The Prairie

  Giving away a page torn from a magazine was the high point of my high school career.  I think it was also a golden moment in the professional career of Mrs. Fricke, my eleventh grade English teacher at Mayo Senior High School in Rochester, Minnesota.  She's dead now, so I will never know.  But I am a teacher too and I know the magic of seeing lights in students' eyes switching on.  She probably attached the page I gave her to a piece of construction paper and stapled it to her bulletin board in her room every year until she retired.  Perhaps when she cleaned out her office for the last time, she found it in a manila folder, lingered over it one more time, relived the thrill of our moment together in the circular halls of Mayo, wondered if she should keep this picture and slipped it into the huge waste barrel a janitor had given her to dispose of what was once the tools of her profession, but was now only heaps of trash.  My copy of the photograph, the one in my memory, I still have.
    Other people labored to create that golden moment.  One was a farmer.  He hauled a one-blade plow out of the eastern forests, across the river, and out onto the plains.  Back and forth across his field, he polished the handles of that plow, breaking and turning the sod, to the day he let go of them for the last time.  Not long thereafter, his family lay him beneath the sod. 
    Another was a girl who watched him sweat, cuss, sing, and die.  She never touched the plough with her hands, but with her words she parked it on a rise on the prairie and observed the long shadow it cast across the land.  Her name was Willa Cather. 
    Next was a photographer, who shivered when he read her words.  To lay down her vision in his own medium, he brought together an antique plow with polished handles, a camera, a rise, a dawn, and a shadow.  The photograph, transported back to New York, then prompted an art director who had never read Willa Cather's words or been west of the Hudson river, to quit work for a moment, sit back in his chair, and say, "Wow."  Around it he created an advertisement, maybe for an insurance company.  The magazine in which it appeared was shipped back out onto the prairie where a student at a small college flipped past the picture that had no significance to him, and tossed the magazine onto the floor of his closet.

Willa Cather's Plow

    A month after I read My Antonia by Willa Cather in Mrs. Fricke's English class and one hundred years after the farmer took his hands off the plow, I attended the Summer Humanities Institute at St. Olaf College.  In the closet of my room in Thorson Hall, I discovered at two-foot-tall stack of Time magazines.  Like the student who lived in that room before me, I flipped through them.  The picture of the plow and its shadow arrested me.  From the moment I saw it, sat back in my chair and said, "Wow," I knew the next stop in the journey of Cather's vision: Mrs. Fricke.  In September, I found her standing outside her room greeting her new students.  The instant I gave her the page from the magazine, she cried, "Willa Cather's plow!"
    Mrs. Fricke was forty years older than me, born more than half way back to the labors of the farmer, and here I am still on the plains, more than forty years later, halfway to who knows what, writing about the spark that happened between my teacher and me when we completed together one of the uncountable circles that define our lives.  The spark is all that matters.  We pitch all of the rest, closets, plow handles, bulletin boards, cameras, insurance companies, sod, and, even sunrises into the waste barrel.  They are only the wire along which the spark travels.
   Circles and sparks flow and flicker wherever there is life.  A Dakota wise man, traveling on his own circle, saw the shadow too.  He told his children a story different from the one Cather wrote.  The farmer's wife grasped the handles of the plow one more time and remembered her man under the sod before she returned to the east and told her stories.  The student before me at St. Olaf tore out a different page and gave it to an uncle to complete a circle and pass along a spark I will never know anything about.  I didn't know that I was doing anything significant when I gave Mrs. Fricke that scrap of paper.  Yet I carry the spark with me today, on my way to the completion of another circle.

Our Garden
Our Garden

    One summer morning our neighbor and Jeffrey Bollman's mother Betty rethought her choice of residence.  She had finished weeding her garden, which for her was task of no more than ten minutes, not because her garden was small - it was bigger than ours - but because she weeded it every day, sometimes twice.  She was walking back to the tool shed carrying in one gloved hand every weed she could find, a collection smaller than I could gather in a single swipe among the happy weeds in our garden.  At a break in the honeysuckles she glanced over the fence.  Normally she minimized interaction with anything or anybody in our yard, but this morning something unusually weird was happening.  There was one of the Sullivan boys, which was not unusual unfortunately.  Only now he stood in the middle of the yard with his hands held out in front of him, palms up, fingers splayed, and apparently totally freaked out.  She could rarely comprehend why we did anything, but this boy was obviously out of his mind.  How come? She didn't know that the probability of my violent death, normally much higher than that of the other children in the neighborhood, even Jeffrey when he was playing with us,  had just jumped off the charts.  Nor did she know that I found my circumstances, what with her laying eyes on me in this instant, hilarious and that I would be laughing were I not scared for my life.  I did try to laugh, but I could only twist the grimace on my face.  She thought that Jeffrey was not going to like it, but he was going to have to play inside this summer.

