They discovered the dried remains of a long-dead bird in a keepsake box.
That caught my attention. Those weren’t catch-and-release words. A Nebraskan was sharing a tale from the days when covered wagons roamed that state.
On the way to meet the Cornhusker and others at a state park, I’d seen a sign advertising an open house for a home for sale. I figured it wasn’t for a sod house and I was correct. It’s good to be right occasionally.
I’ve been in a sod house. It was a one-room soddy on the rolling plains. All the spaciousness was outdoors.
The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged people to go west. Homesteaders claiming 160 acres were required to make improvements to the land, which included building a house on it. Many found it a gamble worth taking. The scarcity of trees meant settlers spent little time engaged in tree hugging and pioneers burned prairie grass, cow chips and corncobs in cookstoves. There were few landmarks on the prairie, but the pioneers were of hardy stock and wouldn’t allow Obstacles (the Greek god of hindering progress) to stand in their way. Because of the lack of trees, building materials for a house were below the feet of the settlers — sod, sometimes called “Nebraska marble,” which was cut into 50-pound building bricks. A roof was sometimes made from sod that bloomed in wildflowers each year. Some sod houses were dugouts, carved into the side of a hill. Windows were scarce and usually small. Kerosene lamps and little windows didn’t produce bright interiors. It was as dark as a stack of black cats on a moonless night.
Sod houses were around 16 feet by 20 feet, the size of an average living room today. It was roomier than it sounds as there were no big screen TVs or junk drawers filled with dead batteries. There was no electricity. No running water other than the rain dripping in a muddy form through the roof onto the people and things below. The houses were warm but damp and dirty. A house made of dirt was hard to keep clean. I imagine the lady of a sod house greeting a guest with, “Excuse the mess, it’s the pig’s day off.” It was hard to keep inhabitants clean and underarm deodorant was hard to find.
A well was dug, often by hand, as the water level could be shallow near a river. They built an outhouse before the chicken house. Many of these accomplishments were aided by bartering and exchanging help.
There were daily insults. Vermin visited more often than in-laws. When you cleared the table, it might involve evicting rodents or insects.
A sod house provided shelter from the weather. The sound of the constant wind became an incessant howl and the isolation brought the ache of loneliness. Simon & Garfunkel had not yet sung, “And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains, within the sound of silence.”
The prairie was sprawling and there was no mall or pickleball court nearby. A cellphone was useless in those days. It would have been a paperweight, knickknack or tchotchke.
What does this all have to do with a long-dead bird in a nice box?
Entertainment was lacking in a soddy. The song of the meadowlark thrilled many, just as it does today. Its voice cuts through the wind. The dead bird in a memory box was a canary found in the prized possessions of a woman who had died after having a good run. She’d been a young wife and mother living in a sod house. A memory or keepsake box is a container that holds special things belonging to its owner. It might include memory triggers such as photos, letters, a lock of hair, a special coin or a desiccated canary.
To counteract the loneliness, the ceaseless wind and the isolation, caged canaries were popular companions. A caged canary’s song was uplifting and binge-worthy. It was the Netflix of the day, only more gladdening.
The memory box held the remains of a canary that had provided pleasant company and a hopeful noise. It made a sod house a home.
A bird is never just a bird.
Home tweet home.