Jump Starting Land Restoration

Things were shaken up a few weekends after I moved in, when my mom and my three younger brothers, Gary, Ronnie, and Larry, insisted on visiting. They arrived with the best of intentions, ready to lend a hand with whatever needed doing, but I couldn't help finding their presence distracting and annoying. What I really wanted was time alone to continue settling in and getting organized at my own pace. I was becoming increasingly frustrated by my inability to get started with restoration, and their presence would only delay me further. Still, I feigned gratitude as we hugged on the front stoop and I felt the complexities of family relationships descend on my place of refuge.

The oldest of my brothers, I was twenty-six at the time. Larry, the youngest, was then eighteen, in his last year of high school and college bound that year with plans to go to law school eventually. He was a serious, focused kid, and had obviously come along on the visit to help get me settled. He asked Mom and me for a list of tasks he could work on, and then reminded us that he had a concert to go to later that evening and wanted to keep things moving. Ronnie and Gary, eighteen months apart in age, were the "trouble twins," then twenty-two and twenty-three. Both had barely made it through high school and by then had careers working at a car dealership. And while they claimed to be there to help, I couldn't help but be wary.

I gave them a quick tour of the house, followed by glasses of lemonade. Then we began unpacking boxes—and it was good to have the extra hands! Delegating and cooperating, we quickly cleared and organized a lot of space. In fact, I was beginning to feel actual gratitude when I noticed that Ronnie and Gary had disappeared after assembling a table downstairs. They're just goofing off as usual, the older brother in me said. I imagined they were poking around the first floor, most likely looking for mechanical challenges. I'd spent my childhood surrounded by the guts of household appliances large and small that these two had disemboweled. While machines were foreign and often intimidating to me, Ronnie and Gary quickly turned into junior whiz kids when they had screwdrivers and pliers in hand.

When I stopped to listen, I heard no sounds from downstairs. It occurred to me that they had probably left the house. My mind scoured the farm, trying to figure out what they would have been drawn to. I settled on the corncrib, the storehouse for what would have been the corn harvest. Parked inside, along with a scattering of old grains dried rock hard with age and covered by a thick coating of dust, were two ancient tractors from the 1940s, an International H and an Allis Chalmers WD. I had no clue how to operate them and, after a cursory once-over upon discovering them, had left them alone to continue their dust collecting. And yet I knew I'd have to face them at some point: they'd be necessary for preparing a proper garden plot. Ronnie and Gary knew their way around just about any motorized vehicle—which, it struck me, was good. Perhaps they could teach me what I needed to know.

Then again, maybe it wasn't so good. They weren't the most responsible young men. Over the years, in fact, they'd accrued a long record of reckless behavior. Growing up, it was common to hear stories about their calamities, sometimes from them, sometimes from angry parents in the neighborhood. There had been several escapades in "borrowed" cars—neighbors' vehicles that would inexplicably stop working one day and just as inexplicably start up again the next—and then there was the mystery of a bulldozer at a construction site a half mile from our home in suburban Illinois that had been set on a course toward the unfinished foundations of a new housing project. (Twenty-five years later I was speaking to a colleague who told me the story of how he'd shown up one Monday morning at the site of a job his company was working on, to find a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer standing vertically on its blade, which was embedded in the concrete foundation they'd poured the previous Friday. The huge diesel engine was still chugging, and his crew was standing about in awe trying to figure out what had happened. He said he thought it must have been some neighborhood kids who'd figured out how to start the engines.) With all this history, I was usually in a pretty high state of alert whenever Ronnie and Gary were around, wary about what chain of events might unfold, with embarrassing, or even perilous, results.

It shouldn't have surprised me, therefore, to hear the explosive thunder rumbling from the corncrib.

"Oh no," said Larry, still inside, gazing out the window.

Exhaust smoke was billowing from the corncrib building. By the time I reached the front door, Gary and Ronnie were racing away on the two tractors, trailing fumes and dust.

Side by side they drag-raced, shouting and waving their arms at each other as they rode around like maniacal rodeo cowboys on bucking broncos, weaving back and forth over the rolling earth. I stood there and watched the dirt kick up, caught between frustration and awe at their skill and audacity. But when they reached the boundary of my land and headed into the alfalfa fields of a neighboring farm, I began to panic and sprang into action. I jumped in my Jeep and sped down the road to intercept them. Seeing big brother closing the gap, they maneuvered away, plunging the tractors straight into the neighbor's cornfield. This was disastrous! It was hard enough to imagine the neighbors accepting my alternate approach to the land, hard enough living out in this rural agricultural world while attempting to promote a different set of beliefs and goals. If my brothers started flattening the neighboring farmers' crops, I'd be an absolute pariah.

