COME SEPTEMBER, my annual ritual is preparing my pickup truck for the bird hunting seasons that will open later in the month and extend into January. I have done this for 50 years now, and it always excites me with the promise of the autumn ahead.
Part of this ritual is practical: cleaning out accumulated junk and clutter from behind the seats, on the dashboard, in the glove compartment, jammed into the door pockets, and tucked behind the sun visors. But part of it is symbolic and sacramental: a rite of some pagan religion, if you will, that marks the autumnal equinox and begins the progression of the next five cycles of the Moon – full to dark to full again – that define the part of the year during which I am preternaturally aware and connected to the wild of nature.
I call these ceremonial observances my Autumn Ablutions, a wiccan practice of cleansing oneself or a sacred object as an act of respect and adoration. The history of these nature-worshipping ablutions, purification by washing, dates back to the mid-16th century, and who am I to deny the spiritual power of a ritual established 400 years ago by cultures much more in communion with the Earth and the Universe than we are today? I am not sure about the mystical forces embodied in a Ford F-150 pickup, but I depend on it for nearly all my fall excursions afield and so I am will to invest the old truck with anthropomorphic personae.
At the end of a summer of farm work and wood cutting my pickup’s box is a jumble of wood chips, tangles of barbed wire, a few steel fence posts, several rusted or broken tools, a chain, a frayed length of rope, a few empty beer cans, and whole lot of dog hair. The window glass is smeared and the body’s filthy interior and mud-spattered exterior look as though I have finished dead last in some cross-country race across northern Uzbekistan.
Then comes September and the F-150’s transformation during a day of ablutions. A week or two before our first bird hunt – this year to north-central Minnesota in pursuit of ruffed grouse and woodcock – I am seized by a cleaning mania that is clearly a pagan rite of a cleansing of the soul and the mind, symbolically washing the pickup in preparation for the sacred days of hunting. Or, perhaps, I am ashamed for my hunting buddies to see how poorly I treat my truck in the off season.
The F-150 will never appear factory-new again, but I do my best to make it look its best. I plug in the shopvac, fill a bucket with soapy water, and take in hand the sponges, scrub brushes, and terrycloth rags needed. With a bag full of wax and polish cans, vinyl cleaner bottles, and Windex spray containers, I have at it. Because a year’s worth of dirt, grease, and grime has to be removed the ablutions demand five or six hours of my time. I start by throwing everything out of the cab that’s not fastened down, using a garden hose to spray it out (being careful not to flood any electrical circuits), then scrubbing the topper-covered box with soapy water before moving on the wash the outside.
The exterior is drudgery. Spray it, sponge it with soapy water, spray it again, wipe it down, then apply Turtle Wax. I’ve learned to wax only about 10 square feet of surface at a time; once the thin coating of wax hardens, wiping it off is a pain, especially when standing on a four-step ladder. But the results are amazing. The old truck really shines.
By the time I mop out all the puddles with towels, I’ve had more than enough fun. The finale is hefting the two-level shelf unit into the truck box, sliding the tool drawer into it, and setting the dog’s travel crate atop it. Ablutions completed.
My October 9 week of bird hunting in Minnesota is rushing up. This will probably be the last year for the old F-150, built in 2006 and groaning a bit in its 16th year. A new Ford Ranger pickup is supposed to be coming in December, depending on the factory’s success in getting computer chips for its more advanced technology. My F-150 does not have that problem; even the windows are operated with crank handles.
I know I’m going to have a hard time saying good-bye to this old gray truck. Together, we’ve been through a lot of adventures – and misadventures. But don’t look too far ahead, I tell myself. This season could very well be my final one, not the truck’s!
Today, we’re both cleaned up and ready to go. Wish me a great autumn.
To read more essays and stories about life in the North Country, visit the Author Page where my books are listed for sale in paperback or e-book format.
These days, Abbey rides in the Catbird Seat. The seat in my Ford F-150 pickup is a split bench with its center section over the driveshaft hump, a seat that could only be comfortable for a seven-year-old child with short legs and exceptionally small feet. But it seems to be perfect for Abbey, or so she insists.
Abbey, a French spaniel bird dog, hunted for most of her life with her partner, another francaise named Sasha, who was seven years her senior. In those days, both dogs rode in the box of the pickup in travel crates under a topper. But those days are not these days.
When Sasha reached her thirteenth birthday her bird hunting years came to an end and Abbey became my only dog afield. I’m not sure when Abbey made the transition from the travel crate to the cab of the pickup; probably at the end of a three-pheasant day when she made a couple spectacular retrieves and was allowed to climb onto the seat beside me and share a summer sausage sandwich.
However, the precedent was established, since that day she has leapt into the cab whenever I open the door and would be grievously offended to travel in any other accommodation. She is the little princess, and she knows it.
She rides alert and attentive, searching for the best bird coverts and staring at me in amazement when I fail to stop and let her hunt each one. The exception is on our hours-long drives to far away hunting grounds when she somehow reads my body language or facial expressions or tone of voice and deduces that we are setting forth on a lengthy trip. Then, after a half-hour or so, she curls up on the passenger seat and goes to sleep.
A few years ago during one of our pre-hunt conversations I told her, “You know you’re in the Catbird Seat, don’t you?” She raised her nose and sniffed, “It’s my rightful place.”
I first heard the phase “in the Catbird Seat” more than 50 years years ago when sports announcer Red Barber, The Ol’Redhead, called the play-by-play radio broadcasts of major league baseball games during his four-decade career with the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Yankees. “The bases are loaded,” Red would announce, “the count is three balls and one strike, and the Yankees’ home run leader Mickey Mantle is sitting in the Catbird Seat.”
