Day one, Parsons sculpture and design project, Lake Ann Michigan:
I had spent a lot of the week getting ready to go, so I had some time to enjoy my kids on the weekend.
Saturday had been one of those picture perfect family days. We had gone to breakfast and laughed all through the meal, making up out own acronyms for IHOP. At one point Molly looked at the newspaper photo of family members grieving around Ladybird Johnson’s draped casket, and asked me, “Mom, why is that lady resting her head on the coffin?” I explained that she was likely bery sad and saying goodbye to the woman who died. Molly nodded seriously, and said, “I thought maybe she was listening for breathing.”
I left home around 8:30 yesterday morning, loaded up with scrap clay, sonotubes, groceries and camping gear and towing the pop-up. MOlly gve me extra hugs, Connor made me two bags of trail mix for my adventure, and Tyler assured me that he would be extra helpful at Grandma’s this week. (Also trustworthy, helpful, courteous, kind, and the whole boy scout promise.)
The day was breezy, blue and in the 70s, the kind of everything’s-perfect weather that makes everyone cheerful and grateful. My van rode low inthe back with the load of cargo but the pop-up pulls like a dream.
In Ohio I drove through a sea of corn and beans while Barbara Kingsolver crooned her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” in my ear though the ipod headphones, talking about monoculture and the loss of the family farm. Small towns like Assumption seem centered around a church and an old cemetary, and it is maybe the last time in the history of our culture that the names on the tombstones are the same as the names on the mailboxes, family names carefully lettered on big barns, names of gravel roads. In a country where the average American family moves every three years, the notion of a family living on the same farm for 100 years certainly seems worthy of a “century farm” marker. I worry with Kingsolver that the people who tie a land to its history will disappear, and it will become just real estate, acres to plant or lawns to mow.
I look over the landscape and the little cemetaries in passing, with the corn fields now stretching for miles and the family subsistence farms gone, and wonder if the dead outnumber the living.
I always drive country roads looking for the little wooden hand painted sign that says “eggs”. It’s especially lucky if the chickens are visible, out scratching at a field’s edge, eating bugs and gras and seeds and all those omega-3 goodies we no longer get with our corn fed livestock.
I realize how much I have come to recognize the seasons of the year from the landscape that was part of my childhood. Roadside ditches right now are in the season of blue chicory, queen ann’s lace, pink milkweed blossoms. yellow blossomed stalks of fuzzy leaved mullein, orange tiger lilies and occasional purple spikes of the invasive loosestrife. Some of the flowers, like the perennial sweet pea, must have escaped from some long gone farm wife’s flower bed; other things were planted by wind or birds, and some came over in horse feed on wooden ships from faraway places long ago.
It is not yet the purple and gold season of goldenrod (and honey flow!) that precedes autumn, but the peeper frogs are done and the cicadas can be heard sometimes on hot, still afternoons. The fields of wheat have been harvested and the straw rolled into big round bales. The gold of wheat stubble is pleasing to the eye, and I love the randomness of giant straw bales left in the field at intervals; most, these days, are shrink wrapped in bright plastic and stored near metal pole barns, all very practical. But my sentimental preferences tend to the weathering straw and rickety old impractical barns (doors too narrow for big farm equipment, cows sent to agribusiness CAFOS, and no need for a hayloft.)
I sigh over empty hen houses, too. Having built a couple of too-small, not-right homes for my too-few backyard hens, I love the authentic architecture of these now useless buildings; the careful slope of the roof, the rows of windows, the doors that let hens out to forage and the rows of nesting boxes. Now hens are stacked in rows in cages, debeaked, corn fed, inbred until they are too stupid to know what an egg is for.
I also keep tabs of the season and countryside by roadkill. There is the occasional cat, which I always hope was of the unnamed-barn-mouser sort and not the grandma’s-lap variety. Represented among the countless raccoons, though, are fox, muskrat, oppossum, and deer (though there seem to be more deer in the fall.)
Roadside signs announce that this is the season of cucumbers, blueberries and sweet cherries. Strawberries are past, and tomatoes not yet plentiful enough to share after a long winter of rock hard imports. As I entered Michigan and the landscape changed from corn and soybeans to woods, pastures and smaller fields broken by creeks and bogs, Barbara Kingsolver was talking her book to me in maternal tones, about being a “locavore”, refusing food that required a thousand miles of travel (and fossil fuel)… about supporting your local farmer, your local economy, eating in season. I stopped at a cider mill outside of St. Johns and bought blueberries, sweet cherries and local cheese which I hoped came from some of the cows I had seem grazing on pastures all afternoon.
I am not by nature a covetous person, but I am itching to own land; a parcel of woods big enough to get lost in, an old farm with a chicken house in need of a coat of paint and a flock of heirloom hens who remember how to forage and raise chicks. Maybe one with one of those big ceramic-tiled silos, now standing empty as corn and soybeans have become a river of commodity, flowing through big elevators and train cars. (Michael Pollan, “Omnivore’s dilemma” is on my nightstand.)
I jotted on my notebook the icons of familiar local culture — NASCAR and Jesus, mostly, bible verses stenciled on big blue silos and flags the ubiquitous giant #3. (Who was that, again? Dale Earnhardt?) In one place I passed an elk farm… in Fayette, right where main street turned to neighborhood, I had to slow for an escaped peacock standing in the middle of the road. At some point I passed a six foot fiberglass chicken standing in front of a closed business.
The farther north I came, the more it was just woods, increasingly piney-er and with little lakes here and there.
Directions led me to dirt roads near Lake Ann, not far from Travers City. My cell phone registered no connection, a source of mixed feelings: how will I know what’s going on at home? But then again… an entire week with my uninterrupted thoughts to myself, trusting my husband and mom to be the loving, capable people they are and trusting my kids to survive a week without my instructions.
I pulled into the Parsons property, which I had seen only in slides.
I was the only one here, at first. The house was locked but I could peer in windows and see the bunks. I peered hopefully into the outhouse (huge hornet’s nest) and pulled my pop-up camper into a ferny back yard spot, at the fringe of the fire-circle-and-picnic-table back yard, within extension cord reach of a small gas kiln shed with a missing window pane. The cardboard replacement pulled up at one corner to admit my plug.
I set up my little home. It’s nice to be settele din for an entire week. I set a pot of live herbs outside my little door, rinsed my growing jar of alfalfa sprouts and put them by the sink, plugged in the chargers for laptop and camera. I plugged my coffee pot and crock pot into a timer so breakfast would wake me in the morning, and made my bed with a goosedown duvet and five fat pillows.
Students arrived and I joined three girls in a hike down the stream to Ransom Lake. The stream empties out in a sand, spring-cold spot into a lovely wooded lake. It quickly became clear that we had the lake all to ourselves and could swim “Tom Sawyer style”.
Evening meant a camp fire inthe fire ring, and the profs and a few of last year’s veterans played “flashlight bocci” — a game that seemed odd to me, but generated a lot of laughter.
I will write again later about the woods, the creek, the other lakes and the sculpture inspirations. It’s monday morning, my coffee is gone and it’s time to get started.