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.