Wings on Fire by Norma Sadler
In l974 we went "back to the land." Not that we'd ever been there before, and not that we understood exactly what that meant. Going back to the land was a dream, the ideal life for the two of us, surviving with our marriage intact at the beginning of the seventies. In Madison, Wisconsin, with anti-war demonstrations, the hippie era, and the chaos of it all, we had become politically crazy, or at least a little unstable. We read too many subversive texts (From the Land and Back, Five Acres and Independence, The Whole Earth Catalogue). We often thought about a simpler life, as opposed to the big city lives we had grown up with, and we dreamed way too much about going to a smaller town, where we could have more space around us, such as a rural setting in Idaho.
"How could you get all that education, all those degrees, and still end up on the farm?" my mother asked over the phone.
"It's the West, Mom, and it's called a ranch," I said, correcting her. "Well, a small ranch of five acres," I said, correcting myself.
My Polish mother and my Italian father didn't get it. How could they? They saw us going backward in time, thrown into an unfortunate reverse set of possibilities, one that reminded my mother of my Polish grandmother on a farm near Warsaw.
|Flaming Butterflies 1
I didn't see this woman doing backbreaking work, bent over rows of beets or carrots. Instead, I saw her as a young woman... strong, growing up, changing with the times, heading west. It didn't matter to me that my only memories were of her in her seventies, her richly wrinkled face, with wisps of gray hair, floating free from her red babushka. I had no trouble imagining her tending an abundant garden, milking cows, or planting wheat or barley. Perhaps it was true that she had turned her back on the farm, the cows, and the crops. She was searching for a different kind of life.
Grandma Hlasta landed on Ellis Island by freighter in l908. She hoped to hang her own hat on a brass post in a house in a city. She dreamed of self-sufficiency, independence, freedom from the land, and from the old country itself.
Not for us, though. Paying inadvertent homage to an ancestral past, we wanted to go back to the land. Overeducated (six college degrees between the two of us), with a passion for books, we were novice land lovers. At 30 years of age, our imaginations of childhood were still fully intact. The West held shimmering images of cowboys and cowgirls with cap guns and six-shooters.
A real estate agent walked us across a piece of property, showing us a not-too-detailed map of the Oregon Trail, cutting across one corner. Some money down and a land contract bought us a place in history.
It was the kind of space that didn't irrigate well. Nobody for the last 20 years had tried. You couldn't even see with all the overgrown weeds and alfalfa, with roots going down deep to water which they had found on their own. It was a huge trapezoid that had to be burned from green to brown for us to be able to see what was there.
On the day of the big burn, we hoisted new shovels over shoulders not made for them, and grabbed the rented burner. Making a noise like some prehistoric monster, the wand on the burner had a mind of its own. With flames roaring down the irrigation ditch, the fire took off, leaving us in the dust of dirt thrown from shovels as we tried to keep the fire on some sort of path. Anxious to see the lay of the land, we burned up the alfalfa weeds, and were pleased when we saw we were half-finished. Then the fire chose to make its own path, accompanied by the not yet understood westerly wind, and the fire headed right across our property line to the neighbor's field.
"Quick, where are the hoses?" my husband asked, really, to no one in particular. Who had a hose that was 700 feet long?
"Hoses?" My question hung in the smoke. You just can't know enough before you start a burn. By the time we were finished, we had obliterated the landscape of green, both on our property and a quarter of the one to the east. All lay black... such a large, empty space. Quiet. Burned ash makes no sound in the wind.
Leftover smoke from smoldering grass drifted across our faces and off toward the Boise front, where Shafer Butte wore a light cap of snow. Some of the grass had turned to gray, thin lines of ash curled in upon themselves. The field mice had disappeared, heading east, before the line of fire and smoke.
We had scourged the earth. In grimy shirts and shorts and slightly burned tennis shoes, we were pleased with ourselves. Red bandanas, tied around our heads, were caked with sweat. We were ready for our next adventure.
This meant that we needed a place to live. You can't go to the land without a place to live. Over the course of five years, we built a sturdy Cape Cod home in the middle of the desert, with small windows facing west, an unplanned cooling feature, with basement included.
