A weekend in the country.

I live so deeply embedded in urbanized America that I rarely see “the country” anymore. You couldn’t avoid it in Fort Wayne, where there’s always a field of corn or beans around every corner. Farm fields serve as a sort of seasonal clock where you can track the passing of the weeks. I know virtually nothing about growing either crop, but after years I know what a cornfield looks like in June and what it looks like in September. I’ve spent most of the summer on or near the water the last couple of years, and when I finally get out of the tri-county area I’m always amazed by the corn: Is it August already?

We went to the lake cottage this weekend, in Branch County, Michigan, which signs now inform visitors is a Meth Watch Community. Alan the cynic: “That means they put up some signs and got some federal money for some comic books that they distribute to fourth-graders.” Well, I hope that’s all it is. I worry about the country these days. The only future seems to be in erecting pole barns on your land to store the rich folks’ toys over the winter (one is, in fact, called “My Toy Box”). We can always hope for ethanol, though.

I like the country north of Fort Wayne because it more closely resembles the country that children’s books prepared me for. Characters in my childhood stories would step out their back door into the barnyard, where they’d shoo the flocks of chickens and ducks aside before strolling to the barn to saddle their ponies. Once mounted it was off down a lane somewhere, maybe to a friend’s farm, maybe to the ol’ swimmin’ hole, where the ponies would graze with loosened cinches while the children swung out over the water on rope swings. Barns were wooden and red, and had cellars and haylofts. There was an orchard, a kitchen garden and a woods. Ma was always in the kitchen, pa out on a tractor. He’d say, “Run along now and do your chores,” which mainly involved gathering eggs.

Needless to say, the real country isn’t like this, at least not in flat areas blessed with rich soils. Prefab pole barns rise over vast, monotonous single-crop fields that stretch from section road to maybe a measly treeline, next to something that might have once been a creek but is now referred to as a “drain” and runs so thick with chemical fertilizer you don’t even want to get close to it, much less swim in it. I don’t know what constitutes a lane here, as the roads are mainly asphalt and navigated by enormous pickup trucks that would flatten any kid dumb enough to ride a pony down them.

As you’re driving north, leaving Indiana behind and approaching Michigan, though, the land changes. The glaciers stalled here, pushing the moraine like a bulldozer and grinding out the lakes people are so mad to recreate on today. There’s some contour to the landscape, the soil isn’t quite as good and wetlands more common. You see smaller fields, oddly shaped, ponds that look natural rather than built by Caterpillar. There are lots of orchards, although orchards must not pay very well because a good number of them are either abandoned or in very poor repair. That’s no matter, though, because that means the rows between the trees fill with deer in late afternoon, and that’s charming to see. The wooden barns remain, some still painted red, others worn down to gray and just waiting for a lightning strike to turn them to ash.

You see a lot of CASH FOR YOUR ANTIQUES signs in driveways, along with FREE KITTENS and HAFLINGER PONIES 4 SALE. I didn’t see any chickens; I suspect most people have jobs in town. Or maybe they’re cooking meth.

Anyway, I like driving through country like this. I slow down. I ruminate. Here’s something I considered: “Would it be wrong to buy a six-pack in Fremont, Indiana and then return the empties to a supermarket in Michigan, where I’ll get a dime a bottle, which I didn’t pay in Indiana?” Reader, I did so. Call me a bad person, but I’m sure it’s worked the other way a time or three in my drinking life. You get your dimes back when you can.

Back at the cottage, I cracked a beer and read on the front porch, where I could watch Kate skate by. Our neighbor at the lake wanted to pave the road in front of our cottages for some time before it finally happened. We were opposed for two big reasons: 1) Our lot was having drainage/flooding problems and we didn’t want to take even one square inch of porous ground out of circulation, and 2) we didn’t have the money. We probably could have raised it, but given that this was his idea, it just didn’t seem worth the trouble.

He was undaunted, though, and finally brokered a deal that would install new drainage tile and solve our flooding problem, and then pave the road. The cost per cottage — others were involved — was surprisingly low, and as an amazing bonus, the work would be done by Brooks Construction. For those of you who don’t live in Fort Wayne, this would be like telling a friend you wish you could have a big fancy wedding banquet but you just couldn’t justify the cost, and he replied by saying he knew a guy who would cater your wedding for $5 a head, and then handed you the caterer’s card, reading “Wolfgang Puck.” Brooks is the Wolfgang Puck of asphalt.

