Image: “Katydid the Bush Cricket,” by Krysta Ryan, photograph, 2018, 5×7 in.
A Country May: 14 Days
By Chila Woychik
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
1. From the brash and loud, we seek the soft Midwest melody. This is less provincialism, more self-preservation. Years in the city left us numb and sightless; now, every new day brings startle and flux and a cold slap of air where we need it most.
2. Boxy blackness plods along ahead of us. The people we call Amish live nearby, sell cedar lawn furniture and soy candles, sweet corn and veggies. They risk it all in buggies traveling ten miles an hour in front of fast-moving “English” cars. The Amish shock their hay and corn without equipment; it’s a tedious process but the horses need winter feed and the Amish won’t gas up a tractor. Under those black hats and beards lie the ways of the ancients, and every new slant of modernity wreaks heartache.
3. A cow’s eyes are the size of golf balls, black and piercing like the ones housed in the head of the Angus staring at me across the fence. An orange cattle tag in each ear replaces old brands stamped by hot irons. The brisket is black and prominent, the legs long and straight, a sleek coat slipped on, and a rubbery wet nose made for squeezing, beginning at calf-stage. But it’s too big now (both nose and cow) and unfriendly, and besides, that electric fence sizzles.
4. A farmer is someone in love with dirt, and my farmer groans at the close of day: too many steps and a dusted brain.
5. A yellow biplane dips across surrounding fields, drops its load of chemicals, rises again. Crop dusting. Someone said the average lifespan of a crop duster is seven years. Is that the flying risk or the chemical risk, I’m not sure. The wind may carry the poison up the hill to our house. The innocents in all this, we hope to hold our breath when the yellow planes appear.
6. Sunday night’s rain has softened the Barred Owl Trail near home, and both deer and humans have trod this space since then, at least one human with a heavy heel tread. The upward path is grueling, but it’s the rocks jutting up through the hard-packed dirt and the tree roots that trip the unwary hiker. Halfway up, my heart is pounding while the beauty of mayapple leaves droop pretty next to mounds of poison ivy. Truth be told, it was my farmer who taught me about climbing: off cliffs with rope and carabiners, along forest trails punctuated with the occasional cold spring bubbling up, on a stationery tractor. And alongside bluebells.
7. We live with degrees. Pain is the soft, come off. The rough run real. Pain is the hack, back. It jolts us—we feel. An eye-popping sense of fear, the heaviness of disappointment, and the slow hammer of pain: these three remain, but the greatest of these is pain.
8. Who discovered Iowa? (Who wants to know?) Early Iowa settlers moved in from the East – westward expansion – found the Promised Land to be one of fertility and too harsh winters. They grew old at 35, for topography interrupts the flow of anticipated visions. In what are called the “laws of migration,” a rural exodus now plagues these agricultural states. Family farms give way to larger industrial entities and fewer hands are needed; urban areas take on attractiveness: jobs are there, and activities beyond nurturing an unforgiving earth. But an urban exodus is happening at the same time. City dwellers weary of unending traffic and closed-in spaces desire the land, natural living, and quiet. Every hill crawls with cattle, every valley with corn. We yearn for breadth, green spreads, and high blue skies.
9. There’s too much going on. Which crack did the simple yes and no fall into? The one-size-fits-all wrench rusts in a dusty toolbox. Against a backdrop of planet overuse and warring factions, cyberterrorism and nuclear tinderboxes, how the children grow, and the sun still shines. We plow on, disc one field, then another. Cereal rye, green and insistent, rams its tips upward, only to be turned under as cover crop in infancy a short while later.
10. How comforting the thrum of a box fan on the other side of a room. How fresh the stirring of stale air in a stale house ripe with years and living.
11. In Iowa in 2016, a 74-year-old female died while doing cattle chores. In 2012, an Oregon man went out to feed his hogs, and all that was left of him a few hours later were his dentures and some odd remains. A few years ago, our horned ram cornered me in a back shed and repeatedly crashed into my thigh, until I grabbed a board and clocked him between the eyes. Now I face five friendly sheep and keep a close eye on fifty head of cattle across the fence.
12. Are you tired of reading about the sun or the corn rows’ length? I ask my farmer. A price for beans, the tractor’s faults, the mess we’ve made of this world? The silence of the cicadas keeps us real between heady conversations like these.
13. Where did it go? We call it time, measured by a sliding brightness across the sky. Time is a peace child with daisies. A joker with a card up its sleeve. Time is a wrist watch strung to the arm of Fate. Time flies and dives, and when that last flicker fizzles, dies.
14. I would tell you what to do if you’d believe me. I would tell you how it feels to gouge the land underfoot, to wrangle animal kind mulishly, but you’d laugh. I would tell it brown, green, and loamy, with a side order of soybeans, a plate of corn. But the earth is too heavy for that now and the clock is ticking. Can you imagine? Can you believe? Quickly now.