Red was a country boy from Columbus, Mississippi, and it took me a while to understand that his Southern homespun argot meant that someone in the privileged Catbird Seat had the world by the tail and was going to twist it to their advantage. The formal definition:
The “Catbird Seat” is an American idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, having the upper hand or great advantage in a situation. The phrase derives from the catbird’s habit of making mocking calls from a favored perch.
There is an issue with Abbey’s preference for the Catbird Seat; sometimes my beautiful blonde wife rides with us in the pickup, and Abbey resents any encroachment on her center seat or on her curl-up-and-sleep passenger seat. In her francaise style, she is insolent, disrespectful, downright rude.
We recently made a 700-mile trip with the Ford F-150 to north-central Minnesota to take possession a Scamp camping trailer. The sharing of seating arrangements did not go well.
“When you buy your next pickup,” my BBW said, “it will be a crew cab, and this dog will ride in the back seat.”
Okay, if you insist, I will order a new pickup. But when it’s just Abbey in the cab with me, my bet is that she’ll still be riding in the Catbird Seat.
The drive to Backus, Minnesota was long and tiring, more than 350 miles. But that is where Scamp trailers are manufactured, and we chose to take possession of our new Scamp at the factory rather than have it delivered. This camping trailer adventure is a whole new experience for us, and we wanted the full tutorial from the professional staff at Scamp before we hooked up the trailer and towed it onto the highway.
Backus is a tiny town, a spot on the map, but somehow the town has developed a labor force that has produced a superior camping trailer for 50 years through three generations of family ownership. We learned this when we asked why a 50th decal was affixed to the side of our Scamp, right beside the door. We claim that it also denotes the 50th year of our marriage because we ordered the camper exactly 12 months ago on our 50th anniversary year. A happy coincidence the salesman told us, but not factual. But that’s our story, and we’re stickin’ with it.
More importantly, construction costs and wait times have gone bonkers in the past year, and we were fortunate to order a Scamp when we did. The waiting time for delivery, the salesman told us, is currently two years, and the price has increased $4,000. But the company that produces the Scamp, Eveland’s Inc., honored their original quote on our model of camper and did not increase the price. How cool I that? Backus, Minnesota ethic.
Backus, by the way, seemed an ominous name for the start of our new adventure because it was a stark reminder that at some point during our first day with the Scamp I would be required to “Back-Us” into a trailer space at a campground. My attempts to back up trailers have often ended badly.
We bought the Scamp model built on the 16-foot trailer frame, which offered about the same living space as the RV truck that we rented to go on a month-long vacation to New Mexico two years ago. That trip was during the pre-pandemic days that now seem like a decade ago. We learned a lot on that trip, and that helped us choose the layout of the Scamp.
This camper is perfect for two. Try to pack four people in there and you will no longer be on speaking terms in four or five days. The layout: full size bed in the rear, toilet/shower in the front, dinette table on the port side, kitchenette on the starboard side with two-burner stove, sink, refrigerator, and microwave. The rig includes a 12-gallon freshwater tank, water heater, LP gas furnace, rooftop air-conditioner, ceiling fan, six slider windows (much brighter interior than the gloomy RV we rented), screen door, gray wastewater tank, black wastewater tank, AC electrical power hookup cord, DC batteries to power all the electrical stuff except the microwave, several plug-in connections for accessories, and all the “standard” equipment you would expect for towing the rig and setting it up on a camping site. Storage space is somewhat limited, but we are exploring how to use every square inch, and also how to omit a lot of unnecessary items
Frankly, I’m totally infatuated with this Scamp, and I intend to hook it to our pickup and travel back to the Southwest for a least three months this winter. My beautiful blonde wife says “We’ll see.”
The first order of business is developing a “pre-flight” checklist. Before we depart one campsite for the next we must remember: 1) crank up the rear support jacks, 2) unplug the AC electrical cord from the campsite fuse box, 3) disconnect the hose from the campsite water supply – if necessary, 4) drain the freshwater tank, 5) latch the trailer hitch securely to the truck’s ball hitch, 6) connect the trailer wiring plug, 7) check all trailer and truck running lights, brake lights, and turn signals, 8) secure the safety chains, 9) attach the trailer emergency brake cable to the truck’s tow bar, 10) crank up the front hitch jack, 11) remove the chocks from in front and behind the wheels, 12) close and secure the interior cabinet doors, 13) close the rooftop fan vent, 14) shut off the air-conditioner, 15) shut off the furnace, 16) shut off the water heater, 17) turn off the LP gas tanks, 18) turn off the DC power supply to the trailer’s interior, 19) close the trailer windows and door and deadbolt lock the door, 20) check to assure we have our cell phones, wallets, keys, and the dog, 21) pray we did not forget anything.
The first night of trailer camping at Minnesota’s Crow Wing State Park went smoothly. I did not crash the Scamp into a tree or picnic table when I backed it onto the trailer pad, and although it was not perfectly straight I was quite pleased with myself. We devoted the evening to learning how everything in the Scamp operated. The only confusion was with the refrigerator which is capable of operating on any of three energy sources: AC current from outside, DC current from the batteries, and LP gas from the tanks. How is this possible? We will eventually figure it out. For the present, it freezes ice cubes from the exterior AC source, and that’s good enough for our purposes.
As you can probably tell, I am excited about this new phase of life and am feeling upbeat and positive about the prospects. In fact, although my 15-year-old Ford F-150 has served us well I have placed an order for a new Ford Ranger pickup to tow the Scamp to places far and away and different. This may cause some tight finances in the next few years, but my fallback plan is to sell the farm and all our worldly possessions, pack the Scamp with the necessities, and live forthwith as nomads, answering to no schedules, demands, rules, regulations, or presumptions.
