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  • March 18th, 2018

THE PLACE

By Joel M. Vance

It has always been just The Place, hardly an inspirational name like Shangri-La. It originally was 30 acres and we added 10 acres to it for a total of 40. If I could be sure that a family who would love these woods as much as I have for nearly half a century would acquire The Place after I’m gone and our family perhaps no longer goes to what we’ve always called The Place, I would mandate my ashes to be scattered throughout the woods, or perhaps on the overgrown gravesite of so many of our beloved Brittanies.

I can’t stand the thought of these cherished woods belonging to someone else because people these days are prone to buy a place in the country and strip it of the woods and brush that gave it character and turn it into a cityscape, precisely what they flee the city to escape. So, our family will hang on to The Place as long as it can and hope for the best, knowing that the best is The Place.

It was 1969 and we were looking for some acreage outside town where we could escape on weekends, holidays, or at times when life threatened to overwhelm us. We looked at possibilities as far as 50 miles from Jefferson City, but nothing spoke to us and said here is where you want to spend as much of your lives as possible until one evening the realtor who had sold us our house in town took me out to what had been his family’s retreat from the city and said, “Our boys are teenagers now and more interested in girls than coming out here, and I can’t get around as much as I used to, so I’d like to see this place go to someone who would appreciate it as much as we have.”

We parked at a closed gate and I saw a rough concrete block cabin which proved to be about as rustic as something you would see on National Geographic’s Life Below Zero (although it was summer and in the 90s and many hundreds of miles away from frontier Alaska). The cabin had a fireplace which offered minimal heat and no indoor facilities such as water and a toilet. There were rollaway beds where overnight visitors could sleep on mattresses every bit as comfortable as sleeping on a gravel road and a kitchenette for cooking on a World War II vintage electric stove.

We were at the top of a hill which sloped down to a one acre pond where there was a rickety dock. Across the pond was another hill forested with oak and hickory extending to the property line there was a small shed near the cabin, in which was a John Deere garden tractor which the realtor offered to me as part of the deal. The whole package, he said, could be mine for $12,800. Even in 1979 that was like being offered a nearly free ticket to heaven, and I exclaimed, “I don’t care what it costs. I’ll take it!” The Place was ours. Not exactly the wisest response to someone who is trying to sell you something, but he was a person of rare generosity and stood by his offer.

Since, The Place has afforded us an endless supply of firewood which now heats the cabin where there is a wood stove insert in the fireplace (and an indoor toilet and water and a hot shower). And for 21 years while we continued to live in Jefferson City, The Place fed our wood stove there. Our garden has produced years of vegetables and an endless population of red cedar trees has produced an annual Christmas tree for our living room, as well as logs for a sauna, support posts for our deck, for rail fences and other do-it-yourself projects.

A number of wild turkeys from the far ridge across the pond have graced our table at Thanksgiving. I’ve shot squirrels, and once managed to miss a nice buck, but did collect one on another family’s Place. Hundreds of bluegills have migrated up from the pond to form the foundation for countless fish fries. Huge channel catfish lurk near the dock waiting for us to throw fish food to them— but son Andy claims them as semi-pets and won’t let us keep them. He also has caught and returned eight pound bass to fight another day.

A mother raccoon and her babies once made nightly visits to our deck (built by sons Eddie and Andy) to help themselves to the black seeded sunflower seeds we put out for birds. She got so used to being spied on that I could open the door and talk to her and the kids. But after the many gray squirrels which also cherish the seeds destroyed my birdfeeders, I put a moratorium on supplying expensive sunflower food to other-than-birds and the raccoons now are on their own as are the squirrels. The squirrels still visit the deck to forage for scraps of vegetables and fruit that we put out there for them. The cat sits in the doorway and looks out at them, muttering curses and dire threats.

The two cats are housebound, because feral cats are the worst enemy of birds and, as much as I cherish our cats, I also cherish the birds, so I keep them strictly separated. Hummingbirds decorate the deck all summer, entertaining us with their incomparable aerobatics.

The deck overlooks the pond, which my wife Marty insists on calling “a lake,” but let’s face it, it is a pond. As a pond or a lake it has furnished fish us with fish, a place to swim in summer, a place to ice skate in winter, a place to watch such wildlife as visiting Canada geese, wood ducks, and even once a coot that apparently grew tired midair and fell out of the sky onto the dock.

Once, while sitting on the deck listening to 1950s rock ‘n roll, I saw what I took to be a UFO arcing across the night sky. It was a bright ball of light, too slow to be a meteorite, too fast to be an airplane or a satellite. “The truth is out there.” When I’m not distracted by alien visitors, I listen to the night creatures— a chuck will’s widow shouts its incessant challenge to the darkness and a pair of barred owls communicate across the dark woods. Bullfrogs grumble their virility at the pond edge. We’ve collected a few over the years for their delectable legs, but now I’d rather listen to them than eat them.

