Fall 2003, Volume 21.1
Kevin Lutz earned his M.F.A. degree from Oregon State University. Fallow is the first chapter of a book in progress. His work has also appeared in Common Ground and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography.
I can reach down and touch the very point on the earth that his hand last clutched, grasping for blades of grass through the snow, a hundred miles from anyone who could hear him reach slowly for the trail end of his life. He hunched on one knee and toppled over into the hard crust of ice. In the end, this is the death he asked for, his face turned up one last time to the immensity of the world around him.
In southwestern North Dakota the wind sounds like a train whistle as it pushes through the blades of grass and stalks of wheat and rye. It is deafening, and it is the first thing William's father, Jacob, noticed when he came to claim his one hundred and sixty acres. The whistling is relentless and is only broken up by the coolness that comes with night and the millions of crickets who sing freely under the oilcloth of starless nights. He claimed this land around the turn of the twentieth century, fleeing southern Russia and his sons' certain conscription into the Czar's army to fight the Bolsheviks. Rumors of the Conscription Roundups had been traveling around Odessa for William died in the winter. It was November and the snow had become hard from the forty-mile-an-hour winds that winter grinds across the prairie. The cold freezes the breath on your teeth. It is August as I stand here, and the hot summer winds are pushing out of Montana. The air is filled with clouds of dust and grasshoppers that pull across the sky like reams of mesh. I have to cover my eyes to keep out the dirt. The earth is tawny and the wheat stalks undulate softly with the rise and fall of the horizon. This was my Grandfather William's land until eight months ago, and I have come back here as if it were mine. My eighteen hundred acres haven't been sown this season; I have been away for years, and the native Big Blue Stem and Ostrich Fern are growing back, anchoring themselves deep into the soil. Big Blue Stem shoots its roots ten feet into the earth to protect itself from the fierce prairie winds that whip south out of Canada and west out of the Badlands. Its stalk is as thick as my thumb, and seeing the fields it is easy to understand how so many people get lost among the ten-foot heads of grass.
months, and, by all accounts, they left for America just weeks before the soldiers would have come to their door. They were simple farmers, with tanned necks and strong hands, who spoke no English. They sang old Russian songs as they guided the plow. They were too poor for politics. They sailed across the ocean as peasants, packed into the bow like livestock, paying the fare with a season's worth of wheat. Arriving here just under a century ago, Jacob stood on this very plain of Buffalo Grass and crumbling soil, three young sons in tow. They stood and listened to the late summer wind run long over the prairie.
To anyone who didn't know its history, this land would have looked as fertile as any other. Little did they know that the difficulties they were to encounter had been decided several epochs earlier. The portion of North Dakota they settled lies between the drift prairie to the east and the badlands to the west. The drift prairie is as fertile as any land on earth. Having been covered by the glaciers of the last ice age, it is rich in minerals that were left as the ice receded. The mixed prairie Jacob settled was free of glacial scars, which are visible as near as forty miles to the north, but what it did receive were deposits of salt, sulfur, and gravel from the glacial run off, delivering more effectively the fate Carthage was dealt by the Romans. Salt and gravel are cancer to soil—absorbing and pulling away what little moisture it does receive. In the end, it is these geological forces which have marked this area its reputation of desolation and infertility.
Southwestern North Dakota has the fewest naturally occurring botanical varieties of any region in the United States, but what it does have is abundant: a plain of prairie grass that rivals the sky in scope as they both reach for the horizon without flinching. In it rivers of sunflowers run into dried-up creek beds. Here the distance to your neighbors is measured in tens of miles, as little wooden houses dot the terrain until they reach the towns of Bowman, Hettinger, or Regent. These distances are immense. There are worlds here to dream across, universes of blank space that defeat the imagination. The barren land and the loneliness of the landscape made the people who settled here as hard as the cracked skin on their hands or the dry earth they pushed their fingers through. They chewed wheat heads like chewing gum and worked the fields as soon as they could guide the plow. It is on this land that my memories of William are so poignant, the only ones that don't need coaxing to come up, and in the end the only ones that seem true.