I have not yet mentioned that proposal to my BBW. It may be best to wait until the bitter cold days of December when leaving the North Country seems a reasonable thing to do.
Basket weaving. I should probably learn the intricate skill of basket weaving. But I do not have a craftsman’s manual dexterity or an artist’s innate sense of creativity and elegance. Nor do I have the required patience or painstaking attention to detail.
Nevertheless, I should invest the time and effort to learn the basics the craft, because anyone paying the slightest attention to current events can see the world is going to hell in handbasket, and I should be prepared for that fiery descent in a custom basket of my own creation. Ultimately, there may be no advantage to Hades-bound, wicker transportation built to my specifications, but at least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that mine is more comfortable than those cheesy, mass-produced handbaskets that people are grabbing off the shelves for the ride to perdition.
Basket weaving. Why not? It would be a logical extension of my frenetic preoccupations during the previous 18 months.
Over the course of this calamitous year and a half, I have done several other major and minor construction projects: small plywood storage boxes, crude stone masonry, metal roofing, farm fencing, and yardwork with landscaping timbers. When stress and anxiety beset me, I build stuff. It’s what I do.
And this has been a time of extreme stress and anxiety, ranging from a deadly pandemic that swept the world and killed more than 4 million people, more than 600,000 in this country, to the worldwide rise of repressive nationalistic movements, including the attempted overthrow of the federal government by a mob incited by president Orange. Add to that the daily reminders that the world is blundering into environmental disasters of our own making for which we refuse to prepare – or even to recognize.
This building mania may be a type of occupational therapy, keeping busy to assure myself that the madness will subside and life will return to some semblance of normalcy. Subconsciously, the goal of these projects is my attempt to set matters right, to get back on course. These things I build, I want them to endure as an assurance that there is a brighter future and it will be good for future generations, specifically for our children and grandchildren.
If I remember correctly (and I often do not in these, my senior years) this frenzied construction marathon began with sheep, and it has perhaps run its course with goats. Those sheep-to-goats bookends contain an odd and diverse set of volumes that have one common theme: our farm as a place of refuge during this era of tumult and trepidation.
About 14 or 15 months ago the sheep, Suffolks, 11 ewes and 10 lambs from a larger flock owned by our neighbor on the adjacent farm, were in need of pasturage. With ever increasing numbers of acres of North Country farmland being converted from pastures to row crop fields, there is a dearth of ground suitable for haying and grazing.
We offered him our three-acre hillside pasture, and the offer was immediately accepted.
As much as I would like to claim altruistic motive for this neighborly gesture, the truth is that the steep hillside has to be mowed three or four times each summer to keep down sumac, thistle, burdock, nettle, and wild carrot– with a walk-behind mower. Turning sheep into the pasture was more to my benefit than his. The catch was that it had to be fenced to his specifications: 42-inch-high welded wire fencing with steel posts every 12 feet.
Because the hillside has two field access lanes, three 12-foot tubular steel gates also had to be mounted. Add a trio of wooden posts at each corner, and that’s 18 eight-foot long, six or five-inch creosoted posts.
Three trips to the local farm supply store to load and unload fencing materials had me wondering if mowing was a more sensible solution than sheep. But it was all completed in a couple weeks, and pay-back on the costs of fencing versus mowing should balance out in less than eight or nine years. Not including the cost of my labor.
And that labor was wearisome. But after two weeks of sweaty, backbreaking toil – voila! The hillside was tightly fenced and gated, and if I do say so myself it looks professional quality. Better than most livestock fencing in the hills, coulees and bluffs of the broken landscape of the North Country. It has also confined two flocks of sheep these two summers with only one wether lamb escaping, and he cheated by wriggling under a gate.
I was emboldened to attempt more projects.
Next on the list was the repair and replacement of barbed wire fencing for another neighbor’s grass-fed dairy and beef heifers and steers: Jerseys and Devons.
That required hanging two more gates, using a post hole digger to set seven more wooden posts, and pounding in about 30-40 steel posts.
Compared to the welded wire fencing of the sheep pasture, that project was easy. A dozen barbed wire cuts on hands and arms (and one on my forehead – don’t ask) did make my beautiful blonde wife insist that I get a tetanus booster shot.
The next project was replacing the compost bins that we unintentionally burned down over the winter. Do not dump lives coals from the woodstove into the compost (read: Fire in the compost bin! ) Building with eight-foot length, green-treated landscape timbers I’m at the top of my game, mostly because those timbers are rough-cut and frequently warped, and I can blame all irregular shapes and dimensions on the lumber.
In hindsight, these bins are oversized because we fill them not only with kitchen scraps and autumn leaves but also with grass clippings, and there have been few grass clippings in this year of drought. Maybe next year – if it ever rains again.
One feature I am proud of: the top-hinged doors that make it much easier to shovel compost out of these bins. The old bins had side-hinged doors. What was I thinking when I built those? Reason enough to burn down the troublesome things.
With the completion of that chore, I was ready for a brief pause in the pandemic year construction projects, but we somehow became enamored of a gabion retaining wall to border the concrete pad that we had poured 30 years ago to set up dog kennel runs.
We had four or five bird dogs back in those long-ago days when I was an avid hunter of pheasant, quail, prairie grouse, woodcock, and ruffed grouse, but we are down to one dog now, Abbey, and she lives in the house with us.
The kennel runs are gone, but the concrete pad is a good place for campfires with grandchildren and the monthly gatherings of the Over The Hill Gang, and it needed some sprucing up.
A gabion is essentially a cage to hold a “rubble rock” wall, less expensive than a poured concrete retaining wall, I built the gabions with heavy wire hog panels, dug a trench, set the cages in place, and filled them with rock, some slabs of limestone and some crushed rock. Not pretty, but serviceable.
