I wrote this in 2012. Maybe it’s because this April marks the 22nd anniversary of my father’s passing or Spring’s tug at childhood memories or Earth Day approaching, it just felt like it wanted to be shared. The Oliver 1555 tractor is still running good and working the land as it has for the past 50 years. Three generations have sat behind the wheel. I feel Dad’s smile from heaven every time I turn the key.
Call of the Land
Wisps of Earth perfumed the air. The scent of fresh, moist soil drifted through a maze of barn odors to be within sniffing distance of my nose. The whiff tickled the air making my nose giggle. I drew in a long, full, deliberate breathe. My heart chuckled. Dad was plowing the side field and the land was calling me to play in a whisper of a whisper on the air.
I can’t recollect how long I had been standing in the doorway of the barn, that betwixt and between place where the inside air which was thick with odors of cattle, feed, and manure mingles with the outside air that was crisp, fresh and inviting.
I was taking a break from the lingering morning chores, graining the milk cows, feeding the calves and washing up the milking equipment. Dad left me to finish up as he was anxious to begin plowing. Washing the milking equipment was always left for last. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated the milk house clean-up, but it earned a position at the bottom of my “to do” list anyway. I always felt a great sense of accomplishment when I stood back admiring the gleaming stainless-steel hanging from the walls. That felt good. The dislike came from what didn’t feel good, what it took to get it that way. The pungent detergents bit at your skin and burned your nostrils as it purged the remnants of milk and grime from a menagerie of hoses and containers. The bulk tank was deep and reaching in the sides cut into my armpits being I was short on one end. Scrubbing was occasionally a necessity when the milk dried and bound to the rubber of the teat cups with the tenacity of a junk yard dog chewing a bone. This was usually caused when washing the milking equipment moved from beyond ‘last’ on my chore list to ‘forgotten’.
The bristles of farm chores never brushed down to actual work in my mind. I took joy and gave delight in each menial task. Farming offered a life of consistency, freedom, risk, uncertainty and pride in what two hands, a strong back and a willing mind could accomplish if they worked in harmony with the land, answered her call. Back then, if you were a farmer, it was because you loved the land. You were called by the land to steward the bountiful abundance of love and life that emanated from each stitch in the patch you we’re fortunate enough to care for.
To me being called a farm girl was a compliment of the highest accord. Being raised on a farm was like receiving a kiss from God, pressed on the hand of fate, lovingly blown to me by destiny. I knew a few other farm girls from school that thought otherwise. They were of the opinion that being raised on a farm was a cruel fate, robbing them of their dignity and Palmolive soft hands.
I steered clear of the house as much as possible. It was my Mother’s domain. The only place I felt controlled, confined. The house was for eating, sleeping and forced cleaning of both it and myself. The only miserable thought I had during this time of year, spring, was the increased frequency in which the cleaning of both the house and I had to be performed. You weren’t a farm kid if you didn’t have dirt under your fingernails, bruised skinned knees and semi-permanent dirt ring around the soles of your feet. Bath time provided an opportunity for the soap and water to attempt the removal of the dirt and crud lodged within the crevices, crinkles and wrinkles of my tough weather worn skin. It wasn’t very successful most of the time even if I soaked in it until the skin on my fingers resembled that of a prune, an over cooked one at that.
In the distance, I could hear the hum of the tractor engine. A 1555 Oliver, bought brand spanking new in the 70’s. She was at full throttle making good time turning the soil to its side. Every so often I knew when Dad had circled back to the low end of the field because I could hear her bog down and give out a growl, straining under the pull of the wet heavy soil that wasn’t ready to be broken from its hold on sleep. Plowing was truly an awakening of the land, drawing the covers from her face after a long winters sleep. The earth was coming alive, renewing the gifts only she was capable of giving, the gifts of sustained life from her fertile womb.
Finally, the cows finished licking up the last morsels of their sweet ground feed. It was time to let them out to pasture. Soon the clink of opening and closing snaps was echoing through the manger. I’d hang each chain neatly over the stall head ready to accept the cows for evening milking in an efficient manner. As they walked through the gateway the land once again called to me in the wind. Eager to assess Dad’s progress, I climbed the gate to see what portion of land was painted with the rich hues of brown and gold that only the brush held in the hand of a plow can paint. Seeing that most of the canvas remained blank I decided I would ride the Oliver for a bit until a substantial amount of ground lay waiting for my amusement, a real playground.
