Notes from the carriage-room, #3

Well, Uncle Mike (my host) is a reader of the blog, so tonight he volunteered the answer to one mystery. What’s in the big cedar chest? No, it’s not tintypes; no, it’s not quilts. It is antique beer signs. Well, we wouldn’t have guessed that. By the way, want to thank all of you who have been joining me in the carriage-room. Glad to have you.

Today’s main activity was first visiting Grandma and Mom, who took us out to lunch. Anyone who has ever seen me knows that’s not a tough sell with me. A bit of shopping in Emporia and a generally quiet afternoon, something we could use after a lot of going and going. Tonight, spaghetti and meatballs kindly provided by cousins Melissa and Adam bringing young cousin Aidan with his interesting gestures and comic manner. A very family evening with folks we so rarely get to see.

In case you think I’m out here in Hayseedville accepting wheat stalks to chew in my teeth, living a Beverly Hillbillies episode, consider this. I’m under-educated in this crowd. Uncle Mike: BS, Civil Engineering. Aunt Jaque: BS, Zoology, Ph.D, Counseling, probably a MA in it as well (I lose track). Mom, BA in Education and Home Economics. Grandma, I forget what it’s in. Melissa, MS in Speech Pathology. Adam, not sure what it’s in, something that makes him a successful IT professional. This is a gifted group, granted, but such a concentration of education isn’t that rare here. My relatives are not here because they lack for options. They’re here because they love it here, because they see in it what I see, and have committed themselves to the land. They’d rather stay here and battle the multiple challenges of Kansas, thus they do. I understand. It often makes me feel like a bit of a lamer, living far away.

So here I sit in the carriage-room, and tonight I spent some time among the saddles and tack, inhaling the weathered leather scent. It is not powerful, but subtle and earthy, solid and reliable. Hard to the touch, a bit dusty but having received good care before and after riding. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy; suitable working gear for cowboying, or cowgirling, if that were necessary. Let me walk you around the outside, so you can get a better feel for all this.

We’re on a thousand acres of land, all but about 70 acres unsuitable for the plow. Let’s dispense with that question right now. Why put cattle here, rather than farm it and feed so many more? You can’t, not without causing serious erosion and environmental damage. You’d wreck not only this land, but you’d harm others. This is prairie grassland, and it is suitable for herd animal grazing, as it was suitable for the buffalo herds. It can pasture roughly one head per four acres without damage–and those who custody it care a great deal about avoiding damage. Irony: the eco-sensitive, good stewardship option here is cattle (or some other livestock, or nothing). We step outside the carriage-room, pulling shut the extra wide Dutch door. Ahead to the left, the guesthouse/mother-in-law apartment, built by my aunt and uncle just so my grandmother could live out here at her birthplace as long as health and safety permitted. Beyond them, three huge stone barns with rusty metal roofs, each about fifty yards long. Well, two have roofs. A twister ran off with one of them, and since three barns were not a desperate need, it wasn’t replaced. Dead ahead, the granary and the vineyard. No grain has been stored in the granary for decades, certainly not in my forty-eight years of life; never mind. It will only cease to be called the granary if it should fall down. Uncle Mike and I saved some snakes in that granary, a story we enjoy recalling.

Moving clockwise, the former vineyard sits forlorn, then the driveway (a place that has less muuuud right now than usual, thanks to a drouth). Then the earthen dam that impounds the pond, with salt licks out for the deer, simply because deer are liked. The pond, of course, circling now around the quarried stone walls. For the same reason there isn’t much muuuud in the driveway (several hundred yards long, between stone fenceposts twined with old ribbon barbed wire some eighty years old), the pond is low. Lowest I’ve ever seen it. The back yard is tranquil and looks out through woods toward the pasture. At night, coyotes howl up the draw. Then the muddy road out toward the pastures (please be sure to shut all gates), the gate my grandfather and I put up, and the corral and barns–a 360-degree walkaround. Welcome to Kansas as I understand it.

A note on muuuud. ‘Mud’ is a substance that washes off with water. The Flint Hills don’t have mud. They have muuuud, which does not wash off with water. It accumulates on your boots like ankle weights, and one had better not track muuuud onto the carpet or else. My family is greatly amused by the way I spell and pronounce it, so I keep doing it.

Someone once told a Flint Hills cowhand that the flint here (it’s the color of a new baseball mitt, medium golden brown) was actually chert. His answer, from William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: “Like hell. I ain’t livin’ in no Chert Hills.” Heat-Moon is a good guy, by the way, and if you like these notes, you’d probably like that book. It is entirely about this county, Chase, one of the poorest and toughest in the state. I approve of its depiction.

Tonight I was reminding Uncle Mike of when only daughter Melissa was a young college-age lady, and I was helping him and Aunt Jaque schlep all their stuff out from Emporia, must be seventeen years ago, and I found a cattle castrator laying around in the barn. Looks about like this. (What, you don’t keep those around your house? How do you manage? A pocket-knife is really cruel. Please be humane–the future steers didn’t ask for this.) I stashed it until Mike showed up and then offhandedly said, “Hey, Mike, I figured out what we can do if we don’t like Melissa’s boyfriends.” “What’s that, John?” I pulled out the castrator and smiled.

He guffawed then, and he guffawed tonight. Adam, Melissa’s husband, did not guffaw at the retelling.

Don’t worry, Adam. If we’d have known you were coming along, we wouldn’t have worried. We had to consider many eventualities. We reckon we lucked out on that. You notice we are just telling the story, not actually waving the thing around at you.

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