Planting Zinnias by the Milkhouse: Thoughts on Memory, Tradition and the Land Ethic

 

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The beginning of the zinnia garden by the milk house, 2014

It was hot. There were insects. Spiders stared me down. The quack grass shook its head, chuckling. Yet, I persisted! This patch of not-much-going-for-it dirt by the milk house on Far Field Farm was trying, again, to intimidate my efforts at “gardening,” but I was determined to prevail. (For city folks reading this: the milk house on a dairy farm houses holding tanks for milk which is then pumped into stainless steel vats on trucks. The 60+ year old milk house on our farm is a small cinderblock building attached to the barn.) My spade sliced soil that I’ve been trying to “amend” for years now, though amending the Constitution might be easier. Where were those reported 20,000 microorganisms per tablespoon of topsoil when I needed them?

I overturn an earthworm, a hopeful sign. He’s scrawny, but he arrived to aerate the soil, and is one more than I found here last year: progress! I swear that he gave me a thumbs-up as I took care not to slice the intrepid little fella in half. I have “a conversation” here each spring at the farm because I have zinnias to plant, and they aren’t fussy about where they live. This year, a lovely surprise! My long time Wisconsin friend Kate gave me a tray of zinnia seedlings that she’d started from seedheads harvested last fall as we headed out for a walk on the farm. Like our friendship, they’ll sprout new stories this year.

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Zinnias, cousins of sunflowers are native to the US Southwest, Mexico and South America

I plant zinnias to honor Hilda Lillydahl, my mother Roberta’s Swedish mother, who died long before I was born. How I wish I’d known her! She taught her daughters to be great cooks, to garden, and to love birds. She made a mean bread pudding. And she loved her zinnias. This little handful of hearsay is all that I have of her. So I plant zinnias to talk to Hilda. I push those long, flat, brittle-brown seeds an inch into that gnarly soil with thanks for the beautiful traits she passed to my mom and all I’ve learned from them both, including my love of nature. I dig my hands into that earth to pray. My longing speaks through the community of the soil. I love returning to the farm from Baltimore in late summer and picking bouquets of zinnias for my mom, tied to Hilda with invisible roots, holding my identity in a fistful of flowers, my nostalgia for place and purpose coming full circle.

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My mom Roberta checks a milkweed among zinnias for a Monarch chrysalis, Summer 2016

Just around the corner from the zinnias are a few clumps of Arnold’s K.’s hollyhocks that have grown on the barnbank for as long as I can remember. (City folks: a barnbank is the slope of land built up so wagons could deliver crops for storage in the second story haymows of old barns.) Arnold was a farmer friend of my dad Ken’s, and a breakfast club member. Now departed, he was an amazing gardener in his retirement. Years ago, he gave my dad hollyhock seeds to plant in the rough on the barnbank and they’ve reseeded ever since. Pa and I saved them from the quack grass again this spring. Hollyhocks are too big for my small Baltimore garden, so I keep a memory from Arnold instead. He once told me his spectacular clematis vines covered in royal purple flowers “like to keep their feet wet.” Here’s to you, Arnold! I’ve passed that gem of knowledge along many times over.

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A seedling from Kate: It amazes me that tender roots become so strong

Here’s to the heirloom seed collectors, the prairie tenders and the community foresters, to the guerrilla gardeners, the small family farmers, to city and country folk who learn and pass on the land’s intimate secrets, who grow to understand what plants and soil need to thrive. Here’s to Hilda and her brilliant zinnias, and to my Baltimore friend Anne who taught me that, “you have to keep moving plants around your garden, until they show you just where they want to be.” Here’s to my Polish grandmother Francesca who taught my sister Robin and I how to weave crowns of sweet clover blossoms out in the summer fields. Here’s to my mom Roberta who carved a wildflower garden for butterflies out of quack grass along the Pasture Lane. Each of you are keepers of the soil, who have taught me the lessons of the land.

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The old apple trees on Far Field Farm were planted by the German settlers.