Much on-the-job training was involved. About the time I was completing this project, I knew what I was doing. The next one I build (if ever) will be much better.
The gabion wall demanded that I fare it into the foundation wall of limestone slabs that I originally constructed 30-plus years ago. That old rock wall, dry-stone-laid with no mortar, has sagged and slumped over the years, but I like the Scottish field-border look of it and do not want to dig it out and replace it. I did mix and use about 10 gallons of mortar to bond the new corner’s slabs of limestone because I could not securely tie them in with the gabion wall. The result was truly ugly, but so is the rest of the crumbling original wall. I’ll learn to love it.
Project completed. Time to rest.
Sitting by the campfire pit on the rock-walled concrete slab late one evening, smoking a cigar and drinking a beer, my eye fell on the other pair of kennel runs in our north yard. Built into the hillside limestone foundation of a 100-year-old granary, these had the appearance (in my imagination) of the century old kennel at Auchmull Lodge on the Gannochy Estate in eastern Scotland. They are not quite the oak and wrought iron kennels at the North Sea shooting estate where the English gentry enjoyed the sporting life in the late 19th century because I built them with green-treated pine 4×4 lumber and fenced with six-foot chain link. But this is as close as I will ever come to the landed gentry life, so they will suffice.
The kennels now stand vacant, but I can still hear the excited barking of my English springer spaniels from autumns past when I let them out for an early morning run before a day of pheasant hunting in the North Country. Those times are over, but looking back upon the glory days of Molly, Pete, Herco, Jessie, Annie, and Sasha, I regretted not being able to afford roofing for those kennel runs.
Well, better late than never. The roofed, open-fronted shed could be used for storage, and there is always the chance, however remote, that someday it would resound with the barking of birddogs again.
Framing up the former kennels for metal roofing was splice-scab-and-splint carpentry work that I hoped no true craftsman would see after the steel roof panels were in place to conceal my makeshift design. Functional, not glamorous, was the goal.
The real trick was aligning the free-standing kennel structure, anchored only against the back wall of the foundation, so that I could squarely fit the unforgiving corrugated metal roofing panels. I attached a come-along cable and pulley to the uprights in the southwest and northeast corners and slowly cranking the winch until the frame creaked and yielded. It worked! The cross-measurements were within an inch, and the final sheet of metal roofing had to be trimmed only three-quarters of an inch.
Sometimes I am an amazingly clever monkey. Not often, but sometimes.
Half of the shed I designated for firewood storage, the other half for weatherproof equipment that was accumulating in an already overcrowded garage. But it was meant for birddogs, and I still have my fantasies.
The roofing was solid, it did not leak, and I called time-out and relented from any more major projects.
Yes, there was a plywood box that was built to hold the 12 books I have published (three novels, five Old Coot story anthologies, three North Country anthologies, and the worst children’s novel in the history of juvenile literature), but that was a mere two days of work, all in the comfort of my workshop.
Hardly counts. I build a lot of boxes. I understand that craft, know from experience how it’s done and how to proceed. No challenge. No danger. Productive work, but routine.
Then came the day in June that I tripped and fell on the stone stairway that leads from our upper yard to what we call the apple tree yard. “Stairway” is a generous term for this flight of broken, sunken, tilted, misshapen, and slippery chunks of limestone. Since I still have the quick and sure-footed reflexes of a cat, the fact that I could fall on these jumbled stairs was an obvious indication that they were a deadly hazard.
This called for immediate action. With a crowbar and a sledge hammer.
Having completed the de-construction in a fit of pique, the huge stones scattered about in both the upper and lower yards, it seemed wise to begin planning how the stairs were to be replaced. Over the past few years we have had several discussions about this, without arriving at any definite conclusions. Now, because of my temper tantrum, something definitely had to be done.
Rebuilding the limestone stairway was out of the question. My crude attempt to reconstruct a rock retaining wall was clear evidence that I had not achieved the necessary masonry skills. Steps with uniform risers and treads – this was beyond my capability. We thought about hauling in precast concrete steps: too expensive. Hiring someone to lay paving stones: even more expensive. The only choice was to fall back on what I know: landscape timers and packed earth.
We measured the height of the hillside, about eight feet. Then the length of the slope: about 18 feet. Putting pencil to paper, I figured I could build a flight of steps with seven-inch risers (conveniently the exact height of a stacked pair of timbers) and 20-inch overlapped treads (even more conveniently, one timber could be cut into two pairs of sideboards for the treads).
I drove to the local lumber yard and bought 16 timbers. “What are you building this time?” the yardman asked. “A hillside stairway,” I said. He paused and looked at me searchingly. “Vaya con Dios,” he said.
The design was simple. Executing the design was complicated. The slopes of our North Country hillsides are not smooth and regular. Humps, lumps, holes, bumps, ruts, rocks tree roots, mole tunnels, ant colonies – all of these obstacles awaited my excavations beneath the innocent looking sod. By the time I was digging out the trench for the fourth step, I began to refer to my woeful attempt at civil engineering as The Underground Railroad.
Advice: use a mason’s level as you build each stair. Pack down the base securely and level it carefully east-to-west, north-to south, side-to-side, front-to-back. And also diagonally. An uneven base has a way of exponentially increasing its irregularities until it resembles something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You start up the stairway with a gentle climb and end with a mountaineering ascent that requires cables and pitons.
The stairway design called for 12 steps. Over the course of a week I completed 10, and then the rains came. If I had known that digging into our hillside would open the skies, I would have done this sooner in our summer of drought. Playing in the mud of a slippery slope is not the best idea. I am waiting for the ground to dry before I build the final two steps.
