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Friday, August 27, 2004

A Place in the City, A Home in the Country

I often stand outside, at home on my parents’ farm, or stare out the windows for long stretches of time remembering being a kid outside playing in the summer sun, or building snow men and snow forts in the winter. In fact, now I am sitting thinking about fall when I was young as I contemplate the end of my undergraduate education. College was my first move in life. And I have learned that humans are probably the most adaptable species on the world. Of course science tells us we are also one of the most frail. However, our intelligence, and sometimes our hubris, pushes us to conquer and thrive in places where life was never intended to be. I’ve never felt a desire to push the boundaries of human existence. No, my experience has been confined pretty much to two distinct settings. I live in a mid sized city: La Crosse, Wisconsin. It is on the Mississippi River and it is a very clean and safe city. But for me home is still a small farm in rural, central Wisconsin.

In the morning there is a certain peace that is particular to the country. The city never slows down enough to get to this point. When I first moved to the city I would go out walking very late at night all the time because that is the closest the city ever comes to the quiet of home. This quiet in the country is like a promise that the next day can be anything that I want it to be. The city truly never sleeps and I always fall asleep knowing exactly what the next day will bring. Now that I’ve been in college for three and a half years every time I go home to the farm I’m confronted by memories. These make the quiet a little less comfortable. And I think about the fact that I only have a limited amount of time before I have to move on. Even though I know my parents will always welcome me there the time to really move on is near.

My family is at the end of a transition phase. Three years ago we had to sell all of our cattle. We quit farming because we couldn’t afford to do it any more. It was a hard decision but it really was the best one. My brothers, who had been running the farm, needed to go out and find other jobs. And now the barn sits there empty except for a few chickens that my brother takes care of as a hobby. I wasn’t all that involved in the day to day operation of the farm but this loss has still had a profound effect on me. And I realize now all that I learned from the animals on the farm. My two brothers, two sisters and myself learned a lot from the animals on the farm. But now my niece and nephew who live with their father and grandparents on the farm don’t have these learning experiences. We joke about who will have to have "the talk" with them. Really we won’t have to because they have learned it all from school. My siblings and I never needed a class called sex education when we had the cow yard full of cows and bulls. "Dad, why is that cow jumping on that other cow?"

We quickly learned the ways of life. The calf stuck in the birth canal of the mother cow gets a rope tied around its front legs and it gets pulled out. If it cannot be pulled out by hand, a come-along is used. The mechanics of birth are no mystery when you have to get up to your shoulder in it.

Birth is dangerous in nature.

But birth is not necessarily any safer in a hospital room. The two people who come together to create a child are supposed to be there, together to support the infant as he or she grows. But we have also learned that these plans often change. Birth is very dangerous whenever it happens. Even when the mother and father stay married there is often a reason for one or the other to neglect parental duties. It is interesting that the baby calf comes out of the mother front hooves first. If every thing works naturally, the calf lands so that these legs protect the head. Human babies come out of the mother head first. Some one needs to be there to catch the baby.
And sometimes the baby calf needs to be hung upside down in order to get all of the liquid to drain out of its lungs. This is similar to the doctor holding the baby upside down and slapping the rear end. Calves don’t cry though, they make a sound that can best be described as a bleat. There are basically three possible paths for the life of a calf. If it is born a male, the calf could grow up to be a bull and father many hundreds of other calves or more likely it will make it to the cow equivalent of young adulthood and then onto someone’s dinner table. Female cows have the privilege of mothering about six calves in their lives and being milked twice a day while they are producing.

Yes, the life of a cow is not the lazing about that you see in the pastures. Standing there chewing their cud the cows look peaceful and content. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Really, they are the epitome of "ignorance is bliss." They are the most stupid animals alive. But that is as it should be. Our food source should not be aware of its fate any more than the grass and clover it eats should be.

I used to search on our lawn for hours at a time for a four leaf clover that might be hiding among the blades of grass. It is easier when luck is something palpable you can hold onto. Life isn’t as scary with an honest to goodness lucky horse shoe in your pocket. Once at a youth group trip to the roller rink we were all given a nail. We were told to keep the nail and remember what God had let happen to his own son in order for our sins to be wiped clean. "I don’t understand how that works. Please explain it to me." "It just works." Not for me.

La Crosse is a city with a lot of faith. It is also a city with a great sense of the importance of education, culture, and the arts. In front of the city library in La Crosse there is a sculpture by Peter Grauland. It is a man sitting on a block. And you can see how the pieces of the man were carved out of that block. It creates a very disturbing series of holes in the block. Like something out of a horror movie. But I find myself drawn to this block man. I wonder what the artist meant it to be. I wonder what I think it means. Did God really extract the head, torso and limbs of this man from the block and put them together? Or did this man will his body to form from the block? I’m either a really bad Christian or a really good agnostic.

