I Am Here by Nancy Devine

elderberry buds macro shot

As my husband and I get ready for the day’s work, storm clouds congregate low in the west and chill permeates the air as we stand outside this early April Easter morning, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups. We’re a little grizzled, sunscreen a paste that holds dirt on our skin, and, later, when we blow our noses, the tissue will hold not only our mucus but also soil that’s been kicked up, part of the ground inside us.

We’re not the first people to work this 20-acre tract of Minnesota land we bought in May 2011. There’s abundant evidence of human activity. Rows of Norway and black spruce define the property’s eastern and northern edge, an orderly arrangement to block wind. I can imagine someone with a spade, thrusting the pointed end into the clayey soil, wiggling it to create an opening, slipping in a seedling, taking the shovel out and covering the plant with dirt using his or her foot, then moving a few feet and doing that all over again and then again until night when the dark seems to rise from the ground, like dust. Between those rows are several old fire pits, rusted cans inside circles of field rock, an occasional glass jar nearby, remnants of someone huffing paint or some other aerosol. The property has been surveyed for us, the edges designated with orange tape streaming from wooden stakes and hot pink x’s spray-painted on tree trunks.

But has anyone tried to raise crops here? We don’t know. We hope to be the ones who turn the back 16 of these 20 acres into a fruit farm, this season’s focus: planting black currants and elderberries, about 1,000 of each plant.

I look at this expanse, amazed that we own it, that people can really say this is ours about a field. But more than anything this property means work: smoothing and tilling and seeding and planting and picking and other actions I can’t yet imagine. I know our bodies will ache from much of it that my husband and I will awake some mornings so sore that standing will seem like reassembling parts of ourselves into almost-versions of what we were the day before. Even with a tractor and attachments, we’ll still have lots of physical work to do to get this soil ready.

I’m not afraid of or unaccustomed to work and what it yields. Our marriage has been a study in work. We remodeled our first house, an early 1900s place that succumbed to the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where we live. There we re-routed a gas line, took down plaster lathe walls, refinished hardwood floors, me crouching with a detail sander to work around the legs of a cast iron radiator. We changed faucets and installed GFI outlets and put linoleum flooring in the kitchen, carefully cutting it with a carpet knife so it would fit around the cabinet bases. And though the Red River ruined most of, we weren’t discouraged. We bought and remodeled another house, a split level with a huge yard teeming with fruit shrubs and trees, brambles and grape vines trained to grow along our dog’s cage.

This morning, we begin hauling, one by one, slippery white bags of rye grain seed from the back of a trailer and carrying each to a spreader hooked to our tractor via a three-point hitch and a power takeoff. The PTO will activate the spreader, a red funnel about five feet high, dispersing the seed in a mini-tornado in our field. The rye grain will be a cover crop that not only fortifies the soil when the long grass and its pale seed tassels are tilled under come fall but also it will prevent wind erosion by adding heft to the dirt. This cover crop will prevent weeds from choking our young plants when we get them into the ground in the next month.

We heft each bag up and dump its contents into the hopper, where it swirls and settles, like sand poured into a human-sized pail. Some bags need to be finessed and worked once we open them over the spreader, so the seed can get completely emptied into the hopper, which isn’t easy for me because the bags are heavy and slick like the Tyvek suits my husband wore when he did asbestos removal.

I run my hands through the seeds, which feel like rice, though, each is lighter. I find one hard corn kernel and just as I wonder about it, my husband climbs into the tractor. It’s time for the seeding. I climb into the pick-up, which is outfitted with a drag attached by chain to its trail hitch, so I can cover the seeds with dirt after my husband has spread them.

My husband’s welded this drag out of angle iron I’ve fastened to our truck by slipping a loop of its chain on the trailer hitch. The drag system hasn’t worked as well as we hoped, but it has to suffice. Originally there were two drags, one behind the other, which extended the leveling capacity of the truck by six or so feet. The first drag busted when I drove over a rock, the weld separating in the corner where one of the circles was laid upon other. Additionally, the drag that still works had spaces for cinder blocks, two upright pieces of metal on each side of the back over which the hollowed out parts of the cinders blocks were to sit on. A rock or something broke each of the blocks in two separate incidents, so the drag isn’t weighted the way it should be.

Once I’m in the truck, I turn off the overdrive and shift to four low for towing; then I take off. The radio’s turned to an FM station that plays mostly ’70s songs. If I hear “Fool If You Think It’s Over or I Go Crazy,” I won’t be able to resist nostalgia for my adolescent years, though they were angst-ridden and over-burdened by a sense of longing that exceeded the bounds of my imagination.