The stairway seems solid and stable and comfortable. Time will tell. Frost heave can change things.
This brings us to the other bookend, the final project of the summer: the goats.
The goat experiment was more-or-less contemporaneous with the landscape timbers stairway. The construction work was frequently interrupted by bouts of goat herding, lassoing, penning, and erecting electric fence. Variety in a day’s work is good.
A month ago we remarked to our neighbor that the only way we could keep ahead of the brush clearing on our farm was renting a herd of goats. This was a joke, I assure you. A week later he arrived with a small trailer, a 10-by-10 foot pen, three billy goats, and a scheme for brush and weed removal. The goats were small, Nubian dwarf breed, about 24 inches at the shoulder, 30 or 40 pounds, and horns they are learning to use. These are young goats. Gentle and a bit skittish. The breed description says they will grow to more than a hundred pounds and 32 inches in height. Our hope is that they remain gentle.
We set the pen on a brushy area alongside the driveway, herded in the goats, and let them do their thing. In one day the pen’s interior was barren ground. We moved the pen every day for five days. The goats ate everything inside. Everything. Every single form of plant life.
This was brush and weed control success beyond our imagining. But moving a pen once each day was not the best idea. Allow any gap on uneven ground and the goats escaped. They could be coaxed back into the pen with a scoop of corn. We were soon used to seeing them by the front door asking for handouts.
Hence, the final project: erecting electric fencing. Supplied by our neighbor, I was given a 160-foot roll of moveable fence, plus a charger that sends jolts of electricity through the wires. I erected the fence around a section of steep hillside, and the goats, we were assured, would soon learn to stay inside. After a long day of chasing and herding that resembled a Mack Sennett silent movie slapstick comedy, they did indeed consent to remain within the fence.
Our French spaniel Abbey was curious and touched the hot wire with her nose. One time. In the rain. I inadvertently touched it twice. Neither of us has any intention of repeating our folly.
After four days on the hill, the results are astounding: all the weeds and brush are grazed down to nubs and the bare earth is ready for me to rake in grass seed. I ordered another roll of fencing online, and the goats and I will play leapfrog along the hillside to clear it all. Note: sheep will not eat thistle, but goats love thistle. I do not know how they do it, but they eat thistle and nettle and wild blackberry like candy.
So that is pretty much the end of the farm projects story. I have survived the summer and revived my spirit. Until the credit card statement arrives, I am upbeat and optimistic. Life is good.
But, you know, I am thinking about whitewashing the cellar under the house during these hot days of July and August. I will let you know how that project goes.
Building a box seemed the appropriate thing to do. To mark the publication of my 12th book, I constructed a wooden box to display the three novels and the five bound collections of essays, short stories, and poems in the Old Coot series and the three in the North Country series. Plus the worst juvenile fiction book in the history of children’s literature.
When I am anxiety ridden and stressed, the result of my borderline psychosis is often a wooden box. Sometimes these boxes are made for a specific purpose. Sometimes their purpose is to contain my sanity This time the box project served for both.
Shortly before the scourge of pandemic ended public life, I published A View from The North Country. A reading and book signing session was scheduled to promote that book at the local book store, Dragonfly Books. But a week before that event, precautions against public gatherings were wisely implemented, and the book signing was among the casualties.
There followed 18 months of isolation, social distancing, mask-wearing, shut-ins, shutdowns, remote schooling for children, local business slowdowns, layoffs, Economic Impact Payments, unemployment benefits, and disorganized vaccinations clinics before life in the North Country of the upper Midwest returned to a more normal pace. Through it all, I continued to write. That was probably another attempt to contain it all in a box.
Late in 2020 I published Coot Dogs – An Anthology of Dog Stories by a Crazy Old Coot. Most of those essays and stories had been previously published in one of the Coot series or North Country series books, but a few of the tales of dogs kept my writing alive when it could have died a suffocating death in the time of COVID.
On June 1, the latest book was published: A Slow Walk Through The North Country. A collection of 49 new essays, stories and poems that should nail my reputation as an outdoor writer – or, as it turned out, nail together a box to display the creative writing of my previous 12 years.
I hope you will enjoy this book. I hope you will enjoy all 12 of my books, although you would be advised to avoid the children’s book, Scrawny Dog, Hungry Cat, and Fat Rat, which saw the light of day for reasons that had little to do with literature and much to do with friendship.
The display box has room for one more book. I think I have one more book in my imagination, struggling to escape, to be written, and to be published. We shall see.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 527,000 of us old folks, age 65 or older, live in the state: 17.5 percent of Iowa’s population of 3.1 million. That is only one percent higher than the nationwide average of 16.5 percent, based on a population of about 320 million.
But it is a sobering number, especially because the people in Iowa’s cities are younger than people in rural counties. About 1.3 million of the state’s people live in cities ranging in size from Ottumwa’s 25,000 residents to the Des Moines metro area’s 680,000. The portion of those cities’ residents who are age 65 and older is about 12-13 percent – which suggests that rural populations are significantly more elderly.
Of Iowa’s counties, 78 are considered rural, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and the percentage of people age 65 or older who live in those counties exceeds 20 percent – about 370,000. And most of us old folks do not like the way things are going.
Highest on the list of grievances are the hogs. There are 24.8 million hogs in Iowa’s rural counties. That is 67 hogs for each of us old coots, and almost none of those hogs are owned by us. The hogs have greater economic and political power than we do, and that is why we are flummoxed and distraught.
We are forced to live with industrial agriculture: CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), huge meat processing plants, environmental calamities, diminished opportunities to make a living, and shrinking rural populations as our children depart for better jobs in bigger cities. Our quality of life, the values and occupations and pastimes of our former lives, have mostly withered and disappeared with what we are told is “economic progress.”
