Sunday, November 9, 2008

Deer Season


This weekend was the opening of deer season. Last year I spent the first weekend in November, the deer season opener, down in Madison, Minn., in a yurt. I'd been looking for a place to get away and write, thinking of something along the lines of a fishing cabin. Something cheap, simple, but with a view. I asked around and a woman I worked with recommended her aunts' yurt. Her aunts, Kay and Annette Fernholz, are both School Sisters of Notre Dame, but they had moved back to the family farm, taking care of their aged parents, who were both close to 100, and running a CSA (community sustained agriculture) and environmental education center.

When I arrived at Earthrise Farm for my stay, the doorbell on the farmhouse didn't seem to work, so I walked in, announcing myself. It was clear that they had forgotten I was coming. And it's a good thing I came early, because they were about to head out for an overnight trip to Mankato. They'd be back late Saturday night. One of the Sisters, Annette, sent a friend who was with her out to make sure the sheets were changed and the yurt was in good shape. The aged parents were both in the hospital, so no one would be around except a man who was living in a luxury motor home on the property and helping them out with chores. He was your basic drifter, and I wasn't sure how I felt being there alone with the drifter on the farm, but what was I going to do? It turned out this man was lovely, retired and widowed, and drove in this luxury vehicle from place to place as people asked, helping out in exchange for occasional meals. He was getting ready to move on at the end of the week to his winter stop, in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan.

Both sisters, Annette and Kay, showed me the yurt, which was ample, and warm, and also crowded to the gills with the goods of a certain type of new-age "womyn spirituality," books and prints, yoga tapes, and other stuff. It had a comfortable futon, a good table and chair, a reading chair, a port-o-potty so I wouldn't have to go to the main house to use the facilities in the night, and a large braided rug. It also had a hot plate, microwave, and small fridge. They gave me some tomato soup they'd made, bread, and eggs for breakfast, and they were gone.

Knowing what I now know about nuns, I'd have to say these two were somewhat typical of my recent experience. For one, they were ambitious, and in over their heads. In addition to the care of their parents, they were farming several acres and had lots of chickens. The drifter spent a lot of time working out where the chickens lived, bringing the barn up to a level that would allow them to survive the winter. The organic farming was finished for the season, of course. But the most prominent feature on the property was a giant old one room schoolhouse that they'd bought for $1 and had moved to the property. It was a truly stunning building, and it sat out front on a foundation they'd somehow managed to raise the funds to build. They were hoping to turn it into an environmental education center, although they also had a few classrooms currently running in a long low building back by the yurt.

I went into the schoolhouse that Saturday. It was stunning, and in what seemed like nearly original condition. The windows let in a lot of light. Two walls were made out of slate, chalk boards, and some words of encouragement and hope for the building were written on them in chalk. The floors were made of wide oak boards. The sisters said they couldn't use the building as it was, because it was full of lead paint that would have to be removed. It would also clearly be difficult to heat. And the plumbing was shot. There was a reason the town of Garfield, Minn., which had used the building as a town hall, had sold it for $1. And there was good reason for the two sisters to buy it and move it to their farm. They had fallen in love with it. They had seen possibility there.

That night I played around with a tarot deck in the yurt based on finding one's totem animals.

Kay and Annette are in their 60s, and spent 40 years with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn. before returning to their parents' 240-acre farm for this endeavor. They made sure I came over for Sunday dinner after church, and they cooked up an incredible ham dinner. We talked about bishops and the local priest, who was such a blessing to them, a kind and intelligent man. We trashed George W. Bush and his policies, and hoped for better times. We wondered at an America that would elect him twice. I'm sure this last election has made them happy. Their conservative bishop has also moved on, and the man who is replacing him seems gentler, more reform-minded and "Vatican II" in his orientation. Like the beloved Bishop Lucker two bishops before him.

I'd gone to the Mass in Madison on Saturday night. The Catholic church was small, and crowded, though I suspect the town, proudly claiming to be the "Lutefisk Capital of the World" is mostly Lutheran. The priest served three parishes, so that was the only Mass for this small town (pop. 1700). The priest was indeed a nice man, comfortable with the community, and gave a good homily. After Mass I'd decided to drive into South Dakota, which was only 10 miles farther west, to see what I could see. South Dakota is notoriously empty. I passed one more small town in Minnesota before I hit the border, and then nothing. I drove for another five miles or so, and thought I saw the lights of a town, but when I got up close it was only the lights of two giant combines out harvesting in the fields. So I kept driving, and I did hit the town of Revillo, South Dakota. It has a grain elevator, and a school, a small grocery store, and not much else. The population, if I remember correctly, was 206. The place was completely dark, and it was eerie to see my headlights go out over the buildings as I turned around and drove back out of town. You really can't imagine spaces like that until you see them, just flat prairie and dark going on to the horizon. When I got back to Madison I stopped at the Casey's to buy gas, and went inside to pay. The place was being run by a very chatty, bright-eyed teenager, who tried to make small talk with two young men in camouflage coming in from the first day of deer season. The young men weren't very responsive. Then I went through the drive-thru of the Dairy Queen. There is always a Dairy Queen, no matter the size of the town. This was also being run by articulate, happy teenagers.

In fact, I'd stopped at a rural grocery store on my way down to Madison when I missed a turn, and what struck me the most was that all these little businesses seemed to be run by bright, articulate, seemingly happy teenagers. There were three of them in this small country store, where one of them offered me a free sample of some pastry. Ican't say I've ever seen so many happy teenagers as I've seen in rural Minnesota. I asked the girl at the check-out if she'd be working the next day, Saturday, too. She said yes, but not at the store. She'd be out with her dad working, and she looked at me and said, "Where are you from?" When I told her she nodded, and didn't elaborate, knowing I wouldn't know her father or his business. I'm sure they wanted to get out of that little town as fast as they could, but it was astonishing that they didn't seem bored, or dull, or flattened out in any way. They seemed full of personality and engaged with the world around them. As, I must say, is my friend who is from there, whose aunts run Earthrise Farm and manage the yurt.

Sisters Kay and Annette, who sent me on my way with a bag of canned produce-- more tomato soup, some gourds, and jelly. I took a pass on what looked like fetal chickens in jars.

This year, it was equally cold and desolate looking outside on this, the first weekend of deer season. And I remembered the yurt where I hunkered down last year and wrote quite a bit of poetry, though nothing that gelled or got finished, and had a little adventure.

1 comment:

Eric and Constance said...

What a suprise to scroll down after reading the first post and have the Yurt appear on screen! You capture Madison and the locals in a positive, charming way. As someone who grew up there and "escaped", I am only beginning to understand the people who live there. More and more, I find myself yearning to find a way to return and provide my children the experience of growing up on "the land" and with the honesty of hard, dirty work. It's probably a mixture of nostalgia and the sense of security more than anything. Anyway. Your blog is officially in my favorites (and not just because of this post).