As they disappeared into the greenery, I turned the truck around, not knowing what else to do. I was absolutely furious. I ranted to Mom and Larry about all the problems this would cause for me in the future.

"It'll work out," said Mom, placing her hand calmly on my shoulder. "Somehow it always does." Trust me, she seemed to be saying. I've been dealing with these shenanigans for years, and it doesn't help to get too angry.

No doubt Ronnie and Gary knew I'd be angry, and they took their time returning. Eventually I heard a sputtering engine sound from a distance. Soon afterward I spotted them through my binoculars, two troublemakers clambering under the barbed-wire fence on my north boundary line, having apparently ditched the tractors in the cornfield. They crossed the outer field, laughing and running low like guilty hyenas. Only when they started to slip surreptitiously in and out of the various farm buildings did it occur to me that they were searching for more gasoline to continue their joyride. My entire history of frustration with their antics flipped through my mind, and I raced down the stairs and out the front door, ready to ambush them.

As they turned the corner of the corncrib building, wild-eyed glee plastered on their faces, we collided. Our eyes met, then they both stared at the ground to avoid what must have been obvious and intense disdain in my gaze.

"Don't you idiots ever think how your recklessness affects anyone else?" I asked. "I don't even know these neighbors and now you've driven all over their crops. This is not the way I wanted to meet them!"

They both stared at me, bewildered.

"The first time I encounter these people I'll have to explain about my moron brothers. And then offer to compensate them for their lost crops."

Gary spoke first. "We're not morons, Steve. We didn't drive on the corn," he said.

"The wheel spacing straddled the rows perfectly," Ronnie added. "I clipped a couple of plants at first, but I avoided pretty much everything else."

"Show me," I said, shoving them in the direction of the north fence. Once there, we slipped through the wires and wandered into the cornfield. Things there were pretty much as Ronnie had described—just a couple of downed plants at the beginning of the row.

"How was I supposed to trust you guys? You don't know anything about farms. And you've got a hell of a track record."

After a moment Gary spoke up. "We were just blowing the carbon off the engines. Now that they're running all right, what can we do with them to help you settle in?"

"We can use them to pull fallen limbs from the trees around the farmhouse into a burn pile, if you have a location in mind," added Ronnie.

To their credit, they were asking to be put to work, but only on the condition that the job somehow involved the tractors. I stood there considering all of this, and maybe I took just a moment too long to respond.

"Maybe there's a gun in the shed," Gary said to Ronnie. "Let's see if there's a target or something we can shoot."

"Wait! No guns, no bullets! Working with the tractors is a good idea."

I led them to the gasoline tank on the condition that they only do what I requested. I'd already marked off an area as a garden, and it needed tilling. So I instructed them to hook up the three-bottom moldboard plow to one tractor, and a pull-type disk to the other, and get to work turning the soil. This kind of plow has three curved iron blades that slice through the sod. As the soil rides up, it is turned over, burying the green vegetation layer and exposing the dangling roots. John Deere invented this plow just a few miles south of Stone Prairie Farm, in Illinois, specifically to cut through the deep matted roots of prairie sod. Every farm has at least one old moldboard plow, often rusting away behind the barn with other seldom-used implements. Disks are used next in the process. They have rows of round-shaped iron plates sharpened to knife edges, designed to roll along and slice into the soil surface, working up the top couple of inches for seeding. They are also used for breaking up the chunks of sod that come off the plow.

Having explained all this, I led them to the fifty-by-fifty-foot plot I'd marked with red plastic flags, and I showed them as clearly as I could what to do. Then they ran off to gas up the tractors, debating which tractor was stronger and who could roll a line of plowed soil faster, straighter, and deeper. Minutes later a puff of black smoke rose above the cornstalks, and I listened fretfully to the steady drone of those old engines as they approached.

Of course my brothers didn't go straight to work. Instead they began to race around the garden area like teenagers driving doughnuts in a high school parking lot. Eventually, though, they lowered the implements into the working position and settled down into a pulling competition. They pretty much ignored my flags, plowing up a sizable amount of ground outside the marked perimeter. When they were done, my new garden plot covered most of an acre just north of the old barn, nearly a third of my land, and far more than I had intended.