Last week, Pa sent me an article[1], about Dennis Kindschi whose grandparents’ homestead near Baraboo, Wisconsin was razed in 1942 to build a huge WWII munitions plant. While helping to plant apple saplings grafted from a few old surviving trees at the site, Dennis, who never knew them, remarked: “It is super special to me as we’re working in this dirt to think it’s the same dirt my ancestors worked in.” That tie with the land — I hear that. I understand what he means. So did Willa Cather, pioneer novelist, when she wrote: “We come and go but the land is always here…” My own city-raised father had “farming in his blood” from Polish parents back in the Old Country and picked up where they left off when he and my mother started Far Field Farm.

Urban, rural, a farm, a yard, thousands of acres of forest preserve or a speck of dirt: it doesn’t matter who or where we are, or how much “land” we have. It matters that we respect it, do right by it and leave it better than the way we found it. Our rituals of planting and tending the soil and what springs from it – crops, trees, flowers, memories – these rituals sow meaning in our lives, they connect us to that which nourishes us. They are our hopes sprouting, our prayers blooming, our ancestors speaking, deep in the earth itself. Through the soil, we call back and forth to our loved ones across time, nurturing the vast beautiful communities to which we belong.

I owe the inspiration for that last phrase to conservationist Aldo Leopold, whose land ethic inspired my parents on their long journey of learning how to love Far Field Farm. In his groundbreaking book, A Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold wrote:

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, then we may begin to use it with love and respect.”[2]

[1] Reviving Lost Apple Orchards by Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 5, 2017

[2] For more information about the life, work and philosophy of Aldo Leopold, visit http://www.aldoleopold.org

The Barn Jacket Ritual

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Morning chores. Shoveling a path in the winter is tough with a donkey in the way.  Dec. 2016

Hanging on a hook at the top of the basement stairs at the farm, and faithfully waiting for duty every day for at least seven months of the year, is Pa’s barn jacket. Worn, frayed, stained–the old tan Carhart is my dad’s second skin out on the farm, the icon of the ritual of daily chores and projects. In 65 years of life on Far Field Farm, Pa has started each and every chilly day donning his barn jacket to feed and milk cows in the early years, and later, to feed and let out the horses and miscellaneous critters (Please do not tell Josiah the donkey that I  called him miscellaneous.)

I suspect that Pa would still be wearing his previous and identical jacket, but it has now become “the spare” and is always waiting for me when I come home. Pa brings it up from the depths of the basement, where he stores it in a small stone room that houses the paint cans and pressure tank for the water system down in the barn. This “retired” jacket has even more personality than his current one. Tired and tattered, with shredded cuffs, it has lost the thingie-doo with which to pull up the zipper, and has been ingeniously repaired with a stiff piece of cranky wire that requires a bit of futzing. It is not quite completely worn out – perfectly capable of blocking the Wisconsin winter wind and protecting the “good” clothes of the faint of heart.

I suspect that the old jacket lies in wait, in the hopes that the “city slicker daughter from Baltimore” or a grandchild might need it in a pinch. I secretly like to think that Pa got a new barn jacket just so I could use his old one to help him with chores. He’s pretty cagey that way, the Old Man.

Barn Jacket Ritual: Here’s how it goes, most mornings

Step 1: Open basement door; take jacket off hook. If really cold, put on thick hoodie first. If it’s seriously cold, put on full-length  canvas overalls first, then jacket. Barn boots.

Step 2: Being far less organized with this ritual than Pa, I’m more likely to fuss with the rest of the “kit” – gloves, hat, etc. – because I’m not smart enough to store them in the jacket pockets for daily use while I’m home. Futz with wire/zipper.

Step 3:  (Optional, afternoons) Stuff pockets with apple or carrot for guess-who.

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Do not be fooled–this animal does not shovel snow. He is casing pockets for apples. 2016

Step 4:  Head outside with Mom Hypki’s instructions ringing in ears: “Sunflower feeders need filling,” or “Don’t forget to put another chunk of suet out there.” or “The birdbath could use more water.”

Step 5: First things first: walk out to mailbox to get Milwaukee Journal. Deliver to house.

Step 6: Head down to barn in our matching jackets. Shovel snow if necessary. Feed and water animals and let them outside, taking care that Rainey the Morgan gelding doesn’t mow you down charging out of his stall; give Josiah a little scratch down his back with a thick plastic comb; clean out stalls; throw down hay from haymow if needed. Feed birds.

