Monday, August 02, 2004


If you've never canoed and camped in Minnesota's Boundary Waters, or on the Canadian side, in the Quetico region, you don't know what a beautiful week we shall be having. It's lovely country, even when it rains, all rock and water, and sky. Oh, and fish. We always get fishing licenses going in, and we always catch enough bass and northern for six adults and a ten-year-old girl to make breakfast and supper of them.

Tonight we'll all gather for the trip, we'll drive up tomorrow, two cars, three canoes, an eight-year-old boy with us this year for the first time, along with his sister who's a veteran with us at age eleven. We'll put canoes into the northwestern corner of the Quetico park, and will paddle and portage in a lazy loop that will bring us back to the cars eventually.

How remote is it? Far enough that you don't often see jets fly over, and when you do they are something of a wonder and only a slight intrusion into the peacefulness.

Yeah, you've got to like water and sky and rock, especially rock, to spend a week in Quetico. You've got to like the hard work of portaging, sometimes for long distances, carrying everything you've brought with you up one side and down the other. You've got to like sleeping on the hard ground - this is exposed Canadian shield, remember. You've got to like mosquitoes. And drinking lake water.

You've got to like wind in the trees, sun on the water, the lap of waves against rock. You've got to be able to endure some spectacular sunsets; and northerns for breakfast, bass for supper, every day.

I know, I know. It's hard work, but somebody's got to do it.

See you again about August 12th.



Saturday was two weeks since the three finalists interviewed with Wisconsin's Poet Laureate Commission. I'm not saying, having heard nothing in the interim, that I've been hard to live with, but my wife might.

The chair of the Commission, Cathryn Cofell-Mutschler, had told me after the interview that she thought the Governor's announcement of the appointment would be made "in about two weeks." Well, I e-mailed her to ask whether she had any update on the status of things at this point, and she explained that the Governor had been a little occupied with the Democratic convention and such and hasn't acted yet on the Commission's recommendation. (And I think to myself: POetry comes before PResidents.... but you don't tell that to the Governor.)

Cathryn said Governor Doyle is aware that the tenure of the current Poet Laureate, Ellen Kort, expires on September 1st. "So enjoy your vacation and hopefully we'll have an update when you get back!" she added.

Now you know what I know.

Would you keep reminding me that patience is one of the first qualities of a good poet laureate? And, for my part, I'll keep trying to be patient. But it's getting more and more difficult to hide the fact that not knowing - one way or the other - is just about killing me.



Just as she promised, Starr Jacobs met me at Jiffy Burger on Smith Center's east edge. She and her daughter Carrie were picking up hamburgers and malts to take to the men working in the field to harvest their wheat. Starr has ordered a hamburger for me, too, and a malt.

"Follow me," Starr said as she got to her car. She headed east on Highway 36 for a mile or so, then turned south on a gravel road. No jet fighter pilot would handle the turn and roll and chuck of these roads any better than Starr did. I grew up driving on gravel roads and found it a challenge keeping up with her. She knew where she was going and she was a woman with a purpose. Farm women are sweet, but they are also tough. They know how to do what must be done. I stayed just back of the rooster-tail of dust Starr's car was throwing out. The road curved. We made a left turn. We met a big farm truck going the other way. It was loaded with wheat. That was Starr's husband, Brent, driving it.

Brent farms with his cousin, Dan Jacobs. Brent's father and Dan's were brothers who farmed together. Now Brent and Dan farm much the same ground - 3000 acres in crops, 900 acres of pasture. They raise wheat. They run cows and raise calves. They used to feed beef but have given that up. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the bottom of their containment pond was too close to the top of the groundwater. It's better to stop arguing before they wear you down, easier to start running cows on pasture and raise the calves.

Starr pulled off the road onto the edge of harvested wheat stubble. Her son, Steve, was there with tractor and wagon. He has been hauling wheat from the combine and loading it into his dad's trucks. When his uncle Dan extends the auger out from the side of the combine, that's a signal the bin on the combine is getting full. Steve will pull up alongside the combine as it works the field, will adjust the speed of his tractor and wagon to the speed of the combine. Dan Jacobs will start the auger and a torrent of wheat will pour into the wagon. Side by side they travel, combine and wagon, until the bin on the combine is empty. Dan will turn off the auger and make a hand signal. The tractor and wagon will peel away and head back to unload in the second truck out near the road.

Now, however, it was time for Steve to have supper. He jumped down from the cab of the big John Deere tractor. Starr and Carrie had been setting up chairs and TV trays in the shade of the truck. In addition to burgers and malts, Starr brought bottles of sport drink, pieces of cantaloupe, purple grapes, bags of a kind of sweetened trail mix that she and Carrie make every harvest for the men to take with them to the field.

