177 / 365 – Advice


I feel badly for my boys. Every body takes a season to learn. We had a season like this not long after I started farming. Winter rolled off late, left a lot of snow on the ground that didn’t melt off till almost May. The ground wasn’t nearly dried out enough to get a tractor on the field, and that was when the machines weren’t nearly so big as today. And even if you could have, the ground was so wet it would have rotted out whatever you would have put into it.

All the signs were there, but I was a young farmer then and I wasn’t ready to sit out a whole season. I had a new wife and son to feed, and I hadn’t stayed here to farm just to fish through a season. My granddad walked over some of the fields with me and told me a story about a spring that had started off like this, where the fields dried out late and how it nearly ruined him. He didn’t tell me, “Don’t plant.” He wouldn’t have done that. My family, we don’t tell each other what to do. We offer advice, and hopefully people are listening. Of course I didn’t. I thought our new tractors would somehow make things come out different. Even though I couldn’t afford a new tractor back then. Tractor I had had been around twenty years.

I told my son that story, and my grandson, while we were out walking fields back in May. It was late, then, already, and you could see there was no way they were going to be able to get anything out in the field any week soon. There was still snow on the north-facing banks of the creek down by where it crossed under the county road.

We have great faith in our machines and our science. I like that spirit. You have to be optimistic to do this. Darryl though if he traded in his seeds for something with a shorter season, he could still get something from the season. And his son thought the same. Darryl’s carrying a big note on his land and his combine, and even though he could sit out a season and still be OK, it makes him itchy, I think. His son, too, though he hasn’t got that kind of cushion and another bad season could ruin him. I hope it doesn’t. So they planted. Late. Seemed like it was almost the end of May. I could barely stand to go out there when they were doing it, I had such a bad feeling about it. Still, you don’t want to say the kind of thing that could dampen someone’s spirit about it.

Now, look at it. Look at everybody. You drive along the county roads either side of here and crops look knee-high. They ought to be up to my shoulders by now. I hate to even look out the window when I drive into town. A few farms that are up on higher ground, the ones that slope down to the south and west, they seem OK. Their ground dried out first. But Darryl’s. I keep hearing how the fishing is good this year, up at Lake Metigoshe in the Turtle Mountains. About this time of year, when the worries are pretty much over about weeds and it doesn’t look like we’ll have a fight with grasshoppers or something else, my dad and I used to drive up to Lake Metigoshe and spend a week fishing. He had a camper he could put on his pickup and we’d just find ourselves a camp site and have a quiet week of it, let the sun do its work for a week and manage things around the farm. I keep wanting to ask Darryl if he wants to go up there. But no, Some of his crop still isn’t high enough. He’s still worried some about weeds and rot. I think he’ll worry himself all summer. So I won’t remind him that the best course might have been taking the year off and just fishing, enjoying the season for a change. ‘Cause I didn’t listen either.


176 / 365 – Bees


We always bought our honey from the Janzens, Dick Janzen. The C-store has sold it for years — it says ‘Prairie Gold’ on the label — but you could always buy it in town. He’s grown up a big operation over the years. When I was young my dad used to drive out to his dad’s farm to get it. Hod Janzen. He had a farm, had cattle, planted wheat and beans. Honey was just something he did on the side, something else to try to bring in a few dollars. Every year he’d move his hives out by fields that were planted in clover. The best clover honey. But I think my dad drove over there mostly because he’d go out behind the barn and have a beer with old Hod. We’d walk around and watch the hives, the bees coming in from across the fields and landing on the side. All the bees clambering in and out of the slit by the lid. We’d dare each other, how close we could stand to it. You could get pretty close. My brother always dared us to get closer. He said, “They won’t bother you, look.” And he’d step right up there. Until one day when four or five went after him, stung him on the face and on his neck. He didn’t play that game any more.

Dick still has the farm, but honey has been his business. Trucks hives all around the county. The label doesn’t say ‘clover honey’ like it did when I was little. I don’t think so many people plant clover nowadays. But it’s still the best honey anywhere, not that kind of honey that comes out of a machine and into little packages, like they have over at the steak house. I don’t understand what he does trucking that all over, but the honey is still good.

But we haven’t seen it in a long time. The last couple times I’ve stopped at the C-store, that part of the shelf has been empty. I asked, “You guys stop carrying this?” That young girl, Dagny I think her name is, she didn’t know anything about it. But Merrilee, the manager, she said they hadn’t been able to get it. He was short.