So now Kate has reason to bring her Rollerblades. Grosse Pointe keeps its sidewalks in good repair, but cement sidewalks with seams every three feet can’t compete with brand-new asphalt. She’s getting good at it, too; she looks really graceful, and does little spins and hops. On Sunday there was a parade, ostensibly for Labor Day but held to use up decorations bought for the July 4 parade, which was never held due to the organizer’s mortal illness. Now that he’s gone his survivors vowed that the parade must go on. Kate and her friend were the second unit:


As you can see, she’s ready to move to California. I’m sure she’ll fit right in in Venice.


The first I ever heard of Steve Irwin was, as frequently happens, the most succinct summation of the man I would ever hear. It was when Alan surfed past “Crocodile Hunter” and said, “Oh, here’s the guy whose entire career is based on him goading animals to snap at him.” As you doubtless know, one finally connected, fatally. RIP, crocodile hunter.

(Lance Mannion once wrote something amusing about the amazing triteness of the phrase “he died doing what he loved best,” and I’m sure he’ll have a lot more material to work with now. Oh, and get well soon to Mannion Son No. 1, stricken by appendicitis this weekend.)

No posting tomorrow, friends: I have jury duty, for real this time. (Last time our whole group was waved off at 5 p.m. the night before.) Pray I don’t get seated, because I have a can’t-cancel interview in late afternoon, and I’ll be risking a contempt citation if I don’t get out in time.

Posted at 5:31 pm in Same ol' same ol' |

15 responses to “A weekend in the country.”

  1. Dorothy said on September 4, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    I hadn’t thought about the “Free Kittens” sign in my old neighborhood in years, until I read your entry today. We used to drive past a house on the way to our kids’ high school (same one Joe Montana graduated from in 1974) that consistently had a “Free Kittens” sign posted to a tree. After seeing the sign for the umpteenth time, Mike and I dubbed that place the “slut cat” house.

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  2. brian stouder said on September 5, 2006 at 8:46 am

    ““Oh, here’s the guy whose entire career is based on him goading animals to snap at him.�?


    I’ve no idea what Mr Mannion says about the triteness of the cliche’ epitaph “He died doing what he loved to do” – but if it’s the observation that more often ‘He died when he failed while doing what he loved to do’, then I agree completely.

    Race car drivers go insanely fast, and a whole sport is based on defying severe injury and death at every turn. Somehow, this is appealing (watching top-level racing appeals to me – even as I readily confess that I would NEVER attempt it!) – and whenever someone is killed or badly injured, that cliche (and its variants) comes out of cold storage – and it always strikes me as 180 degrees from the truth.

    The other thing about that Aussie was that he exceeded Michael Jackson’s baby-dangle, when he (Irwin) took his baby in with him for a theatrical feeding of the crocodiles at his zoo.

    No action was taken against him (although one suspects he was told never to do that again) – but it was absolutely wrong. (whichever blonde starlet it was who had her baby improperly loaded in a car seat in a convertible was approximately a MILLION times the more responsible parent, if you ask me)

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  3. Dorothy said on September 5, 2006 at 9:50 am

    Brian the “blonde starlet” was Brittney Spears, and the baby was on her lap, not in a car seat, while she was driving. Even if she was going 10 mph, she should have been charged with endangering her child, the bimbo. And I agree about Steve Irwin. The Today show re-ran an interview they had with him after that infamous baby-with-the-crocodile incident and he came across as a complete idiot. And his wife must be his equal because she allowed him to carry the baby over to the crocodile!

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  4. brian stouder said on September 5, 2006 at 10:13 am

    the “blonde starlet�? was Brittney Spears

    I can never keep straight Brittney versus Jessica versus Paris versus Lindsey….

    the one I was thinking of had an infant in the backseat in a forward-facing car seat, and the paparazi (sp?) clicked pics from a helicopter!….but indeed, I think it was the same person who had the kiddo in the driver’s seat with her in an earlier incident.

    Even if she was going 10 mph, she should have been charged with endangering her child

    agreed. The deal is quite simple – you reap an insane profit from the fact that lotsa’ people like to watch you; therefore you must always act responsibly in the public eye.

    I’d take that deal, and not complain!

