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  • September 25th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Few Americans have earned the distinction of being instantly recognized by their initials. There was FDR, LBJ, JFK and RFK, MLK, and now RBG. All are gone, all representing the best that America has had to offer the world. We mourn them and wonder if ever there will be triple digit replacements for them.


I suspect , a side note, the only chance Donald J Trump has to go down in history with a triple digit memory is as “that SOB”.


It is a glorious, sunny September day with the first hint of fall in the air and on the still green leaves as I sit on our deck and wonder. It is a day to revel in the miracle of nature and to let the tranquility of the changing season and the still soothing comfort of midafternoon sunshine soak in. It was a hard blow emotionally to hear that Ms. Ginsburg had lost her valiant battle against death and to hear the insidious campaign by the Republican Party to replace her ahead of the November 3 election. Don’t tell me that the hard right Trumpers were not rooting for the Grim Reaper. Did not Donald issue a list of possible replacements for RBG the week before her death? Is he not gloating now, culling the list for the worst possible candidate for America, and the best for his megalomaniacal fantasies?


All I can do is pray for a political miracle that not only will voters defeat the Orange Menace, but also take down his vulnerable lackeys in the Senate and return the hope of sanity to the nation. And be grateful to sit here on my deck on a soft late summer day, at the edge of autumn and let the sounds and sights of my little corner of paradise soothe the aches and pains of reality.


The barred owls are gossiping, one which has not mastered the gargle at the end of its hooted question calls from the trees between the pond dam and the road, and the other, deeper voiced and probably the male of the pair, immediately answers from somewhere in the woods North of the house.


An industrious woodpecker (I can’t see it quite clearly enough to identify the species, but it’s small and relentlessly probing along tree branches) diverts my attention from the owls and a hummingbird, possibly the last summer time visitor to stoke its tiny furnace for the long trip south, darts behind my head to the feeder.


This deck, attached to the front of the house overlooking the pond has been a spot for meditation, reading, sun soaking and occasional naps for 27 years since we built the home on 30 acres (since expanded to 40) in 1993.


It has been a good growing year with the right amount of rain to keep green things green all summer long, as opposed to the nearly inevitable Missouri period of drought that browns everything and makes lawn mowing a thing of the past. All the trees and other vegetation still is green, except that I see the tinge of fall color peeping along the edges of the verdant dogwood leaves. If we get rain between now and mid October the towering oaks in front of the deck and those across the pond will turn a rich red. Already the walnut tree leaves are beginning to patter down and the hulled nuts will not be far behind.


I used to collect walnuts, lay them out in a line on the gravel road, drive over them several times with our pickup, gather the gooey crushed hulls in a five gallon bucket with holes drilled at the bottom for drainage, strip down to the bare minimum and spray them with a power washer. The result was clean,  walnut shells and a grateful nut gatherer looking like a refugee from a coal mine explosion. In the dead of winter, the nuts having dried sufficiently, I would watch television lay a brick in my lap hold a nut down with my left hand and whack it with a hammer until it cracked, then pick the kernel out. It was a laborious but somehow soothing experience, kind of like sitting on my deck with my mind aimlessly idling in neutral.


You could call the walnuts the fruits of my labor on these 40 acres, except that the trees already were here, save for four that I planted as seedlings almost 50 years ago. Two of the four did not survive, but two did and they now are towering nut producing adults. They both are children of a Conservation Department effort many years ago to collect nuts from wild walnut trees deemed exceptional by Department foresters. My forester friend Gene Brunk used to prune the Supertrees with a .22 caliber rifle shooting Supernuts down like the vintage Annie Oakley. Then the sprouts would be cultivated at the Department nursery and sold. Another friend, Don Woolridge, the Department photographer at the time, gave me the four sprouts that I planted. I consider that something of a cycle of life. Or maybe it’s an irony. I don’t know, and don’t care because I’m more captivated in the moment by owl calls.


Over the years I have gardened with mixed results. Some years the garden plot produced a bounty; other years it was a bust. Various ground hugging plants almost invariably fought a losing battle against insect pests and other fatal enemies. I was reluctant to use pesticides since I have a deep rooted belief that chemicals designed to kill things, no matter how seemingly insignificant, also have the ability to do me long range harm. So I would plant, hoping for the best, and usually got the worst.


Although I never kept books on it, I’m quite sure that I have spent far more money installing and maintaining my gardens than I’ve ever gotten out of them. Not just seeds and plants, but an expensive garden tiller which had enough power to till an interstate highway. I also haunted the city compost heap which was a mixture of everything city maintenance workers scraped up and dumped there. It was composed of some good stuff, but adulterated with roots, rocks and God knows what? I laboriously scooped this gunk into our battered pickup load after load and hauled it to my garden plot. It was a long way from being the rich compost that I got from cleaning out a friend’s horse barn for my garden when we lived in Jefferson City. At least I had a pickup bed in which to haul the compost; the well-rotted horse manure got shoveled into the back of the family station wagon. We didn’t tell guests riding in the backseat of the wagon what had been there previously.


