Back On the Farm

"And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns/ About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home . . . Time let me play and be/ Golden in the mercy of his means"
(Dylan Thomas, 'Fern Hill')

            If I could turn and be a lad again, I'd do it on the farm where I was raised, and during the late 40's early 50's, when, for a boy, roaming North Dakota fields, and haunting the banks of the Boise de Sioux, life was rich and sweet.

            I was a savage then as most boys are, and I lived in an enchanted world of dreams, discoveries, and miracles. A great one was the Daisy 'Red Ryder' BB gun I got for Christmas when I was 8. How I loved that gun–the smell of its oil, the click of its mechanism, and the no-nonsense 'phutt' when I pulled the trigger and a bb actually came out.

            With the daisy in hand, I was no longer just some kid; I was Dan'l Boon tracking a "baar," or Kit Carson scouting meat for the wagon train or even John Wayne with his Winchester 73 holding off attacking 'patchies.'

            Soon I became the farm's 'white hunter,' Wild pigs fled screaming at the report of my gun, and our Angus bull, (a gigantic African cape buffalo), studied me with rolling, baleful eyes and crossed his Minotaur legs at my approach. Part of him knew the authority of that Daisy's 'Pfutt!'

My dad forbade my killing song birds, but English sparrows, and starlings were fair game. I hunted them relentlessly.

My favorite ambush point was our outdoor toilet. We called it the 'back house.' It sat adjacent to the pole upon which perched our martin house, and through the half moon window I had a clear shot at the evil European invaders looking to usurp our native purple martins' dwelling place. (Ah, purple martins’ majesty)

            How many hours I lurked there like a troll and how many sparrows and starlings bit the dust, only He who keeps count of such things knows, but to my recollection, it was many.

            In those days too, 'how sweet I roamed from field to field,' even as William Blake had it in his poem. Fields were much more charming then. Not the endless black expanses seen now most of the year, but much smaller and fence-lined, and joined by intriguing brush and tree-lined lanes which supplied fine cover for all manner of birds and critters.

            Song sparrows, upland plovers, and meadow larks whistled from the fenceposts, and a sharp-eyed boy could easily spot the lairs of striped gophers, skunks, and badgers if he knew where to look from studying his dad's Sports Afields.

Upland game was plentiful: pheasants were everywhere, and there were plenty of partridges and jackrabbits too with foxes hot on their trails. A boy could hardly cross a field or walk a lane without flushing something to invoke wonder or the thought of a hunt.

Flowing north and bordering our fields to the east was the majestic and mystical Boise de Sioux. What a haunt for savages! We hand-lined bullheads and suckers, speared carp with pitchforks, and mined the banks with traps for weasels and mink.

Gentle reader, that was living, and a new adventure beckoned every day.

            On the deltas where field-draining coolies emptied into the main stream, we could often find petrified wood, and sometimes arrow heads, which to my fertile brain meant only one thing: the Indians couldn’t be far away. I looked for mocassin tracks a lot but never found any. My imagination had them camping somewhere to the south, probably across the South Dakota line.

            At times I was unlucky enough to have to plow down next to the river. What torture to have to work with Paradise only a BB shot away. But my Dad always told me, 'If you get tired, take a nap.' (He didn't want me falling under the machinery.) Oddly, I got tired a lot in those golden summer days, and usually sleep-walked over to the river bank where I could rest better, under the shade of a cotton wood and with a spear or a hand-line clutched in my eager hand.

            Besides the river banks, the lane was perhaps my favorite outdoor haunt back on the old farm. The dirt on the trail was finely powdered from the passing of livestock and machinery. What a place it was to run bare-footed. The soil felt cool and kind to my feet, and it seemed I could run faster there than anywhere else especially -- at evening when the coming darkness made the trees and the fence posts fly by as I did my joyous Jim Thorpe imitation running home.

How well I remember loping home at dusk from adventures down along the river, dog at my heels, and gun in hand. There were always tiny brown beatles that hummed slowly up before us against the twilight. And I would run and leap and snatch them out of the air as I raced joyously for home, hungry for supper and 'The Lone Ranger' on the radio.

            Those were indeed my golden days, and how I thank God for placing me on that humble farm in that glorious peaceful time. But those days have vanished now. Devouring Time has snatched them away like fleeting beatles from the sky.


            And now when I think of those wondrous fields, the river, and the lane, I feel sorry for kids who have to grow up in sterile cities and soul less farms with only their techy toys and concrete for company. They have no notion of what priceless prizes penniless Dakota farm boys once had to enjoy a’plenty.

            If I could turn and be boy again, I'd do it on a Dakota farm much like I was raised on. Only I'd probably toss in a duck slough, a mountain and a minky creek for slight improvements.

This essay first appeared in "Where the Wild Thyme Blows" a column I wrote back in the 70's. I've re-edited it here with the benefit of a few years of hind-sight.


G Pinkney, 9/18/06