Step 7: Back in the house, hang jackets back up on basement stairs.

Step 8. Coffee and breakfast for humans. Read newspaper with special emphasis on Pickles and Bizarro in Comics Section. Take stock of day’s projects.

While the specifics of this ritual have varied over the years depending on cows versus horses and a few other important variables, the basics have not. On the first day of every visit I hear something like: “I brought your barn jacket up from the basement; it’s hanging on the stairs.” This signals my place in the Grand Order of Things at the Farm. What a place it is! I zip up and attempt to make myself useful.

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Note:  I continue working on my book The Far Field Farm Stories this winter, about the life of my parents, Ken and Roberta Hypki on their small Wisconsin dairy farm, and their love of the land.  Visit the website at http://www.farfieldfarmstories.com to sign up for updates on the book project.

 

Perks of Being from Around Here: the Truck Stop (pun intended)

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Mom Hypki’s cooking is simply the best.  So much so, that it will have its own section, “Roberta’s Farm Kitchen,” in my upcoming book, The Far Field Farm Stories. The next best thing to Mom Hypki’s cooking is breakfast or lunch at The Truck Stop just a few miles down the road. Woe be unto a town that doesn’t have as fine a community gathering spot as this one. On a typical visit home, heading to the Truck Stop is definitely on the agenda.

We amble down the highway and pull in off of County Road W, just a block from the main drag of Saukville, Wisconsin. Chances are, you won’t stumble across the truck stop by accident – it’s a modest stone and siding structure on the north side of a large gravel parking lot for big rigs. When the place is open, the lot is always full—a mix of cars, pick-ups, plumbing, roofing, and electrical vans, and a few semis. Low slung, with small, shuttered windows, it sits next to a sign proclaiming Rivers Edge Restaurant, though it’s not on the river, it needs no advertising, and no one uses this name. They call a spade a spade around here and the truck stop is “The Truck Stop,” plain and simple.

“Morning Ken, Roberta,” the waiter chirps from under his cap as I enter with my folks, past a ledge of newspapers and a bulletin board full of community messages. It’s a great spot to buy a used piece of equipment or find out when the next Legion brat fry is – if you don’t have that committed to memory already. We head toward the last empty four-top at the back, through a fluorescent-bright room packed with people, abuzz with gossip, and full of the sounds of chinking china and the smells of smoked bacon and fried onions. Sharon, the owner, waves from behind the toaster.

Before my folks and I have made our way over there, a plastic pitcher with the telltale orange decaf lid is set on our soon-to-be-table, and the waiter is turning the thick white mugs right side up. He’ll soon bring my mom water, no ice—a perk that comes with being a regular.

“How ‘bout you? Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“I’ll have decaf too, thanks.” I know from experience that the coffeepot is bottomless, whether it’s leaded or unleaded. In for a penny, in for a pound.

“You need a menu?”

“Um…no thanks.” I realize he never asks my folks if they want one, as if he knows they’ve got it memorized or tattooed on their arms.

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“Ken, it’s spareribs with a side of kraut on special today. Get ‘em while they last.”

A big grin spreads across my father’s face.

“And Roberta, I think there’s only one piece left of the banana cream pie – should I save it for you?” A wink passes between them and the deal is sealed.

The exchange of this important information has taken place while we’re still sitting down and hanging our jackets on the backs of our chairs. This is not because we’re being rushed, but because the truck stop really is run this efficiently—it has been since I worked here as a teen, since I scrubbed this floor, learned to crack eggs open with one hand, and honed my CB trucker language from some of the regulars: Catch you on the flip flop good buddy or We got a Smokey Bear in the woods around mile 80. Still clean as a whistle, about all that’s changed is fresh paint and new knick-knacks.

“I have to check with the boss here and see if I’m allowed to have ribs today,” my dad says as my mom rolls her eyes.

“Poor Kenny, seems like you always have a lot of bosses.”

“See?” he gloats. “I’m glad somebody understands my problems.”

“Oh brother,” I murmur, turning to check the white erase board on the far wall for the other specials.

