmus
Somewhere in my meanderings, I learned that the press can be referred to as the Fourth Estate. While the phrase originated in England and may have drifted around historically, it would seem today that journalists and their publications are viewed as being as powerful as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government. As a result of this revelation, it seems only reasonable to view the Jensen Community Spirit and its fabulous writers as full-fledged members of that Fourth Estate.
Being one of those writers has definitely lifted my ego, as can be seen when I strut about town. This has put me in a position to pontificate and offer great insights as to how this place should be run or, maybe in a more subtle tone, hint in an almost covert way about what is right and wrong.
Up to this point, I have not really felt the power or the assigned royalty of this position, but rather just shuffled about marveling at the local fauna, flora, and colorful individuals frequently seen in our surroundings. Yes, I have glorified the local fish, even the walnuts (hazel nuts were incredible this year), and been known to almost disclose the location of some lady slipper orchids.
Armed with my new designation as a Fourth Estater in the darkness of my writing den and under the influence of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Morrow, Chris Wallace, maybe Mr. Jamison, I have taken on a new responsibility right next to the Supreme Court.
What this community needs is another gifted individual to tell people what to do, even if I am self-appointed and not elected by anybody.
Interestingly, the esteemed editor of this Fourth Estate publication, one Brent, has by his sound judgment, allowed me to write here and even promoted me. [Editor’s note: While promotion may have been implied by the use of “esteemed” on the cover of the September Spirit, it was meant as a descriptor of columnist Wright, not a title.]
I know my readers are going, “For the love of God, man, no more ill-conceived pronouncements and political drivel. Just leave us alone.” However, and with great pride, I can say I have been a two-bit politician, was almost religious after my confirmation in the Methodist church, owned property, and always voted the right way.
I had no sooner mentally settled into my new position when Gayle, the spouse of another writer, sent me a quote from Roger Rosenblatt of the Write America Project. He said, “Writers, as you know, are not a group. We’re usually mavericks or hermits or worse.” What did he mean “or worse”? Just when I thought I was a Supreme Court Justice, I get this “or worse.” Did Gayle send this to slyly hint that Dennis and I were possibly worse?
Just when my sails were filling and after having a month off from my esteemed position in this Fourth Estate publication, I might be worser than I thought! So even though I am rested, my mind lifting with a possibility of a new assignment in the estate of journalism, I suspect I should actually go back to glorifying those little things that make me delighted with life right here in paradise. What it comes down to is maybe I should just be an “influencer” like those folks on the interweb. That’s right, an influencer from the Fourth Estate.
This morning, in the dew-covered shadow of the side garden, a huge squash blossom jumped out of the foliage close to the house.
It seemed futile, being September, because frost was maybe only three weeks away. It was a robust male flower, strong, well intended, anthers covered in new pollen, welcoming to all bees, wasps, flies, and moths. Nothing but an elegant display with no real future.
I suspect the flower was clueless, and maybe the female flower embedded in the vine across the walk was no better, but still willing. They were all participants, just acting out the dance of the agenda of their genes.
It was a waltz, I would think, even though one of the bumblebees seemed in a hurry. The dance of the bumble bee.
I stopped and, for a brief moment, marveled at the splendor, maybe the fall-time futility, and nodded, “Nice job. Thanks.”
In thinking back, it would seem in our past life in the Wild West we had hardly ever been without chickens. They brought us eggs, some meat (I am not very fond of terminating what are almost pets), and most importantly entertainment.
As a side note and a cynical comment, I will also acknowledge that chickens are the single most abundant bird in the world and have effectively replaced much of the natural flocks of wild birds both in number and certainly in mass. There are environmentalists that scowl at this piece of knowledge realizing this continuing pattern does not speak well for future of wildlife. But, chickens in all their varieties do feed the masses. It appears somewhere along the line, humans decided we are essentially the only species that deserves most of the space on earth—along with our livestock. So goes it.
Chickens, like most birds, operate mostly by instinct and not from a schooling of learned behavior—some would say this is the result of having a brain the size of a match head. Take a chick (young chicken and not a young lady) and turn them loose and they instantly start scratching, stepping back and pecking, They dust, they roost, some crow relentlessly and they will eat almost anything including each other.