Across the street from this sculpture in a small park is a sculpture that I can understand more easily. A group of metal beams split and twist to form an impossible knot. A symbol to the beauty and grace of industry. A hood ornament on the automobile of progress. And why shouldn’t we pat ourselves on the back for our initiative. But we really should be sure of the direction we are driving that car. Because this is one instance where a dead end could truly be deadly.

Maybe it is an underlying sense of the possible destruction of nature and end of the world, or maybe it is just a tradition. But for most people there is an annual urge to get out of the city. Summer brings about the possibility of fleeing the regimen of the city and experiencing the great out doors, or the great cities of Europe, or any one of a number of tourist traps throughout the country. And as children we were also anxious to go to the tourist traps. We wanted to go down the water slides and play in the wave pools. We were all crazy. I work in one of these tourist traps so I know about the dark side of such places. I’ve learned two major things from this. People on vacation are rarely happy. This is recognized by other people in the town. At one hotel there is a sign that says "Smile. You’re on Vacation." And I’m better off than all those tourists because in the summer I get to go home, a place that makes me truly happy.

Home is a special place with many special places. When I was a child there was a very important place for me. It is in the middle of the lower pasture. A creek flows there and life lives in the creek. No major life. No fish to pull out on shiny hooks with plastic worms. But there is life none the less. And this life would sometimes attach onto me and leach from me. A leech, a little round black disk that will only come off after being showered in salt or burned with a match. In the city children do all of their swimming in these safe, tile lined, concrete holes in the ground. There no life in this pool because it isn’t safe to have living things in there. Children in the city are sheltered from the difficulty of such incidental life. I’m not sure how this makes children different. But I think in general that children of the city don’t have as developed a sense of what nature provides. They don’t know how to live with nature.

There are also special places in La Crosse. La Crosse is located between the Mississippi River and a series of hills and bluffs. One of the special places is up on Grandad’s Bluff. All over in the woods up there are the remnants of camp fires. Some from hundreds of years ago and others from last night. There is also a path up on the bluff where after about a mile of hiking there is a split in the path. To the left is the remains of a building with stairs that lead down into a basement. I imagine it to have been a fort or some similar building. The right side of the path leads to a cliff that is lower than the tourist outlook but it is not fenced. Here there is a flat rock to the side that you can crawl onto and all around you are carvings. People’s names, hearts, and dates significant to young lovers surround you. So maybe in the city there is still some connection to nature.

Of course as a child of a farmer I learned to dump chemicals on our fields to kill weeds and fertilize the plants. In that way we are all guilty of not appreciating nature. We don’t expect our actions to affect any one else. That is the benefit that the child of the city has over me. I may feel more in tune with nature but they understand human nature better than I ever will. A person who grows up in the city is infinitely more connected to other people than I am. And sometimes the safety of the city gets in the way of nature.

I can’t see the stars in the city. There is a haze of light that just obscures them out of view. I would need an artificial eye to see them here. But that haze represents safety. Absent from our home in the country is the safety of street lights and readily available police. We are a family alone in the country. Though our neighbors are not too far away we only speak rarely and they would laugh at the idea of being a community. I would too.

The way it works is that we are born and we die in generations and the home and the land get handed down. And more births and deaths occur. And along with the physical properties that we hand down we hand down the stories of how the neighbor up the road wronged our parent, or our grandparent, or our great-grandparent, or some unspecified relative. We all truly believe in the country that we are the most righteous people possible. Well maybe I don’t.

There are stories that go along with all of our neighbors. These stories serve to keep us separate; just as they are the main factor, after place, that keeps us together. Ten years ago when we had some steers get out the Millers rounded them up and kept them. "Old man Miller was always a scoundrel," Dad would say. And Mr. Green is so selfish and stuck up. "I was hunting along where our two properties meet once and I shot a deer that jumped over onto their land. Mrs. Green came out there and threatened to call the police for trespassing." There are stories for all of them. I just wonder what stories they all have for us.

"Those Lentz’s are such bull headed people." "I can’t believe they don’t fix up that old barn." "I heard that none of them have been to church for years." And the gossip really does go on and on. But as children you don’t really notice such things. You are more concerned with the outside world. And after the Fourth of July you scour every paper for a mention of the Columbia County fair in Portage, Wisconsin.

The Portage Fair meant the end of summer. It was our last big fling. If the start of summer naturally forced us to swim and beg to go to the water slides, the end of summer would certainly mean going to the fair. We longed to be flipped and tossed around until we couldn’t hold in our lunch any more. We needed something shook lose. And the fair was the perfect place to do that. At such a young age we were learning that we had two sides. Apollo and Dionysus were already divvying up our lives. And in La Crosse there is a different event that honors the same tradition. Oktoberfest, a two week long drinking festival, teaches city children about their dual character. Another thing that fall means is the return to school.