“Sorry I can’t find my violin to play for you,” my mom says to him as she spoons water into her decaf, adding insult to injury. With that, the waiter marches off to clear some plates at the next table, returns a second later.

He fishes his pen out from behind his ear.

“You ready?”

By this time the smell of smoked bacon frying has me half faint with anticipation, my stomach rumbling. All the spare ribs in the world can’t pull me away from two eggs over easy—slippery, silky and perfect–nestled in between that bacon, crispy hashbrowns and some homemade toast. You want foam in your coffee? Find a Starbucks. You’ll save room here for the rest of us.

Chickie-Boo, Farm Legend

Dedicated to my sister Robin Parsons

Oh, Chickie-Boo, how afraid we were of you, my sister and I, and how you bonded us together in our efforts to vanquish you, our hugest foe! We were five and six, or six and seven, when given the shiny new responsibility of caring for the chickens. It was one of our first true “chores,” as in: Did you do your chores yet? Or:  Do your chores now. Or:  Did you do the chickens? Thanks to you, Chickie-Boo, the word chores still makes my bones ache.

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Chicken House, Afternoon Shadows   Photo by Cinder Hypki, Far Field Farm, 2015

Chickie-Boo, you took your job seriously, guarding the hen house with fierce devotion. Half our height, you seemed to loom above us—all gleaming deathly white feathers, blood-scarlet comb and intense beady eyes. But it was your advanced weaponry that we  trembled at the most– the double whammy of sharp talons and a screaming yellow beak that could draw blood through our scruffy jeans if we failed to elude your evil clutches. “Doing the chickens” meant having to confront you, and that made house chores seem like the sissiest thing in the world by comparison. Feed the dog? Pfft, piece ‘o cake.

I recall the day you watched us enter your kingdom for the first time–the small, cobwebby red shed where your harem pecked nervously at the floor behind you. A little door led to an outdoor enclosure that was part of your palace, and we all knew who was the boss of it. That first time, you took one look at our alien little beings, flashed those huge wings and, at ramming speed, stuck your beak out and came at us, hell-bent on destruction. We barely made it out of that chicken house intact, slamming the door behind us, hearts beating wildly as we collapsed in the grass. Oh no! The rest of our lives stretched before us in one long string of serious afternoon traumas.

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Chicken House Door Clasp                      Photo by Cinder Hypki, Far Field Farm 2014

Clearly, something needed to be done! A Strategy was in order if we were to carry out our chores of feeding, watering and collecting the eggs–alive, that is. Surviving daily encounters with you, Chickie-Boo, would require a collaborative effort and some sort of Secret Weapon. It was most likely Pa Hypki who came up with the brilliant piece of ingenuity that was The Chickie-Boo Stick. This large Y-shaped branch of substantial proportions was designed to pin your neck to the wall, thus staving off a full frontal attack.

We took turns each day deciding who would carry The Stick. They would race into the chicken house and hold your neck in the Y while the other dashed around, scared witless, spreading feed, sloshing clean water and checking each little wire cage for eggs. The wielder of The Stick had the most frightening job, having to stare you down while wondering how they were going to disentangle from you in order to exit in one piece. They would inevitably be yelling: “Hurry up, willya?!” while the other sister would simultaneously be yelling: “I’m going as fast as I can!” Then, when the mission was accomplished, we’d back out of there really fast, and we’d slam that door with tornado force.

From the safety of some 50 years later, I’d like to say that I learned deep, soulful chicken soup-type life lessons from you, Chickie-Boo–lessons that survived the memory of your larger-than-life self. The value of teamwork? Safety in numbers? I’m not certain that you should lay claim to the credit for all of that, but to this day, when life gives me lemons, I look around for a Chickie-Boo Stick.

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Chicken House With Outdoor Patio     Photo by Cinder Hypki, Far Field Farm, 2015

 

Goodbye Sweet Charity: A Meditation on Loyalty

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Josiah, Charity & Rainey in the barnyard, November, 2015

My folks will tell you that one of the things they most regret was letting my sister Robin and I each name and claim a calf when we were little. Inevitably, when the calves were shipped off, it was not an easy parting. But as I grew, life on the farm was rich in lessons taught to me as a child by all the animals that surrounded me. Here at Far Field Farm, we were awash in animals and the quirky personalities of each one. Their care was our primary responsibility, and the bonds grew strong.