The world here seems bigger, and I wonder why I left. I was a child here and for a moment can still feel the wheat brush against the tips of my toes, sitting on the wheel well of a 1962 John Deere Tractor. It has been this way for years: chasing vanishing sensations that burrow their way through my memories. The thunderheads push west out of Montana over a prairie that seems to offer little resistance, the hot summer air churning to the rooftop of the world as it cools. Northern plain thunderstorms are ominous and violent, colored pink, purple, white, and black; but the natural world seems unconcerned. Gophers pick desperately at a downed sunflower, taking the seeds into their holes to prepare for the long, cold winter. A set of small dots appear, drifting through the hills. They are most likely antelope, and it is my uncertainty, the mystery of the prairie, that urges me back here—urges him back into my mind, into a world that rolls as far as I will it to roll, breaking every notion of time and distance, tracing mysterious dots, rolling over a land as beautiful as crumpled paper, or skin curving around a shoulder.
William built a house on this land in 1937. Through the window you could hear the dogs chasing cattle around the feedlot. Wheat was forty-seven cents a bushel. The first years were good; they planted flax as they brought the land out of fallow. A bushel of flax was worth three times a bushel of wheat, but the land would only support it once. A field of flax looks like a head of fine auburn hair, the stalks grow so close together, in every conceivable shade of gold and brown. The acreage yielded almost ten thousand dollars. So they built a house, tended a garden, and kept a coop of chickens.
William's wife, Vera, used to walk up behind the chickens and grab them by the heads, two at a time, giving each several spins to crack the spine. Even though they were dead, the chickens would still run around the pen, bumping into fences and each other until they finally dropped into the dirt. As comical a scene as this always was, no one ever laughed or mentioned the slaughter after it was done. The chickens were killed and butchered quickly and somberly. In this I learned the reverence of the slaughter, the wonder and sorrow of last acts, and that even the simplest creatures go into death with frantic terror and disbelief.
In the early years, William and Vera had two sons, delivering one in the bathtub of the house he lived in until his death. There wasn't a doctor for two hundred miles. The boys wore homemade clothes and played with wood blocks for toys. The land just wouldn't give anymore. They tended a small vegetable garden near the rear of the house and produced what they ate. When that was gone, Vera would sneak into the neighbor's garden by moonlight, the glow turning her pale skin to alabaster. The walk was almost two miles over the darkened prairie. They canned vegetables and were hungry through the winter. The world was far away. Sowing and harvesting divided the years, and the wind blew hard through the winters of waiting, and they read books to each other by the fireplace. The nights were wrapped in stillness.
After William died, I returned to this house to help put his affairs in order and prepare the body for burial. The house was warm and smelled of chocolate and ripe bananas, the way it always does, or did. I am on the fence between past and present tense. The house seemed strangely lived in, the mouth of his still-packed suitcase wide open. We went through his clothes and picked out his suit, socks and underwear. It is hard to think clearly about what kind of underwear you put on a dead man. Such a strange way to go into death, having someone else pick out your socks and underwear.
When we went to the funeral home, I swore I wouldn't look at the body. I would just hand over the undergarments and walk back outside. But the thought of him lying in the next room was hypnotizing, and I pushed through the doors. A dead body never looks like a real body; it is a wax replica with colorfully painted cheeks and a layer of foundation over the skin. It looks both synthetic and clownish. I really had to search to find the dignity in it. He was just lying there with his hair neatly combed and a blanket pulled over most of his body. I didn't want to look at him, but I also didn't want to stop looking at him. For however poor a replica it was of the man, I knew it would be the last time I would ever see him.
