Guest Columnist

A cruel winter to match our broken values

Snow and ice cover a tree along the Mississippi River (background) as seen from Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor on Feb. 9, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Snow and ice cover a tree along the Mississippi River (background) as seen from Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor on Feb. 9, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

There is a pork roast slowly cooking in the oven, the mail today was lousy, and the sledding on the long icy lane from the road to my house has been terrific. Nothing like a half inch of ice to get an old man excited about belly flopping onto an old sled.

Deer tracks crisscross the yard. It’s been a tough winter for them, as well as for many others out here who share the land with me. While plowing a neighbor’s drive recently I stopped to watch a possum trying to work her way through the snow. The thin layer of ice on top of the snow kept giving way under her weight, so it was slow going.

Pheasants have shown up on the sides of the graveled road that runs by my house. They can’t peck through the ice so they attend to spots where the passing snowplow has scraped down to the grass. Rarely do they rely upon human activity to keep them alive, but this has been a long, strange winter, for all of us.

We all rely on others and we humans in particular count on institutional America to be there when we need it. Often those institutions fail. A recent New York Times article reported that all across rural America nursing homes and care facilities are closing, consequently residents are often transferred to other facilities, often hundreds of miles from their loved ones.

Many nursing facilities do not accept Medicaid as it isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of care. For families without tremendous resources this leaves few options, with one option being a cry for help to family members, and I know some of these people, classmates and friends who after a lifetime away from here have moved back to take care of a parent.

In small towns it’s difficult to find people willing to work for very low wages and it’s even worse in the health care field. For reasons unknown to me we don’t put much value on the good folks who sit with our relatives, holding their hands, keeping them company, folks who accompany mom or dad to the bathroom, cleaning them up afterward, telling them it’s all OK.

But it’s not OK; our system of values is not only out of whack it’s downright cruel. I read recently some baseball player or other has signed a contract that will pay him more than twenty million dollars every year. Every year! If my poor math skills are accurate his pay works out to be more than one hundred thousand dollars per game, while the person doing the important work of putting a fork and spoon to your great-uncle’s lips makes less than a quarter of that in a year. It’s not right, and you can’t convince me otherwise. OK, I’ll shut up now.

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Out here every afternoon a barred owl hoots from her perch in the woods behind the house, waiting for an unsuspecting mouse to head out across the snow. She doesn’t know that thousands of years from now mice will be the kings of the forest. I know this to be true.

These days I find pieces of cat food in my knee-high boots in the basement, and I know mice are responsible. You want longevity? Give a mouse your family name because likely a thousand years from now, long after humans have destroyed themselves, mice will still be out there, scampering across through the snow, taking shelter in an old man’s basement.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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