Home and Shop Companion 0117
Home and Shop Companion 0117

Rural Ramblings – Fall 1980
Ralph C. Miller

It isn’t something I usually advertise but I have had certain health problems over the last dozen years. This Spring that led (at least indirectly) to a couple of dizzy spells – worse than usual, I mean. Even I know that’s a sign to break off so I left the rose bed and went to the back porch to wash up. Next thing I knew I didn’t; flat on my back and wondering how I got there.

The medical mechanics took me in and checked my crankcase; they found me about five pints low so I spent the next 9 or 10 days on the rack. A hospital isn’t one of my favorite places so wouldn’t you think I’d have stayed away? A month later I ventured back to let them check me over and they found me so fascinating that I couldn’t bear to leave for another 10 days. Not the same cause but related.

My Beautiful Bride had gotten so used to visiting me there that she decided to try it. It’s a good thing the doors are wide and electrically operated as we nearly passed each other coming and going. She spent a week there after they took out some spare parts they thought she didn’t need. That brings us to July and the two of us sitting here by the pond recuperating.

I don’t say any of this for sympathy. We consider ourselves fortunate; I’m a lucky, happy man and I bless each day as it comes and look forward to the next. No – the only reason I bother to mention these things at all is I’m building up an alibi. Like a Junebug on a string I can still move around but my range is somewhat shortened. If this column is short and not very good I have already entered my excuse.

“… By that tree in the meadow … with the stream drifting by.” Unless you’re nearly as old as I am you may not remember that song, maybe you won’t anyway as it wasn’t too memorable (I’m not even sure of the name). I guess it was the idea, the image created that called it back.

On my way to Red Wing Farm and the office a week or so ago, I coasted down off the ridge and saw the big valley spread before me. This time and for no reason I took notice of a large old oak with twin trunks in the field just below the road … and there I was humming that long forgotten tune. I told myself that was just a fluke; modern agriculture doesn’t believe in wasting tillable ground on trees. But you know that was wrong – pastures, meadows, fields – the next 10 miles to the office there were a lot more trees left than I would have thought.

I don’t mean just bordering fields either; here in Oregon we’re fortunate and famous for our trees in the forests but there are a lot of singles and clumps scattered here and there on the cleared patches, too. A great many of them stand in fields nearest the edges of the valley floor but not all by any means.

I’m grateful for that when I think of it. It means something special to me in a way. I’m not sure I can explain, but then I doubt if the owner, the farmer, can explain why he left them all these years – some like the old oak with the twin trunks are pretty big – eighty years, a hundred? Probably more.

In this day of superculture (I’ll try not to use the term Agribusiness any more) even meadows as such are scarce. However, I do have to admit something; one of the times when it’s a pleasure to be wrong. There is one field in the valley that I have cast aspersions on – simply because it’s so big, it’s farmed with huge equipment, commercial fertilizer – usually cash grains – the whole bit. Well, this time I was singing, still singing my little tune so I took a good look. It has to be at least 500 acres in the one piece but right out there toward the middle are not one but two ‘trees in the meadow.’

Oh, I know, by no stretch of the imagination should I call that enormous field a meadow, but – yes it is fenced around and I seem to recall a fair-sized flock of sheep pasturing there one Spring – meadow, pasture or field those trees are heartening to me anyway. You can call it sentimentality but I call it appreciation.

I grant you, we’re more likely to find trees in a meadow than in mile long fields, but that resounds all the more to that farmer’s credit. If there be any out there who don’t know the difference between a field and a meadow, that too is a little difficult to explain. I think the dictionary refers to low-lying grasslands, frequently, but not always, near water.

Except in advertising and among older poets, the word meadow has pretty well dried up from disuse. I can’t imagine a current rock group waxing sentimental over meadows and it’s been a while since anyone chased ‘Butterflies of Love’ therefrom.

That may be another definition, another prerequisite – butterflies, song birds and, of course, wild flowers – honeybees and all. With the exception of hay fever victims, most people are probably in favor of meadows as long as they don’t have to rake and mow them by hand (Shades of Maud Muller).

