Fences. Trees. Farmers.
"Fences. Everyone used to have fences." My dad reminds me of this often. He reminds me of it when we gaze at the corner post across the road, marking land that used to be ours.
In winter, walking fence lines is a sometimes proposition. There can’t be too much soft snow so that each step sinks deep. There can’t be too much corn pocketed water turned ice to make steps dangerous. There can’t be too much early warmth to turn an upper layer of soil into a silted sponge gooping off boots. Towards a horizon of March, we walk the border of our fields.
"When I was young, I didn't care if anyone knew I wasn't being authentic. I wasn't about distance or follow through," he admits to me. We round the far corner of the field. He stops and points out wooden posts sunk deep by his father.
"The fence line is the only piece of land that has never been plowed under. See, how it sits up higher."
I do. It's as easy to see as the ditches that sink ever lower. Their edges bow to the gravel gradient determined by snow plows and oversized farm machinery. Where water overflows and pulls asphalt away from itself, trees guard the dirt as best they can instead of fences. Here in the field I’m not sure if it’s the fences that protect the trees or the other way around.
“No class,” my dad grumbles and nods at the engine spray from motorists too uncreative to find another route. “Urbanites. People from town. At least today the wind is from the other direction so we can’t hear the highway.”
“No class.” His neighbors might believe the same about him. We’re good at attacking each other, but not outside threats. Farmers with well mowed ditches easily connect across miles to the city limits. Their elbows rub, and our skin chafes.
Skinny brown fingers twist bramble through the wire squares and hold tight all winter until high grass and wild roses block the fence in summer. I know my dad can’t hear the engines. I know it’s an engine that caused him to hear less today than yesterday. Damaged, his ears ring in honorarium of the countless tractor hours plowed between the fence lines we walk today. Voices or motors, his hearing is selective.
"Farmers hate trees. I can't believe he hasn't ripped that line of trees out." My dad indicates the line with no fences between our neighbor's field and our own. An opening in the clouds drops a glimmer of sun to yellow the brown, turned over cornstalks. Then he turns away to finish, "Maybe it just costs more to take them down."
I tuck my chin down from the wind and breathe warmth into my own face. I will myself to sense my year old cheek nestled against my dad’s heartbeat and bib overalls. We round the eastern corner and walk just inside the road.
"I like the piece you wrote,” my dad offers. “But those trees aren't oaks you know. I always wanted oaks though. Would have been nice."
I hadn’t realized even the trees he has, like the land, are not everything he wants. I know about his heart wanting slowly ripening apple trees. I know about his determination wanting fast growing pine trees to block the red and green flashing lights at the new highway diverging diamond. I know about his yearning for darkness like silence. They signal encroachment. His eyes squint and blink seeing not sky but pages of seed catalogues.
"I don't want to buy any more of those twigs with roots. Takes too long for them to get going. But I don't want to drive two hours to a nursery." Farmers are practical after all if nothing else. And then, they're not.
Fences. Trees. Facts. Lines. "You believe in their value, but you don't think others see it. You’re asking the wrong people to look.” Farmers.
“I’m asking you.” He removes a fistful of mail from a box reinforced by a metal stake. Its tip always viewed from the top signals mail to be sent even when there is none.
"Fences. Everyone used to have fences." My dad reminds me when he expresses ideas that I know divide us, even if he doesn't. Fences and trees allow him to pretend lines are still drawn where he left them. I wish all barriers were as obvious as fences.