Our old farm dog Daisy would make a pilgrimage every night to her former home, the residence of my uncle Ronnie just down the road past the coulee. I watched her walk; her doggie hips thin and painful, lacking lubrication, her white and yellow fur matted, stinking of dirt and piss and grass. Daisy was indestructible at thirteen years old—an eternity in dog years. Every night she walked, ever so slowly, the half-mile of gravel and dust to the blue house and every night she walked back and went to sleep in our yard. Thirteen years and the yellow lab had seen them all from the same favored spots. Patches of grass laid down and faded the places she loved the most.
When the summer starts to settle in and get real comfortable, after the “maybe, maybe not” of April and May, that’s when I hurt for the farm where I grew up.
The neighbor mows his lawn at night because it’s cooler, and the smell of that churned-up, fresh grass seeps through my open windows and mixes with the lilacs growing by the door downstairs.
I think about being a little girl and looking out my window to the bush behind my bedroom, sighing under the weight of heavy, blooming lilacs. The trees would be shimmering with the wind, their leaves dropping silver onto the big backyard. When I was very small, most of our yard was a thick forest, but the years killed the trees and we tore them down to plant new ones. I remember seeing my team of farm cats prowl out of the darkness, the thick of those old trees, with prizes like rabbits and small birds in their jaws.
Growing up on a farm, even if you don’t work it the way your father and uncles did so faithfully for many years, binds you to the land in a different way than kids who grew up in town. You get a real appreciation for open space, for land so flat you can see and never stop seeing across the horizon. It’s clear as always, from springtime to the coldest part of January.
We buried the dogs in the yard, too, instead of losing them to some nameless plot at the vet’s office. They’re all there back where Dad raises his pheasants, back where an old beat-up pickup or two and a camper we used to stay in rest under snow and then, leaves and branches. Besides the shuffling and fluttering of the birds as they grow, there’s not a lot of noise back in this makeshift graveyard.
Every day on the farm was predictable. You knew who was traveling down the road by the familiar sound of their tires on your gravel. My uncles visited my grandma in cycles: one at noon, one at 3 PM, one in the early evening. We’d bring her the mail, sit next to her rocker and look at the goldfinches fluttering near the window. The days slipped by in easy, warm comfort: clothes on the line, lawns to mow, miles to walk alone in my bare feet.
When the summer burns the brightest, in July, the fields are bursting with crops and the side of the road fills up with summer lilacs, tall and purple, and the little pale pink flowers that North Dakota claims as their own. You can’t pick them, though, because they die right away out of the earth. We used to bring my grandma big handfuls of scratchy Queen Anne’s Lace and whatever pretty, flowered weeds we could find. The wheat in the fields was growing green, not yet bleached by August sun.
I miss the cycles of a farm. Watching the tractors plow up the fields after their winter sleep, the smell of fresh dirt everywhere. Even now I find myself reaching for handfuls of soil just to smell it. When it came time for grain harvest, my mom would pack my brother and I lunches to bring out to our dad and we’d put on jeans and boots to save our baby legs from the rasp of the wheat. The sandwiches were always Spam and mustard, with molasses cookies for a treat. When I got older, I spent grain harvest with my teenage boyfriend, riding around in his harvester for hours, endlessly circling the expanse of field. I loved the smell of that shorn wheat, but I missed watching it sway in the wind like those amber waves of familiar song.
And then there was beet season, much later in the fall when school had started and the football lights were on bright in our small town. Round the clock massive mud-splattered trucks ride the highways full of sugar. When I was a child, we knew that beet season meant Dad would be missing for awhile. We’d wake up and see dirt clumps on the rug next to his cowboy boots, but we knew we mustn’t wake him up no matter how excited we were to see him; he had been out in the field for 14 hours or more and he needed to sleep. The quiet of the country is filled with the whir of machinery, the dirt dug up, the air cold so early in the morning.
The farmer sleep cycle is never steady, except maybe in the winter. During beet season, they never sleep. But they’ve grown used to it. And maybe they like the silence of an open field in the middle of the night. At four AM, there are no cars on the road.
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