Home and Shop Companion 0117

It’s that tree out there that intrigues me today. I’m still pondering the reasons why we enjoy it. (Yes, I have one in what passes for my meadow.) What pull would be strong enough to persuade farmers to plow around them for 50 or even 150 years? I guess it would make more sense in an area where trees are scarce but here you are never out of sight of them.

No, it must be a definite feeling, unexpressed perhaps, but strong enough withall; a desire to leave one token, one bastion for birds and one bit of shade. Symbolic enough but comforting – a reminder that what once was undoubtedly woodland still retains at least one tie and a promise.

Those solitary trees aren’t solely on grasslands either. Traveling in the south of Spain some years back we saw more than one plowman with his team taking siesta in the shade of the old olive tree, while those less fortunate or shortsighted souls dozed in blazing sun. Hereabouts row crops may be retarded somewhat by shade in a cold Spring but they usually make it up when the sun gets hot later on.

Of course, cattle and other livestock approve wholeheartedly. In hot weather they’ll wear out the shadow of every tree in the pasture. If there be even the remotest possibility that stock will ever graze in a field, a tree or trees definitely makes sense. I shouldn’t be surprised if that may have been the consideration in many cases at the start. Later on the tree literally grew on the farmer; became so much a part of the landscape that he couldn’t have taken it out if he wanted.

Now Grandfather’s case was a little different, more like the twin oaks perhaps. That was Grandpa Holcomb – the one with the swamp. He had bridged the creek and just about every Spring he had needed to renew the corduroy road across the swamp to his main field. 30 to 35 acres at a guess and out in the middle was a tree, a Norway Pine.

To the boy I was back then there was no question of why it was there. It was far too big for a slingshot but just right for a catapult. If the Barbarians ever invaded we Romans again we were all set. At least 18 to 20 feet above the ground the straight trunk split not just into a ‘Y’ but a perfect ‘U’ shape.

Farmers are supposed to be pragmatists but there are things you just don’t do. I don’t think Grandpa was superstitious but he could read a sign when he saw one. I never had to ask why Grandpa plowed around the tree any more than I wondered why he often found it convenient to rest his team as he passed it. Funny thing, too, after Grandpa retired and left that farm I believe the field was not used too long and although I haven’t seen it in nearly 40 years, Uncle Earl says there is now a whole grove of Norway Pines growing up there. With half a chance the Earth renews itself.

With me the ‘tree in the meadow’ ranks right up there with fence rows, windbreaks, hedges and the occasional briar patch. (There is also at least one of those last in that 500 acre field.) Birds, small creatures, harmless snakes – all sorts of farmers’ friends will shelter there. Food chains and the ‘balance of nature’ may be terms taken over by environmentalists but they are principles many a farmer has lived by for hundreds of years.

I wonder just how many birds’ nests in how many meadows have been spared by farmers everywhere. Living that close to the soil man was heedless indeed to tie an Albatross around his own neck. I mentioned having a tree in my small patch across the pond. I cleared a half dozen others out of there a couple of years ago but felt I had to leave that one. Robins, song sparrows, goldfinches and any number of other species make me a payment on that 50 times a year.

On this matter of clearing land: It’s a little like the commercials about non-emergency surgeries today – we ought to get a second opinion. Perfectly valid reasons exist for cutting trees, clearing brush, but we should make sure they apply and not just whack away because ‘it’s there’ and because the chainsaw is handy.

I wrote one time of my Grandfather – the other one, Grandpa Miller – that he loved trees but that all his life he had the settlers compulsion to clear land. He was about 83 or 84 when he died and up till about his last year he was still chopping oaks, beech and maples with an axe. He left Ohio when a baby, Indiana when he was 12; except for the Civil War and 2 or 3 years right here in the Willamette Valley he lived the rest of his life in Wisconsin but in many places. Soon after the trees were gone so was Grandpa. He and Uncle Ephraim were busy carving out another farm when he died. Uncle Ephraim is still there.

