Life in the Sticks
September 6, 2018
An old friend writes from the Midwestern city where I lived for almost thirty years politely asking how I tolerate living in the rural South; no live musical performances, art museums and no first class restaurants. Well, I have to admit missing the art scene large cities offer, as the only live music in the country is, well, country music, but fancy restaurants purveying high dollar dishes, manned by pretentious waiters, and noisy ambiance I can certainly do without. As has often been pointed out, you can get better meals at home, if you are willing to put forth a little effort. As for the visual arts, the Internet is remarkable. Rural living is, I wrote back, in many ways easier and more satisfying than urban living. But the decision to retire back home involved more than creature comfort.
Walker Percy wrote in one of his novels that he felt sorry for Southerners living lives of abstraction in northern cities. After so many years in the North I felt like Tommo in Herman Melville's Typee, desperate to escape an alien culture and return home. Although I knew full well the home I loved had vanished; the older family members were gone and the culture had changed, the gentile South was long gone. Perhaps what I missed most was a combination of sounds, sights (the wind in the pine trees, hound dogs baying, spring calves running, and such) and the land itself. Home is a place where you are close to the past and feel a sense of continuity.
Now, back on the farm, I feel that continuity when, say, splitting fire wood from trees grown on the same land my folks worked and drinking water drawn from the same vein of water deep below our common soil. The old well at the back of the place never runs dry, continually replenished by a spring; my Mother said her father would water the mules there when all other wells were dry. Although my parents, grand parents, and great grand parents are all buried around here, sleeping, some say until the last day, but I seldom visit their graves, I don't need to.
Even as important as family ties is the closeness to nature. Rain is not an event that impedes the evening commute, but something to relish and celebrate... especially in summer when the pastures are thirsty. When rain comes we usually sit in tall oak chairs on the front gallery to smell and be touched by the life giving sacred water.. sent by Zeus the Greeks once believed or Jesus the folks here believe. And the following day in town after a summer shower I brag, "My rain gauge showed eight-tenths this morning" I say this, knowing the clouds were all west of them. When there is snow I don't think about the dangerous drive to work, but listen to it fall on the pines and watch the land transformed. Retirement has its moments.
But nature is far from the Garden of Eden. In addition to poison ivy, thistles, thorns, and other noxious plants there are fire ants, poison serpents, and brown recluse spiders that too often fall for their nocturnal stroll on the ceiling onto the bed. The August sun will burn your ears and the January cold will numb your fingers and freeze the ponds sealing off drinking water for the cattle. We once chopped the ice with an ax to open a source of water, but now the front end loader on the tractor does the trick. Of course, there is the pure joy of spring when the vegetable garden comes to life with delicate green shoots and the lovely calmness of autumn when the oaks either explode in color or, if conditions are wrong, fall dead and brown.
Thinking of leaves, once during by junior year in college a few of us went to Lost Valley on the Buffalo River. We hiked the mile or so to the home of the lady who owned the valley and received permission to enter the valley, "if you will not leave a mess". We were the only humans there that day and found the floor and both sides of the narrow pristine valley covered with maple trees in full color, trees that almost touched across the top of the narrow valley. The tiny stream with gin clear water made the only sound beside the leaves rubbing one another. The November sunlight streamed in from the east and we were washed in heavenly light and earthly colors, creating a sensation the medieval cathedral builders attempted to recreate with stone and glass. Maybe thirty years later I made a second visit to Lost Valley. The state had purchased the land and converted it to a park. The developers had tried to retain much of original valley, but the addition of a parking lot, camping facilities, portable toilets, handicapped access, and signs warning of potential dangers destroyed the magic. A sort of Heisenberg principle, where if you try to capture magic you alter it instead.
The first creatures sharing our farm that come to mind are those with feathers. Blue birds top my list, as both their color and habits are pleasing. Building nests for them is tricky if you are to avoid constructing a cafeteria for snakes. There are about a dozen nests, made from cedar fence palings, scattered about the place...one paling cut into six parts will yield one blue bird house. I mount a box on a post and wind barbwire around the post from nest to ground to keep snakes out. This year six boxes were in use and by August all the new families were gone. I have no idea where, but they will return in late fall or early winter and often revisit the nest, as a kind of homecoming. Five or six, a family I assume, will hang around a box and occasionally perch and peer inside as if to say, "Yep, that is my old bedroom." In the spring, their actions are more deliberate. The female will check out a box then fly away with the male right behind, as if saying, "Well, its okay but I did not like the color of the walls." This ritual continues 'til she finds the right box and the right time, then they begin redoing the interior with fresh straw. The blue birds will not eat from the bird feeders we fill each winter. As there are few insects about, I have no idea how they manage to survive the cold, but they do. The only occasion they seek human attention is when a snake is in the area; then they fly quite close, requesting assistance.
The Ruby Hummers, not only request assistance they demand it. If a feeder is empty one will fly right up to your face or if you are indoors they will hover at the window. The males arrive around March 21 and wait for the females to show. After partners are selected and families raised the males depart in late August. Some females leave in early September, but others come down from the north to take their place at the feeders. Almost everybody is gone by the end of September. I understand they gather around the Texas coast until a big front comes down providing a tail wind for the trip across the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe like migrating geese, they ride the waves of air, but not the geese as the urban myth has it.
