Beulah Fern hated smearcase.
Hated it worse than fried mush, worse than turnip greens,
hated everything about it:
the way it tastes, smells, looks, feels in her mouth.
Schmeirkase, the Germans call it.
Scotch-Irish Appalachia white trash called it smearcase,
maybe to spite the rich Germans
up in Fairfield County, the thick-skulled boche pig farmers.
Beulah wouldn’t eat it. Not a bite.
She’d seen it made. She’d made it herself too many times,
ninety years past on a hard-scrabble farm
with three cows, four Belgian workhorses, ewes, hens, a dog,
all more important than her.
A rocky field of corn, two big gardens, a kitchen garden
that she had to weed and hoe.
Four-room clapboard shack, roof that leaked by the chimney.
Sagging barn with milking stanchions,
equipment patched with wire and sheet metal, broken tools.
Carrying two milk pails to the house
each Thursday morning before school, cream already turning
and smelling of manure and rotten straw,
for Ma to pour into baking pans on the wood-fired cookstove
to bring to a boil but not scald the whey
clotting and clabbering into soft curds of warm cheesy slush
that had to be cooled in the wellhouse
with a piece of cheesecloth over the pans to keep out the flies.
Worse than head cheese, blood sausage, pickled pigs’ feet,
hush puppies, oatmeal gruel,
pork cracklin’s, mountain oysters, boiled dandelion greens –
all of it salt poured into
her open sore of longing, covered with a bandage of dreams.
The War saved her, she says.
Van Dyne Crotty uniforms in Dayton advertised for women
who could sew and iron
and then DELCO hired her away to make electric motors
at three times the money.
Four girls packed into one room in a widow’s boarding house
with shared cold-water bathroom
who kept in touch for fifty years and even had a reunion once
but the other three are dead now.
Beulah married an Army Air Corps mechanic from Wright Field
and they moved to Cincinnati
after the War where she still lives with her granddaughter Edie
who takes her to seniors’ lunch.
“They call it cottage cheese,” Beulah said, pointing at the bowl.
She doesn’t eat it. They can’t make her go back. That’s all past.



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My very own 25-ton wood splitter

Regan splitting firewood

My daughter is much better, and safer, than I when operating  motorized equipment.

LATE WINTER of 2018-19 was a terrorist with an atomic weapon. Fifty inches of new snow, six weeks of continuous sub-zero temperatures – some days as low as -40 Fahrenheit, ice-coated driveways, 30-40 mile-per-hour winds that snapped brittle-frozen limbs from trees, and day-after-day-after-day of dark skies clotted with roiling gray storm clouds.

Is it any wonder that we burned the last of our winter supply of firewood before the end of January? Or that the LP gas delivery truck got stuck in the snowbank at the top curve of our driveway?

No, it was not a pioneer-era hardship to survive three days in an old farm house with the thermostat turned down to 55 to stretch the last of the LP gas supply while I hacked and shoveled rock-hard ice walls to widen the path for the LP gas truck, but it wasn’t exactly a day at the beach for an arthritic old body either.

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April awakes the Chimera

Chimera (2)

Chimera image from Bad Dragon

April awakes the Chimera

This will be the year of our redemption, we tell ourselves.
We do not speak that hope aloud, give voice to the fantasy
that we can regain the heat and hunger of younger days.
Pipe dreams do not bear rough handling or close scrutiny.
But alone and in secret we light the taper and peer down into
the depths of the dungeon to see the slumbering Chimera,
that fiery creature chained, held in stasis past living memory,
once strong, bold, daring, fierce, impetuous, too often cruel,
at last defeated and gone sullen, petulant, fractious, furious.
April warms the monster and makes it stir, eases bodily aches
and spiritual doldrums that torment us winterlong with reports
confirming rumors of corporeal incarceration and slow decay.
The scent of April is a catalyst, an aether-borne reagent
that dissolves our stolid elements, releasing energy and light
reflected in the mirrors of our memories of eternal sunshine.
Warmed and coaxed by the promises of April winds we trust
the enticements whispered from the wet, fecund lips of spring.
We stumble from the cavern to seek the river of rejuvenation,
ready to shed tattered clothes, heavy baggage, pains, infirmities,
trembling to know the miraculous rebirth of body, mind, and soul.
Deep within us the Chimera stirs, awakes, slips free of shackles.
She can stand, walk. Can she run? Can she fly? April bids her try.

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Mud and buzzards

Two sure signs of spring greeted us on this morning’s walk around the farm:

mud and buzzards.

Squck redoux.

Some woodland “mud traps” are so gooey they pull the boot off your foot, inspiring what I call the Squck Dance.

The mud is the product of a wettest-ever autumn, much winter snow accumulation, hard-frozen ground, and the torrents of water that flowed across the farm with the sudden melt-off when sub-freezing days turned warm in mid-March.

Many counties in Iowa and Nebraska are being heavily damaged by floods — the worst natural disaster in Nebraska’s history, their governor is saying — so the minor wash-outs on our hilltop farm are small change in this spring of multi-billion dollar damages to communities and farms.


Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Turkey Vulture, photo by Michael “Mike” L. Baird, from

The buzzards, turkey vultures, have migrated back to the North Country with the coming of spring, returning from their winter grounds and soaring across the fields and woodlands in search of winter kill carcasses. Soon, one or two pair will be nesting in the steep draw south of our house.

In celebration of these tokens of spring, I am re-posting two archive essays from Dispatches from a Northern Town:



The Vultures of spring

Wishing you a joyful spring in your part of the world.