Several thoughts went through my head in quick succession. On the one hand, I didn't need, or want, to cultivate such a large plot. That would basically make me another farmer on the land. How many tomato plants or squash could I possibly plant and harvest? On the other hand, from a restoration perspective, turning up the earth as they'd done wasn't so bad. If anything it would help shake off those weedy upper couple inches of soil, the physical mantle of the farming years, and speed up the process of change. Then a far more pressing, immediate concern hit me: I was leaving early the next morning for a week of working in Nebraska, sampling plant communities in heavily overgrazed rangelands. And I now had an acre of freshly turned earth, on a sloped field that ran right into the creek, with nothing to protect it from the erosion that can happen so quickly with midwestern wind and rain. No straw to cover it, no seeds to plant.

Something had to be done, and quickly. This was a time when some neighborly advice and assistance would come in handy. And despite the fact that my brothers had just demonstrated what a terrible addition to the community I was, I decided to check with Dick, the only neighbor I'd met thus far. I walked across the road toward his house, a little nervous, a little guilty, and Dick opened the front door before I had the chance to knock.

"So, your friends created quite a mess," he said, looking out over the field north of the barn.

"Brothers, actually. Reckless. Always causing trouble, and—"

"Looks like they were having a good old time," he cut me off. "No harm done."

"Well, they got a bit carried away, and now I figure I need to stabilize the soil on the sloped field," I said.

"Yup," he said, then fell silent for a moment, gazing off toward the freshly turned earth. "Looks like they prepared a pretty good seed bed though. Or is the surface still too rough?"

"Parts are ready, most parts," I guessed. "Probably still some areas that need another going over."

"Let's take a look," he said, and started off in the direction of the field. I followed along, trying to keep pace with his long strides.

His solution was quick, simple, and generous.

"I have a bag of oats sitting in the shed out back. If you grab it and get a few of the white plastic buckets next to the bag, this shouldn't take long."

I ran for the seed and buckets and found them just where he said they'd be, alongside what seemed a stockpile of every conceivable supply—seeds, gravel, spare parts, wire, fence posts, you name it. I knew immediately that Dick would be an amazing asset. When I arrived back at the mess, he had already attached the tined drag—essentially a giant rake for smoothing out the rough patches of soil—to one of the tractors and was driving around the field. Ronnie and Gary just stood on the other tractor, watching as I struggled, lugging back bucket after bucket of seed. Larry finally came over and helped me fill the buckets with seed.

Dick stopped driving when I finally got done.

"Your brothers tell me you're afraid of tractors," Dick said.

"Well I . . . I guess certain mechanical things scare me a bit. Mostly because no one ever showed me how to use them," I said, shooting a glance at Ronnie and Gary.

"Well get on," he commanded, motioning with his arm, which sort of swept me up into the driver's seat.

Behind me I heard my brothers snickering. They knew that from adolescence I had avoided mechanical devices, and if something didn't have fur, feathers, or fins, or didn't grow from the ground, I wouldn't be interested. No doubt they expected me to wimp out, which naturally gave me the fuel I needed to get up into the tractor.

Dick climbed up and sat on the large orange fender that extended over the rear tire.

"Now, this is the ignition," he said. "But before you do anything with that," he warned, "turn on the gas." He then touched my shoulder and motioned to the stopcock, a small metal valve on the bottom of a glass bowl filled with an amber-colored liquid that for all I knew could have been Jack Daniels.

"Okay, the gas is on. Now pull out the choke." He motioned to a long, coat hanger-like bent-wire thing sticking randomly out from somewhere beneath the left side of the steering wheel. I stared perhaps a bit too long, so he grabbed my wrist and guided my hand toward it.

"Now turn the key, but keep your foot on the clutch and brake pedals," he said.

Somehow my four limbs acted in concert, and the tractor belched a single abrupt puff of that black smoke before the engine settled into an arrhythmic growling.

"Yup, good," he yelled. "Now the throttle will regulate the fuel to make the engine run more smoothly. And the gears. See the 'one,' 'two,' and 'three' imprinted in the metal chassis? Move the stick shift to these to go forward, and to the 'R' to go backwards," he said, demonstrating the pattern. "Just like a big old car. Stomp the clutch down, shift the gear handle, then ease it out and you're off and running. Your job is to smooth over the rough areas before we seed, and then to lightly rake them over afterwards in order to pull some soil over the oats. Understand? Otherwise the birds will eat it."

