Gold-leafed trees rise out of a morning mist along the freeway. I am driving, and my sister is in the passenger seat. When she reaches for a paper sack at her feet, Santiago rises from where he has been slumbering in the back and places his muzzle hopefully between our shoulders. I give him two bites of the pumpkin doughnut she hands to me, after which he settles down to sleep again. We pass an oil refinery–a campus of pipes and spikes and smoke plumes set against a barren horizon, a scene of intricate industrial detail and reach. My sister says, “I remember that. It was eerie at night.” Then the landscape melts again into unfamiliarity.
People are angry about the pandemic. In focus groups, they say that they want to buy cars, but manufacturing and distribution haven’t recovered from global lockdowns, and a backlog of container ships has stalled at the ports. There are no cars to buy. People say that they want to go to restaurants, but restaurants keep short hours or provide service only on patios. The food gets cold on the way home. The people get cold on the patios.
My car is streaked with the rust of eleven years of salted winter roads. My sister is wearing a mask. I took a COVID test, and I crack a window because if I wear a mask my glasses fog. We will be lunching with friends. We are happy.
There are two different places that I refer to as “the farm.” The first is where my father was raised, on land that his family homesteaded in Colorado in the nineteenth century. We used to visit when I was a young child. In the mudroom of the farmhouse, my grandfather kept a silver Newton’s pendulum that glinted as it swung and clicked, swung and clicked, swung and clicked… There was a furnace in the living room as tall and as cozy as a picture-book grizzly bear, and outside there was a cellar door beside which my grandmother taught me how to shuck corn. After my father grew up and went into business–and after his own father died and the family farm passed to cousins–he purchased eighty acres in Minnesota, about half of them arable, and worked them with a partner. We visited that farm regularly on summer weekends throughout the later years of my childhood. In time, Dad sold the land to his farming partners, our friends.
That second farm is where my sister and I are headed. She has not visited since her teenage daughter was in elementary school; I have not been since I myself was in high school. When a limestone bluff rises beside us, we know that we are close, and when the road curves and we recognize a winding ribbon of driveway, we give a little shout of victory. Santiago rises in the back seat. I gaze sideways at a field where, as kids, we took rides in a purple sleigh that glided behind a snowmobile. As I navigate around a chicken coop and grain silos, my sister is waving to her childhood friend–the farmer’s daughter, now a farmer herself–who sits on the front porch of a house that I am seeing for the first time. The original farmhouse burned down when I was still a kid. Another woman exits the front door, walking with a cane. I can sense Santiago behind me rippling with excitement as I park the car.
My sister walks to the porch to greet the friend with whom, as a girl, she shared bubblegum and secrets, with whom she rode horses and dressed cats and cuddled piglets. I release Santi from his seat belt and hold tightly to his leash as he jumps to the ground. A collie ambles over to us. She is larger than Santiago, with a regal calm that contrasts sharply with his mad thrill. After a hasty nuzzle, Santi turns and aims for a pen of chickens who have congregated in speckled and strutting, tufted and gleaming magnificence. They scatter in alarm. He pulls me to an apple tree where I rock uncertainly on the fruit under our feet as he roots around in the grass. Then he darts over to a truck parked on the driveway and pees on one of its tires.
A dozen or more cattle are lined up behind a low, wooden fence, with ponies in a corral behind them where the yard slopes down into a stand of trees. One steer–with slightly curly locks the color of summer sand–watches Santiago intently, and the force of his curiosity makes Santi curious, too. As the farmer approaches in a loader filled with silage, the steer ducks his head through the fence rails. Santiago strains forward on the leash. The steer sticks out a wide, pink tongue and Santiago sniffs it. There is a moment of consideration. And then, at the same instant, both animals leap backward as if having received a shock of electricity. Santi hurries along to the gardens. The cattle all watch him with suspicion.
