When I moved to rural Iowa 20 years ago almost everyone around me had horses, and often times I felt like I was living in another century. Cowboy-hatted neighbors up the road were right out of central casting as they rode by on the road and my neighbor down the road would often pass with a horse and wagon and, in the winter, horse and sleigh.
The sleigh driver died a couple of years ago and the folks up the road, who have lived with horses for more than forty years, last week sold their last two. Horses have been around for tens of thousands of years and in this country we have a special attachment to them, maybe even a mystical connection. Giving stuff up can be difficult and giving up something living can be among the saddest things we do.
Here in the Midwest farmers are working desperately to finish up planting corn and soybeans. It’s been a tough year, entirely too much rain and water. Crossing the flat midsection of Illinois a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to see glorious white egrets standing in water, not uncommon except that this was not in ponds, slews, or backwaters but in flooded farm fields. This stuff is troubling.
Three male deer, looking healthier and much more brightly colored than their female counterparts, have been hanging around next to my garage. New antlers are quite visible and their brownish-red color is already spectacular. They look like they spent the winter in Hawaii, not here where the winter was one of the longest on record. The doe look thin and gray and, like other species, their family responsibilities are much greater than those of males.
In my front yard a mother deer with a newborn fawn passes by and I leap to the window, as I do every time I see a new fawn. Newborns are about the size of my cat Pippa, and I melt every time I see them. In a world suffering from moral bewilderment fawns represent a beauty and innocence I cannot find elsewhere. On such things I am in the minority out here. Most see deer as a nuisance and new fawns are not welcome.
Speaking of little ones. A day ago I had to stop in a small Eastern Iowa town because a tribe of colorfully dressed preschoolers were crossing the street, two by two, holding hands, not yet succumbing to an odd system of values that will one day tell them boys should not hold hands with other boys, or that a girl holding hands with a boy doesn’t mean they are a couple.
Later in the day, visiting an elderly relative in an assisted living home I encountered another old guy. Sitting by himself in a hallway he was putting together a joyfully colored jigsaw puzzle, bright hot air balloons floating over a sea of flowers. I stopped, said hello, and asked, “Do you like it here?” His response was immediate and without malice, “No. Who would?” In three words he summed up the assisted living experience in America, a great tragedy without a satisfying end. I had no response, so out of my mouth came something truly stupid, “Thanks for your honesty. Have a great day.”
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• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.