Have I been here before?
The weather Friday was an unexpected gift, a perfect summer day neither too hot nor too humid, in the midst of a slew of days with temps in the 90s and nights that never cool off. I jumped through an open window, turned south from the interstate ahead of my Iowa City destination to collect Fifteen from her summer writing institute, and carved out thirty minutes to walk on the farm where I grew up, ten miles southeast of town.
I had wanted to go the weekend before, when Fifteen and I converted the two-hour trip to drop her off into a girls’ night replete with shopping, dining out, people watching, and crashing in a hotel room. But the heat held me back—there’s a very real discomfort that I remember from growing up on the farm. In summer we got up with the sun to ride and groom the horses, garden, and complete other chores before the heat set in. Our afternoon cooling system was floating in an inner tube on the pond or, on special days, retreating to a movie theater in town for a matinee. At night we slept directly in front of fans, the whirr of the motor playing with a background chorus of crickets and cicadas, occasionally punctuated by the hoot of an owl. Day or night in July, it was rarely cool.
There was more to the discomfort—summer meant briars tore at bare legs and arms and bugs bit and stung. The first sunburn peeled, but then our skin became dark and leathery, itchy and scabbed. When I was young, I never minded—it was simply the way of it all.
I’ll just stop and say hello, I told myself. The drive from the interstate to the farm revealed Iowa at its best—rolling green hills dotted with bustling farmsteads. The roads and the views are as familiar to me as the back of my hand, even as a new house or shed has sprouted over the years, I can picture the way every turn will look before I arrive.
The farmland now belongs to the state of Iowa, managed by the DNR. An official government sign marks the turn and more signs instruct users as to regulations. I park and register as I always do, the absence of the buildings I expect to see. There is no more welcoming mailbox, no garden fence or pole barn. I even miss the failed hydroponic unit that was a misguided business venture in the mid-seventies. The little house across the road and all its outbuildings I once spent a whole summer painting are gone, as is the one-room schoolhouse, the last place I lived on the farm. The hillsides are overgrown with no domesticated animals to mow the grass, but there’s a path I follow, walking toward the pond where we used to float just down the hill from where the schoolhouse once stood.
In no time briars indeed tear at my legs and I am dive-bombed by more than one bug. I’m picking my way along the path, pushing brambles aside, but to my delight it’s edged in ripe blackberries. For berry picking we used to have buckets made from olive oil cans on strings around our necks so we could pick with both hands. I regret having no way to carry the berries now as I tentatively nibble on first one and then another and another. They are crunchy with seeds and taste like sunshine and dirt, not excessively sweet, nothing like the enormous plump berries in the market. My path all the way past the first pond to the second is lined with these treats.
The patterns I learned on this farm are still very much in play, such that I prefer to travel in a circle rather than go out and back the same way. I’d like to make the big loop, going west to the very top of the farm through the woods and back through the pasture, but I only have a little time before parents are invited to a presentation about the institute week, so having threaded my way through the overgrowth past the Schoolhouse Pond and the Woods Pond, I cut right to cross the dam of the Lower Pond. Here I catch my breath at the vibrant green duckweed that grows virtually shore-to-shore. More than one bullfrog croaks its displeasure at having to leave its log perch, casting ripples from its departure as I pass. The breeze catches the Queen Ann’s Lace and Black-Eyed Susans and an orange flower I don’t recognize. Mixed in the tall grasses is a carpet of Trefoil and Crown Vetch, the former I remember used to founder the horses when they ate too much and the latter my mother encouraged to slow erosion of the hillside.
Passing the spit that once used to be covered in sand my parents had trucked in, I can almost see a toddler me sitting at the water’s edge with a swimsuit full of sand, happy voices around me. I hear the joyful calls of my brother and his friends out in the middle playing a game they called “mudball,” the objectives of which involved covering each other and the ball with as much of the soft black mud from the bottom of the pond as possible. Far up the neck of the pond, my father casts and recasts his fishing rod. On the beach my mother passes grapes and watermelon to sunbathing friends. The memories preserved here come alive.
I’ve been thinking about memory this week, concerned, actually, that I’m forgetting important things. Fifteen has been visiting my hometown of Iowa City since she was ten months old, and though she claims not to remember the town much, everywhere we went on our girls’ night we were both startled by sudden memories: a hair scrunchy she bought herself at Iowa Book & Supply, playing on the downtown jungle gym, a meal neither of us remember liking very much at a restaurant on the Coralville strip. Maybe none of these are much more than incidental, but it’s a mental scramble to put them into a chronology, and these small memories make me wonder what I might be forgetting.
Walking down the pasture hill from the former beach, I come to a tiny pond engineered in what was once a washed out low spot. I like the way the prairie grasses and flowers frame the little watershed, and I stop to take a couple of pictures. Suddenly there’s a great commotion. A little wood duck hustles her brood away from me as fast as she can go. In her haste, she has left two behind and she calls them so urgently that they run across the water to her, peeping, peeping, peeping. I stay still until the family is reunited at the far end of the pond from me, apologizing to the little mama in what I hope is a soothing voice.
Still downy, her ducklings are months from leaving her side, but my fledgling is expecting me to collect her. Reluctant to leave yet eager to hear stories of Fifteen’s adventures, I pick my way back to the car. My legs are scratched and several bug bites are already itching and swelling; weed seeds are in my shoes and clinging to my pants. Even on this temperate day, I’m looking forward to cranking the air conditioning in my car for drive into town I’ve made thousands of times. Before I go, I walk into the embrace of the weeping willow that still stands sentry at the bottom of the hill. There are no buildings anywhere on the property any longer, but the birds and the flowers and the trees and the ponds and even the summer discomfort assure me that this is and always has been and always will be … my home.
I heard recently that it helps to look down when you’re trying to remember something, look up when you want inspiration and to feel more joyful. Redbird Farm is a place where I don’t have to try to remember—the memories are everywhere alongside the new experiences. Who knew that ducklings could run on water? xoR