Time has changed some things. The steps that I climb to the front porch are alongside a snug log house. It was built from the timber and stone of the land that surrounds it, with a large fireplace and a sunlit loft. It replaces a white clapboard house where we slept at the top of narrow stairs as children. In the yard, a pool that once sat naked like a cistern on the soil is flanked by foliage and a wooden deck upon which a slide lies on its side, its season over. I hug the farmer’s wife and the farmer’s daughter, and I see that blond hairs have become white, that figures have softened and the cane is nearby. Still, the faces of mother and daughter are exactly as I remember them. We sit, chatting of snakes and frogs and desperate foxes, and we watch cats prowling at our ankles, and the laughter, too, is familiar.
When the farmer has fed the cattle, he greets us and gets into a car with his daughter. My sister and I follow, the gravel on the road clouding behind the bumper ahead, even on this cool, damp morning. A man in the cab of a passing tractor waves at us. We don’t know him, but we wave back, relieved by this gesture of rural civility. We have worried that we are city slickers, my sister and I, that there is an ignorance in us that is unwelcome here. And it is October; there is work to be done. But the farmer’s daughter says that if she and her family saw friends only when there was no work to be done, they would never see friends. “Anyway,” she says, “it is too wet today to harvest the beans.” So we have come.
The car ahead pulls off the road and stops at a gate. The farmer gets out. He wears a brown cap and a green jacket, and he swings open the gate, ushering us through. Autumn scrub scrapes at the rust on the underside of my car as we slow down and park before a steep wall of rock. This quarry marks the edge of the land my dad once worked. When we were young, my siblings and I and our farming friends climbed here on mountains of gravel. The rock face is farther from the road than it was in those days. It is more beautiful than I remembered. I let Santiago out of the car, and though I leave his leash hitched to his harness, I allow him to drag it. There are no cats to chase, but there are surely deer. I stand staring at this place that is full of both undisclosed wonders and closely held memories, a place both strange and known. Santi squats to poop, and I mutter that I’ve left bags in the car.
“You don’t need a poop bag,” says the farmer’s daughter, and her voice is high as she tries to strangle a laugh coming up from her belly, a courtesy to an ignorant city slicker.
We walk from the quarry into a wood that my father planted. We try to ascertain the age of the red pines by counting their branches–which grow like rungs on a ladder, one for each year–but the canopy is so far up that we lose count at twenty-five. Black walnuts have fallen and loll under our boots in big, round hulls. Santiago has left me and walks beside the farmer, who strolls with an ease that comes of knowing the land. There are no footpaths here. We lift and stomp branches out of our way, bracing ourselves against tree trunks to keep from sliding down slopes. My sister and the farmer’s daughter walk together, and there is something girlish about the way that they hold their bodies, their heads together, quick to smile. We make our way up to a ridge that leads to the top of the quarry. When we arrive, I hang back, afraid of heights. I watch Santi climb a hump of grass and rock at the top of the cliff and look down. I shudder and stifle the impulse to tell him to be careful. He shimmies backward off the perch and resumes grazing at the edge of the wood.
One of my friendships collapsed this year. It was longstanding, with a woman who was smart and liked to laugh. She used to text photos from places where she was traveling: restaurants and street corners and beaches and gardens. The pandemic depressed her. She yearned to experience more of the world but did not accept invitations to get takeout from a new restaurant nearby, or to visit a church or a garden, or to drink coffee in my study with the windows open. Travel meant something different to her than it does to me. She had purchased a car, and it needed repairs. She didn’t want to talk about that. Santi and I once stopped by her house with doughnuts. She was sick of making her own meals, she said. She didn’t come to the door; we left the sack on the front stoop. Work was bad. She didn’t want to talk about that either. It was hard to find something that she wanted to talk about. She peered out a window as we drove off, a phone to her ear, in a meeting. I hardly recognized her.