    She disliked me for many reasons, only some of which, well, most of which, were related to the reckless and frequently destructive behavior of my five brothers, two big dogs, and me.  We weren't malicious and Jeffrey wasn't an intentional source of our gaiety, not all of the time anyway, but he came home crying too often for her to feel otherwise, being his mom and all.
     We also gave her many reasons to believe that we were indifferent to our own safety.  She had seen us standing on top of the brick chimney forty-five feet above the natural limestone patios around our big house.  She had seen the BB gun fights.
    Once she had stood on the very spot she stood now and seen three of us watering the lawn.  The window in time in which she might have entertained the possibility that maybe we weren't all bad slammed shut when, with a great whomp, a wall of flame twenty feet wide and eight feet tall sprang up around us.  As the plume of black smoke unfurled over her head, she could make out within the fire the wavering silhouettes of the three of us.   Her first instinct, universal and maternal, was to rush to our aid.  But then the memory of Jeffrey running into the house that morning, crying again, inexplicably soaking wet on a sunny day and missing one shoe, stayed her hand.
    Actually this plume of smoke wasn't the first, or even the second, to darken the skies over Betty's garden.  Wild grape vines, elephant ear burdock, and small buckthorn trees had overrun the plot of ground that had been the garden when my family moved into the Millstone. Not being part of the lawn, therefore never mown, and not being a garden any longer, therefore never tilled, it had returned to a natural state and provided a profuse, vigorous, and expanding habitat for badgers, rabbits, deer, and other large mammals.  Having been a garden once, however, authorized periodic campaigns to reclaim the land for cultivation, which to us meant gasoline.  Betty's husband Jess occasionally burned twigs, hanks of dry grass, and a few dry leaves in fires small enough for boys to jump over without getting burned very often.  Only faint crackling and the accumulation of a few tablespoons of white ash betrayed the presence of a fire in the bright sunlight.  Even though his little flames flickered yards away from anything combustible, Jess stood by with a shovel and bucket of sand.  His techniques of managing yard waste were different from ours.
    Strictly speaking, the conflagration Betty was witnessing wasn't an accident.  It was part of the learning curve my brothers and I were on as we explored the utility of large fires as a lawn and garden maintenance tool.  Could it, for example, remove a stump?  We were determined to find out.  Since preventing damage to ourselves and our property was  not completely absent from our checklist, Dan, number four in the family order, brought the garden hose to the site of our labors and doused the whole area so well that the stump stood in a pond twenty feet across.  Insofar as we planned to use an entire gallon of gasoline - it was not a small stump - he wanted to insure that the fire did not spread to the house or surrounding forest.  Luke, number five, dumped the gasoline onto the stump, and I, number three, lit the match.  Had I looked up at that moment, I would have seen Betty looking over the fence without a scowl on her face.  I didn't though, because I had begun learning that gasoline spreads out over the surface of water.  When I saw flames on all sides of my black, high-top Keds sneakers, I needed to decide what to do next.  Soon. 

Fire as a garden tool

Simultaneously, all three of us decided that running seemed to be the best option.  Little circular fountains of flame formed every time Dan's foot struck the burning pool.  Curls of flame rose at Luke's heels with every stride.  Through the curtains of fire ahead of me I made out the wavering and inactive shape of Betty at the fence.  Once we reached the part of the lawn that was not burning, we were safer.  When the gasoline had burned off, the stump remained, but not our eyebrows, eye lashes, or the hair on our legs and arms.  We were accustomed to that however. 
    So, as I said, Mrs. Bollman knew that we, in the name of learning, tolerated a higher level of risk than she did or anybody else she had ever known.  She was puzzled, therefore, to see me transfixed with horror, the fingers of my empty hands oddly splayed before me.  What could be frightening me so badly? I was safely on the ground in the middle of my yard, no part of which was in flames.  Nothing big looked like it was about to topple over.  No home-made catapults, flame-throwers, or animals not ordinarily domesticated were in evidence.  And yet, with a blue sky over head, the morning sunshine on my face, and birds singing in the trees, there I was, every muscle in my body flexed, horrified.  She didn't have the full story.

Flying ax
Flying Ax

    Here it is:  On the day before, Dan and I had felled a Norway pine, which was probably dead.  It had fallen against a spruce tree, pinning some of its lower branches against the ground.  As Betty finished finding and pulling the dozen or so weeds in her garden, I was chopping branches off the Norway pine in preparation for cutting up the trunk.  One of those branches held down a branch from the spruce tree.  When the ax separated the branch from the Norway pine and, simultaneously, released the one from the spruce, the ax seemed to simply vanish from my grip. At first I was amazed.  How does an ax disappear like that?  A rhythmic whistling sound over my head informed me of where the ax had gone.  As the spruce branch jumped back into place, it had caught the head of the ax, whipped it out of my hands, and hurled into the sky over my head.  The whistling sound, a swish, swish, swish, getting quieter with each swish, was the spinning ax ascending.  When Betty peered over the fence and locked eye contact with me, I was hearing the swish, swish, swish, getting louder and louder.  Despite my horror, the hilarity of the moment was not lost on me.  Laughter battled fear.  I bleated once and bolted for the cover of the trees Dan and I had not cut down.
    What did she tell her husband when he returned home that evening?  She had just finished weeding the garden, she might say, and, as she walked back to the shed, she glanced over the fence.  There was one was one of the Sullivan boys, absolutely terrified of something.  He got this crazy look on his face, yelped, and ran away.  Here's the weirdest part: after he ran away, an ax fell out of the sky and landed where he had been.  Is it too much to hope that some god is hurling axes at those boys?  Had the boy thrown the ax into the air himself?  Based on how deeply the ax head buried itself in the lawn, it appeared to have fallen from a great height.  Had he thrown it to that great height?  How, and more to the point, why would anyone throw an ax into the air so far over his own head?    
    How committed to this neighborhood are you?