Then today I hear that he’s been ruined. Something’s happened. He went out to his hives last summer and half his bees were gone. Some dead around the hive, the rest just disappeared. Like they all of a sudden just decided to go somewhere else. Then I guess this summer, it happened again. He’s practically wiped out. Hives out along the fields and nothing in them but a few dead bees. No honey. He wondered if someone was poisoning them, trying to ruin him, but he said there’s no sign of poison on the hives. Where could they have gone to? Nobody’s seen swarms out anywhere, as if the hive got tired of the box and moved somewhere else. They’ve just disappeared.

How can that happen? Bees just walking away. I looked around in my yard this morning. I saw one bee, but that was all. I’m walking around the plants in the garden crazily looking for bees. My son wants to know if we’re going to have to do more gardening. ‘Is that going to be my chore?’ I say, “At the rate we’re going, there aren’t going to be any more gardens.” He has no idea what I’m panicking about.

I need to get a grip. But really, no bees? No honey? And what will we do at the cafe? There’s no way we’re putting out that machine-made stuff in packets. I wonder where they even make that stuff. Probably at a chemical factory in China or somewhere. Seems like everything is made in chemical factories in China now. People will think chemical bees and chemical honey are fine, or at least fine enough. And no one will remember what real honey was once like.

175 / 365 – Tomatoes


Tomatoes, tomatoes. Mike Engels is bringing in huge boxes of vegetables now, but mostly tomatoes. My god, the deepest red ones I’ve ever seen. They look rich and fat and full and they taste like that, big and full of life like a steak, so much so that you might think you don’t need meat. He likes the heirloom variety. I used to buy them in Boston — we looked forward to the later summer when they came in to the stores, because they were the best tomatoes of the year — but they didn’t taste half this good. When the garden starts spilling over in piles, it’s exciting, I think. Last night I served them for dinner with mozzarella I had made fresh at the cafe — I just tried that for the first — and I was going on about the tomatoes and the cheese and I noticed Leah looking at me funny. “Mom,” she said. “They’re just tomatoes.” My face must have fallen a little because she quickly added, “But the cheese is awesome. We need to make pizza.”

I was in the back room going through the boxes Mike had brought in, sorting them. Jackie was looking crossways at the heirloom varieties, holding them up, looking at the dark blue veins in some, or the ones that make a sunburst from deep yellow to bright orange. “What do these taste like?” she said. She looked very skeptical. I guess she’s never seen them. “They look like they might taste … strange.”

I said, “There are too many. I need to figure out what to make with them and then we need to get more people in here to eat them up.” Jackie picked up another one, one of those kinds that are all green.

“Is this one even ripe?” she wanted to know. I said, “Yeah, that’s how those kind are.” She said, “Weird,” and moved on to another one.

I said, “So what can I make with these that might draw people in?” She said, “Everybody is starting to get tomatoes at home. Most people anyway. If they have a garden, they have tomato plants. They might even be starting to get sick of them already, and we have weeks and weeks to go. If you put a sign outside that said something like, ‘Hey! Special on tomatoes!’ everybody would probably head straight for the steak house.”

So she doesn’t share my excitement. Oh well. Maybe I will make something and freeze it and hope we’re still in business come winter and then I’ll open it up and people will be saying, “My god! Tomatoes! This is amazing!” It always seems to take a winter to get people to appreciate something good.

174 / 365 – Distant Storm


Awake again. Looking up at the ceiling. Shades of darkness, the dark in the room and the blue black light from outside. When the moon is more full it sometimes lights the room. My mother says, “Read a book when you can’t sleep.” Sometimes I think I could read a book by that moonlight.

I don’t know why people think reading a book helps you fall asleep. It never helped me do that. I read something and it seems like no matter what I read I find something that makes me feel anxious, makes me feel more awake than I was already. I was reading a book Leah’s friend’s mother gave me, a book about Norwegians settling on the prairie a hundred years ago and all of the terrible things that happened to them. It made me think of all the terrible things that are happening to the farmers around here, and why they’ll never be able to afford coming in to the cafe and why it will slowly fail until I can’t pay the bills and we’re broke. Or the scenes from the terrible winters made me think of all of the things I need to do before the cold comes again. Or that I can barely afford the heating bill. Jackie said, “You should just read one of those throwaway celebrity magazines. You hate that stuff.” She gave me one to take home. But it was full of marriage and betrayal and divorce and it brought back all my nights of worrying about my marriage and my divorce and I felt sick to my stomach and I had to get up and walk around the house, I was so agitated.