Now the big John Deere combine that had been working the field was headed to where we were standing. The header on the combine is thirty feet across. The operator rides high above and behind the header - that would be Dan Jacobs, a big guy, long-haired, patient, enduring.

He stepped down off the platform of the cab on the combine, five steps down, and walked to stand in the shade of the truck with us.

"Have some supper," Starr said. "Have a chair."

"Oh," said Dan, "I think I'll stand. I've been sitting since 11:00 a.m."

The men had gotten to the field at 11:00 a.m. It was their third day of harvesting. At harvest-time you can start work in the fields once the dew on the wheat has dried sufficiently. If there were no dew, Dan could start combining at 9:00 a.m. When he starts depends on how heavy the dew is, how much wind there is to dry it off.

Dan stood eating his burger, drinking gulps of the blue sports drink he has selected. He didn't want a malt. He can't eat the fruit.

We were glad for the shade, for the breeze, for the food. I was eating a burger, too, and had a drink. I had my own bag of the trail mix, too; it had been sweetened with a sugary coating. Carrie told me the recipe but I didn't write it down and now I've forgotten it.

Yeah, Dan said I could ride along with him while he combines; yeah, I can ask him questions.

To be continued....


AUGUST 3, 1998

It is a sluggish start to a new week and a new month. A dark and quiet morning today when I rose. A grey sky now. I am moving slow, not thinking of much - not the month just completed nor the month coming up. I'm simply standing still in the green spray of summer, grateful that it is cool enough here, grateful that this is not Texas, that we've not had its twenty or twenty-five consecutive days of 100+ degree weather. As with three weeks of 20 degrees below zero, I think I'd snap.

It is grey enough this morning that the sky is spitting a little rain as I walked out to the pick-up. Splatters run down the windshield. A little song on the roof of the cab. A piece of cottonwood fluff brought low by the rain settles damply onto the hood of the truck. Morning sings a wet song.

Along Washington Street, there is rain enough to lay the dust, as they say in the old letters and journals. It smells like rain. There is rain enough to keep my wipers going as I head north out of Fairwater, all the way to Ripon.

This is the kind of morning that those who live here will appreciate - an easy, gentle rain for which the farmers are grateful, I'm sure. A lingering coolness. Water-color clouds. The tourist would complain about getting wet, about the lack of sunshine, about the damp grayness. We who live here understand the need. This is a day of grace in our lives.


AUGUST 4, 1998
Cool and damp again this morning. Tell-tale moisture on the street, though I did not hear it raining during the night.

One thing I do not see - having tied myself to this piece of ground - is a variety of landscapes. Each day I watch for minute changes - is the hawk there, has that house been sided, has the corn been harvested, are the flowers at Five Corners in bloom (yes! gloriously).

Another thing I do not see is a variety of people. What can I compare these villagers to, these farmers? There are other ways to behave than what I see here. For some, settling onto the land to farm it for a life time would be boring; they are not so rooted and can go where the wind blows them. Many such are middlewestern farm kids, I suspect. Certainly I know that Iowa is a long reach of pigs and corn - you only have to complain once and I'll agree. Yet I didn't go to Houston or Los Angeles or New York, as some of us have done, following the money. I lived for a while in the city - Milwaukee - but the country pulled back at me and I'm here, part way back to Iowa but certainly not all the way.

So there are lands I can't see from here, people I can't know. But I shall, I think, know something well - these people, this piece of ground. It is like setting a box down on the yard square chunk of prairie and knowing it entirely, deep and wide, an all-the-way-to-China kind of knowledge. I can stand that, I think. I can examine everything inside the box, look for relationships, try to understand. The effort, thus far, has been brief. Once I've done this for ten or twelve years, perhaps then I'll start to see things I cannot now even imagine are there.

Moist on the street. Moist on the windshield. Water dripping off the vehicles in the driveway. A green gauze of moisture rolls away into the distance, softening the line of tree and silo. It makes me want to sing river songs this morning.

It looks as though part of a field of beans has been harvested. Were they green beans instead of soy beans? How did I miss it? The other half of the field still stands there, which is strange, as usually they take whole fields or all the fields in an area while they have the equipment here.

As I near the edge of Ripon, I realize it won't be long and the young nubbins will be waiting for school buses again, their bodies lithe and tan and hard from summerful activities. Some of them will be freshmen, eager and straining for the high school experience, eager to see and touch and do things they've never seen and touched and done before, eager for initiation into what are now for them only dim mysteries. I've always liked the smell of new clothes on the first day of school, and I've liked the smell of the school on that first day of the year, too, when the very air throbs with possibility. As we get older, occasions for this kind of newness, for freshness, are greatly reduced as our possibilities are reduced. Our world becomes stale around us, we become stale in it.

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