The night pasture was a small piece of land. Much of it had been cleared once, then taken out of cultivation. As the years went by, we used that pasture less and less. At first the wildflowers were better than ever. Then the protected land began to change. I watched it, puzzled. I had not realized how the land, if left alone, begins moving back toward some inevitable destiny of its own.
Goldenrod crept into the open land, beginning to cover the hillside with bright yellow plumes that moved in waves with the wind. A year or two later, black raspberry vines began to replace the goldenrod. Hazel brush moved out from the edge of the trees to compete with the berries.
Most of the wildflowers were gone from the hillside by the time the scraggly sumac trees began to grow there. In a few more years, the poplars, with their restless singing leaves, had started. Soon the young oak trees began to spread out from the woods….
- Ben Logan, The Land Remembers
I think we in northern Michigan are now in the season Tom Springer, in The Star in the Sycamore, calls “between the raspberries and the goldenrod,” but I’ll have to re-order that book to find out, as the first copy I had in the store sold before I could do much more than look at the table of contents. On that first glance, however, I very much appreciated Springer’s observation that four seasons hardly seem adequate to describe a year in nature. I have always been skeptical about calendar divisions, sensing much more intersection and gradation and seesawing between the seasons than twelve months divided into four can possibly suggest.
Ben Logan’s memoir is divided into four seasons, but he is aware of finer distinctions, writing, for example, of fall that it
…does not seem like a true season. It never settles down into a steady sameness of days the way summer and winter do. Fall is a time of change, an end of the growing season, a preparation for the season of cold and snow that is coming.
It’s a rare Michigan August that fails to bring mornings that feel like September, mornings with the scent of leaf mold and fungus on cool, humid air and the first maple or sumac leaves turning red – ahead of schedule, we can’t help thinking, but nature isn’t going by our calendar.
The Land Remembers is set in Logan’s boyhood Wisconsin, on a ridgetop farm called “Seldom Seen.” The work he remembered was hard and never-ending, winter blizzards serious, crops always uncertain, but his memoir is a joyful one. His father, an immigrant from southern Norway, was still farming with horses when Ben and his brothers were boys, and their mother, who had been a schoolteacher before marrying, clearly enjoyed continuing to teach her own brood. The Logans on their family farm grew corn and oats, kept and milked cows, made hay all summer long, and in the winter they ate from the bounty of their land – chickens and eggs, milk and cream, garden produce (root cellared in sand, as well as canned), fruit preserves and jams, and berries and nuts gathered from the wild places around them.
Explanations of the workings of different farm machinery and equipment in that time period, as well as his father’s careful choosing of seeds to save for the next spring’s sowing, made this memoir, at least in my mind, a kind of parallel to Ben K. Green’s Wild Cow Tales. That is, both books are reminiscences, the memories rural, and the way of doing things then largely been left behind today. More’s the pity, one cannot help thinking. While much of the work was physical and very hard, its rewards – for those who loved the work, that is, as did the Logans -- were satisfaction in visible results, family solidarity, and closeness to the earth.
I don’t remember the name of the earth science teacher I had my freshman year of high school, but I always remember something he said on the first day of that class: “Change is the only constant.” Another memory from that subject, that year, is that when the teacher asked how many students lived in houses heated with coal, mine was the only hand raised. My parents considered themselves very modern when they had a stoker installed. Before that, I remember shoveling coal into a monster basement furnace at home (and standing in front of the open door envisioning, in the flames, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). I also remember visiting grandparents in rural Ohio who still relied on an outhouse and a hand pump rather than modern plumbing … and I remember 4-cent first-class postage stamps … the amazing miracle of the advent of lightweight transistor radios and our family house before it was invaded by television and when we still had a party telephone line, and I have fond memories of doing dishes by hand (as I have always done and still do), singing rounds with my mother and sisters as we cleaned up after dinner each night.
My parents are gone now, the family home sold, and my grandparents have been gone even longer. Do any siblings still sing together while doing chores? Is there an American home in the Midwest heated by a coal furnace? How many of us regularly exchange written letters with friends and relatives elsewhere? American life has changed from the mid-20th century to now.
I wonder if the reading of memoirs and biography, like the reading of history, is something we develop an appreciation for as we grow older, when we have accumulated a rich trove of our own memories and are looking backward to try to make sense of our lives and understand our society. Certainly, life is always changing for all of us. The world is changing, constantly, every day and from year to year.
Recently in the mornings I’ve been looking for cardinal flower, thinking it should be about time to find it in bloom. A friend who grew up in Leelanau County told me that roadside ditches used to be red with cardinal flower in late summer, back before roadsides were regularly sprayed and mowed. Now it is a treasure in certain wet, off-road pockets, but I haven’t found it this year in the very place it was last year and the year before.
The corner of M-22 and Jelinek Road is being taken over by the dreadful autumn olive. One year, long ago, that corner was planted in wheat. I think it was in wheat only that one season, and yet I’ve never forgotten it as a wheat field. My own meadow was once a hayfield, one year a cornfield. Will it be woods someday in the future -- again, that is, as it doubtless was before ever there was a farm here?
Change! Where will next summer’s morels and blackberries and ash seedlings and cardinal flowers appear? Will we still be wearing masks in public places to stop the spread of coronavirus? The only thing we can count on is that there will be changes as we move from ephemeral present into unforeseeable future.