I think it ends up being better if I just lie here. There’s a storm coming on. I can hear it off to the west. Low rumblings and flickers of light. There’s something comforting in the trouble of storms, awesome power that can humbles the smallness of this town and all the things in it that we think are so important. When I was young my mother told me thunder was the sound of god’s footsteps. It used to make me shudder when I thought of that. I don’t think I even believe in god but I still think of that when I hear the thunder coming closer and it makes me shudder all over again. But I’m not afraid. The storm is coming up now, the flickers of lightning, and I can see flashes of the room, suddenly little glimpses of the trees outside, the room. There’s something else about the storms. They make me feel at home. Rain is starting to pelt the windows. I read once somewhere that a big storm has more energy than the first atomic bomb, something like that. (See, I always find something to worry about.) There’s the power of destruction there, but somehow it’s also comforting. It’s like an acknowledgement that we live between beauty and destruction. Everything flickers back and forth between light and darkness. It’s all here.

173 / 365 – Flash


You could hear the shells hurling down, deep thudding explosions. We couldn’t see them. In those first days after we crossed the river we were in the woods and the battles were always just ahead of us. We marched on down the dusty roads and the air was thick with heat and the night woods were alive with the buzz of insects. Still in the night the light of bombs and artillery sometimes flickered. The Russians were retreating, running from us. At night we made places to sleep in open fields and in the shelter of trees and our packs and our bedrolls were grainy with dust. Dust and night buzzing.

We slept on the ground but I am in a bed. Light flickers. I think it’s a storm. Light flashes and I see the outline of the window, the bedstand with a lamp on it. I’m in my room. I always hated these storms. They made me wake at night and cry out. I would waken and my dear Alena would awake also, at my crying. She curled up with me and held me. She pressed her belly against my back and I could feel my shoulders soften, my arms relax. Oh how I miss that magic. My shoulders, my legs, they are taut even now. I never learned that secret of feeling safe all on my own. It’s almost fifty years you’re gone, Alena, and I still miss you each night a storm passes. You were the only island of safety I ever had, that could soften me and help me rest again.

172 / 365 – Kiss


It was supposed to be different. People talk about it as if it would be so different. Her age, so much older. She having lived through everything — a marriage, a daughter, motherhood, divorce, and all the other men long before that. Me, as she says sometimes, and it pisses me off, with all of that ahead of me.

And it wasn’t different. I think about the first time we kissed, in the back room at the cafe. It was almost an accident, at least when it happened, although I had been thinking about it for a long time, and I’ve thought about it ever since. Slowly coming together, her lips, my lips, that first moment when they touched, almost glancing, as if we still weren’t sure we were doing this. She hesitated, then she was there. Just our lips touching, warm and wet, for just a moment, a moment we held long. A moment I’ve held even longer in memory.

I had my eyes closed, and so did she. Our lips parted but I looked her in the eyes. We just stood there. I had one hand on her shoulder, lightly, and one on her waist. I hadn’t even known. Her eyes were warm and open. There was a clank of dishes out in the dining room and we both started a little. She smiled. I must have smiled too. Her eyes were bright. We slowly moved away from each other lest someone should come in, my hands lingering, sliding across her shoulder and her waist as long as they could.

It was different from anything, from any kiss we ever had after. I know it was different because I remember every detail. But it was the same too, like the first time Laura and I kissed, in her barn in the winter, with snow starting to come down outside. That same slow lingering, and the same kind of interruption, a noise at the door, her father coming to tell me I had better head home before the roads disappeared under the snowfall. The same slow parting.

Age means nothing. Two people find each other and they’re drawn together, by light, by something. It’s like a mystery. I remember it in all the little details, all of the small feelings of her lips when mine first brushed them. Her eyes so bright as they looked at me in the shadows. Something drew us, the same drawing together I have known from before. It didn’t matter than she is almost fifty, or that Laura was almost sixteen. The mystery is bigger than that.


171 / 365 – Green and gold


Walking down to work in the morning, through the shaded streets to the center of town. Birds call down from the trees, a chattering congregation in this one, a lone whistle from that one. Different ones as you pass different houses and trees.

The sun was just over the horizon, golden light filtering through the green leaves, the fullness of the summer trees. Everything looks warmly alive and golden. Precious.

It’s different in a town than out on a farm, where there aren’t so many trees. Summer mornings are golden and sweet. The crickets and other summer bugs, the frogs in the ponds make a buzz, and the birds out in the grass call over them. It’s not so full and green as in town, where the trees are thick and hang over the road. It’s silly and I don’t know how to explain it. The height of summer has a different sweetness on the quiet morning street in a town than in the buzzing aliveness of a farm. You can love them both.