A chicken is almost impossible to train other than by the simplest of Pavlovian efforts. Sure, they might peck some switch to get a little grain, but even a human can do that after a week of practice.
In my book, clearly the best part of chickens is in entertainment value. While my previous comments have been slightly critical of this fowl, we recently heard a story implying a possible greater mental capacity of this feathered miniature pterodactyl. This is, in a macabre sense, and in my rural mind, an example of the entertainment value of chickens.
Wayne and Patti once had a flock of fine feathered friends and each day they would let them out to scrounge in a protected run where they would have great freedom and do chicken things. I’m sure this included huge clouds of dust and endless hours of scratching and pecking. In the evening, they, out of instinct, would retreat to the rather nice hen house where they could hide from the usual toothed predators.
The new ‘chicken farmers’ having moved up from Chicago, found rural life comfortable but slightly different than city life, but never the less they were also easily entertained and loved the poultry. As they tell it, the flock of hens were delightful and offered a pastoral touch to the their expanding farmette.
They, like Ann and I, saw them as being just chickens, not very emotional in a loving sense, highly reactionary when a hawk skimmed over, dim witted, no real sense of humor, but beautiful and full of antics that offered the beauty part.
It seems that returning after dark from an outing, Wayne and Patti went to the hen house to find the hens all roosting but noticed the entrance, a drop down affair, had slammed shut at some point while the chickens were coming in for the evening on the roost. This obviously occurred because one of the chickens, probably in haste. had hit the stick that propped up the door. On closing downward by its own weight, the door had managed to catch the last chicken coming in, and it caught it right across its extended neck much as a guillotine got the head of Antoinette. There hung the chicken, body outside and the head on the inside—and yes, it was deceased, gone to the last roost in the sky.
Instantly, they looked around trying to solve the mystery as to how this happened. Knowing chickens as they did, they knew there would not get a peep out of them. However, what they saw was even more interesting. As they stared at the roosting hens, they instantly realized that most of them would not look at them straight in the face but turned away as if to say, “Don’t look at me.” Others put their heads down almost in shame, maybe with one eyelid lifted, “We couldn’t help it.” If I recall the story, one heavy hen on the end perch was looking skyward, “You talkin’ to me.” The farmers, Wayne and Patti, took note but no punitive action, stepped back and lodged the story into their minds. “Good God, let’s get to bed.”
Yes, this is a sad ending, but I have to say this is entertainment at its best. After one glass of a nice white wine, we about fell out of our chairs. Damn, this country living is full of surprises. and those chickens still give us eggs.
And that is why we now have five new Olive Eggers, that is right, Olive Eggers. That is why we also still have our grand champion ribbon from the Elbert County Fair where we won the prize for the best pen of three pullets—all of which turned out to be roosters.
I have decided to have a deep philosophical discussion on strawberries. The reason for doing this is primarily due to the intense pleasure I achieve when eating them. This simple consumption is a lip-smacking culinary adventure, an Epicurean delight, if you will. This act is an end in itself, almost a spiritual, life-centering experience that deserves my reflection.
To fully make my case, it is important to start from the beginning. From my self-appointed, authoritative point of view, the strawberry is the queen of berries. They are gloriously succulent, naturally sweetened, have miniscule seeds, and have no real need for augmentation, However, a modest dollop of honey, maybe a kiss of this spring’s maple syrup can be added for variety. The glistening berry can be held aloft, maybe judiciously inspected for the perfect ripeness, then in great fanfare plopped ever-so ceremoniously in my waiting, cavernous mouth.
To add to the richness of this experience I suspect one must live close to the growing, spring-time creation of the berry. One must become one with the efforts of nature. (I know I am saying this as if a sage and not a botanical buffoon, but bear with me.)
The first part of June arrives very quickly and for us the strawberry patch is a barometer of sorts, partially because it is watched very closely and fluctuates with all the moods of the early growing season. The new leaves of spring want sun and rain. Sometime they struggle from too much cold, but seemingly still thrive in cooler weather. The arrival of early leaves brings out a growing desire. We wait in anticipation all the while being spiritually lifted. The first bloom is the beginning of spring’s rebirth.