"Now," he stated authoritatively, turning to my three brothers, "you gentlemen and I will spread out the oat seed by hand."

He shouted a couple of last-minute instructions to me as I set off, petrified, across the sea of soil in front of me. It pleased me to have him orchestrating the game plan. My brothers seemed eager and willing to follow along, although I'm sure they were secretly waiting for me to fail, so they could leap onto the tractor and take the wheel.

I rolled away on the tractor, aiming for the bumps, driving slowly at first, aware that I was at the helm of the kind of massive bone-crunching machine that I had always loathed. After a few minutes, though, that lifelong anxiety began to ease, and I inched the throttle lever forward with increasing confidence, smoothing the soil. The soil of my land.

When I felt really steady, I looked back to see Dick and my brothers scattering seed. Each man had his own style. Gary tossed his randomly up into the air, as if they were flower petals, to let the wind distribute them. Ronnie pirouetted like some sort of prancing hillbilly, enthusiastically spewing the seed in all directions. Dick, on the other hand, walked steadily along, grabbing a handful every few yards and gently scattering them, as if he were feeding chickens underfoot. Larry was methodical like Dick. At one point I looked back to see Gary and Ronnie engaged in a seed fight. Seeing them whipping handfuls of seed at each other, I impulsively turned in their direction. When they realized I was heading straight for them, they stopped fighting and stared at me a moment before leaping out of the way. I must have gotten their attention, because when I turned the tractor around they were already back on task. I glanced up to the house occasionally, seated upright in that springy tractor seat, and feeling oddly proud. It didn't take long to get the job done. As I made the last pass with the tractor, all three of my brothers stood leaning against each other, watching me from the edge of the seeded and dragged patch of bare earth. I pulled up next to them and switched off the ignition just as the old workhorse engine was sputtering out on its last fumes of gas.

There was a satisfying moment of calm as we all gazed out over the field.

"That went well," I said. "Will it green up quickly? That's the real question."

Larry said, "With the rain coming in early this week, shouldn't it start to green by next weekend? Light rains are expected, nothing heavy, so the oats will grow and stabilize the soil." I had no idea where he got all this information, but I figured whatever research he'd done boded well for his law school dreams.

Dick looked up at the sky and then smiled and nodded in agreement.

"I don't know how to thank you," I said.

He shrugged and asked my brothers if they'd like to come over and see his tractors. I told them to keep an eye on the time; dinner would be ready in an hour.

Ronnie and Gary trotted off after Dick. Larry lingered another moment, looking out over the field, and then slapped me approvingly on the shoulder before heading back to the house to continue working with Mom.

As children, my brothers tinkered with machines, while I became a Boy Scout. Being a scout meant my father, my neighborhood friends, and I could go camping and fishing. I made bows and arrows from branches, then learned how to shoot and maintain a BB gun. When I was old enough I moved up to a .22 rifle that had been my dad's when he was a kid. Finally I graduated to a small shotgun. While my resourceful brothers were helpful to anyone needing a mechanical repair, I focused on learning to repair animals. Bandaging injured baby birds, I learned to help nature heal broken wings, and I marveled at being able to release them back to the blue skies once they were healthy.

For me this youthful exploration of field and forest grew into something more substantial, an uncovering of an organic and even spiritual relationship with nature. I developed what I can only call an ethic for nature, which was linked to personal, tactile experiences. A key awakening moment happened when I was thirteen and several friends invited me to join their hunting excursion. I went along even though I didn't really want to kill anything. I saw no appeal in shooting at birds and animals that I might otherwise have tried to save. Still I was curious, and used the opportunity to get close to wildlife, to uncover their hideouts and learn more about their habits.

Despite my initial resistance, and lack of skill as a marksman, we began going out regularly. Birds were particularly fascinating to me; I stalked them, entranced by their symmetry and their colorfully painted feathers. I watched in silence, patient, spending hours studying the beauty of their flight, often with my gun barrel pointing at the dirt.