In l975 during the first winter in the shell of that house, the wind whistled through the boards. A cube of butter on a plate, sitting on a plywood counter, froze. It's hard to spread frozen butter on toast made on top of a Coleman stove. Blackened toast doesn't taste as good that way either. Temperatures dropped to zero at night and climbed into the teens later in the day. I dreamed of a house with several fireplaces, wood crackling, heat, and indoor pipes with running water. My parents bought us a refrigerator because they couldn't stand that we used a cooler with ice and left other food outside in a world we labeled "The Big Freeze."
The cold being too much for too long, we voted against waiting for some sort of proper central heating system. A wood stove, loaded with coal, warmed our lives. We never thought that hard hunks of coal would keep us so warm.
"Grandma Hlasta has a coal stove," my mother said over the phone, "in the basement of her home. Remember? The coal bin hasn't been used much since she had the house modernized with a gas furnace. She wouldn't think of using the stove for heat anymore." "Mom, the stove works just fine. We're pretty warm most of the time. We can cook on it, and we don't have to use the camping stove anymore." Somehow I forgot to tell her that we also had electricity, black wires that snaked through studs—one specifically for the toaster, the other for ceiling light bulbs.
My mother wasn't finished talking. She talked about how Grandma cooked on a coal stove and how she hated the gas stove upstairs in the real kitchen. The new stove never did bake good bread. Ah, the old stove. At last, I thought, my mother was coming over to our side.
With some insulation, wall boards, and a fire down below, we curled up, cocooned in our long johns in a bed with a white down comforter, strangely like Grandma Hlasta's rust-colored one on her old feather bed.
I waited for water. My husband plumbed. Matches, blow torches, copper tubing. Water finally running, but only cold. A heavy cast iron white tub upstairs could be filled with hot water from pots on the stove. Unfortunately, the tub wouldn't stay warm, not like the tub with a special heater that we have now in our Boise home. Still, we could take lukewarm baths, and then, voilà, more pipes, and then, hot showers.
Outside, spring came and went, and our acreage was filled with blown-in tumbleweeds that stood raked in piles over 12 feet high. By then, we were seasoned fire fighters, with water hooked up to hoses. We had blue work shirts, long pants, clunky boots, gloves, and his/her favorite shovels.
Somehow, we had become more cautious around a blaze, more respectful of the power of flames. We were part of the culture of the West. We knew about range fires firsthand, and we knew that even if there were no trees to burn, fires could sweep through so quickly that you'd never have time to figure out what to do if you were caught in the middle of a field burn. Summer newspapers highlighted fires and their dangers. So we became afraid, and rightfully so, of misguided fires.
The fear became so strong that when the foothills were ablaze one summer day and the sky glowed red with heat and pungent smoke filled our nostrils, we convinced ourselves that the fire could jump the Boise River.
"Well, Boise would have to burn first," I said.
"Well, yeah, it could—all those frame houses with wooden shingles," my husband said.
We looked up at our own roof and pulled the hoses out from where they lay perpetually coiled. You cannot seriously figure out distances easily here when the land flattens out and goes on forever to the horizon. That which we thought was so near was so far away that planes dropping retardant were mere dots against the sky.
Year after year, until year five on the ranch, we burned off the old oat hay crop, to which we both came to realize we were allergic. Finally, we moved to something more civilized, more permanent, as we understood that the burns, the black, the haze settling in, were just not us. Even though shovels no longer weighed heavy on our shoulders, other objects, like irrigation tubes, kept us in l03 degree heat for too long each time we had to set pipes.
Yet, we were hooked to the land, craving self-sufficiency (with two other full-time jobs). From the South along the Snake River, rumblings of the wine industry in its infancy reached our ears. We read books on grape cultivating and grape grafts. A new crop. We would be part of a burgeoning industry of Idaho growers. 2,700 grape vines in quart milk containers entered the ranch and took their places in not-so-straight rows of steel posts, trellises, and guy wires.
We became vintners with a crop that, we were sure, would yield a great harvest. Wine grapes were going for $1,000 a ton. Quick calculations meant that four acres would generate a good chunk of money for us, indeed. Such is the wish of dreamy academics to imagine this to be possible. We bought a green and yellow, repossessed John Deere, with all its parts and some to spare. Running on diesel, the tractor flew down the field with smoke curled up in small plumes and away from its exhaust. We had it made and just had to watch the money roll in. We would be somewhat more self-sufficient. I was convinced. Somehow, though, as we hoped for a miracle crop, we must have known that the land could only do so much for us.