But some of the gardening worked out. One year I planted several cucumber seeds and got enough cucumbers to can so many pickles that we still have several jars a number of years after I quit gardening. Another year the garden provided a bumper crop of tomatoes and, coupled with the produce of one or two pepper plants canned more than 50 pints of salsa. I also was successful with a plant or two of basil each summer and if there is anything finer than sliced fresh tomatoes topped with chopped fresh basil leaves and slathered with Italian salad dressing, I don’t know what it would be.


But more often than not Marty and I would travel to an annual outdoor writers conference, leaving behind a Garden of Eden and return home a week or two later to an Amazon rain forest of weeds. As age and decrepitude increased, so did my desire for gardening decrease. These days the supermarket and the farmers’ market are enough—let someone else do the dirty work.


We bought the 30 acres, now 40, a half-century ago. Immediately after we moved to Jefferson City we began looking for some acreage in the country which would become a weekend retreat. Perhaps I had a dim vision at the time of a deck where I would hear owls and the faint chirping of visiting hummingbirds, but for many years our Eden in the raw was a source of firewood, work tree planting, endless maintenance and blood, sweat, and tears.


Our in town realtor was ever helpful, locating isolated properties which we investigated but always found wanting until one evening he invited me to go with him a dozen miles from town. “You may like this place,” he said. “It’s actually our family retreat, but the kids aren’t much interested in it anymore and it needs to go to someone who will appreciate it for what it is.”


There it was, behind a metal gate. There was a concrete block cabin, equipped with electricity, but no water and a quintessential rough board outhouse a few yards from the back door. Over the years, we did away with the little house out back, drilled a well, added a room, which became a bedroom, installed a tiny bathroom, and called it weekend home. Proving beyond doubt that common sense is not my hallmark, I babbled to the realtor who was trying to sell me a piece of property, “I don’t care what it costs! I want it!” But he, being a man of rare compassion, turned down an opportunity to pick my pocket and sold us the land, the cabin, a garden tractor for a ridiculously low price—he even threw in the outhouse for free.


But we always entertained the dream of building our dream home facing the pond (or, lake, as Marty optimistically likes to upgrade it). Once the kids were out of school and I retired in 1990, we finally paid off our house in Jefferson City and plunged the money and savings into the house that now hosts the deck on which I sit and listen to owls.


Even the bird dogs got a new home. Sons Eddie and Andy first built a woodworking shop for me and then a small shed with enclosed dog houses opening into four chain-link enclosed runs. One woodworking project was a sign installed above the door to the dog houses reading “the Britz-Carlton.” The dogs were Brittanies.


Usually I don’t read while I’m sitting on the deck, reserving the time for not thinking and listening to owls, but today I made an exception and happened across a Facebook post by my friend Barb Brueggeman, passing along part of the profile of RBG by Sylecia Johnston. In part, the profile said, “Friends, it is not a coincidence that the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court died on the most holy day of the Jewish year. According to Jewish wisdom, a person who died on Rosh Hashanah is a Tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. It signifies that they were given the full measure of a year. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a person of great righteousness and a judge of truth, and her legacy will live on forever. May the memory of this righteous one be a blessing.”


That Donald Trump and his evil sidekick Mitch McConnell would desecrate the memory of this great human being by trying to force through a hastily chosen and suspect replacement, even before the nation’s grieving has ended, is beyond condemnation.


The owls hoot, perhaps in derision, and the hummingbird has left, perhaps on its multi-thousand mile migratory flight far to the south. Even hummingbirds, know when it’s time to escape. For us, who can’t leave and who don’t want to because even in the darkest of times, this still is our country and our love for it transcends the efforts of the Dark Side Trumpians. The chill that I seem to feel has nothing to do with seasonal change; everything to do with the Apocalyptic forces facing those of goodwill. If we don’t vote to clean house on November 3, we deserve whatever dire fate almost certainly will follow.


My late friend, hero, and role model Mike Milonski, when he was an assistant director at the Missouri Conservation Department, was responsible for hiring the first African-American conservation agent, the first woman conservation agent, and the first woman wildlife biologist. When he and his wife Winston moved to Florida after he retired, he retained Polack Flats, a farm adjacent to Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the farm named by him in honor of his cherished Polish heritage.


When Mike found that he had a terminal disease, his wish was that he sit on the deck at Polack Flats, watching the sun go down, seeing geese and ducks settling into the wetlands to the West. And there he died, hearing the gabble of ducks and the chorus of geese. It was a fitting way to go and I think of it as I sit on my deck, admiring my own Eden.


The owls hoot and the sun seems darker, even though the forecast is for continued mellow temperatures.



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