In retrospect, I don’t think I really knew what to do with myself. My classmates talked about weekend drinking and smoking pot at parties at places just out of town. Party spots had nicknames and merely referring to one of them, for many students, was enough. I didn’t want to lie down drunk in some farmer’s field on a Friday night, yet I didn’t really know what I wanted. Even when I think of this time, I feel yearning in my ribs, the bones pulling a bit to the outside as if there were some place they wanted to take me. The word “longing” brings to my mind an image of a gossamer rope extending from me to an out-there, beyond treetops, toward the sky…

I trail my husband as he drives the tractor, the seed spreader spinning and sowing in a wide circle with a diameter of some 20 feet. And I like this, making big sweeping turns, pulling the drag like there’s a water skier hanging on as we play crack the whip as if I’m trying to get her to jump the wake, only it’s a low wake of dirt and finishing my turn will cut it down and render the spot level, in addition to getting some dirt on the seeds, which is my main job. We’ve got a zigzag going, my husband in the tractor ending one row, turning to down the next and because our tractor’s small, it’s time-consuming, though I’m not sure how many passes it takes for us to complete the seeding. But, when we’re done, we’ve got a field that shows that humans have been there: level, weed-free, vehicle tracks in relatively straight lines running north and south. True, it’s not as shaped up and flat as a building site for a residential development. But we’re only two people with a tractor and a pickup truck, two people who hope to farm, and it’s mostly even, except for spots in the middle where the land undulates, resisting our work, perhaps. There are clods and clumps of earth, too, but I make a few final passes—diagonals and random curlicues—that take many of them down, though I don’t get them all. And I drive back to where my husband has parked the tractor for a break.

We rest a bit, hang out near the bucket of the tractor, maybe mention that it’s Easter, and I take a mental inventory of Easters past and concentrate on only one.

 

I’m in a blue sailor dress with a white tie in the middle, dependent from a wide collar; I got it at Kmart where I also got white vinyl go-go boots that I wear, scuffed black at the toes and then in my auditory imagination, I hear the clop of the boots on the terrazzo floor of the church where I attended Easter service. After church, my family has a ham dinner at my uncle and aunt’s house, and my dad, uncle and I go for a walk in their treeless neighborhood. Mom and her sister stay at the house with my grandma. It’s cold and snow is falling slant-wise though it melts and turns the sidewalks the color of grocery sacks. I lean into the cold slightly, but not as much as I do in winter. Winter in the north means a shift in posture: lean forward, make yourself less high profile to avoid some of the wind. Your hips and shoulders seems like they might befriend one another, but you don’t ever bend that far because you hurry when you’re outside, trying to escape the wind, how it cuts at you. Spring means standing upright again, lifting your head and looking around at the environment just as trees begin the slightest budding and the birds start to sing.

I don’t remember the entire walk, just rounding the corner down the block. I’m pretty sure I didn’t change into something warmer than my sailor dress and boots, that I wore a coat over them, my legs certainly cold. A redwood fence, each board rounded at the top like a big fingernail, at my right connects to a weird loneliness I felt then: my Easter outfit seemed to suggest more than walking around a neighborhood in the cold, though at the time, I had no idea what that was. Now I realize that I wanted something bigger, more substantial, more interesting; a ‘more’ that was probably impossible then, which helps me forgive the past and whatever inadequacies I observed in it and me.

 

I’m mentally back, looking at the western rain clouds, wondering if it will snow. But there’s more work to do. And I need to be here. My husband opts to drive the tractor over where we’ve been, and I decide to level a chunk of land we’ve not worked, a few rough acres at the front of the property. It’s uneven—lumpy like a mogul course—and beset with grasses and shrubbery, patches of brown curls that look like dead moss. I make pass after random pass on the space, the closest thing to driving in Spirograph shapes as I can. Though the ride is jarring, it’s entertaining to make designs on land, on terrain, sculptural, as if I’m cutting away medium to unveil a figure. Slowly, what was unkempt and unmanageable becomes organized and inviting, the weeds pushed flat, dirt emerging like water from a spring. When my husband comes along to finish up with his tractor, I take another break.

And then with a roll of toilet paper in one hand, a wad of off-brand Wet Wipes in the other, I head for the trees that form the eastern edge of our property. A clearing between a quartet of Norways seems like the logical place to go, but I notice a length of chain around one and a padlock against its red bark and realize that this is where my husband parks our John Deere overnight. We’re just developing this property and have no out buildings, no well, no electricity—nothing but open space. I walk parallel to the trees and look into them, past and through their boughs for my spot.

Three Norways form a triangle and I go behind the first, put the toilet paper in my other hand, unzip my jeans and squat. I grab the back of my jeans’ waistband and underwear and pull both forward, and the air’s chill surrounds me in an odd, though not disturbing way. I’m not sure I’ve done this before, at least not by choice. Yes, I’ve gotten ill and had to pull off to the side of the road, but this is a choice. I could get into the pick-up and drive to a nearby gas station or I can go here, among my trees, our trees. I choose the trees.

I’m quick, soon zipped up and standing, ready to walk off. But it seems coarse, impolite not to cover up what I’ve done. I walk into the field and gather up a clump of grass and tilled earth, take them back to my spot and put them over what I’ve done. And in this, I look. At first, I expect myself to be nonplussed. I am not. Nor am I grossed out or embarrassed. What I see looks like it’s come from an animal, because it has. Suddenly I’m reminded that I am part of the animal world.