So, four years ago in the fall when I had to leave home for school I was ready to see how the city was more civilized. I came to this city on the river expecting it to be different. But I quickly learned it isn’t any different. It is just that property lines don’t determine who is talked about. No, in the city the lines of gossip are drawn between neighborhoods, socioeconomic groups, religions, races, and school districts. From what I can see the stories handed down aren’t much different. They are just as hurtful and they also serve to divide people.

A couple months ago two men attacked another man in downtown La Crosse because the man is gay. La Crosse has a rather large Hmong population and there have been many disagreements over bussing students in the past because some people don’t want their children going to school with them. Rumors are still alive and well that the Hmong people will eat cats and dogs from their neighbors. And in other countries, and in our nation’s past, there are countless people dead from hatred founded in nothing more than cultural differences.

Cities tend to heighten and highlight these disputes because they put people in close proximity to one another. But that has been the great thing that I’ve learned from my time here. There are always going to be differences between people and it these differences are the keys to the human race surviving on a world that is always changing. And if we ever leave this world, colonize the stars, these differences will remain important. And even though the closeness of the city has taught me this, I still believe that I learned a lot from the openness and space I had growing up in the country. As children we had room to let imagination work in different ways from the city.

My sister and I played house. Around the base of trees we would rake the leaves into neat, thin lines that defined the walls of our "house." With the sweep of the rake we added grand verandahs and spiral stairways that led to the second and third floors that were really located in different areas of the lawn. And we didn’t have a slide or the fancy kind of swings that were at school. No we had a tree swing. Other than that we were left with our imaginations to find something to play with. We had a lot of area to move around and let our imaginations roam.
City children have parks, with playground equipment. And now these playground toys are being replaced with sterile plastic toys. The one redeeming quality of the city park was the shiny metal slide. And I suppose that these toys do allow children to be creative. And the park does force children to be more social. They have to get along with the other kids in the park because there is no where else to go. I am a little more socially avoidant than the average person and this could be one reason why. Another thing the parks provide that I never had is the opportunity to play in team sports.

I came from a big family but even if all of us were playing it wouldn’t have been enough to have a descent game of baseball. But I do remember that once a year all of the neighbors would get together with us and we would hold a game of baseball in our field. The last time we did this I was very young and didn’t really get to play. But I remember these events as something important. These games would go on after a cutting of hay was taken off the field. This was done many time throughout the year. But there was still the big harvest of the fall. And the harvest brought other lessons.

I often say that I learned to drive in a little Neon because that is what I drove for driver’s education in high school. But the truth is I learned to drive a tractor first. And while I did very little with the tractors because my brothers usually took care of those things. I understand the tedium that accompanies harvest time. Just as the spring planting finds you driving back and forth over the field, during fall harvest you are retracing your tracks from the spring. But this is also a time of much excitement, much noise, and much danger. There is one thing you never hear about with city children. They never get caught up in combines or inadvertently get in the way of a hay cutter. Mother was always insistent that we stay out of the way during this time of year. And there are stories. One of my brothers was riding with my father on the hay cutter when he was flipped over the front and managed to grab a thin edge to keep from falling in; all the time the blades and cylinders were in motion just inches below him.

Of course the harvest always coincides with Thanksgiving. That is a tradition that goes back to the very first Thanksgiving. And it is interesting to see how it manifests itself in La Crosse. One very cool thing that they have in this city is a city wide Thanksgiving meal. I’ve never been but I see the signs every year and everyone is invited at no cost. That is a great idea. And it really reflects the character of this city. I know this isn’t typical and I feel lucky to be in a place that cares so much.

And on the farm the hardship associated with this time of year is a necessary evil. Without corn in the silo, and hay in the loft the farm would literally die. So it always made sense to me that Thanksgiving was always the most important holiday in our family. And for me Thanksgiving will always be associated with deer hunting. Deer hunting and Thanksgiving are also the real transition between fall and winter in our family. They always happen at the same time. The hunt is scheduled for that time so hunters can take advantage of their days off from work. But there is a sense of uneasiness that has hung over deer hunting for many years now. My grandfather was shot while deer hunting; here is what I wrote about it a few years ago:
The crisp autumn day felt good against the leathery skin of his face. It had been a long time since he had been well enough to get out and hunt. A heart attack and heart surgery had put a pause on his life. Now someone had restarted the tape and he was trying to pick up where he left off. The pine trees radiated a smell that was so cleansing. How great it is to be alive. The air cracked and lit on fire and with explosive pain it seemed that the doctor’s stitching had all let loose at once. Blood gushed out and covered the front of his body. He dropped to the ground where a crimson puddle had started to form. Someone had shot without care, recklessly aiming at what was believed to be a deer. Whether the person was mistaken or whether the person actually over shot a deer is little to debate when the man lies dying/dead on the ground.
I was too young to deer hunt when this happened and I never started. My brothers, on the other hand, had already been taking part in the hunt for many years so they continue to this day.

