I am a child of the prairie, still at home when I visit the flat plains and marshlands of my childhood. My years since leaving for college have been spent in cities, airports and office buildings surrounded by asphalt and concrete, but the voice of the meadowlark in a city park, or the trills of a red-winged blackbird calling from his perch on a cattail in the artificial marsh near my home in the city bring back memories of big skies, of cloud banks announcing a weather front taking a whole afternoon to move from the far horizon to overhead, of wind rippling across grain fields, and a lonely shypoke winging his way to the next marsh over as the sun sets on a spring day and the land fades into dusk. Even though I have lived in my home, in this house in Minneapolis for a period longer than my childhood, whenever I return to the prairie, some auto-setting inside me clicks, and it feels like home to me again, the natural place to be.
I think that most of my childhood was spent outdoors. More than is the case today in the city at least, where children are kept close at hand and under 24/7 surveillance by their parents, out of fear and habit. My sisters and our neighborhood friends, on the other hand, living in the 1950’s and 1960’s on the outskirts of a small Northern Minnesota village of 1,200 people, were sent outdoors to get us out from underfoot, not necessarily for the fresh air but rather that our mothers could clean their houses, tend to the babies & toddlers and get lunch on the table for us in time for our return from expeditions to the playground, the wood, the slough, or the clump of chokecherry bushes out the back road that made such a fine private spot for serious business.
I don’t remember that being sent outside made me feel unwanted at home, and looking back, with seven children to raise, I understand my mother needing us to keep ourselves occupied, to get us out of the way to take care of other things. “Don’t come home until I call you,” I remember her often calling. “Take care of yourself and your sister,” “Don’t get in trouble”, and “Stay out of the way” were our words to live by, and we did go, day after day, especially in the summer; staying behind would only result in extra chores. We were sent outside after breakfast and taking a little time to watch TV. We came home for lunch, and went out again until suppertime. Yes – these were standing orders, to go outside and play, regardless of the season. If it rained, we went to the library to visit Mrs. Wefald, or secretly visited Grandma Wicker to eat cookies and play with Grandpa’s dog, Spike. If it didn’t rain, we roamed. We had many special places to retreat to, to take care of ourselves, to stay out of trouble, mostly, and out of the way of grown-ups.
In my early days, maybe until I was 8 or 9, there was the home of Dan McGregor and his wife, Mary. Dan was a kindly large animal veterinarian who lived down the hill from where we lived, towards the woods that were on the far side of the big slough. I suppose Dan was old, anyway he seemed very old to me. As I picture him now he had bushy eyebrows and a moustache, and he moved with a stiff, halting step that I can recreate myself now on a cold morning without any conscious effort. His home was a magical place for us where our company was welcomed – and rewarded. Currents and plums from the bushes and trees lining his driveway were summer treats, and fresh-baked bread with honey was served up to us by Mary at other times of the year.
A chest freezer on their side porch sometimes yielded up Popsicles or ice cream bars in the summertime, treats that were otherwise rare for us, and they were handed out with smiles at the delight they brought in us. All year round, in their living room, redolent with the rich smell of pipe tobacco, there were empty King Edward tobacco tins to play with, and match boxes with pictures of horses on them that could be counted under the side table, collected into sets and taken home. Why were we so welcomed here? I’m not sure, we may have been substitute grandchildren for them, but I remember feeling that we were especially liked. Mary is the only person I can think of that I knew who passed away when I was a child, aside from my Uncle Walt, some years later.
The chokecherry bushes I mentioned were out the back road, perhaps a quarter-mile’s walk into the country, between the pastures and fields to the west from the edge of town where we lived. Most winters, our best snow forts were dug into the tall drifts that filled a shallow ditch close by. The chokecherry bushes grew in a cluster, well over our heads in height, and there was a grassy spot in the middle big enough to hold 3 or 4 that gave us all the privacy we could want to plot our neighborhood wars, games of cowboys & Indians or “army guys.” It was also someplace to practice blowing screeching noises with grassy reeds held tightly between our thumbs, or to carefully examine bugs with a magnifying glass. The chokecherries themselves were bitter and mouth-drying even when they ripened late in the summer, but they drew birds and honeybees to the bushes, for us to observe if we were quiet and still, and watchful. The secret closeness inside the bushes also drew young couples walking that way on an occasional spring evening, as I recall, though the small, scratchy branches were sometimes inconvenient for them in the moment.
Our favorite playground of all was Plummer’s Grove, an abandoned farmstead turned to pasture land, west of Dan McGregor’s house and out past a large open slough that crowded the fence line. The grove was on a bit of raised land above the slough and marshland. This abandoned home site, bordered by fields and pasture, was ringed by giant cottonwood trees which, high up, provided nesting sites for red-tailed hawks (we called them chicken hawks) that soared daily in the summer and fall air. It was sometimes a challenge for us to get past the slough to the grove on foot as there often were cattle in the pasture, and the bull was always to be looked out for and avoided.
