Tag Archives: Writing

Flightless Birds

By Kate

We are in the midst of a February thaw. The backyard is a sea of mud and ice. This morning, four geese flew fast and low, soaring above the sugar maple. I wondered if they knew which direction they were going. I imagine it’s a confusing week for a goose. A few days ago the world was subzero, frozen solid in an arctic chill, and now a false spring has awoken birdsong and melted the ice into the aforementioned, ever present mud and muck.

Beneath a slate grey sky, my children process through the mud with a blue umbrella and climb upon our chicken coop which stands six feet high, chickenless, strewn about with lumber and fencing. It will be finished this spring, my husband says.

I grew up in the country and I live and raise my children in the city. I never imagined I would do this. When I was growing up and visited towns I pondered how it must feel to grow up hemmed in on every side by concrete and structures and people everywhere. I never really felt I could breathe until we hit city limits on the way out of town. At home, on the roof of our barn, I felt like I could fly.

My mother grew up on a farm in Iowa where the green soybean fields of the former prairie roll out to an infinite horizon. She climbed high into the rafters of the barn and the cottonwood tree. She married my father and they settled on a small farm on a ridge in Wisconsin and she wanted to raise children who were free, and she did, nine of them.

I live on a high ridge in the heart of a city. From our front porch you catch a glimpse of skyscrapers through the trees. Helicopters soar to the hospital on the hill above our home. I am trying to raise children in the city who feel rooted in the land and also free. I do not know how to do this. I do think that having chickens helps.

In Pittsburgh, if you have a bit of a backyard, you can have five chickens or two mini goats. You can have a beehive.  I am so grateful for that fact. The idea that you can live in the city but have your kids doing farm chores warms my heart. We used to have chickens, five of them, and hearing them clucking and scratching in the backyard and hauling hay in the back of the van felt like home. We had a small, stylish, well built coop. Unfortunately, the size of the coop made me feel sorry for the birds, who were trapped in such a small space, not free range at all, definitely caged in and totally miserable. This is where things went wrong.

I felt sorry for my caged birds, and so I set them free. Sadly, I neglected to actually fence the backyard. I optimistically figured the hedge would contain them, which it did, briefly, but soon they had figured out how to squeeze through it and out into the alley, out onto the city streets. “A chicken is wandering Fisk Street!” I read on a neighborhood email, while deeply immersed in writing projects inside my home. My heart dropped, and I raced out to search for my chicken. This happened more times than I would like to admit.

The cold sweat, heart pounding, public humiliation of searching for escaped livestock was actually a familiar one, for the farm I grew up on was somewhat short of fencing, and what fencing there was tended to be rather creative in nature. The children were free, and more often than not the pigs were too. A full grown pig is 7 feet long and weighs 700 lbs and can run surprisingly quickly. Pig chasing was the closest I got to athletics during my bookish childhood.

When my chickens weren’t wandering the city streets, they were roosting on the back porch. They stared balefully through the window at me. Their soft clucks took on a sinister tone. One day, a chicken strolled into kitchen. Right about then, my husband decided it was time to take a break from raising chickens. Send them to your friend on the farm, he said. I’ll build you a real coop, with a fence.

That was three years ago. We hope to finish the fence and get chickens this spring. The new coop has risen slowly, but it is sturdy and solid, strong enough for my children to climb upon the roof and gaze down the ridge, over the valley, across the river. Strong enough to feel like they could fly.