Eventually I began going out by myself. I did my first solo pheasant hunt during a heavy November storm. Thick snow had made everything silent and I had lost track of time when a pheasant, practically under my feet, burst into the air and whirred over a hedgerow toward safety. An instant before the bird flew out of sight, I raised the shotgun in its direction and fired. My heart raced as the bird went limp and plummeted into the powdery snow of a lilac hedge. After the punctuated rifle blast faded, the land became deadly silent. I felt exposed and conspicuous as I crept over to the hedge to lift the limp bird and look at its markings. It was a common ring-necked male, a species native to Asia and imported to the States in the nineteenth century as a game bird. In a sense it had now lived out its destiny. Its layered bright brown plumage glistened with snow and blood. I studied its green and purple markings and then folded the dead creature into my pouch and took it home, where I snuck it into my bedroom. The next day I began to draw pictures of it, my first detailed sketches of nature.

I would learn years later that John James Audubon, Aldo Leopold, and many other famous naturalists found themselves taking the path of the gun or bow as a means to find intimacy with nature. Becoming a part of nature requires compassionate stewardship; hunting is a balancing act that offers a perspective on the role humans can play in nature. As far as my drawing went, I wasn't an enormous talent, but over the years my initial crude sketches would become more artful and intimate records of these experiences.

I did hunt some animals, but I spent equal amounts of time and energy on both sides of the line between life and death. I tinkered, tending to injured animals that needed nurturing and care. My medicine cabinet was full of eyedroppers, tweezers, cotton balls, sutures, baby formula, and various nonprescription medicines. I kept screened cages and shoeboxes filled with wood shavings to house the animals in my homemade veterinary hospital. I immersed myself in the role, doctoring and raising these animals until they were ready to return to the wild, or burying them when they didn't recover from their injuries. I was particularly fond of a maimed screech owl that I nursed back to health, and releasing that noble creature was bittersweet.

My brother Larry, though also sharing interests with Ronnie and Gary, participated with me in rearing dozens of little injured or orphaned friends, including raccoons, foxes, birds, rabbits, turtles, and many others. The closeness that I felt for these creatures would persist my entire life—and learning about them would draw me to the land that both the animals and we humans need to survive.

As best I can fathom, my discomfort with mechanical things probably started with a disdain both for their noise, which disrupted the rhythms of the natural places that fascinated me, and for the industrial support system every engine needed. I explored wetlands and wilderness, only to find gas stations dotting the landscape and parking lots covering acres of prairies everywhere. A number of events colluded to convert disdain into fear. Specifically I remember getting my finger caught in a spring-loaded device under the hood of a car when my adolescent brothers asked me to help out by holding something. I couldn't get my hand out and pain, panic, and anger ensued. I must have looked comical—hand stuck in the engine, face turning beet red —and everyone there laughed, only increasing my frustration. I suspect Ronnie and Gary may have also purposely used my ambivalence toward all things mechanical to ward me off, because I didn't like the cigarette-smoking cadre of friends they kept. Whenever they'd get a new junker, there would be a cluster of teenage boys gathered about, a cloud of smoke coming from under the hood.

Our lives took radically different paths, but as my brothers and I aged our values and interests began to converge again. They've had family pets, some of which were neighborhood strays, and I've watched with pride as they have nurtured their yards, even with native wildflowers. As for me, over time I have been forced to become more comfortable mechanically, learning to use chainsaws and tractors and woodworking tools.

After the family left Stone Prairie Farm that day, I went back out to the freshly turned patch of soil. The dirt smelled pungent and rich, and was cool and moist between my fingers. I went over the important milestones we'd achieved. Despite the frustration, the dread, and the near-sabotage of my place in the community, all was really in pretty good shape. Ronnie and Gary's impulsiveness had actually jump-started things on the farm. Whereas I'd been mired in uncertainty over how to actually go about restoring the land, they'd simply turned on the engine and begun digging up the field. I even used my newfound confidence with tractors to rework a small bare patch of soil I had missed. Then, emulating Dick, I walked carefully across it, tossing the remaining seed from one of the buckets. The restoration process had officially begun. There was no turning back now.

And how did the tractor pull play out with my neighbors? I couldn't work up the nerve to go speak with Forest Zimmerman, whose fields they'd raced over. I finally ran into him at the fence line a few weeks later and, to my relief, he was quite calm about the whole affair. He told me he and his wife, Marjorie, had had a good laugh watching the boys race around on the margins and shoulders, but they had become concerned when the tractors entered the cornfields. They'd checked the impact the next day, and found it negligible. I apologized profusely, expressing how angry I was at my brothers for their recklessness, and at myself for not being able not control them. Forest just nodded and told me not to worry about it. We'd be neighbors, he said, for a long time.

chapter 4

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