The farmer is leading us to where our family kept a camper in a clearing among the trees. In those days, I was afraid of sleeping on the bunk bed, but the camper had replaced a tent and provided better shelter from spiders. The truth is that when I was young, my affection for the outdoors was timid. At the farm, I was often to be found in the camper reading a book, or–after their home went up in flames during church one Sunday morning–in our friends’ camper, playing their piano. And as I follow the farmer, with Santiago nosing the earth two feet in front of him, these woods could be anywhere.
But then the farmer stops, and I cease watching my feet in the underbrush, and I see a dry creek bed, and I am filled with emotion. This was the spot. When I was a child here, the summer mornings were sunlit and peaceful. Everything was green. Our family dog roamed in the grass beside the banks, small-boned and long-haired, without a leash, mad thrilled. The farmer would visit, and he and my father would talk and laugh, and when we drove to the farmhouse, a collie would amble over to us on the driveway, and my brother would run off to play with the farmer’s son, and my sister would run off to play with the farmer’s daughter, and in the kitchen, my mother and I would listen to the farmer’s wife tell stories, her eyes merry as she made big meals for us to eat.
The hospital near my home has received record numbers of trauma patients this year. There are more car crashes, more gunshot wounds. And there are the infections. It is not my imagination that I hear ambulance sirens and medical choppers breaking the air hour after hour, day after day, month after month. But over this land–this farm–in this moment, the air is whole. It is quiet. And in that quietude, I remember that my life has been full of love.
Looping back to our cars, we cross a soybean field. My sister and the farmer’s daughter are walking shoulder to shoulder now through the narrow rows of bean stalks, radiating under the flat, gray sky ever more childlike delight in one another’s company.
“Don’t you remember,” I call to my sister, “when we pulled weeds here?”
She remembers pulling weeds but does not remember that it was here, right here. The work made me hot and achy and sulky, but I was proud to be doing something important. From time to time, Santiago disappears. When I call him, he comes to me from where the field meets the wood, his face suffused with rapture: he has been eating deer scat and wildflowers. In the night, his diet will return to haunt us. The farmer asks if I am hungry and holds out his palm. On it, are three, miniscule, yellow beans. I put the biggest one in my mouth. It is chewy. Still too moist for harvesting, he says. Then he is telling me the names of the plants at the edge of the field: mare’s tail and buttonweed and foxtail grass. He hands me a sprig of lamb’s quarters. He is weeding as he walks, and I want to know the things he knows. But Santiago has charged ahead and I jog after him, grabbing the leash to limit his trampling of the crop.
Back at the farmhouse, I give Santi kibble and water, and leave him in the car to rest. The farmer’s daughter has been joined by her husband. He wears a silver, Western belt buckle and shares the family trait of laughing at what might make others curse. We sit down to lunch in the snug log house and the farmer offers grace: a prayer of thanks for food and friendship. We pass around plates of beef burgers and tomato slices; freshly picked sweet corn and creamy orange gelatin; potato chips and tortilla chips. There are cookie bars for dessert. It is the best meal I’ve had in a long while. Every now and again, the collie barks from the front porch and Santi answers her, sleepily. A rooster adds commentary. At the dining table, we reminisce about rafting on the river and sneaking in the woods. Then talk turns to those who are young now, as we once were.
We laugh and laugh.
The wind has ushered in a blue sky with carded cotton clouds. I bring Santi a bit of beef and let him out of the car. We will have one more walk-about–on his leash–before we depart. He has already had a stand-off with a kitten whose milk-white fur had pretty patches of coffee and espresso beans. She stood her ground in the farmyard, her tiny back arched, as Santiago strained at his tether and barked. The farmer asks if I want to see the silage, and Santi and I follow him. The feed is out in the open, under that blue sky. The farmer takes a fistful of it and opens his hand, shows it to me. He talks about how the entire plant–not just the grain–ferments and remains stable without cover of a silo, how the great jumble of it generates heat and provides a warm meal to the cattle throughout the winter.