This is not the rural Iowa of our youth. The rural Iowa where towns were vibrant, with many more locally owned businesses, more small farms, more young people, more local high schools.
The result has been a sort of implosion of the ethics and standards that once characterized rural Iowans. Many of us have retreated from civic-mindedness and public engagement, burrowing into bunkers of self-interest. We are no longer “Iowa Nice,” and with good reason. Economic, social, and political tsunamis from beyond our shores have overwhelmed our communities. Difficult to be nice when one’s quality of life is plummeting.
We can find no solutions or answers to the adversities that beset us. Probably there are no solutions or answers in this era of privately held fortunes and community impoverishment. We grope for causes, focusing the blame on a dozen factors: immigration, education, technology, diversity, taxes, welfare, the deep state.
As a consequence, Iowa’s small towns are now a stark portrait of poverty, and residents of rural counties are bewildered as to how this all came about. Desperate and clueless, six of 10 voters cast their ballot for President Orange and his promise to Make American White Again – because somehow this is all the fault of the Mexicans and the Blacks.
I do not see a better future for the rural parts of the state, especially since the Republican dominated legislature has enacted voter suppression legislation, reduced environmental regulations, cut budgets for the Department of Natural Resources and other environmental agencies, transferred funding for public education to private education, loosened firearm restrictions, and generally given a green light to any water, air and soil pollution abuses that corporate agriculture commits.
My wife and I have lived 35 years in northeast Iowa, but industrial agriculture is driving us out. CAFOs combined with GMO corn have made the state’s surface waters the most polluted in the nation. The soil is lifeless, just a medium to hold row crops in place, because anhydrous ammonia fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides have eliminated all life right down to microbial level. Iowa’s air quality is putrid; due to CAFOs, the state reeks of hog manure.
Some isolated islets of land in the state may resemble a Tolkienesque Shire, but most of Iowa has become Mordor. All of the Midwest corn belt has become a poisoned environment – stretching across parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota – but Iowa is the worst.
We rage against the machine. But there is no stopping the machine. What can a bunch of old Iowans do, after all? Our lives and our communities are collapsing, and we don’t like it. We detest it.
Sadly, we have to get out of this state while getting out is still possible.
Now that the COVID pandemic is subsiding in most First World countries (barring a resurgence caused by a mutated strain of the virus that erupts in Third World countries), we are returning to a more normal pace of life after 18 months of shut-ins, shutdowns, social distancing, mask mandates, remote schooling for children, business slowdowns, layoffs, unemployment benefits, Economic Impact Payments, and the jumble of vaccinations clinics across the country.
Unfortunately, it is obvious that we Americans did not learn important lessons about how to deal with pandemic. About a third of the population refused to wear masks and abide by social distancing and small-gatherings precautions. Even now, only 50 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated, and about 300 to 700 people are still dying of COVID every day. We are nearing 600,000 total deaths, about 100,000 more than the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, a number far above that of any industrialized nation and lower only than India with its population of 1.4 billion and its deficient health care system.
But we sure taught China some valuable lessons.
Most epidemiologists conclude that the COVID-19 virus first mutated to enable human-to-human transmission in or around Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province in south-central China. In December 2019, about 18 months ago, the government of China first reported clusters of coronavirus cases that were highly contagious and potentially virulent with a fatality rate that could exceed five percent.
The prevailing theory is that the viral mutation was transmitted to humans by an animal, most likely a bat, in one of the “wet markets” that are the source of most food for the people of southern China. An alternative theory is that the coronavirus was being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and it somehow “escaped” from the institute’s laboratories and spread like wildfire through Hubei Province.
We all love science disaster stories, especially like the one told in Stephen King’s The Stand, an apocalyptic novel about a virus that wipes out half the world’s population and all civilization. If we can layer on a secret, evil conspiracy, all the better. Unwittingly, I think, China played right into our fascination with disasters.
As would be expected of a totalitarian state that tightly limits the information its science research facilities are permitted to release, the World Health Organization’s investigation of the Wuhan Institute was restricted to the records and documents approved for WHO perusal by the institute’s directors and virology scientists, which is to say the WHO investigation was no investigation at all. (One could say the same about any potential WHO investigation of science research laboratories controlled by corporations in the United States.) Ultimately, the WHO report was co-written by a group of China’s epidemiologists.
The report is probably correct in its conjecture that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Hubei Province was a horrific but incidental animal-to-human mutation of a common coronavirus, not a blunder that “leaked” the disease from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And certainly not an intentional release of the virus. What could China have hoped to accomplish by doing that within its own borders? But China’s handling of the incident was a huge public relations blunder.
Government officials in China, where the flow of information is stringently controlled and monitored, obviously did not consider the consequences of rampant spread of misinformation in the free world’s press, and they clearly did not understand that an egomaniacal and narcissistic U.S. President Orange, having denied there was a pandemic and declaring it a hoax and a threat no worse than the annual influenza epidemic, would shift the blame for his failure to quickly and prudently deal with COVID-19 by vilifying China. Epidemiologists in this country say that the U.S. infection rates and deaths could have been halved if President Orange had taken immediate action, but he failed (or refused) to do that until late April 2020 when his advice was that we should drink or inject disinfectant.
When this suggestion was ridiculed by the medical community, President Orange politicized public health safeguards. He began to shout and tweet that social distancing, mask mandates, limited gatherings, zoom meetings, remote schooling, business closures, and all sensible actions to prevent the spread of COVID were frauds and deceptions foisted on the public by his political enemies. Amazingly, about a third of Americans believed him!
He also began to rant that it was not his fault that tens of thousands of Americans were dying from COVID, it was all China’s fault. China! China! China! Those evil and devious Chinese!