If the cattle were grazing on the far side of the slough we picked our way through the marshy ground which stretched from fence line to fence line some years, to get to the high ground, beyond. When cattle walk about in very soft ground they eventually create small mounds of grass and earth, and puddles lie between them, so if it was a wet spring we had to step from mound to mound to keep our shoes dry on the way. If the cattle were close by, we walked the fence line in the corn field until we were past the herd and it was safe to cross under the fence to our destination, avoiding the electrified wire doing so. In the middle of the grove the foundations of a house and barn could be picked out in the springtime before the growth of native grasses obscured their lines – we thought there had been a fire, maybe some past tragedy that had brought down the buildings – but the stone wall of the well was standing sturdily, and focused many of of our adventures. By ourselves and in the company of the neighbor children who were our companions, this was our playground with no grownups ever coming to bother us. It was close, though, one time we let a camp fire burn out of control.
Tree houses were built here in the grove, and we scooped out dugouts with shovels borrowed from home or the neighborhood, and roofed them with scavenged lumber. Cattle that had been buried 50 years before were unearthed in the process and their leg bones became our war clubs, and their shoulder blades became machetes to cut through the tangled underbrush, mostly pig weed, around the plum trees. It was a Swiss Family Robinson place for us with ladders and swings, ropes and special climbing trees and imagined foes, but it was close enough to hear our mothers call us home for dinner if the wind was blowing from the right direction, and it was often dusk when we arrived back at home after a day spent abroad.
The open ice of the slough provided us a skating rink in the winter time, or would have if my mother could have kept all our fast-growing feet in ice skates for more than a year each at a time, and the rushes surrounding the icy ponds made great places to play hide and seek in the fall and winter. The dusty smell of the dried cattail rushes is a long-lasting memory. Winter came earlier and colder some years than others and walking on the ice before January was a real-time exercise in risk assessment – more than once it cracked under our weight and we had to run back to the house, wet up to the knees and with our rubber boots full of mud and water.
When fishermen in the neighborhood needed frogs they gave us their bait buckets and my sisters and I filled them up with frogs we caught at the slough, or the creek that ran at the bottom of the hill, long since covered over to extend the school athletic fields.
In our later childhood years, we roamed further abroad and our summers were spent at the lake just outside of town, or in the river that fed it and filled it with rich, oozy sediment, lots of frogs, painted & snapping turtles and weeds that nearly choked the lake shut by late August. We fished the river with poles or staked fishing lines to the river bank, catching catfish, bass and sunfish and even northern pike, built dams in the shallows to see them get topped and washed away by the end of an afternoon, and went skinny dipping in the deeper holes down around the bend of the river, from time to time.
The town had (and still has) a golf course that bordered the river on the second hole and there was candy and pop money to be made fishing golf balls out of the river and selling them back to the golfers or to the course for use as practice range balls. Sometimes we spent the afternoon on the river bank just below a small cut or slump, waiting for golfers teeing off for the second hole to muff a shot. Their golf balls would sail in over the bank above us and plunk into the river, so that we could dive in and find them. If the golfers were friendly and offered us money they got their balls back, usually for a quarter. If they weren’t friendly it didn’t work out well for them, as we just somehow couldn’t locate their balls, or, we stood on them until the foursome gave up and moved on.
When there wasn’t much golfing going on, say midweek, we waded and swam down river for another 50 yards or so where a fallen tree lay across the river causing the current to scour a depression in the river bottom. This is where the balls that entered the river when we weren’t around collected. One way or the other, our golf ball money was pretty dependable if the weather was good, and the concession stand at the lake saw a steady business from us for candy bars, Big Daddies, Red Hots, SloPokes, Slim Jims, licorice, gum and pop (soda, for the East-Coasters).
What effect did growing up in this way and in this place have on me? It’s impossible to know all the ways, but I have always been very comfortable outdoors and in the country. I have sought out places of natural beauty, and have enjoyed sleeping, hiking, and living outdoors for long periods of time; I don’t have a city person’s view of nature being some place to visit and then get away from. Nature is real and comforting and enfolding – it is city life that is artificial to me.
Another lesson learned that occurred to me in reading an early draft of this post is that we were busy and doing things, both outdoors and indoors, for a greater part of our days and weeks than I perceive children do today. More to the point, we were much less supervised and had greater freedom in what we did, where we went and who we were with. This didn’t necessarily result in great decisions always being made, to be sure. I remember having to get rescued one spring, at about age 7 or 8 after trying to walk across a gumbo-like plowed field in the springtime, getting bogged down and eventually unable to move another step. Clearly I took the wrong way home. My father had to come rescue me, picking me up out of the muck and carrying me to our house slung over his shoulder. I lost a boot and a shoe in the field and was put to bed crying and without supper, but awakened at 10:00 that night for a late snack of French toast, and a talk, after the other children had gone to bed. And there was that fall we almost burned down the grove.
We got scrapes and cuts on our knees, elbows, arms and faces, fell out of trees, built things and tore them down, started fires, played games, went to friends’ homes, and it was all OK. It wasn’t “safe” by today’s standards; letting us do it would be considered neglectful parenting today, I expect. But independence of judgement, staying busy, adapting the environment to our needs, earning pocket-money by craft as well as through work, learning the consequences mistakes can have, getting ourselves out of scrapes when the ladder broke and you or your friend were at the bottom of the well – all these things were lessons that were learned pretty early in life and carried forward into adulthood.