I favor the colorful birds, summer tanagers, painted bunting, and the like, but also raptors such as the beautiful Mississippi kite. Mocking birds can be observed chasing and attacking flying hawks, their natural enemy. One afternoon we were walking down the driveway with our yellow cat out in front when a mocking bird dove down to attack the cat, another enemy, suddenly from a low branch on a nearby pine tree a red tailed hawk swooped down aiming for mocking bird. The attacker, having become the attackee, flew into the bamboo thicket at the edge of the driveway. The pursuing hawk crashed in the bamboo. Victoria and I stopped in our tracks and stared where the crash occurred. All was quiet, then the hawk strolled slowly out of the thicket, fully maintaining his dignity, and gracefully took to the air. The mocking bird never again attacked the cat.
Our neighbor, who lives on the next farm west of us, once maintained a menagerie of turkeys, guinea fowl, mallards, and some domesticated geese and ducks. The flock would spend most of time on the pond behind her house, but would come to her house in the evening to be fed. As the flock numbered close to a hundred, feeding time made quite a show, but a show that could not last. There are many poultry operations here and each day the folks who run such operations must go through the houses and remove dead chickens. Twenty years ago, many of the dead chickens were simply dumped in a nearby ravine where the coyotes would dine at night. Soon the coyote population exploded; there was a coyote serenade on every hill, every night. It was not long before coyotes noticed the neighbor's menagerie. Guineas roost in trees and waterfowl sleep on the water, but all have nest on the ground. and that is when the coyotes attack. Eventually, some government agency forced the poultry growers to incinerate chicken corpses and the coyote population plummeted. Now we only occasionally hear their mournful songs. But by the time the coyotes were no longer a threat, there were only two geese and one mallard remaining and for some avian reason they abandoned the neighbor's pond and move to my largest pond. The threesome would come up daily and hang around the chicken coop where our Cinnamon Queen laying hens lived, until the geese met their gruesome end: alligators ate the geese (that is another story). The mallard having no companions, began spending his days around the house near the chickens, until the next disaster; a coon eventually killed the last chicken...and I killed the coon.
With no feathered friends, Victoria and I have to do. We return his rather forlorn quacks and feed him corn and, his favorite, crumbled ciabatta rolls. Now in September he is regaining colorful plumage and in a few more months migrating mallards will drop by the pond ending his solitary existance for the winter. He is at least 25 years old, which is I think, ancient for a mallard, and way too old to join the migration.
The next birds I will mention are the ones that have disappeared: Quail, Killdeer, and Nighthawks. All three nest on the ground, and the main suspect for their demise are Fire Ants. I think the first ant mound I saw was on my pond bank about 1986 and now they are ubiquitous. With their arrival the population of ground nesting birds began to decline. I saw a pair of Killdeer on the back pasture five years ago, but none since.
Finally, a last bird I will mention, the cattle egret. I first noticed them in the early '60's and at first cattle were afraid of them; now they are numerous and ride about on the cows removing ticks and flies, I assume. They have thinned the grasshopper populations that would swarm in late summer and do help with outbreaks of army worms. When I mow hay they swarm behind the mower searching for insects or whatever. I once mowed a snake in half and had the displeasure of watching an egret swallow the rear half while the snake tail continued to wag.
While the flora and fauna is diverse and abundant, the human population in the country is, by comparison, homogeneous. Working in higher education you rub shoulders with educated individuals from all over the world and I sorely miss those experiences. I think of the conversations in higher education as wide, horizontal. For example, I might talk with a teacher from India, who speaks better English than I do, about the similarities between the Mahabharata and Iliad. While in the rural South I might talk with a preacher, a native speaker whom I can barely understand, about whether God rested on Saturday or Sunday after creating the world in seven days. I might talk with another Southerner who will or can only talk about hunting and fishing* or another man who knows all the signs of the zodiac and can recommend the best day to plant peas. These are, to me, vertical conversations. That said some of the vertical conversations can be interesting. The Methodist minister and I both read Harold Boom's collection of pieces on The Book of Job and had a fruitful conversations on Job....but not on the Mahabharata.
Perhaps the best aspect of living in the rural South are the ability of folks to laugh at one another without giving offense and the wonderful stories. Truman Capote said when he sat for dinner as a young man everybody began to tell stories and time for dessert you had a novel. Life here fits me well.
Now that I am an octogenarian farm chores are becoming more difficult, or rather I simply do not want to brush hog the back pasture or cut and stack firewood. We sometimes speak of moving, a town home perhaps. The final move before the one to the grave yard will not be to city. The last time we drove in Dallas traffic it was alarming, 80 mph and bumper to bumper. Nor will I willingly go to a retirement facility. Years ago I visited one of my uncles, a farmer born in the 19th century, in such a place and found him sitting in a chair by his bed. He said, "Those women keep trying to get me to play bango. I tell them I don't know nothing about no bango." I feel the same way, I don't want to play no bango.
Maybe I will remain in this cabin where the ivy has already reached the roof and like Remedios in One Hundred Year of Solitude ascend into the sky one afternoon while folding sheets. Victoria will call up, "Drop my sheets."
But just now I have to go feed the mallard. I don't think he is hungry, just needing some attention.
*That particular man also admitted, "I only know about hunting and fishing, but I know them both real well."