Living Close to the Land

One of the joys of living in the country is that it gives you such a sense of closeness to the land. This is especially true in the spring. There’s nothing quite like that wonderful feeling of being one with the land that you get when you’re walking around with a pound and a half of it stuck to your boots in the form of thick black mud.

Over the years, many of the significant events in my family—working cattle, proms, opening weekends of pheasant seasons, birthday parties, and holiday gatherings—have featured the joys of plowing mud. The six-mile road to the highway has gradually been improved with gravel and grading. The lane that covers the eighth of a mile between the house and the road has resisted all attempts to weather-proof it. Lying as it does across a lowland, it has swallowed up tons of gravel, washed out repeated attempts at grading, and returned steadfastly to the sticky gumbo that is its natural state.

In recent years, our experiences with mud have been few and far between. Much of South Dakota has been in the grip of a drought that has withered crops, parched pastures, and turned stock dams into shrinking patches of slimy mud or dried them up altogether. Still, with the approach of another significant event, we should have been prepared.

The event was the sale of some of my parents’ belongings as part of the process of moving to a smaller house (which, not incidentally, is on a paved road). The few items of furniture and household goods, along with the welder, chainsaw, ice auger, and other tools from the shop, were about enough to fill up a stock trailer. The plan was for my youngest sister to come up on Saturday with her stock trailer, which we would load and take to town for the auction on Sunday. It was an excellent plan.

Until, on Friday evening, it started to rain. A hard, driving rain, so heavy at times that we could scarcely see out the windows. By Saturday morning, the yard was soggy. It kept raining. And have I mentioned that the auction was to be held out of doors?

About noon we estimated we had had at least four inches of rain. We heard from the auctioneer that the sale had been moved to the school gym. That was good news—sort of. Yes, it meant the auction would go ahead. But it also meant it might go ahead without our stuff if we couldn’t haul it through the mud to get it to town.

By mid-afternoon the yard was full of puddles. The creek was overflowing its banks, and a shallow lake was slowly but surely spreading across the pasture. From the upstairs windows we could see a broad stream of water flowing steadily across the road.

My sister called, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to get through the lane with the stock trailer. She didn’t linger on the phone to discuss it, having to head for the basement when her conversation was interrupted by the tornado siren.

The auctioneer’s mother called. Water was running over the road in several places between us and the highway. A tornado had touched down—briefly, thank goodness, at the edge of the town where the sale was to be held. A commercial building and several houses had been damaged, but no one appeared to be hurt. It could have been much, much worse.

That news put everything in its proper perspective. Compared to what might have been, our troubles were nothing but a minor inconvenience. At worst, we would miss the auction and have to put the stuff on a later one. At least that was better than having all of it blown halfway to North Dakota after we had spent all that time getting it ready for the sale.

By early evening things were looking up. It stopped raining. Another of my sisters arrived as planned on Saturday evening, with no more serious consequences from the muddy lane than a layer of gumbo plastered all over the bottom half of her shiny new red pickup.

We got up early on Sunday morning, loading the pickup and the Suburban under clean-washed blue skies and sunshine that soon had us discarding our jackets. We made our first trip to town over roads that were water-scarred in several places but still intact, past overflowing stock dams and fields glistening with water. We made a second trip, with the help of my other sister (who had emerged from the basement to find everything unscathed), her pickup, and some welcome extra muscle in the form of her teenage son.

We got everything to town in plenty of time to set it out before the sale. We waited through a long afternoon of auctioneering. We watched our stuff sell, mostly for satisfactory prices, with the usual surprises over things that brought almost nothing and things that brought much more than we thought they could possibly be worth. Once again, as it always seems to, everything had worked out.

Back at home that night, sitting in the living room and starting to think about bedtime after a long day, my mother asked, “What did those antique woodworking tools bring?”

I didn’t remember seeing them sell. Neither did my father. The reason for this, we realized, was that they were still sitting out on the workbench in the shop. We had forgotten to take them to the sale.

Oh, well. There’s always eBay.

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