Animal activity here is scarce or better said, not always obvious. Birds do dip and land in the field, and my husband’s seen deer here when he’s worked without me; someone’s even talked to him about hunting, which must mean doe and buck attend this parcel of land. I thought my husband and I, with our tractor and truck, had come to domesticate this place, transform it from field to fruit farm. But that’s not what’s happening to me right now. For a time, I am as much of this as birds or deer, not distant or removed. And I’ve spent so much of my life feeling separate from my environment and those in it, that I’m surprised at what I’m experiencing.

 

When I was a child, I often felt distanced from others and sensed that no matter how irrefutably real my consciousness was it could never really get me beyond the bounds of my own head. Still, I longed for something. And, as a teenager, I figured this longing defied explanation, that it would always be a part of me I could never describe to others. But something happened when I was in college; I read Mark Strand’s Keeping Things Whole and found that separateness articulated, given form in a short, but important, poem. The occasion of me reading it is long forgotten, but the relief it gave me is not. “We all have reasons for moving/I move to keep things whole,” it said.  Yes, some people do feel like “wherever they are they are what’s missing.” And one of those people, Mark Strand, is willing to and knows how to express this well enough that you can recognize it. In other words, I am not alone in my aloneness. The speaker in the poem knows that he is not a part of the world around him, that his corporeal person creates a space in the environment, the way an object in water displaces water. He moves through this environment so as to not divide or break it. The speaker is not a part of the environment. The poem, because it expresses this separateness perfectly for me, is a salve, an antidote for my longing.

Though Strand’s poem comforts me, Philip Larkin’s Wants, another poem I discovered in college, startles me. The poem begins: “Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.” And I start to think that my longing and sense of separateness might be what I really want. But why? Larkin has got an answer; in fact, he’s got a list of answers, a list that comprises much of the poem: the sky “dark with invitation cards,” the “printed directions of sex” and the family “photographed under the flagstaff.” For me, these are the things of our lives, the everyday, the common, the quotidian. And perhaps they aren’t completely fulfilling, not enough: the pull of our environment, our sex lives, the time we spend with family. I certainly wanted more than that Easter walk on a snowy day with my uncle and father. But what? Larkin has an answer: “Beneath all this, the desire of oblivion runs.” I envision myself taking off, going beyond the trees, trees not unlike the ones surrounding me, those that have just sheltered me with privacy. Maybe it would be easier to flee and be alone than to connect with others, which, in fact, might not be possible. Maybe Strand’s poem’s speaker’s constant movement is a slowed down version of an “oblivion” run. Oblivion is about things being smoothed over as if there were never a trace of someone or something, no evidence, totally forgotten.

No. Being alone and totally forgotten are not what I want, even if connecting to the world every day is difficult. I have just left evidence in the trees, evidence that reminds me I am animal among other animals. Sure it will decompose and disappear, though it’s there for a time, irrefutably there. And though I did think of smoothing over what I did in the trees so no one sees it, I did not. I’m the probably the only human who will see it, maybe the only one who needs to see it, proof that I’m part of something, connected to this environment and it is, for reasons I don’t yet understand, enough.

 

We hook the trailer up to the truck and then my husband loads the tractor onto it, securing it with straps, which he cinches like seat belts, and colorful bungee cords with black plastic hooks. As we head out on a road he made, Norway boughs brush the doors and windows. We’re tired, but for a few weeks, our work here is done.

Less than a month later, after my husband tills peat into the soil and judiciously marks rows with hot pink flags, we plant more than 900 black currant plants. Each future bush is a six-inch stick that looks like nothing more than a section cut from wicker furniture, save tiny buds—bumps of potential foliage—that we set into the aerated soil. It’s tiring, bending, squatting and scooting the 900-foot rows, tamping down the soil to protect each individual in our crop. We each carry a bucket of more peat to add more moisture to the soil because the only watering system we have, for now, is rain. Going into the tree line to go to the bathroom seems less significant in this round of work because there’s not enough time to stop and consider it; there’s that much to do, and it’s that exhausting.

Midday, I lie down on the ground for a break near one of hundreds of circular impressions my bucket has made; it’s like the head of a snow angel someone has imprinted after a blizzard. I get on my back with my feet flat on the ground with my knees up as if I’m about to do a push up into a bridge, which insures that my entire back makes contact with the ground, something that helps with any soreness from bending over repeatedly. I rest my right arm, like a blindfold, across my closed eyes. For one inhalation and exhalation with enough voice to make a sigh, I’m the only one in the world and then, though the sense is fleeting, I am the world along with this field and what we’ve planted. But before I let go of thought, I wonder how many people get such a chance: resting on tilled soil beneath an overcast April sky, evidence of your labor so tangible you can put your whole body next to it? Then I’m grounded a while, with no desire to run off or away.

And I have no doubt; I am here.

nancy devine close up shotNancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where she lives. She co-directs the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals.

IMAGE: Flickr Creative Commons/kellyv

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