The result, in addition to the current upsurge of attacks on Americans of Asian descent, was that the backers of President Orange (white supremacists, racists, Nazis, KKK, misogynists, America-firsters, and other hate groups) became even more xenophobic, if that it possible. China became a focus of their hatred.
As much as I dislike China’s system of government and suppression of minority groups and political dissidents, bellicosity toward China is not in America’s best strategic and economic interests. China’s is the second largest economy in the world, and employing that economic power and to a lesser extent military power in Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East is gradually and inevitably resulting in China’s dominance in those parts of the world where America does not have as much at stake – a kind of de facto “Monroe Doctrine” applied to the Indian Oceanic region that China regards within its sphere of influence.
Over the course of the next 20 years, as China and India continue economic and military growth, the United States will cease to be the unilateral power in that region. Despite the saber rattling of President Orange, the better foreign policy is cooperating with the new elephant in the room, not beating it.
To return to the lessons that China learned during this 18-month period of the COVID-19 pandemic: that is obvious. China learned that Americans – when their leaders are as incompetent and divisive as President Orange, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, et al – will not coalesce but will turn on one another in times of crisis. China learned those leaders will call for voter suppression and prejudice and malice toward minorities. China learned they will promote xenophobic and vitriolic behaviors among the fringe groups that are their most loyal acolytes. China learned they will sacrifice American democracy on the altar of white privilege.
An America in turmoil for the next couple decades is in China’s (and Russia’s) best interests. Strategically and economically, a fractured and deeply divided America benefits China as it slowly and surely progresses with its influence over the third of the globe that is contiguous to the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean, rather than cooperating with U.S. interests.
China was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, but China almost certainly did not deny or ignore the outbreak, or intentionally cause it. China certainly did learn that incompetent American leadership in times of crisis will cause divisiveness and dysfunction that will be to China’s benefit.
Looking toward the political season of 2022 and 2024, expect a flood of disinformation that will come out of China (and Russia) that will stoke social animosity and its consequent divisiveness and dysfunction. It won’t even require something as drastic as a pandemic; it will only require that, as happened during the 18 months of COVID, people will believe the falsehoods they are told. All it will require is the infectious medium of the internet and a populace that refuses to investigate misinformation.
In my former life as a journalist, a newspaper reporter, a Knight Errant of the most chivalrous of professions, I was eager to do battle with the Dragons of the Realm of Falsehoods, the firedrakes that were the scourge of honest citizens and principled civilizations. Unfortunately, the monsters would not emerge from their lairs and fight.
Most often I covered and reported on mundane meetings of city councils, county supervisors, and school boards and was seldom called upon to don my armor, strap on my sword, heft my lance, mount my charger and sally forth to combat evil and injustice in the world. Occasionally there was a dragon to fight, but not often.
I suspect that’s how it is for most journalists and most writers. We set out with grand intentions and lofty ideals, passionate about universal truths and eternal virtues, taking the long view of the human drama and applying our convictions to the here-and-now whenever we can.
During our careers we learn that evil is, for the most part, banal. We learn the validity of the journalist’s mantra: “Never attribute to malice a misdeed that is probably the result of incompetence and ignorance.” Most office holders, people in leadership positions both public and private, intend to do good, but incompetence and ignorance, augmented by greed and vanity, obscure their sense of goodness and their integrity. This is the recurring theme of the human tragedy.
The course of history is not a parade toward rightness and morality, and the procession of current events through which we now stumble is especially wayward and directionless. We march under the banners of our ignorance, and we seem proud of our incompetence. We proclaim this madness to be “The Truth.”
The publisher who hired me for my first newspaper job told me, “We report facts here. If you want to write ‘the truth,’ you’re in the wrong profession. You should be a novelist, not a news reporter.” Over the course of a 40-year career in journalism and public relations, I learned that accurate reporting is based on facts, figures, data, information, causes and effects, motivations and purposes, intentions and objectives. These are the basis of good reporting, good decision-making, and the antithesis of ignorance and incompetence.
Sadly, we now have few news reporters and many news commentators. We have a lot of “news” people ranting about their “truths” and few that report facts, figures, data, information, causes and effects, motivations and purposes, intentions and objectives. Sadly, we have a citizenry that does not comprehend the difference, that is proud of its ignorance, proud of its incompetence.
This does not bode well for a nation that depends on democracy as its ethos and egalitarianism in its day-to-day functions.
America has always had more than its share of nativists, Know-Nothings, anti-intellectuals, science deniers, populists, and religious fanatics. They all have two things in common: they are ignorant of (or deny) facts and data, and they know “the truth.”
This was brought home to me when one of my reporters in West Texas wrote a story about an alleged UFO sighting. “About one in three people believe UFOs are invaders from outer space,” she said. I thought she was joking, but surveys conducted by reputable researchers such as the Gallup organization and the Smithsonian Institution reveal: 34 percent of Americans believe in UFOs. 55 percent say they believe in angels. 34 percent say they believe in ghosts. Only 39 percent say they accept the concept of evolution. Only 36 percent believe global warming is partly anthropogenic.
And according to the U.S. government’s National Institute of Science: “Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans.”
Frighteningly, it seems that many of those scientifically illiterate people are elected officials.
This will not have a happy ending. When facts collide with “the truth,” the result is almost always fatal. During the 20th century, about 100 million people died when the world was caught in the maelstrom of “the truth” of fascism, communism, capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, and a dozen different religious dogmas. In this century, more than 3 million people have already died because coronavirus is “a hoax.”
But I do understand the disillusionment with evolution. Through our 200,000 years of evolving, more than 10,000 generations, homo sapiens should have become much more intelligent. We didn’t.