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  5. Carter said on September 5, 2006 at 11:09 am

    The other angle being playing with the Croc Hunter death is the “he died instantly” bit. Beside the fact that no one will ever know how long he took to succumb, it just seems a wee bit too cozy. Do dictators, murderers, pedophiles or other deserving types ever “die instantly” ? Or “peacefully in their sleep”? Let’s hope not.

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  6. Danny said on September 5, 2006 at 11:16 am

    I am sad to see that Steve Irwin is dead. He was seemingly one of the good guys.

    But I do remember a few years back when our nephews were living with us that I had to have a talk with them about the dangers of approaching wild animals, in general, and snakes, in particular. Later that afternoon, we were all hiking a trail and came upon a pretty good size rattler. They got to see first hand how we handle such encounters. It was a very teachable moment.

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  7. Julie said on September 5, 2006 at 11:20 am

    Carter, the stingray dart apparently punched a hole in his heart. Seems likely he went pretty fast.

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  8. Joe Kobiela said on September 5, 2006 at 11:24 am

    Gotta disagree with you all on Steve Irwin, He always showed the up most respect to the animal he was working with. Did you ever watch his shows?? He never hurt or endangered any of the animals. I’m a little surprised, this being more or less a left leaning blog that you did not notice Mr Irwin conservation work. He always stressed conservation. As far as what he did with his son Bob, you most likely only saw one angle of the shot. If you saw any other angle then the one that the media wanted you to see you would notice he and Bob were in no danger. Remember this was the way Steve was brought up, no different then a farmer teaching his son to drive a tractor or combine. The sting ray barb was a one in a million fluke it was the first reported death by a Stingray in Australia since 1945, perhapse instead of bad mouthing mister Irwin you could say a prayer for his wife Terry who supported him and his two children Binndy and Bob who will miss him.

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  9. Dorothy said on September 5, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    I wasn’t bad mouthing Steve’s line of work. I agree he’s done remarkable things with animals, and I have the utmost respect for that. However he showed very poor taste in carrying his baby anywhere near striking distance of the croc. What kind of example is that to set for children (who were in the audience or watching the videotape later) of an impressionable age? Do as I say, not do as I do?? I don’t care what angle you looked at the actions – he was wrong to have an infant that close to an unpredictable wild animal. And during the interview on the Today show nearly 3 years ago he just talked non-stop, not answering any of Matt Lauer’s questions. It did not portray him in a very good light, and his attitude was more along the lines of “how dare anyone question my judgment?”

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  10. nancy said on September 5, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    I think it’s possible to give Irwin his eco-props and still think he was something of a fool to do the baby thing. With a child who watches these shows on TV, it’s hard, sometimes, to communicate that what these animals want most from us is distance, not to be picked up and exclaimed over for the camera. Obviously if you’re going to have a TV show, you have to have some of that, but I think he sort of overdid the crikey! stuff. But that was his persona, certainly.

    It’s possible to see all these shows as missing the point. If animal-rights activists wanted to protect native foxes, they’d have laid off Prince Charles and his hunting pals and gone after real-estate developers. Pretty much all serious animal population depredations in recent years can be laid at the feet of habitat loss.

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  11. mary said on September 5, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Isn’t that a particularly nasty real estate developer up there in your part of the world who’s been filling in wetlands in spite of court orders?

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  12. Connie said on September 5, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    You returned Indiana cans for the Michigan deposit? Shame. It is possible to buy Meijer brand cola on sale in Indiana for less than the deposit refund you can get by bringing the cans to a Michigan Meijer. I didn’t do it on purpose. Really.

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  13. Danny said on September 5, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    I’ve had more time to reflect on Steve Irwin’s too early passing while watching some of the tributes on Animal Planet. Now I am even more profoundly saddened. This guy was a treasure. And now he is gone.

    Folks can glibbly say that this was a to be expected outcome, but to me, it was very much unexpected. He was such an enthusiastic expert and Marlin Perkins and cohorts all got by without too much trouble. I just hope that other popular naturalists are more careful. Jeff Corwin, you crazy idiot. Do you hear me!

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  14. John said on September 6, 2006 at 7:43 am

    Marlin just sat on his ass and provided commetary as poor Jim Fowler went out and wrestled the grizzlies.

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  15. mary said on September 6, 2006 at 10:44 am

    I think the guy who followed Jim Fowler, Stan Brock, was great. He used to go barefoot. Now that was a tough guy. Marlin would be off on the side with the monotone commentary.

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