There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. —Rumi
Writing prompts arrive via email from the pilot-farmer who enjoys tracking the phases of the moon and sends text message reminders about Vesuvius Day, accompanied by smiley face emojis wearing dark sunglasses. A compilation of these memos might form a lively manuscript—a father’s guide to his grown children as told through an old-world fascination with the earth and sky; a heart’s song beating out days absent of his beloved of more than fifty years.
Now. What sounds at the farm?
The first that comes to mind is the friction of old sneakers crunching eagerly upon thick gravel—rubber meets pebbles and ancient stone, thin earth and the occasional patch of land cast off from a giant tractor wheel. Everyone there knows what it means to go up on the hill.Especially the childhood friends who remember the well-trekked entrance, steep at first where a path crosses a narrow creek meandering through the yard. They know it’s a long way up and have enshrined memories of traipsing the length of it carrying butterfly nets and buckets to be filled with wild berries, most of which were eaten long before reaching the top. We were a pack of sun-kissed kids then, donning straight bangs and grass-stained knees—untethered, innocent and free.
Walking briskly, I push off the familiar surface by the barn where a large sliding door has been left wide open, sun streaming in casting light on dusty beams, wafting the smell of old hay.
In our youth we found endless ways to play inside that sprawling space. In the back on the right, a wide room with tall ceilings boasts slippery wood floors, good for sliding around in socks or bouncing a basketball, the sound echoing throughout as if from within an empty gymnasium. Filled at times to the seams with bales of hay, we could climb right up onto the rafters near the ceiling, spinning cartwheels on beams a dozen or more feet up, the scratchy hay piled up beneath us acting as a rough cushion if we fell.
Dares were made to jump off of too-high places and warnings given about trap doors in the floors. Walking by I notice waves of dust pouring out and the sound of my father sweeping debris from an old storage space. He tasks himself endlessly, keeping up with the demands of this treasured place where arrow heads are discovered in gullies and an equestrian mounting block stands by the stream. Evidence of an interesting and complex history can be found at every turn. Stepping inside I notice sweat pouring from his brow, soaking his white undershirt, overalls holding up saggy trousers; my mother would have preferred for him to wear a more fitted pair.
Insisting he’ll be going in to rest soon, I leave him to work alone and keep moving briskly, crossing the narrow creek, stone to stone, noticing the way the initial incline has become more deeply rutted and might soon be in need of filling. Wild native plants line the first sharp incline, some fanning out like revelers on the sidelines of a parade, as if longing to be picked and arranged in a canning jar and placed on a table inside.
Lush stalks of corn peak out from the top of the first crest, a crop that spreads out for acres along a flat stretch of land that precedes the next, long incline. Linear and neat, the multitude of rows form an alluring maze to get lost in, the stalks and leaves stretching up well beyond my head. A rustling sound might produce a dog or a deer and sparks memories of what could have been the anthem of summers spent in proximity to these lofty plants. Running along the narrow passages, rough and sticky edges of leaves grazing bare arms; a hidden sun casting shadows, the swishing sound of tassels and leaf blades drowning out all but our breath until we emerged—hearts pounding out a labyrinthine mix of fear and excitement.
Here by the start of the corn, is the place where when set free from her leash, one of the dogs loved to go sprinting ahead like a racehorse on a straight path until she reached a muddy dip. It’s the place where family lore recounts a fall from a horse right into a puddle. It might be considered the truer gate to the hill, where a single slope upward begins and then culminates with a plateau and a single tree in the center that marks the edge of more crops and forests on either side.
Heading right at that place where water sometimes gathers, I’d quickly be off-trail and ensconced in tall grass and brambles and so I stay to the left where I can walk unincumbered, taking in the wide blue sky that seems to fan out overhead like a giant dome. With long strides and beginning to walk upward I discover a rhythmic pace for my legs and my breath, absorbing the same things I’ve been noticing in this mid-summer season for the majority of my life; the sudden movement of a cricket or toad in the grass, velvety-red cone shaped sumac lining the curve of the path, the promise and reward of time spent alone with my thoughts draped in natures glittery gown.
It seems as if I could crouch down and dig out a little slice of the earth and discover the very same cellular makeup of a land that has been receiving me for decades; a comfort to be found in the abiding nature of this particular longitudinal and latitudinal locale largely having been preserved. The relief of being able to count on something steadfast in my surroundings in this uncertain world—if only within the land itself.
Forests flank both sides of the wide hill where crops are rotated. We’ve named an entrance to the woods about halfway up The Engagement Spot, where one sister received a ring and a promise under a canopy of trees.
On another day I venture to create handmade steps there, where a steep incline leads into the woods. It can be slippery and require grabbing a branch to hang onto until accessing more level ground and firm footing. I know very little about crafting treads except what I can grasp instinctively about space and grip.
I’m seated at an incline as I work, exposed knees pressed into the earth. Taking a flat rock, I begin digging out a ledge about the length of a shoe box. The soil is extremely dense and there are some thin roots that will have to be sacrificed in order to create enough depth for a foot to land on.
If I were serious about this creation, I would wait until I had the proper tools to proceed. I know winter’s delivery of snow and ice will swiftly wipe out the delicate composition of my work. Still, I continue, treating each passage of the stone as an exercise in presence, fostering the sense that in excavating the earth, I am unearthing some part of myself; transforming bunched up energy into smoother patterns, allowing the wisdom of the observer to soothe a ruffled mind.
Periodically I shift my weight beneath me, lining my legs in a Z-formation, damp soil beginning to cover my skin. I imagine my body absorbing the microbiome of the land and benefitting from a diversity of organisms my system needs. Peering upward from the slope and through the break in the trees I can see a lit sky with soft clouds.
Standing up I uncurl my lower spine and stretch my legs, hanging onto a tree for support and noticing a pile of branches off to the side. Bending over I select the thinnest of them, breaking them into twigs and placing them into the crevices of the steps, imagining they will produce something to grasp onto. A greater distance is needed between the steps and the ledges should be more pronounced for them to really work. This was not a staircase intended for fairies. And yet, a sense of satisfaction washes over me.
The top of the hill is not the end of the property, but it is a good resting spot and a place to look out and absorb the stillness of farmland across the valley, colorful and sprawled out like a patchwork quilt. The top field is enjoying a long season of rest, boasting an array of wildflowers and inviting an extravagance of butterflies throughout.
Further up and deep in the woods a waterfall can be found. Here the kids will shed their shoes and climb down the sides of it, getting soaked and talking loudly to overcome the full and metallic sound of water rushing forward unhindered. They will share in their very best wild animal calls and devour the magnificent girth of an untouched place.