Hanging the steel gate was the easy part. The hard work was clearing the new approach into the South Ravine Pasture.
Each sub-section of our North Country farm has acquired a name, an identity, over the previous 35 years: the South Woods, the Sheep Pasture, the Big Hayfield, the Small Hayfield, the Kennel Yard, the Goat Pasture, the Hilltop Garden, the Old Garden, the West Bluff Woods, the South Ravine Pasture. The only tract that has not been tagged with a descriptive title is the four-acre tangle of scrub woodland at the far northeast corner of our place. We should probably call it the Trip and Fall Woods, because that’s what I do every time I blunder onto its rocky slope.
The South Ravine Pasture is particularly well-named, a steep hillside that tumbles down to the edge of a sheer and bare-walled ravine of fissured limestone. This fractured framework of rock underlies the North Country’s landscape. Torturous formations of sandstone and limestone, some stacked in cracked and shattered layers, some thrust upward to form misshapen, hulking monoliths the size of a house – these are never far beneath a thin skin of soil.
Known as Karst topography, the jumbled layers of stone are the bedrock of the Driftless Region (technically the Paleozoic Plateau of northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota), an area that owes its name to the lack of glacial deposits (drifts) because the glaciers of the most recent Ice Age did not advance across and scour this 20,000-square-mile dome of land. The terrain is unlike any plains country you have seen, rugged and crisscrossed by steep and deep coulees and dozens of streams that wend their sinuous way to the upper Mississippi River. The rocky bones of this land often jut through the flesh of the earth, raw and exposed, the petrified skeletons of a herd of gargantuan creatures tossed and broken by some cataclysm that shook the prehistoric world.
Fascinating as our regional geology may be, I do not often wander into the Ravine Pasture. It is a difficult walk. To enter, you must either climb a four-strand barbed wire fence or struggle through a thicket of buckbrush, prickly wild raspberry stalks, and tangled cedar boughs – a challenge when you are wearing snowshoes. The exertion is seldom rewarded. Compared to the sweeping view of the river valley from the topmost height of the hayfield, this rock-sided ravine studded with gnarly old oak trees is drab.
Rarely do I see any wildlife on these Pasture walks. The North Country’s prevailing wind is from the northwest, which carries my scent and sound far in advance of me, warning the resident deer and foxes and most other animals to go into hiding. I’ve tried to enter quietly on days when light winds come from other points of the compass, but the ravine somehow causes swirling and eddying currents of air that still alert every animal except the dull-witted raccoons. If I could sit quietly for 20 minutes most of the wildlife would reemerge, but I do not have the patience to do that.
All that changed in April when I took a new approach into the South Ravine Pasture.
We have never permitted hay harvesting in that Pasture because of its steep slope and the deep waterway that divides it in the center. Not a lot of grass there anyway because that piece of ground is only four or five acres. But last autumn we did allow it to be grazed by the cattle from a grass-fed beef and dairy farm, and that was good. Livestock makes the place feel more like a real farm.
The Ravine Pasture fencing had to be patched and mended for the cattle, and a gate had to be mounted at the west end to haul in water. Wire-wise, the Jersey and Devon heifers and steers did not try to push through the electric wire strung along the brush-clogged 50 yard pasture boundary by the Hilltop Garden. But we plan to put sheep in there late this summer, so more fence work is necessary. Sheep, especially lambs, are notorious for discovering and escaping through the smallest holes in a fence.
I set to work building a sheep-proof fence. Once upon a time there were scraggily strands of barbed wire running through the brushy tangle at that northeast corner of the Ravine Pasture, strung between cedar trees and clipped to a half-dozen metal posts that staggered erratically across the gap. That fencing is long gone, except for the chunks of wire that snared my chainsaw and tangled my bushhog mower and sent sparks (and curses) flying when I attacked the thicket as a prerequisite to replacing the dilapidated fence.
The project started as a quick-fix chore, but as these small tasks often do it became, in my mind, a sacrosanct mission ordained by the holy doctrine of North Country farming. Why build a clapboard chapel when a granite cathedral is the true vision? Or in this case, a cathedral built of seven-foot, creosote-treated posts.
By the time the job was completed, there was a huge pile of brush, five new and one old wooden posts with cross braces and wires, five metal posts standing straight in perfect alignment, four taunt lengths of barbed wire, and a brand spanking new eight-foot tubular steel gate. Best not to calculate the cost-per-foot of rebuilding this section of pasture fence.
But there were unexpected benefits that went beyond money.
What used to be a prickly thicket is now a mowed lane through a smooth-swinging gate into the South Ravine Pasture. That New Approach has given me a greater appreciation for that four-acre hillside tract.
For one thing, the bluegrass and brome and fescue have dominated over the invading wild raspberry, buckthorn, gooseberry, goldenrod, and wild grapevine, with no mowing or other assistance from me. In the Sheep Pasture, the Hayfields, and the Goat Pasture the cool season grasses are losing this battle. We have never burned the Ravine Pasture, so its sun-drenched, south-facing slope may have aided the preeminence of the grasses.
Also, the Ravine is not nearly so devoid of wildlife as I formerly thought. On this evening’s walk with my French spaniel Abbey, I counted seven different species of song birds, a pair of soaring turkey vultures, one red-tailed hawk, five squirrels, a couple rabbits, and I am sure I heard a whitetail doe and her fawn crashing through the undergrowth.
There may be a larger lesson here, a learning moment for me. After many months of apprehension, worry, and melancholy during this time of pandemic-mandated separation from family and friends, a new approach and a different view can contribute to the transformation I must go through to adjust to the “new normal” of day-to-day life. There is no going back to the comfortable familiarity of the Old Garden. The rugged topography of the South Ravine is likely to be the landscape I must deal with for a long while.