A few days ago, before I made this trip back to the farm, my Pa, Ken Hypki, had to make one of the toughest kinds of decisions he has made over the last 65 years—one that plagues all who are conscientious caretakers of animals. Pa felt it was time to “put Charity down,” given the old horse’s ailments. It is not a decision he has ever taken lightly, this son of a Polish immigrant who drove a team of draft horses delivering ice and coal in Milwaukee.

The passing of Charity is the end of an era—the one in which Pa did his level best to ensure that each of his children and grand children would learn to ride a horse well. That era began with my sister Robin and I; it ended with Charity, the sweet “nag” that Pa had bought for his granddaughter Angela to learn to ride. Charity did not have a big personality. She was chosen because she wasn’t flashy and fiery. We didn’t need another Rainey, the powerful Morgan gelding who has remained steadfastly convinced that he’s still a stallion.  Charity was calm and docile, a follower rather than a leader. On a trail ride, she really just wanted to be back with the other horses, no matter where you wanted her to go! She served her purpose, and after that, she remained “family” here, as most animals do, with a purpose or not.

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My sweetest memory of Charity also involves Josiah, the rotund, fuzzball of a stubborn miniature Sicilian donkey who has been a muse of mine for quite some time. It was a warm night just before dusk in September. I went to the barn to put hay in the stalls and let the two horses and the donkey in for the night. Always impatient, Rainey was right there at the gate, snorting and anxious for his hay. After securing him in his stall, I stepped out into the pasture to see the donkey heading in, but Charity was nowhere to be found in the gathering dark. I whistled the timeworn Hypki whistle for the animals – eight simple notes that have called hundreds of cows and horses, goats, donkeys and even sheep back in the day in from their pasture.

I whistled, but nothing happened. And then it struck me that in her old age, perhaps Charity couldn’t hear my whistle anymore, and with failing eyesight, perhaps she hadn’t seen the other two animals leave her side to head in. I turned to walk farther into the pasture to look for her, and whistled again, as loud as I could. Just then, I witnessed a rare moment, and stopped in my tracks. Josiah, who had heard me whistle, and who knew there was hay waiting in the barn, was now standing completely motionless, watching out toward pasture. He’d been heading toward me when he stopped, looked back, and waited for Charity. At last, I could see her; she was slowly moving toward us now, having finally heard me.

Josiah stood there, with the patience of, well, a donkey. Stood there, forsaking his hay, until Charity walked in from that dark field, passed him and headed to the barn. As if satisfied that he’d done his duty as guardian of his companion, he flung those big scruffy ears back, gave a little snort and then turned tail and headed into the barn after her. Amazed, I followed them quietly inside, the words: “We are all just walking each other home,” often attributed to Ram Dass, running through my head.

I thought of that moment yesterday in the March chill as Pa showed me where the vet had put Charity down, and we stood quietly for a moment, words completely unnecessary. Goodbye, sweet Charity. Thanks, Josiah, for the reminder to make sure I’m the last one in the barn.

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If you haven’t already, please consider supporting The Far Field Stories project, a book in the making about the farm.  I have an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that is LIVE  through March 27th to support the completion of the book!  Please click here to watch a video about the farm and to make a contribution.  There are some beautiful farm-related perks for donating!  I share my creative process on the book on my website here

Hiking my Own Trails

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Pa, Cinder & Ma at the Haymow, Photo by Rob Pawloski, 2013

“And where are you in all of this?”  Since I began writing The Far Field Stories: Living Our Dream on a Small Wisconsin Dairy Farm, I’ve heard that question frequently, and many friends have encouraged me to share what it means to me to explore my parent’s history and their love of a particular place. While I don’t envision the book to be about me or about my sister Robin, the farm itself was conceived with us in mind before we were ever conceived! Because of this, our stories are forever linked to the farm and so it seems wise to share my own motivations and aspirations for writing, and, in future posts here, my own connection to the land.