The deck would not be there except that in 1993 we decided town living was at an end. Since we bought The Place we had always intended to build our life dream home there, but until the five kids all were out of the city school system, we didn’t want to change their and our lifestyle. Now, two of the boys live on the 40 acres and take care of their elderly parents who, you might guess, are Marty and me.

There is a trail which circumnavigates The Place from the cabin, staying within the property line fence. It’s about 7/10 of a mile from the cabin back to the home of that we built in 1993. Now, son Andy lives in the cabin, and son Eddie lives about 200 feet farther along the trail in a beautiful home which he largely built himself.

On one stretch of the trail during the summer when the oaks are in full leaf they arch over the trail giving it a cathedral effect. You might say this is my church, but I don’t pray there, I just enjoy the peace and the demonstration of nature’s ability to create fine art and the soft touch of the landscape. Near the end of this stretch there once was a log. Before I retired I had a poster in my office reading “Sometimes I sits and thinks and other times I just sits.” My boss used to look disapprovingly at that poster but it perfectly described what I did at the old log which now has moldered into the forest floor, the way of all things in nature.

Once I sat on my log armed with a bow and arrow ostensibly to shoot at squirrels on the ground. But one incautious gray squirrel posed on a nearby oak and I couldn’t resist. I fired an arrow and like the old couplet which says “I shot an arrow into the air and where it fell I know not where” the arrow sailed into the great beyond but en route it neatly sliced the squirrel’s throat and the animal ran up the tree a few feet until it ran out of blood and fell to the ground.

I have shot several turkeys both on and just off the old trail and often have surprised deer crossing the trail, heading either onto or off The Place. Once a skunk and I met and cautiously passed by each other and went our separate ways. Just off the trail once I saw scratches high on a tree trunk and theorized that possibly they had been made by a black bear. I really doubt that we have had bears in our woods, but one never knows— there have been bears reported in the county, so who knows?

I have tried to naturalize the place. I planted ginseng, scattered among the graves of the dogs. There is a small group of white pine trees elsewhere in the woods, planted there by my best friend who has gone where the dogs have gone. They won’t last—white pines have a limited lifetime in our part of the country, but then also did my friend and the dogs. I planted loblolly pine seedlings on a bare bank of the pond to stabilize the soil and now they tower 100 feet above the shoreline. I planted 25 white pines near the cabin, but a helpful brother-in-law drove the John Deere like Mario Andretti and mowed them all down.

More successful was a planting of bald cypress seedlings in the boggy upper end of the pond where they thrived and now poke their bony knees from the soggy soil and, in the summertime, before they shed their lacey greenery, are a counterpoint to the loblollys. Some of the hundreds of tree and shrub seedlings I planted have thrived and others have served only as browse for rabbits and deer. That, too, is the way of nature.

Once, a deer waded into the pond, afflicted with bluetongue disease, and died there, perhaps in its final moments finding cool relief from the fatal fever. We hauled the carcass up to a remote spot on a glade at the far reach of the acreage and within days coyotes and vultures, carrion eaters, had reduced the reeking body to a heap of bones. That also is the way of nature.

There is a quarter acre bare spot near the cabin which might’ve been a pasture in the days of the old bachelors who supposedly pioneered The Place where I have established a mini tallgrass prairie. When we bought the place it was dominated by wasteland grasses of no value, but as the years progressed native tallgrass began to emerge, having lain dormant in the soil for decades. I started collecting seed to augment what already was there and once I pulled over along highway 36 in North Missouri and began stripping big bluestem and Indian grass seeds from plants along the right of way. A Highway Patrol car passed and I had a vision of trying to explain that I was collecting grass seed to a cop whose concept of grass equated to marijuana.

Fortunately, he continued on. Another time I was collecting rocks from another right-of-way when another patrol car did stop, and instead of offering to let me break rocks on a chain gang. the officer said, “There’s some really good ones over on highway M.” A kindred soul in law enforcement. Once we had butterfly weed, which is wonderful for pollinating insects, such as honeybees, which are in short supply, a worrisome trend which threatens the existence of many of the plants that we depend upon for food. Now, we are down to one surviving plant, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, among the millions that once populated the country, and which died in captivity many years ago. I’ve collected and scattered seed from purple coneflower, but so far they haven’t populated my Mini Prairie. More successful is purple gayfeather which envelops the tallgrass in a purple haze every summer.

When things get really crappy, which they do more often than not these days, and until the moment that a UFO sweeps down from the sky and I’m abducted by aliens, there is always The Place and a hike around the trail where I might surprise a deer or turkey or say a cautious hello to a skunk, and at the end of the trail I will feel renewed, at least for a little while

The green tongues of daffodils already are peeking out of the cold winter numbed ground and soon there will be spring beauties on the trail and later on May apples carpeting the forest floor. It will be another season, filled with promise, filled with hope and surprise.

Another season on The Place.

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