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Orin’s farm girl

Mary Martha died at thirty-two, three years after
her husband was killed in a tractor roll-over accident,
leaving two children, a girl fourteen and a boy ten,
with the only close-by family able to take them in being
her sister Kate in town and her older brother Orin,
a Czech bachelor farmer over in Holt County with
five sections, less the Reilly place, about 3,100 acres
of row crop, haying, and grazing land, all well fenced,
a barn, equipment shed, cattle feed lot, two grain bins,
and four other rickety buildings in the farm yard west of
the splintery two-bedroom house that Orin stacked hay bales
around in winter to keep the wind from blowing through.

Aunt Kate adopted the boy but not the girl who talked back
and was already a handful as everyone in town knew.
Her Uncle Orin took her in although the Circle women
at Our Lady of Seven Dolors Catholic Church told him
she would never be a farm girl and would certain cause
more trouble than she was worth, probably sooner than later.

Orin was a farmer, that was all there was to him.
Day after long day on the tractor pulling the planter in spring,
mower, rake and baler for two cuttings of hay July and August,
combining in November, gambling the snow would hold off.
Plus his hundred head Hereford-Angus cow-calf operation.
Some nights he slept beside the tractor underneath an oily tarp,
dozing off-and-on until daylight enough to start working again.
That was all of him. Neat barn, cluttered house. Farm magazines.
Cigarettes. Radio, no television. No books, no movies, no music.
After planting, after haying, after combining, he drank heavy
a week straight, peppermint schnapps and Hamm’s beer chasers,
sitting at the table in the farm house where he never spent time
any other time because there was no call to waste good time.

She taught herself to play the out-of-tune piano in the kitchen.
Summers, she took him coffee and sandwiches in the field,
thick slices of bologna on rye with mustard and dill pickle.
School year, she packed him a lunch before the bus came.
The Seven Dolors women gossiped there was something more
than blood and charity behind Orin taking her to raise, and when
she went to Lincoln with her Aunt Kate they said “There it is.”
But she was back in four days and there was no truth to any of it.
Father Matthew visited Circle and talked about false witness and
made them all say twelve Hail Mary’s and twenty Our Father’s.

At sixteen, Orin bought her a school car so he didn’t have to
drive to town to pick her up after volleyball and track practice.
She wrecked one and he bought another, an old Ford Galaxy.
She got in a girl fight and was expelled for a week. She told Orin
she wasn’t going back to that “goddam Catholic prison school!”
and he said “Yes, you are.” She went back and didn’t fight again
but got expelled her senior year for telling Sister Ann Marie that
she could kiss her ass, same as Olin had told her often enough.

Two weeks after graduation she packed her bags and left the farm,
driving the Ford, with $200 Olin gave her to get started in Omaha.
Jobs at Burger King and Pizza Hut paid her way to tech school
and bought her a computer. Douglas County Recorder hired her as
file clerk and she worked up to supervisor. Married a good man.
They had two daughters, neither of them named Mary or Martha.

Orin died of heatstroke, or maybe heart attack, in the record dry
summer of ’76, hauling hay to cattle on pasture one hot afternoon.
He left the farm to the boy, her younger brother, 3,100 acres,
farmstead, buildings, one good tractor, one junk tractor, cattle,
grain, 16 pieces of farm machinery, all of it, lock, stock and barrel.
He put in irrigation, poured concrete, bought equipment, bought cattle.
Lost it all in the ’80s. Moved to town and worked at the lumber yard.

She helped him buy the two-bedroom house, a block south of Main,
he covers with plastic winters to keep the wind from blowing through.
The out-of-tune piano is pushed against a wall in the back bedroom.
She played two songs when she visited with her daughters last fall:
“Auld Lang Syne” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” E-I-E-I-O!
She laughed until she cried.


More poms, stories, and essays about life in the North Country are published in my books, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at  Jerry Johnson Author Page at, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

Posted in Poetry, woodcock hunting | Tagged | 1 Comment

Saving the world

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Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

“You cannot save the world!”

One peril of writing essays about the importance of preserving and conserving the wilderness and wild places of the North Country is occasional reproach from more “progress-minded” readers that my views are out of step with the real world.

In some circles I am regarded, apparently, as a naïve world-saver, a nostalgic tree-hugger, an enemy of free enterprise, an ignoramus regarding the “laws” of economics, a militant against agriculture, a socialist, a dupe of “fake science” that warns we are plunging into the Anthropocene epoch of the Earth’s geological evolution, a pessimist in my opinion of human nature, a nay-sayer to the benefits of capitalism, a romantic about the natural world, and a curmudgeon.

I readily accept the curmudgeon tag. Some of the other criticisms are not entirely off the mark, striking the periphery of the target. Nostalgic and romantic and militant, for example.

Most of the other rebukes I tend to ignore as the denigrating characterizations that one tribal group applies to another, those catch-all negative labels that allow us to build straw men of our opponents so that we can set then afire with our own flaming prejudices. One unjust criticism with which I do take issue, however, is the appellation of “world saver.”

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Each time I post on my blog I send a group email message to about 20 friends with the link to my most recent piece. For the “Best breed of bird dog” posting uploaded March 12 ( the group email message included this  disclaimer:

Robert Service, “The Bard of the Yukon,” was once criticized for writing puerile poetry. “I don’t write poetry,” he said. “I write verse.” This isn’t poetry, it’s verse.

One friend replied: “This piece is neither poetry nor verse.  It is doggerel.”

Well, yeah.



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