The average temperature in western North Dakota is below freezing from November to March. The cool breath that stretches six months leaves us here as monks, as cowboys, as flutters in the fields of barren wheat. The leaves and grass have turned brown and are asleep. Most who have spent their lives here seem oblivious to the cold. Old men wander through snowdrifts into bars full of old Germans and Norwegians drinking coffee from bowls and telling stories about how big the land used to be and how cold the wind was between the weathered boards that made up the walls of their houses. How loud their stomachs growled at night and how you could travel a hundred miles in any direction without bumping into anything. How in the old days it was all done by hand, and how the machines took all the character out of farming. How the Milky Way stretched across the sky like a bent finger. They talk about their children and grandchildren, thousands of miles away by the ocean or in cities, and about how this, a wave around in a circle, will all be gone someday. They pull the now warm beer up to their mouths and the hard lines around their eyes tighten. Then they adjust their hats and watch the snow fall through the window and ask if you like Bonanza.
The bar is almost empty except for two old men huddled in the corner of the small room, watching TV and cussing about other old men not present. There is only one person working the bar, an old woman half asleep in a recliner wedged between the bar and wall where two old shotguns hang in an X, both old and worn. Deer and antelope heads line the walls, mounted on wood plaques with signs to tell who shot them and when. The old men ignore me, and I take a seat at the bar.
William bought this bar in 1950; he hadn't had a profitable harvest in several seasons. Wheat was just $1.90 a bushel. He rented out his house and moved his family into a small apartment in the back of the bar. During the day he worked eighty acres of wheat, and at night he would work the bar. Most of his patrons were small farmers and ranchers who would come into town every couple of weeks to drink. The bar was always filled with characters: Old Lady Vinjie, Rascal Pete, and Bottle Jack—who looked like Hitler. All were legendary drunks, taking every occasion to pass out in the outhouse or alley. One of the most legendary among them was Haacken Hagge.
Haacken Hagge was a violist who played for the King of Denmark. Around the turn of the century he moved to Minnesota during the Danish migration, and by the outbreak of World War I he had made his way to North Dakota. Haacken never married, and he lived alone on the slope of land that reaches down to the Little Missouri River. His home was a one-room shack, weather beaten and stripped of paint, on the banks of the river, where he slept on the floor next to a wood-burning stove. Once a month he would bring a load of wheat into town, write William a check, and drink until he passed out or was cut off. This one night a month was his only contact with other people, and stories of Haacken Hagge are still legendary. A picture of him with a paper bag on his head, passed out next to the outhouse, wearing only underwear, still hangs over the bar.
Haacken Hagge died in 1978 of cirrhosis of the liver, impoverished and alone. The violin that once sang for royalty is now battered, weathered, and its strings sag as it sits in a leather wrap in the bottom of one of my closets. Knowing there was no one left to take care of Haacken's body, William bought him a suit and buried him in a plot that sits ten feet from his own.
Now I lie nestled in a bed of grasses staring at an old photograph matted by the sky. It is of my grandfather when he was my age, standing on this same slope with his sleeves rolled up and holding his son on wobbling legs between his fingers. As I catch his gaze, his eyes leveling the same plane, my hand begins to tremble through his dying heartbeat. It stops.
It took me half a day to find this place, wandering with his picture, comparing the grades of hills and the arrangement of trees. For some reason it means something to stand on the exact spot he did, both at the same point in our lives, gazing over our futures like these endless prairies. Looking at a picture of someone you know is dead is both joyful and somber. It reaffirms both life and death, and you can't imagine them alive again. In the picture there is only a dead man and a little boy. I try to push the thought of death out of me, but the old man goes with it. My memory of him fades more every day.
I can't forget the suitcase still packed on his bed—and how fast it came, like taking a nap, dreaming into a bit of the infinite. There was no deathbed or sickness. There was no pageantry, only the solitude of a lonely death.
