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Fri, May 18th, 2001
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Memories of a rural childhoodBy Herb PankoMonday, May 21, 2001

As I recently stood on the site of what was once our old farm place in southeast Nebraska, the memories of those childhood years of long ago came rushing back.

I thought of those long, hot summer nights as I lay awake with my bedroom window open listening to the dream-like, haunting sounds of the crickets and frogs. I could again feel the cozy warmth in the barn created by the bodies of the cows as my father and I attended to the milking on those cold winter mornings. I remembered how proud I felt the time I showed my parents the large catfish I had caught in the creek behind our barn.

And despite the everyday drudgery of the evening chores -- the milking, feeding the hogs and chickens, and gathering the eggs, bringing in the wood and corncobs for cooking and heating -- there was comfort and security in this daily routine.

Perhaps it was the soothing sounds of the animals as I fed them; or maybe it was the instinctive sense of being grounded and anchored in the uncomplicated, natural rhythms of life on the farm.

The creek and the woods that were a part of our pasture seemed to a young boy to stretch forever to the horizon. It was there that my brother and I spent countless happy hours playing in this watery, wooded magic adventure land. And I could still smell the pungent aroma of burning leaves and hear the laughter of my schoolmates as we frolicked around the bonfire roasting wieners and marshmallows behind our country school. There was squirrel and rabbit hunting in our woods and fields, building snow forts and mock snowball war games, and a hundred other ways for a young boy’s life to be enriched in the rural Midwest.

All that was in stark contrast to what I saw and felt now. The house, the barn, the chicken and hog houses, the corncrib, the tool shed, and the rest of the farm buildings were gone. All had been bulldozed and destroyed, leaving hardly a trace that a farm had ever been here. The woods, too, were gone. Even the stately, patriarchal cottonwoods had been rudely and unceremoniously uprooted and burned.

What once had been a place of natural richness and biodiversity with a beckoning sense of wildness now seemed sterile, empty, and lifeless, a place forced to its knees, forced to bend to the cold, indifferent ways of today’s modern agriculture with its seemingly gargantuan machinery and all its herbicides and fertilizers sucking the very marrow out of the land.

Of course, our country school had long since disappeared, and the creek behind the old barn site was now tainted with farm chemicals, destroying what romantic attraction it once had. I felt both a profound sadness and a sense of abandonment -- abandoned by a culture and a way of life that had shaped my values and character.

As I stood there with the cold, gray December sky hanging low and the voices and sounds of the farm from long ago whispering in the wind, I could feel, despite what was now a strange, unrecognizable landscape, a deep connection to this place and what had been a natural and simple way of life in those bygone days. I realized that I was inextricably bound to this land; and in some inexplicable, mystical way this place and I have become one. Author Paul Gruchow said it best in his introduction to Voices for the Land: “A place is not a thing, it is a relationship. A location be-comes a place only in the context of time, of history.”

I wondered if when my generation passes, the generation that can still remember and feel the connection and closeness to the land and nature that the simple life on the small family farm allowed, will we as a people, as a nation, lose a bit of our soul, a small piece of our humanity? Although we cannot turn back the hands of the clock, we need to ask ourselves if today’s expansive, highly technical, industrial corporate-like farming practices contribute to a cold, impersonal disconnect to the land and nature. Will we someday pay a terrible sociological and ecological price for our callous disregard of the land and the ongoing displacement of its rural inhabitants? I do not pretend to have the answers or the solutions to any problems these questions might portent, but I do not think these are questions we can afford to ignore.

I zipped up my coat tightly against my chin for protection against the cold Nebraska wind. It was time to leave this place probably for the last time.

Herb Panko, a retired teacher, lives in Wykoff.

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