Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Experiencing Nature in Warren County, Indiana 5

Where I grew up (Pine Village, Indiana), the black loam of the flat farmland stretched to the horizon’s cobalt line encircling the viewer. The dome of the sky cupped the life below. Few trees interrupted the view of clouds, of sunrises, of sunsets. Toward the back of our farm, nearly a mile long, a hedge had managed to hold on in a fencerow. Buffeted by the blizzards of winter and the winds of early spring, the Osage orange trees looked splintered and forlorn, their spiky limbs reaching down as if to grab the earth to keep from being blown away. For many years, a family of foxes lived among the hedge apples.

A Fox in Winter
Engraving by Henry Wolf (1852–1916)
In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
December 1884

When disking the earth, I occasionally glimpsed a red fox skipping home, its fluffy tail, almost as big as its body, flying behind and its dark legs flashing like a gentleman’s tall boots during Great Britain’s Regency Era. The white of its cheeks and chin only emphasized the fox’s slight grin, amused at its own cleverness, probably. In moments, the fox vanished amid the tangle of weeds wrapped around the trunks of the venerable Osage orange trees.

Once on an ominous night in the spring, I shook Spot’s leash, and he came running to go for a walk beyond the fenced yard. Spot was my family’s fox terrier, and a much admired dog was he! When he enjoyed an activity, he more than enjoyed it: he loved it! … and he adored going for a walk!

Spot and I set out toward the north past the security of the house, barn, and outbuildings. We took the well-beaten path that the tractors took beside the fields. The wind came in long exhalations that could be heard far off before it could be felt. The air was chilled but not frozen, as it had been in the recent winter. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw small gray clouds scudding overhead. They appeared to be so low that I could touch them, but such was merely an illusion.

Now and then, Spot tugged on the leash, and I quickened my pace to keep up with him. He was having the time of his life, turning his head from side to side, sampling the smorgasbord of smells low to the ground. After a time, we reached the back of the farm. Spot wanted to explore the hedgerow, so I followed him as he trotted toward the gnarled trees.

Suddenly, we heard a growl. “Fox,” I immediately thought. Instinctively, I grabbed Spot around his belly and lifted him to my chest. As the moon broke from behind clouds, I saw the ghostly white of the fox’s face staring in our direction. I backed slowly away. The fox began taking slow steps toward us. Just then, I heard a yipping and yelping that could only be from kits. Sure enough, four pups came tumbling out of the weeds to prance around the legs of their mother!

I kept backing up until I was in the center of the freshly plowed field. Keeping my balance was tricky, as the clods were tilted wherever the plowshares had left them. Growling continually, the mother fox had followed us to a distance of perhaps thirty feet from her den. Abruptly, she whipped around and ran back among the trees, her cubs leaping and tumbling about her in what they perhaps perceived as a game.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Walking back to the house, I traversed a considerable distance before I thought it was safe to put Spot back on the ground. I complimented him because he had refrained from barking throughout the entire encounter with the fox family. I suppose that my hugging him tightly to my body had persuaded him that we were in a potentially dangerous situation, and his instincts likely convinced him that he was better off to remain silent. I think that, had he barked, he might have incited the fox somehow, and I was glad that he had kept his mouth shut.    

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Experiencing Nature in Warren County, Indiana 4

When we lived on the edge of town and it was my turn to fetch the cows, I set out—say, on a summer’s eve—through a wide gate secured by a stout wire. The barn stood behind me, and the meadow stretched beyond me. I sauntered along the path the cows had made. A narrow and dusty line, the path snaked through the pasture. It remained visible several feet ahead but kept curving out of sight. The farther it went, the thinner it became as the clover and timothy vied with the dried ribbon of earth.

Cows in the Pasture
Drawing by Henry Singlewood Bisbing (1849–1933)
Engraved by Charles H. Reed (1843–?)
In An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1885

Around me was a cacophony of insect music. Katydids (both broad and narrow) and snowy tree crickets were keening so loudly that I could hardly hear myself talk. Cabbage butterflies, alfalfa butterflies, and sulphur butterflies flitted and bobbed like winking waves of light. Monarch butterflies and black swallowtails sailed on updrafts of heat.