Admittedly, in addition to the thrill of eating a single robust berry, I also relish other strawberry offerings, moments of great pleasure involving, say, oven-fresh shortcakes and festoons of whipped cream. For my snooty moods, there are simple ceremonies featuring a white, thin-lipped china bowl filled with the finest of red berries. To the side, a fine cognac rests in an exquisite crystal tumbler like the one I got at Goodwill. The light is best warm and maybe dimming in the evening after the left-over tuna casserole. A good book might be standing by, one filled with joy and comfort, of simplicity, say Travels with Epicurus. If there is an evening chill, a small but warming fire can be lit in the kitchen stove.
As I sit with my Epicurean delight held comfortably in my hand, I enjoy a pause and enter into deep thought. My station in life is one of modest comfort, for the berries are plentiful and the refrigerator is well filled with many day’s supply. Whipped cream is cooled and fresh, short cakes are still warm.
It is in this moment of divine appreciation a story comes to mind, and while I know its source, I will tell it as a parable. It involves a man of great wealth, of which the world now has many, some of such unimaginable accumulations they are preparing their own spacecrafts and have boats of such opulence they need to have a tender boat to provide a helicopter pad to service the bigger boat. The story has it that one of these man of wealth was talking to a creative artist whose skill were profound, so profound that great wealth was a possibility for him as well. In the discussion, it was brought up by the wealthy man that with only a little more effort he too could move into the next level of worldly existence. He could have it all. After all, he was known to be well-educated, well-connected and capable in every aspect, even handsome and intellectually most capable.
“Listen, Kurt, with the slightest effort you could move to the next step. You could live as I do, a better home, boats, cars, be welcomed in the finest circles.” There was a pause, Kurt looked about from his modest, but well-appointed home there in the canyon and without a single flinch said, “Yes, that might be true. There are possibilities out in this world for sure. But I have something that you will never have.” Perplexed, the wealthy man pressed the artist. “And what could that be?” Kurt smiled, held up his modest wine, looked about and said, “I have enough. I have enough.”
I looked down at my berries and smiled thinking of that story. Hum, maybe this is enough. All of the ingredients contained in this bowl came from the local soil. Is it enough?
“It is not what we have, but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” (Epicurus some years) ago.
I don’t know many people that can pass up a yard sale or a flea market. There is always a deal out there. Last weekend the village had profound collections all over the place and it included a wild assortment from dump-bound debris to treasures. I found the best sales tactic was to make much of it free and just move on with my life—time to clean up and purge the one-time important items. I didn’t get rid of my slightly bent racing bike due to its 45 years and no provenance due to my less than heroic history of racing. Looks cool and would nicely decorate a bar with all those Campanella parts—but no.
Still it felt good and all grinning participants had fun and met with friends to jabber and find out what life was like post covid.
For reasons still not clear, I along with three others didn’t quite have enough action with the local yard sailing/yard-sale-ing. We were forced to attend a ‘real’ flea market in Baraboo where the Wisconsin Steam and Gas hold the spring blowout market for individuals who need things made of iron, not modern steel but old iron, sometimes referred to as rusty junk. Such profusion of magnetos, worn-out farm implements left-overs from the dust bowl, colorful painted metal signs festooned with thinly clad, and exaggerated ladies from the forties, complete tractors worn-out from plowing some rock-strewn sand lot in Adams county right next to Ed Gein’s old place, and wild assortment single-cylinder gas and diesel engines used for grinding depression era corn with the hopes of making it through another winter—or I suppose making corn meal mash for a backwood’s stills.
We were easily entertained by the flea-market auction where gawking individuals (and I will add most were persons of the male persuasion) bid on assorted relics from the last iron age. But, we never really took part using seldom-exercised judgment as our guide knowing we all arrived there in Priuses (Priuri). These autos, in their modern charm, were not particularly suitable for hauling much of anything. A nice three horse Fuller-Johnson weighing in at 640 pounds was simply out of the question even if it was suspected of having run at least once in the last 50 years. All four of us marveled at the good price (except Martin who thought we were all nuts right from the get-go), still we smiled and dreamed of another home-bound project.
This flea market is always the mother of sales for all old-stuff made of iron (Martin again noted that much of the collections were like brother Jeff and I—old and in the way) but we prevailed and drifted through the rows and rows of things we found to be of so little value they would not even have been melted down during the most horrible of foreign wars.