From that field of green vines, we could look back and see that huge shapes concealed our home. Over 75 trees and shrubs blocked the bright desert sun. Bright red and orange tulips flopped on tall stems close to the house, white star magnolias touched a northeast corner, lazy locust flowers hung in huge spicy clumps from trees shading a vegetable garden. A Japanese pond with bridge and waterfall whirlpooled light and outlines of gold and orange koi. We had filled the space of our lives.
Into that space, two wood ducks with fiery red eyes would land in the pond every March. And so, each year, we waited for the ducks.
They haven't come yet? Should they have been here by now? My questions bounced across the thin sheet of ice over water.
They did come. A bullfrog entertained us in April. We learned to wait patiently for his chant. We took bets on who would hear the first meadowlark. Pheasants, that had avoided hunters each October, squawked through the spring and summer. And the grapes grew. The tractor kept the weeds down. The drip system kept the grapes happy.
The first harvest time in the cold snap of a September frost came too quickly for us. With neighbors, we picked bunches quickly. Held in our hands for just seconds, grape clusters became treasures in weight and light and color. The first crop of Chardonnay went to St. Chappelle.
The crop wasn't big that year. From then on, sometimes there was a good year, sometimes not. The prices dropped. More grape production in Napa Valley, Washington, and Idaho cut the price of grapes in half. More zero-degree temperatures and little water in winter meant ground kill. With grapes killed to the ground, we started over, bringing the grapes up again on the trellis from small green vines poking from the earth. We were two years away from a crop.
Around our house, trees grew past 25 feet. Lilacs hit 10 feet. Violets and violas perfumed the Japanese garden.
And we put in more and more plants. We lived on a desert "oasis," a place that diffused the heat and acted as a green barrier against surrounding dry fields, and firebreak for flames that might come from the West. Sprinklers watered the garden. Forget-me-nots near the breezeway wall came back year after year, more profuse with time passing.
And the years went by. Tiger swallowtails, bits of yellow flew brightly around under the canopy of sycamores and Carolina poplars.
And then one day, we woke up.
Something was different. It was summer, and we walked out into the hot desert air, and then turned back under the shade of the trees. We sat near the pond and talked about the land, the grapes, the last crop.
It wasn't as good as the one before. And the crop before that not as good as the one before it. The winters seemed more severe. We were old hands, pioneers meting out the hard punishment, berating ourselves for not being able to subdue the land, take it over, make it our own.
All the leaves would be falling soon. Like every farmer, we were constantly thinking of the next season, working and worrying ahead. It would take days to rake millions of leaves from sycamores, maples, poplars, and locusts. At 30, days seemed to stretch to infinity, but at 54, they ended too quickly for us. We thought perhaps we could leave the land, that we had been somewhere, figured something out.
Later, in that summer of l997, a flicker of a shadow crossed the lawn. I looked up to the bright orange and black wings of a Monarch butterfly. I walked below it, dazzled by this color in all the green, and followed it around the Japanese garden. As I walked around our house and stood at the edge of the pond, I saw another, then another, then more—wings on fire. Seven butterflies danced in the sky over my head. Psyche, I thought, our souls on the wing. It was the perfect time to think about saying goodbye, to let go of the land.
Now I look down at the city of Boise or straight out at the sky, brushed with red and orange, a touch of aqua above lavender. The ridges of the Owyhee Mountains peek out from the distance. Most mornings, a pink dawn flames across the sky. With binoculars, I am on the lookout, checking, really seeing what is out there. Sometimes I see wisps of smoke. Fires from barbecues mostly, but once a house going up showing terrifying smoke in the distance.
I am keeper of the sky, like anyone who wishes to stretch his arms wide. The foothills I saw from our country home for so many years, are now familiar terrain where we walk. The rounded hills surround me, pull me toward them, but we don't need to lay claim to them. Far to the west, the wide open sky caps the horizon line, where we lived on five acres we once called home. We paid our dues, farmed the land, felt our earth beneath our feet. I find comfort and peace in memories of the pioneer spirit that goes with me. Some wind must have pushed us to the land, propelled us forward in years spent there. Now a gentle breeze moves strands of my hair, beginning to gray. It is the same wind, I am convinced.
Norma Sadler has published short stories and poetry. "Out of Montana," a satire, appeared in Moondance. Her play Orpheus premiered in Idaho in l995. She teaches at Boise State University.