Tag Archives: field

Playing With Fire

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Yesterday, I told about my little paper-burning adventure, and how the fire almost got away from me. That brought to mind my first childhood adventure of “burning down the field.” That memorable event was the first, but not the only time we burned down the field.  It became an annual event!

The field was about twenty acres of overgrown grass and weeds. There were wildflowers and vines, but no shrubs or wild juniper bushes like the fields on Beaver Island. We were allowed to wander the field, as long as we always kept our own house in sight. Toward the back, along a wide dirt pathway, wild raspberries grew. We went there often, in season, to pick them…but we were careful.

A family lived in a tiny house at the end of that path. The story we told each other was that they were crazy. The father shot a gun. The boys played with knives: big kitchen knives instead of jackknives. They had an outhouse for a bathroom. The mother smelled bad. That, we knew because my parents hired her, on occasion, to do our ironing. The little house was home to seven raggedy children, who often waited at the bus stop with runny noses. All the signs of insanity, in our childish thoughts. If any of them came near us when we were picking berries, we’d run for home.

Beyond the field was a small woods and a swamp that was sometimes just mud, other times several feet of water. There was an electric fence back there, too, that the boys would test by peeing on it. All of that was beyond sight of the house, and we’d be in big trouble if we ever got caught back there.

At the back of our property, at the edge of the field, we had a large metal barrel that we used for burning trash. As soon as he was big enough, eight or nine, maybe, taking out the trash and burning it was Ted’s job. Every now and then, Mom did it for him. We always knew that Ted played in the fire. He often burned his fingers trying to grab something out of the flames to twirl in the air, or to poke other things with. Once, he leaned over the barrel, and got a long blister across his belly. That was a hard one to explain.

The already volatile conditions – fire, dry grass and sometimes wind – were helped along by Ted pulling things out to wave them around and watch them burn. The field caught fire again…and again. And again. Just when it was beginning to look like it couldn’t possibly be an accident, and Dad was losing patience with all of Ted’s excuses, Mom caught the field on fire! Out burning the trash for Ted, a breeze came up and pulled some flaming papers out of the barrel and into the tall grass…and there it went again! That time, one of the neighbor’s sheds burned up, too.

After that, Dad took out a burning permit once every year. He gathered friends to help. They’d spend the day with rakes and shovels, keeping the fire controlled, while they burned the whole field down. We were allowed to watch from the sidelines, and sometimes help. After the fire, the grass came up nice and green. It was less of a hazard, he said. Burning down the field became a big family event: our family and friends, all playing with fire.

 

Another Spring

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The seagulls moved inland the year Bill Wagner planted corn on my Grandpa’s island farm.

They left the harbor where their gliding watch decorated the landscape and dirtied the docks. They abandoned, temporarily, the fishing boats where they lazily waited to claim the discarded remains of each day’s catch.

For the novel taste of earthworms and slugs, they came inland to follow the slow, gray tractor as it muddled over and plodded through the tough, overgrown fields, left fallow for thirty years.

My Dad noticed them first. “Get my gun,” he shouted to my daughters, “here’s dinner!” They remembered his similar suggestions at holidays, that Santa’s reindeer might make a good venison stew, or that the Easter Bunny might be good to eat. They knew he was teasing. Still, both responded with the squeals, looks of horror and groans he expected, and that made him grin.

Seeming more like one large, feathery organism than several hundred birds, the seagulls followed the tractor closely. Seagulls hovered overhead, flapped alongside and marched behind, like white rag ribbons bouncing along with the humming machine.

Bill led the parade daily, tilting over the broken soil with the birds, like bouquets of kite tails, in close attendance. They gave him the comic appearance of a balloon man.

The seagulls stayed when Bill went home at night, keeping watch over the tractor and the plow.

Impatient to get started each morning, the birds were already fluttering busily, vying for position, as the farmer made his early trek across the field to begin his work day.

Dragging the plow behind, the tractor slowly transformed the field. The first pass lifted the earth in clumps, pulled out the juniper, tossed up a few rocks. The second time over, the lurching machine turned the brittle grass under, exposed the roots and left a finer texture. With the disc attached the tractor made waves in the freshly turned, dark earth. Fertilizer next, then the planter left crooked rows of yellow kernels as the small machine moved grudgingly over the stony field. Another swipe covered the seeds, and a deposit of weed killer completed the job.

The work took nine days from start to finish.

Bill plowed one long day in the rain, and allowed the rain to keep him home the next.

The seagulls had perfect attendance.

We watched the progress from the house and yard.

Aunt Katie drank her morning coffee on the kitchen porch, to enjoy the smell of freshly plowed soil with the morning sun. After dinner she and Dad took their beers outside. Leaning back in their lawn chairs, they followed the tractor’s path with their eyes as their voices and laughter filled the evenings with sound.

My daughters protested the change.

“Nothing’s going to be the same!” they told me day after day.

“Now he’s ruined our fort!”

“There goes the rock pile!”

“That was my favorite little tree!”

Every report was a sad one.

Each pronouncement, they thought, was the one that would finally raise me up and drive me out of the house, to throw myself in front of the tractor, if necessary, to stop Bill’s wild destruction.

I understood their feelings.

I remembered, too.

In my own childhood, we made paths, piled stones, made forts and “hide-outs” in the tall grass. We found wildflowers and berries and caught fireflies as we roamed the fields morning and evening.

“Wait,” I told my young daughters, “you’ll have great fun playing in the tall corn.”

“Watch the birds,” I said, “They’re so funny!”

“Watch your Grandpa,” I told them.

That’s what I was doing.

Every day Dad walked the field.

His long stride covered the rough ground easily. He seemed to be measuring with his steady pace.

He moved quickly, as if he had a specific destination, then stopped suddenly, and without plan, to study the changes around him.

Feet planted firmly in the soil, his legs formed a triangle with the ground. His broad shoulders rounded,  back swayed and arms akimbo with thumbs hooked into his belt loops, hands resting on his hips.

He would stand for so long, surveying the daily progress, that his solid form could have looked like a statue.

Except for his head, nodding his grinning approval at everything he saw.

Now, that field has been planted nearly every year for more than twenty five years.

My cousin, Bob, has it planted this year with alfalfa and kale, in anticipation of pasturing his lambs there.

Aunt Katie still lives in Grandpa’s farmhouse there, as she has since she retired. Though she’s older and more frail, she still enjoys having a beer outside in the evening, to watch the activity on the farm.

Bill Wagner died many years ago; he’s still remembered and respected as a good man and a hard worker.

My daughters are long grown and gone from home, with children that wander the fields when they come here.

My Dad, so hard to believe, passed away close to fifteen years ago.

Many things have changed, with the passage of time, but the memories flutter, like those long ago seagulls, so close and so vividly that I can almost hear the laughter.