Resting and Restless

By Mary

In a heavy winter coat and pink snow boots that I am often times teased about due to having two nieces 6 and under sporting replica pairs, I trudged towards “life” also known as an assortment of narcissus bulbs that are being sold at the Viroqua Food Coop. The narcissus bulbs I purchased are a representation of the eagerness I feel for the goodness of springs sunlight.
Throughout the Christmas season I got a slew of Christmasy mail. After that stopped coming the seed catalogs stated arriving in the mailbox. How those catalogs make me happy! I am a child of the sun. In November it is time to give the fields a break.

fall fields

And to put aside the boots that trod through the mud and dust.

 farm boots

The days of cow work on my horse, Mars come to an end as the fog gets thicker in the morning and the days grow both colder and shorter.

ranching cowgirl on horse

Both the Father farmer and the Farmers daughter are getting restless.

farmer and daughter brussel sprouts

My father, a former journalist (but never a poet) has now taken up the occupation of writing poetry. I came across him scribbling with his famous illegible scrawl the morning after Cale’s wedding in a MN hotel room. If any of you know Patrick Slattery you know the man doesn’t just get a little into something, He gives a full 100 crazy choleric percent. In the hotel room I said: So what’s the deal on this poetry thing? His response was that he aimed to not just produce 1 poem. Oh no, the goal for that father of mine is to write 2 poems a week. ” Um, okay” was the reply from me. Fast forward to the next next: by that time he had written 2 more pieces. It has been about a week since he has beecome a poet, and frankly by now, I have totally lost track of how many poems have been churned out. All I know is that he is scribbling and muttering a whole lot.

poet father

Dad’s wintertime mania isn’t something that I can judge fairly seeing as I am falling apart myself. I have put a considerable amount of thought into buying lambs, seeds, and most embarrassingly a 2 piece bathing suit. Never mind the 2 slight facts that I like water about as much as a cat does, and I am about as comfortable in a swim suit as a Amish woman. Hey come on now, those are just minor details! Buying a bathing suit in January just seems to make sense!

I guess poetry does too in context with seasonal restlessness. All I can say is that I am SO ready for April. As an additional note: Poetry really isn’t that great (sorry Colleen). I mean, really… I would way rather have Dad babbling about asparagus and compost.

Oh Wisconsin, you only have 3 more months of badness left to give!

More about our Farmer Father and Sumner Sister here:

Farmer Father

For Mary

Farmer Father

by Kate

“Perhaps there is a distance that is the optimum distance for seeing ones father, further than across the supper table or across the room, somewhere in the middle distance.  He is dwarfed by the trees or the sweep of the hill, but his features are still visible, his body language still distinct.”

Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres

farmer father

My father is a proud farmer, and believes that tending a bit of land and producing good food will feed the soul and change the world. He believes that ones work should be real and important and worthy, and that my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.

My father is a reluctant patriarch. I believe his nine children will change the world along with his annual bounteous crops of root crops and greens.

My father is an inveterate reader who attends sporting events and choir practice in the church loft with a stack of magazines and newspaper a foot high.

My father has informed, infuriated, and formed me. I hear him in the voices of my siblings, and see the way his huge and calloused hands have formed the way that they venture out into the world to work, to struggle and to love.

Today is my father’s birthday. I meant to buy him a great book, but I didn’t manage to do it in time. Instead, I am offering my gratitude to my father, to that familiar far off figure silhouetted on a ridge, hoe in hand. Thanks for producing such a fine crop of sons and daughters, Dad, and for the passion for life that you have instilled in us all.

Your eldest,


From Behind the Woodstove- Growing Up

by Colleen

All during the drive up this past weekend, in the midst of the never ending plains of Iowa, snow covered with misty, milky sunlight seeping through the clouds, I had time to reflect on the concept of coming home.  As seventh in a family of nine, it’s completely odd for me to be the one arriving with exotic friends in tow.  Odd because the light and excitement of my childhood was the arrival of my older brothers and sisters doing just that.

I remember the flustered activity, cleaning the house from top to bottom under mom’s strict “list” system.  Once you finished all the chores on your list, you were free to go, and in my case, run back up to my room and curl up in a patch of sunlight with a book, made even better with the knowledge that someone new was coming to visit.  The guests would burst into the door, and I always made sure to be right there, peeking out from behind the sanctuary of the wood stove, shy and curious.  They were part of “the big kids”, the highest level in our strict cast system.