Thousands of letters have flowed between my family and me since I left the farm at age 18. Last week, my mother, Roberta Hypki, read me part of a letter I’d written to my Pa, Ken Hypki, dated June 3, 1991:

“And now you write me poems of your own. I feel the slip around the circle of our voices, the catch of years. Your letters poured into my city-weeks…a litany of days lived more in tune than mine, of a life lived farther away than I’d like it to be from you, from the place where your words flow. I yearn deeply for it now, try to reconcile the history we made there, remember the stories we told about why it was so damn hard and so very beautiful. Better to write than to weep.”

Those words still resonate with me, 25 years later. Ironically, I wrote them less than a year after buying my house in Baltimore, a big commitment for me, who had been a ramblin’ rose with happy feet. As I write a book celebrating my parents’ lives, their dream of farming, and their love of the land, I have to admit I’m unsure how much progress I’ve made reconciling my history with that of the farm. As I gather their stories and harvest their memories, as I photograph the farm and compose the prize gems from Pa’s 1952 journal, I uncover my own living history, full of uncertainty and contradictions. And so, I realize that the process of writing is asking me to hike back over my own trails—not the Pasture Lane, or that steep climb through the pines where turkey feathers litter the soft brown needles, but the paths I’ve taken through my life and those I’ve not chosen. In this process, I hope to gain a new clarity about my own life and choices, my place in the complex ecosystem of family and the land.

To remember “why it was so damn hard and so very beautiful” is to dredge up the yearning I sometimes feel for Far Field Farm, for my family, for the Heartland—not to mention custard, bratwurst, the Packers, or the sight of Lake Michigan from the Port lighthouse. I seek meaning in the adventures and the richness of experience I’ve been privileged to embrace, and I draw inspiration from two lives that only now do I recognize as truly extraordinary. As I try to articulate my parents’ dream, I wonder about the stuff of my own.

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West from the Barnbank, Photo by Cinder Hypki, 2014

One thing is certain: my family’s dreams and mine intersect in reverence for the land, in the need we all have to live upon it in a healthy and sustainable way. Just as I was taught that the animals were always fed first, that when you plowed a field, you always saved hedgerows for wildlife, I plant trees and create mosaics in my urban neighborhood—with children whenever possible. As the writer Alice Walker has said: …we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile.” In bringing the story of Far Field Farm to light, I hope to contribute a stone to the understanding of our human place in the web of life and our responsibilities as stewards of it.

I was more than ready to leave Far Field Farm at 18, to head off to college for a degree in environmental education. Little did I know that after graduation I’d head clear out of the country, working in Costa Rica’s national parks for almost four years and coming to love Latin culture, its language and its poetry as a second home. I remember surprising my folks when I returned to the States, walking in the door on a Thanksgiving Day with a red balloon tied to my backpack. It was a beautiful reunion, but I was soon off again to grad school, and it never occurred to me that living back in Wisconsin was an option.

Eventually making a home in Baltimore, discovering myself as an artist as I explored this gritty, beautiful, conflicted, strong and diverse community, I’ve become bilingual in another sense, “switch-speaking” between the busy edgy vibrancy of the city and the deep expansive peacefulness of the farm. The two worlds I inhabit are in real tension within me; I seek a constant dynamic balance, at times exhilarating and at others exhausting. At the worst of times, I feel like a stranger in a strange land regardless of which place I’m standing in; at the best, I bring each with me when I stand in the other, and they keep me honest in different ways. At this moment, work on the Far Field Stories is about celebrating honest questions of what I’ve been given, what I’ve lost and what I hope to find.

Welcome

This blog is the place for real-time updates from Far Field Farm, Wisconsin, and for musings along my journey to bring the book, The Far Field Stories into being. My parents taught me that to live on and with the land means to take responsibility for it, to become a steward of its trees and soil and waters, of the birds and animals that live there. Over the years, and for precisely that reason, they listened and learned from  conservationists. They created habitat for wildlife, dug ponds and planted thousands of trees on the hillsides too steep to plow.

This blog will recount the process of my own work to grow and harvest poems and stories that anchor memory and legacy, inspired by trees now 40 feet high. I look forward to sharing thoughts on my work to honor a slice of my family’s history and exploring my own place within it.

Cinder Hypki

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