In fact this year my nephew hunted for the first time. Mother was set against him hunting but I tried to reason with her by saying that he should learn how to hunt now, with his father, so he will know how to do it later. And maybe more important, he will have this memory of time spent with his father. But who knows if I’m right?

A big reason why this time of year is the transition between fall and winter is because it begins to get colder and we usually get our first significant snow fall. The deer carcasses hung up outside will go from warm bodies to frozen meat in a few hours. But we really know that it is winter when the creek gets frozen over. When it gets to this point, and if you are careful, you can walk all the way down it and even under the road through the cold metal ribs of the culvert. Cars rarely pass over head but when they do the culvert rumbles and if you yell inside the culvert it echoes loud.

On the other side of this culvert is an cousin’s woods. We once had to run through those woods yelling out a name. I don’t recall the name anymore but we ran and yelled and we never did find my sister’s dog. Back near the house is where we have buried all of our dogs. The ring a great pine tree that that stands in the back yard. It is near that same tree that the blood of my father’s uncle was buried. When he died of cancer there wasn’t even chemotherapy or the crudest operation to cut it out of him. He simply died. The mortician came out to the house and drained his blood in what is now our dining room. The family helped and buried the blood outside. His name was Carl; he died in his twenties.

My Dad’s name is Carl. He had a nonmalignant lump removed in his twenties. I am twenty-one. Will I be as lucky?

Living is dangerous in nature as well.

Maybe someday we will overcome the diseases that plague us. In La Crosse alone there are two major hospitals. One of them is constructing a new multi-million dollar building to house its cancer treatment and research facility. Maybe someday it will be less dangerous to be alive.
I remember one winter we had a cow get sick. We didn’t believe that it would make it too much longer and if we didn’t butcher it soon the meat wouldn’t be any good. So we called out a man who did on site butchering. The gun was put to the cow’s head and the trigger pulled. The loader-tractor hoisted the carcass up by the rear legs. The throat was cut and the blood drained onto the icy ground. The warm blood melted the ice slightly but it quickly froze in the subzero air, a big red puddle. From there the cow was skinned and a special chain saw was used to quarter the animal. I watched the whole process.

Looking back now I realize that it isn’t much different from what I saw in a butchering and meat packing plant in Waterloo, Wisconsin. I went there with Dad because he had to take a couple cows in to be butchered; and while we were there, we got a tour of the place. The cows were herded single file from a holding pen into the killing pen. This was a massive hydraulic driven steel box that compressed to hold the cow in place while it was killed. But they didn’t use a gun. The man standing above the cow had a roughly Pringles can sized contraption that used a .22 shell to propel a steel rod into the cow’s brain. The cow was then dumped out of the metal box onto a floor where two other men cut the throat and hooked each hind leg to a metal hook. The body was then raised and the blood let to drain. The guts were collected (we’ll come back to them later), the cow was skinned with something that looked like a hand held sander only with a circular metal blade, and men up on a catwalk with huge circular saws quartered the cow. At the end of the line we saw a shut where all the "inedible" matter was put and this I was told was shipped to a dog food plant. But near this I saw a man sitting in front of what looked like paper stretched in an open window. That was the stomach lining; it is a delicacy in China I was told. And on a table next to this another man sat picking small pieces of meat out of the skull of the cow. This would go into sausage and hamburger I was told. No reason to waste anything.
I saw all these things at a very early age. And I don’t think it has warped my view of the world too much. It simply allowed me to understand where my food comes from. In grade school we went on a "Career Field Trip" to the local butcher plant. All we saw was them taking the different cuts of meat from a side of pork but by the end of it all I was the only one left in the room. And we weren’t watching the worst part. This was clean and bloodless; just meat ready for cooking being cut. I know that there are people who don’t know what goes on in the preparation of their food. They would be hard pressed if they ever had to do it themselves. I know that I could do these things if I had to.

I’ll tell you, however, it is a lot easier to go into the store and pick up the nicely plastic wrapped hamburger and steak.

But as I stand over the stove frying a venison steak from the deer my nephew shot I am reminded of the importance of things that take effort and patience. Hopefully my nephew has learned this. And in the same moment I recall how important the environment we live in is to us. We learn from where we grow up. This place becomes part of our brain. We must also learn from where we live in the present and change ourselves so we can survive where ever we are. As soon as we give this up we will be no better, for all our intelligence and pride, than the steak on our dinner table.
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