The countryside smelled like rich chamomile tea. The herbage ranged from ochre to green, from yellow to tan. As I drifted along, my mind became less focused, more detached—almost as if I were observing myself from above but not recognizing myself as myself.

Having almost reached the fence bordering the meadow on the east, I found the cows. The dozen or so Holsteins were standing in the shade of a venerable tree with widely arching branches that made it seem out of place with no giraffes nearby. The cows were chewing their cud and regarding me through deep blue eyes with long lashes. Now and then, their tails swung indolently to try to discourage flies that were hardly inconvenienced by the motion.

I spoke to the leader, calling her by her name: “Buttercup, it’s time.” Slowly, she gathered her hooves beneath her weight then launched forward like a swaying ship. One by one, the others fell into place behind her. Buttercup joined the trail near me. I stood politely, waiting for each cow to get in line. When the last cow passed me, I began to stroll along at the end of the small herd, and I kept pace with the cows.

Black-and-white spotted flanks and rumps tilted to one side then the other, oscillating and undulating in sleep-inducing rhythms. Swinging in slow motion, the Holsteins followed the path exactly. I wondered why the trail bent and curved so often. When the first cow charted the route, was she simply unable to draw a straight line, or did she obey a secret feng shui known only to cows?

Eventually, the Holsteins filed through the gate, and my father called to them, welcoming them into the barn for milking. They were so tame that they required no persuasion; they honored my father’s invitation.      

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Experiencing Nature in Warren County, Indiana 3

On a sunny April Saturday when I was in high school, I had been disking for my father. My International 560 tractor needed gasoline, so I drove from the fields back to the house. I pulled alongside the elevated gas barrel, switched off the engine, spun off the gas cap, and began filling. The day was hot and still. Even the birds were taking a break from their hectic springtime schedule. With the tank full, I hung the hose on its iron saddle and thought about returning to my disking.

Rough Weather Ahead
Drawing by W. Hamilton Gibson (1850–1896)
Engraved by F. S. King (1848–1936)
In The Closing Scene
Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1887

My father and my brother were working with tractors in adjacent fields about as far from the house as they could be. Would they miss me for fifteen additional minutes? I decided they would not, so I strode to the house and stretched out on the sofa for a quick nap.

Naturally, I lost track of the time. Imagine my surprise when my brother and my father noisily entered the living room! They were talking loudly with considerable animation. In my half-asleep state, I felt they were angry with me for shirking my responsibility. My sense of guilt helped me awaken fully. Then I realized they were not speaking about my indolence; rather, they were discussing the funnel cloud that had just crossed near the north end of our farm.

I sat up and listened to their description of the funnel, which began to touch down but lifted immediately. I glanced at the clock. I had slept for less than an hour. In just that length of time, the skies to the west had darkened, and a storm had approached. On its path from southwest to northeast, the blue-black cloud mass had passed on an angle a little over a mile north of our house. Acknowledging the dangers of lightning, my father had signaled my brother to bring his tractor and plow up to the house while my father drove his tractor and corn planter up to the barn. When they entered the barnyard, they witnessed the funnel’s descent.

I had slept through the excitement. And I was disappointed! In my late teens, I had wanted to spot a tornado. (I do not want to see one now.) Had I not tried to sneak in a nap, I could have watched the formation of a funnel, however briefly. A few years later, deadly tornadoes struck. I was in college. I drove home on the weekend after the massive tornadoes, and my father and I toured the damage. I remember two-story farmhouses missing walls so that they looked like oversize dollhouses. Most impressive was a mile-wide swath cut through a woods. Stripped of their bark, trunks of large trees lay where they were mowed down. My cousin’s house was destroyed. My father and I collected large balls of metal from the north end of our farm. Metal roofing and siding had been loosely rolled and tossed aside. Our buildings sustained no damage, but I had to walk down the country road to our neighbor’s house to collect the chairs that had been sitting on our front porch.

In my experience, the most severe storms always traveled on a diagonal line to the north of our farm. I wondered what factors determined their course. To me, the annual threat of tornadoes made life on the prairie seem exciting but precarious. I have not felt quite so vulnerable when living in other places. Oddly, that vulnerability was also part of feeling closely connected to nature: a connection I have not felt as powerfully since.