Prairie Grass and Good Bones

As I showered next to a field of corn in Wisconsin I realized that this is no Hampton Inn.

The rustic wood shower provides moderate screening from the house and barns south and west, but the view is entirely uninhibited north and east where dry corn stalks curve along the hill, the rustling ghosts of summer refusing to make way for autumn, and chipmunks scurry past me indifferent to the water falling on my head from a spout hung from a gnarled cedar branch

Shower in the corn Al Fresco
Front porch of Cynthia’s home

I’m at Cynthia’s farmhouse, built on a lovely ridge near Pepin, Wisconsin, circa 1900, which reminds me of Grandma Beck’s Oklahoma panhandle farmhouse built in the same era. This home has great bones, full 2″ oak studs which according to Cybthia reacted to her reciprocating saw like forged steel as she remodeled the bath and discovered the skeletons of animals from past winters refuge, squirrels, chipmunks, and cats.

the outhouse, #2 only, scatter with wood chips

Cynthia is an ecologist and has spent time in the Florida Everglades, the Canadian Rockies, and she was born into this way of living more peacefully with the earth, on a farm, not far from her present home.

foggy valley to the east of the farm

Karen and I walked west toward the bluff, past a Macintosh tree, and I plucked a jewel red apple and noticed blemishes. These are truly organic, and I bit into the delicious snow white meat of a farm fresh apple.

Cynthia’s prairie has been restored to its natural state, eye level bluestem and native grasses and flowers between stands of oak, hickory, and cottonwood. We sang tunes from the Seventies as we walked, noticing berry bushes along the trail, our songs alerting black bears of our presence.

native prairie on the ridge west of Cynthia’s studio

Upon our return, Jason, told us of a 600 pound black bear seen on the 80 acre farm. Jason is a WOOOFer (an organic farm worker living for room and board and to learn the life of sustainable food growing)  Erin, a modern dance instructor at a nearby college also lives and works on the farm.

Erin, working in a cluster of Jerusalem Artichoke

This is bucket list weekend, not so much the al fresco shower beside a standing ovation of rustling corn, but the Ryder Cup in Chaska, Minnesota and a tour of Wisconsin’s  pastoral beauty and culinary wonders including Noel’s Dairy cheese curds, Maiden Rock apple cider, and Nelson’s Creamery ice cream, all located on highway 35, Great River Road alongside the Mississippi River Wisconsin side.

view from shower to blue tin barn

one of many steeples in the midst of corn, often Lutheran, but some United Church of Christ and a few Catholic

Saturday afternoon we drove up a lane to an overlook and skirted past a wedding ceremony on the bluff and stood with bikers clad in black leather, who asked us to take their picture. The girl who handed Karen her camera grew up in Minnesota on a dairy farm and she gave us ideas of farms to visit. Standing on the bluff with those bikers looking at the Mississippi I was one of the few untattooed, but I wanted to ride with bikers, to sing the deep throated song of the highway with the wind in my face and Harley on my sleeve, or perhaps get a convertible and sing “Old Man River,” while driving highway 35.

I heard the pastor on the bluff next to us overlooking Lake Pepin, (the widest expanse of the Mississippi River formed by the intersecting delta silt of the Chippewa River flowing into the Mississippi, and the site of the invention of water skiing), say, “By the power vested in me by the state of Minnesota…which you can see from here…”, and the ceremony was complete and we were somehow in the receiving line, so we excused ourselves along with the bikers and walked back to the car.

The sons and daughters of France and Sweden and Norway still inhabit this section of Wisconsin, herding and milking Guernsey and Holstein cattle. And Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Pepin, Wisconsin, a place she writes of in her book, The Little House in the Big Woods.


fresh vegetable garden west of the shower

Cynthia cooked breakfast Saturday morning and we tasted a bit of organic Wisconsin. While she cooked we talked about our son the meteorologist,  global warming, and soil conservation, and how often commercially produced apples are sprayed.

Buckwheat pancakes with walnuts, butter, and warm Wisconsin maple syrup, along with eggs and vegetables from the garden garnished with an edible day lily, and beer soak local sausage skillet browned

Cynthia is building a studio at the prairies edge and she invited me inside and she asked me questions about framing and insulation. She’s done much of the work herself along with her brother the electrician.

She restored the prairie grasses after noticing the silt run off after heavy rain. I mentioned my maternal grandfather who farmed in the panhandle of Oklahoma where the Soil Conservation Corp was virtually invented during the dust bowl.

Saturday evening we ate walleye and salmon at the Harbor View Diner and afterward sat around a firepit with Cynthia, Erin, and Jason.  Life is slower here, more like what my grandparents must have known, living by the rhythms of the sun and moon. The Harvest moon was two weeks earlier and the moon has since waned, not unlike this way of being. The conversations are gentle and measured, cell phones, texts, tv, take a back seat to eye contact and the warmth of human relationships.

I looked up from the fire and saw a billion stars through the dark Wisconsin sky, and realized that this is my home too, the same stars I see from my backyard. The same stars my great grandparents saw, from the porch of a home not much different than this one.

I build homes for people who often want homes not like their parents home, but more like their grandparents, with front porches and features that look quaint and weathered. Perhaps because these homes seem more eternal and hopeful and rooted in pain and work and birth and death, family connected not just to one another but to the earth and the sky and the eternal.

If only the walls of this home could tell its stories, across a century, it’s why we came here really, to Wisconsin, for cheese and cider and pork, and to hear another story from another place, that reminds us of home.


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