Sweltering winds are gusting on this cloudy day in late August, trying their best to dissuade me from my walk around the perimeter of our hay field with my French spaniel Abbey. Humid and heavy, the mid-morning air wraps me in a damp wool blanket, and each time the sun emerges from behind the scattered stratocumulus layer of clouds its heat lamp glare reminds me that I foolishly forget to put a hat on my balding head before our hike.
Some August days can be a test for man and dog.
With the heat index soaring up over 100, we both appreciate the shade of a leaning oak tree on the blufftop that borders the west side of the field. We sit beneath the oak while we watch the Trout River wind its way through the broad valley, its waters surprising clear even though we have had rainfalls the previous two days. Upstream, a farmer neighbor has created a riparian filter strip of prairie grasses along both sides of the river which keeps the soil of his row crop fields from washing into the channel. Good man.
Geologists say this wide valley could not possibly have been scoured from its limestone base by the present-day river, even during its most flood-swollen flow. The steep bluffs on each side of the coulee were probably carved by torrential floods of melt water from glacial lakes adjacent to this unglaciated region of the North Country. Winds roaring at 200 miles-per-hour across the face of the glaciers may have given the valley its final form: raw stretches of exposed limestone layers.
I try to imagine the raging flood waters that filled this valley from its western rim to where Abbey and I sit on its eastern ledge. I cannot.
Over the past 150 years, the industrious hand of civilized man has transformed the appearance of this place. Parcels of bottom land along the river have been intensely grazed by cattle and sheep and planted to row crops, and in years of floods the course of the river has often changed, ripping away a field edge here, a plot of pasture there. The steep bluffs lining the riverbed have become even more steep in the 37 years we have lived here, it seems to me, but that perception may have more to do with the erosion of my leg muscles than the erosion of soil and rock.
I should have taken “Before” photographs during our first year on the farm and “After” photographs during this final year. But I didn’t, so now I have to rely on the mental images stored in my memory which allow me to embellish or diminish the valley’s transformation, depending on my mood. Today I’m saying, “It hasn’t changed all that much.”
During my half-hour river watch with binoculars, there are several soggy clumps of flotsam and jetsam carried along in the river’s brisk current. I tend to categorize this debris as “natural” and “unnatural.”
Natural includes the trunks and limbs of dead trees, a drowned and bedraggled raccoon or opossum, clots of mud entangled in the tendrils of brambles that still cling to slim hope of life if they can wash ashore and re-root. One time I spied the tattered remains of a bald eagle – or more likely a turkey vulture. Another sighting, I am convinced, was the exhumed body of the last runty mastodon in the North Country; it may have been a bloated Brown Swiss cow, but the long matted hair convinced me otherwise. Mastodons were forest dwellers in the Driftless Plains region about 10,000 years ago, and it was always my hope that a herd of them would make a comeback with the aid of CRISPR gene-splicing technology, and I would be lucky enough to take one of the over-populated surplus with a bow.
The unnatural river-born junk is mostly farm equipment and supplies, battered wagon boxes, sprayer tanks, rotten tractor and truck tires, discarded hoses and wiring, lots of seed bags, tangles of barbed wire fencing and waterlogged wooden posts – that sort of thing. Rarely, I may catch a glimpse of a partly submerged car fender, a bent-up tree stand or ground blind, tarps, gas cans, doors with broken windows – artifacts of an industrial-consumer civilization that some curious anthropologist may unearth in five or six thousand years and wonder, “What the hell is this thing?”
Maybe that will be a trace of my time here. “Look! An ancient carbon arrow shaft that must have been used by a hunter from some long-forgotten civilization.” More likely, the relics of my passing-through will be one of the many pliers I have lost while fixing fences.
Time. It seems to pass swiftly, like the hurried flow of this river. But the character of a homeplace, like the character of a man, is something that develops slowly, glacially, with the patience of a weaver at her loom steadily bringing the pattern and the colorful image into being. There are uncountable fascinating places in this world, but I have learned it is best to cherish one of these, to meld with it and forego this futile chase of realms I cannot truly know or understand.
A hot and humid August day is something I understand. This sort of late summer day is a part of our longtime homeplace, and my character. Uncomfortable and grumpy as it may be.