St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Place to Write

Barefoot Boy from Mom's old photos -Uncle Alvin?

A Place to Write
Assignment for Northwest Regional Writers  - Jan 11 2012 Grantsburg WI
Growing up on a small dairy farm, I had many special places, some shared with my three brothers and others my own secret places.  The earliest ones were on the 40 acres where our farm buildings stood; the big old barn with its fragrant dusty haymow, the garage with the quiet granary above, the dark damp pump shed with the old harnesses and blacksmith tools, and of course the big white farm house where each of us had our own room upstairs. 

Before I was a teen, my favorite place was in the night pasture, a winding area along a small creek that angled through the 40 acres, joining two cattail swamps of a few acres each.  The swamps and creek valley, too wet and too steep to plow, gave the dairy cows pasture overnight.  During the day, they strolled up the road to the 60 acre day pasture followed by a boy and a dog.       

The creek came from the overflow of Bass Lake, through the old cranberry bog, then down a narrow channel with steep banks into a small pond and then on into the neighbor’s woods and swamps and ponds merging with Wolf Creek and then the  St. Croix River five miles downstream.

Between the two shallow ponds the creek had cut a small valley, about 100 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Along the creek were several giant spreading Elm trees—tall spare trunks with umbrella crowns high above the valley, giving cool shade for the cows in the summer.  Fences on either side along the whole length and surrounding the wetlands made up much of the pasture.  The cows grazing kept it all parklike and their well trod paths bare on either side attracted my brothers and I to follow them to their ends at the fences and drinking holes.

In the narrowing valley, five old beaver dams of varying heights broke the otherwise smooth channel. The biggest were fully across the valley, rising five feet—the work of many beavers over many decades, creating a 20 acre holding pond behind it—now the shallow cattail swamp that dried out each August and provided extra grazing for the cows.   Each dam had been breached—washed through as the creek cut its way down a foot below its immediate bank. 

Near the largest dam, was one of the huge elms, its roots sprawling across the tiny stream.  Several large rocks lodged against the roots making a tiny dam and water hole—no more than 2 feet in diameter a foot deep or so.   A large boulder next to the tree made a wonderful seat, the trunk a backrest, where we could watch the water trickling through the little pond.  Tadpoles, frogs, and tiny minnows that came with the spring floods from Bass Lake filled the channel as the snow melted and rushed to the St. Croix.  Some tiny ones lived here, darting in and out of the roots and rocks and thriving into dry Augusts when the creek dried up and a cow came along and gulped down the whole pond in one drink.

 Sitting on the rock, leaning against the broad trunk was my favorite place to spend a quiet hour in the spring through fall with an occasional trip to check it out in the winter.   It was out of site of the house, ¼ mile away—isolated from the bustle of the farm.   

Here I thought my deepest thoughts.  What do I want to become?  What about girls?  What about God; Hell, Heaven?   Lying down, watching the clouds float over helped me believe the earth was really turning under me.  I dreamed of the future, writing stories in my head of what was to come.

Most days, my reverie was brought to a close when a cow wandered over and woke me with a friendly lick, discovering my taste in her curiosity if I might be a delicacy for one of her many stomachs.  Giving her a pat, I jumped up and walked on down the path to Dub Lake, our name for the second pond, hoping to see a duck or muskrat family swimming across, or catch the giant old snapping turtle out on the bank and she wanted to grab a stick for me. 

My first story, written in 2nd grade, was the life of  Freddy Germ,  who after roaming through the community and school encouraged by bad hygiene, found his way into Wolf Creek and floated down the St Croix and Mississippi where he passed on to the hereafter in the salt water of the Gulf.  It was inspired by an elm leaf swirling through the tiny dam and floating downstream, buffeted by the breeze, but careening ever forward. 
Sixty years later, the creek is still there and the rocks, but it is not the same.  No cows have trod the paths nor eaten the grass for 25 years.  The creek is invisible under deep overlying grass.  The elms died long ago from Dutch Elm’s disease.  Hundreds of small ash trees are closing in, turning the valley into woods---awaiting death from the Ash Borer.   The fences have fallen down and our renter has moved the fields boundaries in on the night pasture.  Dub Lake is bigger and more open, having had a clean out in the drought of 1970.  The old beaver dams are still there, but barely show in the deep grass and trees. The cow paths are memories only—a slightly greener trail through the grass, a memory of a trail enriched with cow pies along the way.    

When I am need inspiration to write, my mind wanders back to the little valley and again I sit on the rock, lean against the elm and look for the minnows in the tangles.  The years have burnished the memory; the grass is greener, the elm taller, the water clearer and the babbling water louder.   The tiny pool soon fills with darting shiners, schooling into yarns to be written when the cow licks me into action.