Early on, we, Jeff, son Ian, and I had been attracted to a hodgepodge of metal piled on a flatbed truck. We had examined it, fondled the International M, 1.5 horse single-cylinder construct of rust that had obviously spent the better part of last century buried in mud. It had an inspirational draw, a calling if you will, asking us to bring it back to life even though it may have been better suited for an anchor for a steamship. We chatted up the owner from Iowa but initially made no indication we were actually willing to put out folding money for such a piece of Great Plains rubble. I suspect he could see the inner lusting.
We wandered off but on our swing back to our cars dropped by the flatbed from Iowa. It seemed I had brought down from my home two old water pumps from my collection and had intended on just leaving them with someone for their entertainment. It was then I realized I might be able to trade those two extremely valuable items for a reduced position on the International M. After some discourse, mostly intellectual, the owner said he could let the M go for the two pumps and $50. Martin mumbled something to the effect of, “For the love of God, man.” The rest of us, in a muted sense, felt redeemed, if not satisfied, to have instantly justified the time spent looking at incredible deals being offered up in this backyard of America—and it was only 350 pounds! What a day yard-sailing. No wonder everybody loves these outings. Sale on, or is it sail on?
I was listening to Neil Young belt out “In the field of opportunity it’s plowing time again” and realized it was that time. Yah, winter was over and while there still was a remnant of snow in the parking lot pile, it was that time. It was then Tom Waits came on singing ‘Ya gotta get behind the mule in the mornin’ and plow”.
Okay, Okay I know that in this our modern times, these songs of my past life are metaphors not suggestions that I really have to get out in the fields behind some belligerent mule and prepare the land for crops. But, they are encouragements of a sort to do something, after all, life has opportunities and some drudgery—like being pushed and pulled by a stinking draft animal—or could it just be ‘the system’ that we all have to face.
So, I pondered the situation while reclining in my “self-upholstered chair’, the wing back if I recall, wanting to know just what to do with my life. Youthful spring was reaching out her warm hand calling. How would I respond?
At first light around 10:45 on an early April morn, work boots on hand, gloves fitted, worn and tucked in my pockets, I, the noble and well-meaning farmer embraced the advice to get behind the iron mule, the waiting roto-tiller. I knew it had been well fed, so on the first pull of the ether-stimulated engine, life sprang anew and with the motion of a younger man, I stepped behind the rig and with the simple motion of the right hand nudged the whip to the beast. There was a hesitation, a hiccup, a snort of defiance as the gas-fueled, not oat-fueled, power plant spitted and chugged, then quit. After additional flogging, along with some colorful mule-skinner terminology most of it decorated with various words involving excrement and acts both socially unacceptable and physically impossible, the initiation of getting behind the plow came to a halt.
The iron monster just stood there, motionless, seeming to look back at me in disdain. Stepping back, my mind raced, or at least walked, maybe crawled, working through the pattern of behavior of this technological, but somewhat antiquated, tiller of the soil, this metal mule. Spark? Yes (it was metaphorically alive) because I could see the cute little flame come off the plug. Fuel? Seemed okay and the ether did give it a nice burst but the gasoline, the elixir of all life American, had been in the tank since last year where it could have rotted like good hay.
There was a flash of light, which is like a flash of insight, when it became apparent that a little food enhancement might be in order. I went inside next to a warm stove and poured a late morning tea to build my resolve and think like a mule. Sea Foam? Ya man, Sea Foam. It says right on the bottle that it will improve any fuel, making any engine come to life with minimal kicking and screaming. I took a huge gulp (just kidding) by essentially dumping a fine portion into the old stinking, water-filled gasoline.
Turns out, you have to have good hay to get a mule to move. One pull on the harness and off we went looking for opportunities in our vast field of some twenty-five hundred square feet. It was plowing time again and I was behind the mule.
But, like all fields of opportunity (other than Bitcoin), that mule would take some additional handling to achieve a harvest of plenty. For the next hour or so the hooves of that jackass kicked up soil, last year’s buried chicken, remnants of sunflowers and squash vines and most interestingly some Virginia Creeper vines that managed to get entangles in the legs of the iron monster. This required some more of the aforementioned farmer talk, spiked with sailor terminology, which I learned some years ago while serving before the mast with Captain Ahab—don’t call me Ishmael.