And then he asks me a question. When he grows corn, he says, he plants seeds at a certain poundage and uses fertilizer at a certain poundage, but the crop yields vastly more pounds than those two figures combined. Where do those pounds, where does that crop come from?
Santiago is pulling. The dirt here must smell of the silage and the apples, the cats and the collie, the cows and the ponies, mice and snakes. It must smell of the foxes who have been making off with hen after hen. I am trying to listen to the farmer provide a gloss on photosynthesis as every few seconds Santi tugs in a different direction. I don’t know the answer to the question.
“A lot of people will say, ‘the soil,'” says the farmer. “But that’s not right. It comes from the atmosphere.”
“It’s a miracle,” he says.
Like my father, the farmer is a scientist. They worked together in business before they became partners in working the land.
“I probably never would have gone back to farming if your dad had remained my boss,” says the farmer. “He was kind. He listened.”
But that wasn’t what happened. The farmer tells me what it was like to work for a large organization as a young man with a family: what compromises were made, and who made them. He tells me what it has been like to work on a small farm: what compromises have been made, and who has made them. We are standing near a grassy knoll beneath which lie the remains of an old barn: the one in which the piglets and puppies of my childhood were born. It was destroyed by a tornado a couple of decades ago. It lies in a puddle on the ground, not much more than a cupola in the midst of weathered gray planks. The farmer remarks that he ought to have taken care of this ruin by now, but it moves me. Its presence reminds me of joys the meaning of which I did not know when I was young. I am glad that it is here.
The farmer’s daughter is standing near the water pump. She is about to broadcast feed for the chickens. The drought seems to have brought around more, hungrier foxes, so the formerly free range of the flock has been curtailed. They are released from a wire enclosure only when minders–the collie, the farmers–are nearby. I put Santiago back in the car. He will sleep richly on the ride home, the sinking sun warm upon his side, his muscles so tired that breathing itself barely lifts his ribs.
The chickens are running about the yard, each to a preferred little plot of ground: in the grass beside a mower or in the garden where purple shamrocks are blooming or underneath the bench where the sweet corn gets shucked. They are the colors of the earth, from chalk to clay, silt to loam, and their eggs–which we are given as a parting gift–are similarly various and lovely. The kitten has climbed a tree and watches the frolicking with her belly pressed to a branch, her eyes wary. We talk about the winter rye going in beside the long driveway: cover crop to nourish depleted soil. A large black rooster–his feathers smart and shiny–strides among the hens with evident pleasure.
When my sister and I extend our farewell hugs, we are told that we don’t have to leave yet. On the drive home, we are a little giddy.
The startling heat that troubled the summer continues into October: for weeks, temperatures are ten or fifteen degrees above average. The potatoes that I’ve stored in the basement are sprouting and the apples are rotting. It does not rain, and every day the water in the bird bath evaporates in the midday sun. I plant bare root spiderwort and angelica, watering the sprouts along with the grass seed that I’ve scattered and the trees that are going into their second winter in a drought. The Kentucky coffee trees have made only a handful of pods this season. I think of my father’s red pines and black walnuts. There is always work to be done.
The sirens trouble me less after the visit to the farm. I sleep better. One afternoon, as I sit on my living room couch, I notice the white cedar outside the front window quaking. I take off my reading glasses and watch as a dozen or more sparrows flutter among its branches, feeding on the seeds in its cones. A month ago, this tree was lying flat on the lawn, its shallow roots having tipped out of the ground after suffering the trauma of a severed limb and a year of excessive heat and aridity. Nearly every day, I gaze on its leaves, wondering if they have enough blue, if I need to get out a watering can, wondering what I can do to encourage those roots to tunnel deep, to rest in what is solid. But here it is, heavy with seed, offering a big meal for the birds.
It’s a miracle.
To see silage, a rooster, autumn in the suburbs, Santiago at the top of a cliff, and at least one scary Halloween display, visit the gallery.