I gave one last pat to the back side of Spunker, the matriarch of the herd and the aluminum gate shut behind her with clank, narrowly missing her hind hock. She was old, wise and a putz, pretty much held the attitude that she had nothing to do and all day to do it. She was born on the farm and my favorite because of her unusual markings. Spunker had a white line down the length of her back and a speckle black and white face. Her body was black except for a white bullseye on her butt and white socks. I helped bring her into the world and she helped me be in this world.
Off I ran, taking the short cut under the electric fence, through the cow pasture and over the ditch. Crossing the cow pasture, I had to be mindful and aware of each well-placed step since I was barefoot and it was laden with fresh cow pies as the cows swaggered to the far end of the pasture. I remember one time when I dashed to head off a heifer, Little Blue that was reluctant to come into the corral. I felt a warm soft ooze flow between each toe of my left foot as I planted it to make a quick change of direction to cut her off. Dang it Little Blue! Look what you made me do! It wasn’t that I was grossed out by the fact I’d just stepped into a pile of shit; it was the eww feeling that caused my disgust. I promptly perused my surroundings looking for a solution, only to see grass bitten down to bare ground, much to short to pass between my toes. Luckily, I spied a lush patch of White Dutch clover nearby and I was able to wipe a majority of the slice of cow pie from the bottom and sides of my feet. It was between my toes that caused the dilemma. I didn’t want to touch any pieces of the pie and all I had to work with, in the pasture was clover. I began to methodically separate each toe from the one next to it and brush my foot, this way and that way, through the clover blossoms. I was very pleased with the resulting outcome. I walked proudly behind Little Blue into the barn and down the main aisle with a sweet-scented clover blossom between each toe of my left foot.
I opted to intersect the Oliver at the closest point to the pasture fence, it was an unspoken knowing that when I made my way towards the Oliver, I was coming with something or nothing on my mind. Today it was nothing. I made my way to the end of the field near a newly laid furrow and waited for the Oliver and Dad to round the corner. Dad eased the Oliver to a stop and I began the labored rise to my perch on the fender. Sometimes Dad would make like he was coming at me with the tractor and pretend to swerve the steering wheel towards me. He’d flick the ashes from his Marlboro and flash me a smile. The tractor was at a peculiar angle when plowing, as the set of wheels on the one side followed without protest, the open furrow while the other set rode on the untouched ground. The Oliver and plow would lose their equilibrium on each turn into the new furrow, wobbling and swaying briefly on the uneven ground until the turn was completed and the peculiar angle was once again sustained. This made sitting the most tolerable position when plowing and the one I would choose today.
There was a strategically placed handle welded onto the fender but when sitting I mostly relied on Dad’s shoulder. When I was much younger 4- or 5-years old Dad would squeeze me between him and the steering wheel, managing to give me an inch or two of the seat all a 4 or 5 year old needs for comfort. That gave me great delight because when the way was straight and clear I took over the wheel, standing with an outstretched neck struggling to see over the tractor’s mountainous frame.
I since outgrown the privileged position and made do the best I could. The knobby knees of an 8-year-old served only to be in the way when riding the Oliver. By the end of summer, they would be decorated with black and blue medals, somewhat round configurations that blended nicely with the tones of red displayed in the back drop of scrapes cover my skin. I could tell you with precise detail, who, what, when, where, and how I had the misfortune to received every last one of the scrapes and bruises because each one had a story to tell about me. The stories were rekindled in an instant if you made the slightest glance or comment about the way my knees looked. You would then be subjected to a flawless rendition of each and every last story, embellished with facial expressions and full body dramatics. The bruises came from the constant knocking of my knees against a myriad of levers, controllers and do hickey’s that maneuvered the equipment like a robotic extension of Dad’s arm.