When everything was horses or oxen, with the axe and the crosscut saw you cleared what was necessary. Still even when I was a boy there were earnest advocates of the ‘mow ’em down’ philosophy. ‘Keep the brush line back’ was a slogan parroted by every extension agent in the state. We were North of the 45th parallel in an area that should never have felt the plow. Like everyone else we dutifully whacked away.

A few years down the line the truth began to come out. That part of the state was better off growing timber, pulp, hunters, fishermen and tourist cabins. After a few uncertain years the trees came back (the CCC had replanted them by the millions) and so did the country. It does well today at its best potential, which isn’t farming, of course.

I’m not advocating universal reforestation, just a closer look. Windbreaks, shade, even temperature and humidity control – a tree is an unbelievable entity. A whole factory, an air conditioner, a water reservoir, a refuge – there are so many facets to a tree that there ought to be a required waiting period like marriage or divorce. When a tree has been there 30 or 40 years you can cut it anytime but if you change your mind it’s another 30 or 40 years. And when trees, even brush, are cut or burned on a slope the potential for erosion, flooding or mudslides is frightening indeed.

With all that there comes a time when we do decide to clear land. With the present equipment available the tendency is to bulldoze everything, oftentimes even precious topsoil, into a pile and apply fuel and the torch. With the roar of the dozer in our ears who can hear a minstrel sing of ‘that tree in the meadow?’

Then too, we’re likely to farm this piece like the rest, with tractors running flat out from end to end (may be a mile?). Who’s got time for trees, bramble patches, windbreaks or fence rows? The Small Farmer with his old 4 mile an hour tractor or team of horses might be glad of shorter furrows, smaller fields and an occasional bit of shade, but then what does he know? I still can’t figure the trees and bramble patch in that one big field.

Talking of land clearing, I have a nephew down in North Florida, where we have gone the last two Winters. (Actually his wife is my wife’s niece, but we’re closer than that sounds.) He bought a small farm – huge house with swimming pool, small but well-built barn on 32½ acres with only 5 or 6 of them cleared.

The soil looks good, enough so that the last tenant grew a good crop of half and half on it about three years ago. One more enterprising Small Farmer done in by Government interference. They didn’t object to the corn in every other row – it was the marijuana in between that put him out of business for a few years.

When Mac got it he decided that hay and pasture was a safer crop. First, he had to get more of it cleared. Now I like North Florida even over around Starke where the farm is, but I have to say I’d have to think about it a while before I personally took over the clearing of that piece. At least I’d want a suit of armor.

The creek that crosses the back of the property is called Alligator Creek but I would just as soon tackle the alligators as some of that brush. (The alligators are imaginary now but the brush is real.) I never knew there were so many kinds of briars, thorns and stickers. The sword-pointed, fishhook-stemmed palmettoes are just one of the many types of savage fauna lying in wait for the unwary.

When Mac has it all cleared back to the creek at least he will know something more about one of the hazards of farming and can say he’s earned his ‘spurs.’ There are some tall cypress and water oaks scattered through the brush and he talked of leaving some. I hope he does and gets the cows he wants to pasture there.

Meantime he’s happy with his tractor and brush hog. Although he’s had somebody in there to do some dozing he’s doing a lot of it with a new tractor he got. I don’t blame him for that; I wouldn’t put a horse in there yet, or a mule that I cared about. But I have faith that he’ll make a meadow of it before he’s done. It is small enough, lies low enough and with drainage ditches and all there is plenty of water, so it should qualify. One of these Winters I expect to go down there and find his cows belly deep in grass beside one of those water oaks. I’ll enjoy the sight and maybe hum a little tune.

The thorns I spoke of remind me that land clearing can be ‘a mite techy.’ I could tell you a story about getting out a huge stump right here next to the house (3 weeks and finally 10 sticks of dynamite), but I’m so weary just thinking about all of this work that it will have to keep for another time. I’ll tell you all about it – why don’t we bring our fishpoles and a picnic lunch and we’ll meet ‘by that tree in the meadow with the stream drifting by.’

Home and Shop Companion 0117

Home and Shop Companion 0117