Making agriculture life even more interesting, a few days later I developed a nasty rash. It now appears that among the Creeper vines was the vegetative remains of what is called, in the forester trade, poison ivy. The damn mule kicked it all over the place making sure some of the oil, the plague of woodland farmer, scattered ever so delicately on my person, and that would be, in the end, on places we do not want to mention in polite company.
Still, “You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow.” because “In the field of opportunity it’s plowing time again. That garden better be damn good.
The Grandkid said just yesterday that it appeared every maple tree seemed to have a personality of some sort. I had noticed that as he went around and gathered the buckets, he would, almost out of habit, sip the last few drops from the containers. Sometimes the weak sap would slosh over him much like I remembered having beer slosh over me while attempting to chug a pitcher. While my effort was out of juvenile misbehavior, or was it stupidity, his seemed to be more for a culinary, maybe scholarly, experience. He would pause, savor the fresh liquid, reflect as if sampling a merlot and then make a statement. “You know, every one of these trees is different. Those three red maples down in the hole at Wayne and Patti’s taste like watermelon–seriously. That one on the hill hints of walnuts. Man, Tom’s are really sweet and just pour out.” “That one at Merlyn’s tastes weird.”
I don’t think these observations of tree personalities is confined to just him, nor just to maple trees. Interestingly though, after all the years of studying plants at school, I don’t recall any of those professors talk of tree personalities, or for that matter tree personality disorders. But who’s to say?
Now, I have had at least one individual tell me she talks to trees, in part to get their permission to, say, tap them for maple sugar sap. I have even caught myself talking to them saying things like, “If you could speak, I bet there are some stories here.” as I looked at a long horizontally extended branch that seemed to comply with myths about hanging trees. Or, “Look at you all spread out there in the thick forest of younger taller trees. What’s with that?” Then remembering the botanical teachings pontificating on open-grown burr oaks that had no competition so they simply spread out wide. They were the trademark of ancient oak openings or long-gone Wisconsin prairies. I suppose it is possible to still envision drifting buffalo under those same majestic oaks. Central Wisconsin forests are full of these huge spread out oaks left over from a time before white man.
In our casual conversations about tree personalities, I asked the kid about the one maple close to the road in front of the neighbor’s house, the one that never ran. He looked at me with slightly lifted eyes “I hate to tell you man, but you tapped a white oak. I thought you were some sort of botanist?” I had to remind him to keep a lid on that. It was then I recalled the heavy producing boxelder I tapped in Colorado only to later learn, under the stench of the boiling sap, that it was right smack over a septic tank. Mistakes are made but that is just part of rich texture of life in the sugar bush—and tree personality disorders.
Speaking of mistakes, a week ago I was invited to sample Tom and Cindy’s grand maples in front of their home. It was a generous offer as the trees were stately, well-formed and showed no sign of mistrust. Plus, visiting them came with an opportunity to chat and even see a picture of Tom’s youthful ability to dunk a basketball. It was as if each tree or set of trees does offer more than just beauty and sweet offerings.
I rambled over in the morning, plopped out of the car, shuffled across the lawn and proceeded to punch a hole in both to find the nectar flowing in spectacular form. Tom walked up and I said, “Wow look at this thing go. “ He smiled and said, “You do know this is not my yard.” In a morning haze, I looked up and damn, it wasn’t. It was Rick and Maureen’s. Tom just smiled at my senile effort and calmly noted, “Ah, don’t worry. They left for Mexico an hour ago.” Tom’s were even better and the six taps combined boiled out seven pints of the finest light syrup of the year.
While this has not been a treatises on the nature of trees, it is an observation about our friendly, leaved friends that would indicate there may be a need at some point to seek an education, maybe a PHD on tree personalities. I can see it now, Norwegian Maple found to have multiple personalities, one featuring dark, almost purple year-long leaves and yet not self-conscious, but confident in its ability to produce a refined, almost nutty, sweet sap. Not talkative, subtle, not invasive but forthright and suitable for front yard presentation. The grandkid may have found a calling.