The Oliver’s engine hummed a soothing song and my senses soon numbed. A trance-like state floated over and within me as I watched the rows of ground turning over each other, again, and again, and again. My eyelids would feel the heaviness of the mornings work and my tired legs would begin to give at the knees, jerking me from my doziness for a brief sudden moment. When I started to drift to sleep the ride was over. It was simply too dangerous and the Dad eased the Oliver’s engine down once again and I began a sluggish decent to the earth. The Oliver is with us to this day, starts right up without hesitation, still answering the call of the land to work on occasion. When I sit in her cracked worn seat and tenderly slide my hand around the steering wheel, I drift back to a time when the voice of your character was spoken in the life you lead, back then you stood on your reputation, built it on integrity with a foundation of hard work.
It was time to play! The land was my playground, a natural wonder emporium, overflowing with adventure and brimming with exploration. I was always in awe when seemingly out of nowhere flocks of seagulls would begin to appear whenever Dad plowed. There angelic white bodies drew stark contrast against the dark shadowy soil. It wasn’t that we lived particularly close to water, but the Bay of Green Bay was a 10-minute ride as the crow flies. I just figured they heard the call of the land in a whisper of a whisper on the air. They feasted on the plump, dazed grubs riddling the surface of the ground. I’d lie still as a statue taking in their beauty then suddenly rise and run towards the flock startling them into taking flight like clouds returning to the sky.
The plowed ground exposed all kinds of buried treasures, magnificently colored stones of every size shape. Ancient stone people at rest for eons now arisen. It would take centuries but the elements would return them again to what they once were, rusted memories of long forgotten machinery pieces lay in their earthen graves without markers. The apex of treasures for me…a horseshoe. I was horse crazy and finding a horse shoe was like receiving a sign, a message from God that I was a pinch closer to waking from my dream of having a horse. Over the years, I found five horseshoes. They hang in the home I occupy today. They serve as a wonderful reminder of how lucky I was to be raised on a farm and to have a horse share my journey through the winding trails of childhood.
I’d stroke and dig at the furrows, breaking away roots holding to life with a death grip. I’d weave the long hairy strands into jewelry and adorn my wrists and head with the twisted intricate embellishments. Lots of creepy crawlies lived among them too, fascinating creatures that wiggled and squirmed about when they were picked from their homes, no longer feeling the Earth beneath them. I do the same when I distance myself from the land, go too far away to hear her call, I become uneasy and restless. What joy I found in finding a friend that was so small and squirmy.
Walking across the lay of the furrow was difficult. When you followed the furrow there was buoyancy to each step, a slight spring that loped you forward. This was good fodder for fantastic imaginary games I’d play in my head. My active imagination gained momentum and fueled my legs and spirit as I ran across the field, blurring the lines of reality and make believe. I’m sure I was quite the sight, flapping my fully extended arms as if I would take flight in very next bellow – in my mind I already had.
Everything in nature intrigued me, especially animals. I liked to think of my imagination as animal-aided, instead of animated, although, the meaning was the same, so many vivid exchanges of pure joy and spontaneous laughter. It matters not if they were real or imagined only that I made myself believe, playing makes you believe. This taught me that you have to believe in something for it to become anything, and if that something you believe in is your imagination, anything can happen.
By now my tummy was rumbling and as I looked up, squinting, I could see the sun had raised high in the sky; Dad had finished plowing and was heading the Oliver towards the yard. His tummy must have been rumbling too, like mine. As much as I wanted to stay, I begrudgingly moved in the direction of the house. The land would still be there after breakfast. It would be there for me my entire life.
I was baptized a child of the Earth by no other means than being birthed a farmer’s daughter, growing up on the nourishing bosom of nature, tasting the sweetness of life in the land of milk and honey. Mother Earth bore me, Mother Nature raised me. There are no ornate ceremonies honoring the sacrament. It’s a calling to communion with the land, a primal ache to be so intimate with the Earth that you feel the rhythm of her heart pulsating through the blood in your veins. Age and experience have whittled away at my doubts of connection with her like a sharp knife to soft poplar. I am evolving from hearing the call of the land to listening to her voice echo in my heart guiding my actions, a call to teach our children to honor and respect her gifts of transformation, healing medicine power and messages of wisdom for all of us. In simple words, do more to heal than harm her, so our children’s children will recognize her voice when they hear the call and have it echo in their hearts.