I am at the lowest section of our cast system, firmly embedded in the title of a “little kid”, and this is why it’s so odd for me to be doing what the older kids did over the years.  I’m growing up, and I can’t really believe it.  Last night, my friends and I went out to Leo and Leona’s, the bar down the road, and I got to spend some time just talking with Cale, Mary, Rob, and Nicole.  I know I’ll never become a “big kid”, but being able to spend time with my older siblings as less of a little puppy dog and more like an equal is one of the best feelings in the world.  I must note that I am most certainly not entirely grown up, and my friends and I ended up playing piano and dancing around in the empty dance hall.  Plus, even if I had the choice I would never have gotten something to drink.  Alcohol is nothing compared to coffee.

Coming home has been simply wonderful.  Everything is the same, but it is also so different.  Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I am just growing up.  I’m not the one peeking out from behind the stove anymore.  Now, I am the one bursting in the front door, with the winds of different places and people blowing in behind me.

A Piece from the Past

by Colleen

While I have been gleefully packing away all my worldly belongings to head off to college in less than two weeks, Kate has been tearfully writing nostalgic notes on my Facebook wall.  I am convinced that she and Mary still think of me as a fat toddler, stumbling around on jiggly little stumps in a romper.  If I had a picture of myself as a baby, I would post it here to prove that I was exactly that……..18 years ago.

Anyway, as I was sorting through things to pack up, I came across this little bit of satire I wrote for an English class assignment junior year.  This is  prime example of why I will not miss Cashton high school one bit.  Enjoy!

Dress Code Justice

For years girls with small chests have been eclipsed by those who are more endowed.  Year after year, they have stood by at school dances, dateless on the side of the dance floor as their counterparts have swished around the room in the arms of the football team.  Not so any longer at Cashton high school!  Here, the flat-chested girl enjoys a freedom not shared by girls who actually have chests.  The dress code here is flexible and accommodating.

Currently, the dress code states that no person is allowed to wear a shirt that has a neckline dipping lower than a person’s clavicle, or, at most, two finger-width’s below that.  This rule, though, is only applicable to those poor girls who actually have cleavage.  The administration has ever-so-helpfully banded together against such girls, and several teachers have been seen patrolling the halls, hot on the trail of any offenders.  They are very effective in finding and rooting out such outlaws judging from the sullen faces of convicted girls, marching stubbornly down to the office to change into a more school appropriate garment.  The flat-chested girls just smile and give a wave, sporting low V-neck sweaters and low-cut tees, all a relished 6 inches below the clavicle.

But wait, there is more to this dress code than just the necklines of upper-body garments.  In an exhausting bit of research, after trolling tirelessly through the dead boring student handbook, a new rule, never before enforced, has been found!  Apparently, there is a rule about the length of skirts and dresses worn to school.  The hemline of such a garment should not be more than a hand-width above the knee,  Students and staff alike disavow any knowledge of this rule, and the vast quantity of denim miniskirts that appear like a plague in early spring only serves to exemplify this ignorance.

It was quite interesting to note that although there is a rule about the length of skirts and dresses worn to school, there seems to be no record at all of a rule, enforced or not, about the length of shorts worn to school.  I should think that there would be room enough in this elastic dress code to add a clause that limits the length of them as well.  After surveying many students from Cashton high school, it was decided that shorts should be, at a minimum, 3 inches in length from the waist to wherever that would land on one’s upper, upper thigh.  Some students thought that this would be a bit extreme and cut out half of their supply of shorts, but the majority insisted on the decency of 3 inches.

High school dress codes have always been the bane of teenage girls’ existence and will most likely continue to be so in most schools.  Fortunately, there are progressive schools like Cashton high, in which the student body and the administration work together peacefully to create a more free and open style of dress for most students.  I propose a new motto for the school: “Strut your stuff!”  Ah, high school, the absolute best place to learn about justice.

(Note: the motto only applies to girls who do not have large chests)