Sunday, February 28, 2010

Waiting for the Storm

Restless waiting for last Sunday’s storm to hit, I bundled up to take a walk and get a little exercise--both physical and mental. The storm had been predicted to arrive in the middle of the night, until it stalled somewhere over Nebraska, and the National Weather Service changed their prediction to a 6AM arrival in Marion County. Six to twelve inches of snow were expected. I started watching for the storm to arrive about five AM, ready for it to hit hard. Six, seven, eight and nine o’clock came and went with hardly a breath of wind and a tin colored sky apparently stuck in second gear somewhere over Warren County. I headed out the door, and down the BNSF railroad tracks that run through the county. I started just north of Bussey, intending not to be gone very long.

I crossed G71 and walked down Story Street, and soon started slipping and sliding down the hard packed icy gravel road. I found myself looking forward to walking the railroad tracks, where I hoped that I would have more secure footing. About six inches of snow had accumulated, and I learned that the railroad tracks were more difficult to traverse than I had anticipated. Secure footing yes, but it proved heavy going through the snow. I soon settled into a Charlie Chaplinesque duck-walk down the track.

The combination of snow, my relative isolation from humanity, and the fact it was a Sunday morning left me in a blanket of quiet. I heard no voices, no vehicles on roadways, and no airplanes. Only birds. Juncos, sparrows, chickadees crossed my path, and occasionally followed the fence rows that paralleled the tracks. Hawks and crows flew overhead.

Animal tracks were everywhere, a couple of deer had broke a trail through the snow before me, walking between the two rails for a half mile or so. Coyote and raccoon tracks were abundant, and I followed the tracks of a solitary turkey for about the length of a football field.

The color of the sky nearly matched the color of the snow around me, and any color different from the grey/white of the snow and sky stood out like a beacon. The dark color of the tracks, and the brownish grey of the trees and underbrush were also remarkably consistent. It was almost exclusively a two color world--light grey and dark grey. I spotted coyote scat, an occasional curled tan oak leave sitting on top of the snow in the middle of the tracks, and cracked open honey locust pods. Every few hundred feet or so a few kernels of bright yellow corn lay scattered on top of the snow. I tried to pull together a possible sequence of events that could pull a few kernels of corn from a harvested field to the middle of a snow covered railroad track, and failed.

A small glimmer of yellow in the snow caught my eye, and unconsciously my mind reasoned that it was another kernel of corn, until I took another look. It was a slightly different yellow than a corn kernel, and a little smaller. I was puzzled for only a moment. Urine. Mouse pee, I thought. I got down on my hands and knees for a closer look. Sure enough, there were very tiny tracks leading to and away from the yellow puddle. I even spotted a thread of the track where the creature’s tail had left a long tiny rut in the snow. I searched my memory trying to recall which mammal species we have in the area that fall under the common name “mouse,” and soon realized that I knew little about our area’s smallest rodents. As I stood up and walked away, I looked forward to getting home, pulling out my mammal reference works to learn more.

Contemplating mice, I noticed that seven larger mammals--cattle--must have gathered to contemplate me while I was occupied studying mouse pee. I made a brief attempt to speak cow, with no noticeable result.

For awhile the bright splash of a red cardinal daubed at the white landscape before me like a impressionist painter testing a brush. Two does watched me pass from behind a fence row, and I startled a flock of turkeys. They launched into the air more like a fleet of ships setting to sea than birds taking flight. Their wingbeats were heavy, fighting for purchase more like they were flying through gravy than through air.

I continued my trek, rounding bend after bend in the track. An occasional coal seam could be seen in the gouge of a creek bank, and I thought about the people generations ago who wrestled the coal out of the earth in Marion County to fuel the western expansion of peoples across the continent.

The sky grew darker as I finally found a gravel road that I figured would eventually allow me to ratchet myself back towards home. A left, a couple of straight miles, another left, then a right would bring me home, if I reasoned correctly. I passed a few houses, and a couple of abandoned farms. A pickup truck full of people pulled away from a house with a small terrier chasing the truck. They drove by me and we waved at each other in an Iowa kind of way. Friendly, but slow, and careful not to raise our palms too high or flap or rotate our palms too rapidly. Exuberant waving in Iowa is restricted to high school girls.

I watched the truck slow, stop, then turn around. They drove back toward me slowly, then matched my pace. It was what looked to be a middle-aged man and his children. He rolled down the window, and asked if I needed a ride anywhere. I told him no thanks, I was just out for a little walk. They all looked a bit surprised, like they had never seen someone walk down their gravel road before. Not on purpose anyway. Now that I think about it, it probably is a rare event on a road where maybe only half a dozen vehicles or so a day pass by.

I saw a small old cemetery and trudged through the snow to the gate. I pushed it open, and the gate creaked as I went in. A sign on the fence identified it as the Stanford Doud Memorial Cemetery. Only a few headstones stood up through the snow, and even fewer had legible inscriptions. I was wondering how old the cemetery was when I found the nearly illegible marker of Mrs. Doud memorializing her life and death on September 7, 1855. A half dozen other headstones poked up through the snow, asking to be investigated. Wandering around under the still threatening skies, I realized that I was standing in the midst of the remains of some of the early pioneers of Marion County.

The science is clear that Native Americans have been in Marion County for thousands of years. From that perspective, the settlers of European descent have been here for not much more than the blink of an eye, a little over a hundred and fifty years. Yet, seen from the perspective of one human lifespan, it seems forever ago. What were they doing here, I wondered? What were their lives like? Where did they come from? Did they find the better lives they were looking for? That actually, the same better lives that we all are all looking for--that humanity has always sought. I hoped that Mrs. Doud and her family had prospered here, but knew that I would never know. That was a verdict only she could reach, and she wasn’t talking.

I shut the gate behind me as I left, and picked up my pace as I headed towards home. My big chair and family awaited me. I looked to the sky and smiled as snowflakes began to fall.

Dr. Bob Leonard

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