William would never retire; he said hard work was good for the soul, so he farmed a couple hundred acres well into his eighties. During the winter, he would drive around the perimeter of his land every morning, sipping coffee out of a metal camping cup. I could never understand why he would do this, or why he would bring me along, just after sunrise, still wearing my pajamas. Usually he would give me a candy bar for going along, old and hard, filled with the swirls chocolate gets to tell you not to eat it anymore. But I ate it anyway. He would sip his coffee, and I would eat my candy as we drove down roads that were no more than tire tracks, looking at half stalks of wheat barely tall enough to poke through the snow. We would follow the fence all the way around, never taking the truck out of first gear, and sometimes, he would hold me up and let me drive.
William had a fanatic fear of dying in a hospital. Ten years ago he had open-heart surgery and instructed the surgeon that if it appeared he was going to die, he wanted to be wheeled outside. The thought of dying in a strange bed in a strange room was more than he could take. Two days before he died he called his son, Keith. He said he didn't want to die alone, having seen so many other old men die without anyone there to help them go down. Thought he might go on vacation somewhere warm. He said he missed Keith, something he had never said before. It was a strange thing for him to say, this hard old Russian who still signed cards to his children "William Lutz," but everyone just thought the winter was getting to him, being cooped alone in a rickety old house. Two days later, when the news of his death came, it spread through the house as silence.
At his wake, people stand around drinking coffee and talking grain prices. I step out the front door and the heat is pulled back into the house. The night is cold and dark. I think about his face, his cold lips and eyes staring forever into darkness. I am stepping into darkness with him. I cannot save him. I feel tired and sick. I stop walking. I start to sob. The chemicals in my brain readjust and all I hear is the hum of the wind. I start walking again through waist deep snow to the boarded up school where the tips of wheat grass poke through the snow and lay their heads on the brick of the schoolhouse. I sit in the swing he used to push me in. I would yell "Higher! Higher!" and he would say, "I can't push any higher, you damn kid!" That's what he called me, "You damn kid." It used to make me giggle. There is now a yawning void in the air. I feel tired, sick too. I stare into the darkness and try to breathe it in, try to take the whole thing into me, but it is only one long breath of sobs and steam.
With a four-month growing season most of what is grown is small grains. Wheat and rye are the most abundant. Winter wheat, despite its name, can't survive the winter, so spring wheat is grown exclusively. It can be planted in spring and pulled in the late summer. It grows fast and hard. The soil is like dust, getting only twelve inches of rain per year. Out of these eighteen hundred acres, William farmed a little over three hundred. Most of the remaining has been in the Soil Bank (a soil conservation program, which is now called the CRP) for the past four decades. The remainder is considered suitable only for grazing sheep. My eyes see the same thing Jacob saw in the beginning: growing Rabbit Brush, Grape and Ostrich Fern, strands of Virgin's Bower that wind like clouds as they have for thousands of years. His steps here were shadows, carrying him on fingertips, and the rain will fall across my face, as it will his, addressing us forever as neither the living nor the dead, but as a pair of shadows, dancing in the rain.
On a cold November morning, William began that fateful walk. When the snowfall and wind create a veil of snow, a breath of smoke, a mother's voice calling us home. Refusing company, companionship, or aid, he walked across the bridges of land that stretch between hills and creek beds like walkways. He left a single track of footprints, meandering between the deeper drifts, the pockets of snow that conceal the rise and fall of the land beneath and reveal only a flat plane that hides this abyss of snow. His path crests the hill, his image becomes blurred, becomes swept away in the flurries of snow that the taut prairie wind picks up off the ground. I can see him now, barely visible through the haze of snow and time, bracing his knee with a locked elbow and a stiff hand. I can hear him wheeze and see the steam of breath as it lingers in the air and drifts away—see him as a shadow, cradling his face in my arms, as his life burnt away.
Standing here in a civilization of grasses, I wonder if leaving was worth it—if it was worth what I have given up—to lie down that final time, on a land on which you have drawn a family, built a house, and grown old. A land that your brown, wrinkled skin and broken hands only seem to extend, and then at that moment, finally succumb, a hundred miles from anyone, feeling as if you were in someone's arms.