Part II: In the Fall of a Sparrow (2024)

Part II: In the Fall of a Sparrow (1)

“You make a great mistake if you think you can be romantic without religion” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise).

There are some summer days in northern Minnesota that I will recall exactly as they were until the end of my life and I hope to revisit them even in the afterlife. The smell of a wild rose evokes a thousand of these days and the green glint of phosphorescent fireflies captive in a Mason jar lights the nights to a thousand days just like this one. In my personal mythology lightning bugs are the solid children of Aurora Borealis fallen to earth. Would that I could have bottled that abundant diversity of the natural world before it was lost to the generational amnesia that my grandchildren experience. Ruby throated mornings were the prelude to those golden days; bright starlight their postlude. Ah, but the interlude:

Effulgent morning sunshine

Flutter by, butterfly

Green dewdrops sparkle

Hello Solstice

I will mow the grass

Then walk barefoot in its lushness

Schlurp on a chunk of watermelon

Let the juice dribble down my chin

Play Ante Over until moonlight

It is the first day of summer in the hay meadow and the sun is strong. The sky is soul blue and the trees that green, green, green of late June. Natives of the North can be ambivalent about winter, but summer is too magical and short to be spoiled by pesky mosquitoes and stifling humidity.

There truly is nothing so rare as a day in June, and this one will be bug-free in memory. The air is so clean that it is without smell when it is still, and that is the sweetest smell. Sweet like the taste of tasteless, pure, cold well-water from a silver cup.

The adjacent pasture holds within its electric fence a grove of elm, oak, ash, cottonwood, and popple, mostly popple, all heavy with still-fresh, full leaves. An occasional breeze wafts with it the subtle commingling of purple alfalfa and yellow sweetclover. The silence is broken only by birdsong which fluctuates between cacophony and concert. In the distance could be heard the plaintive call of the hoot owl were there anyone here to hear it. Memory, however, is consciousness that observes and experiences without a physical presence. Silence has a presence absent sound, as it were.

There once was a boy who once was one with this scene; the boy who made the memories the old man holds. The boy who swung a red Model B Farmall tractor around three hundred and sixty degrees after finishing the back swath between the fence posts, then lowered the cutting bar hydraulically, came to a full stop, and jumped lithely off the tractor. With a grease gun he felt out nine zerks on the mower and pumped grease into them until dark purple gel oozed from every crevice. This done, he pulled his thin grey graphic tee shirt (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”) off over his head. His wheat-colored hair fell on his brown shoulders. The boy’s belly and arms were already hard and lean from summer work.

There was freedom in the hayfield. The boy was in charge and his thoughts were uninterrupted except for when his father would drive out in his pickup truck after his town job and he would have to disengage the power take-off (PTO), idle down the tractor and reply “Pretty good” to his father’s stock question, “How goes it then?”

“Hay looks tick as the hair on a dog’s back,” his father exclaimed in his Norwegian/German brogue with a spear of green timothy between his teeth. The boy nods his head once without betraying any affect or desire for conversation. The man would offer the boy a drink of cold water from the thermos jug he carried around all summer.

“Be home in time for chore.”

“Yah. There’s a dance in Highlanding tonight. Can I go?”

“How come?” (Now how does one answer that question when he himself is not allowed to ever ask “Why?”)

His father seemed not to listen for a reply as he inspected the sickle bar maybe looking for a broken or loose blade while muttering something to himself along the lines of “Well, I’ll be switched.”

Instead of asking why he would be “switched,” the frustrated boy repeated, “Can I go to the dance?”

He didn’t mention the dance would be followed by a keg party in the grove of trees between home and Highlanding Hall called The Tabernacle after a church that once stood there. It was far enough off the highway to escape the local constabulary’s patrol. The next day he wouldn’t mention getting drunk and stealing a kiss from a girl he was crushing on when her macho boyfriend went to fill his plastic beer cup, nor the beer her boyfriend threw in his face when he caught the kiss out of the corner of his eye.

All the popular girls went with tough guys who were ten years older. They called boys their age “candy asses.” A sad fact of life for celibate wet-dream boys everywhere.

After a long pause his father grudgingly replied, “We’ll have to see.” As unsatisfactory an answer as “It depends on,” the other vague reply the boy hated. He never asked, “Depends on what?” because his father would have said, “Don’t get persnickety” and the permission process would have been ridiculously prolonged. Do all German-Norwegians make a kid wait a half hour for an answer to every question, he wondered. Left in limbo, the boy watched as his father pressed one side of his nostril with his index finger and blew out the dust loudly before repeating the ritual on the other side of his nose.

“Keep it greased ever’ so many rounds,” the man would command before saying, “See you later then,” and settling into the worn out mesh seat cushion and closing the door of the International Harvester pickup by clamping one hand over the opening where the rolled down window had disappeared.

When he could see the pickup truck trailing a cloud of dust back on the county road, he pulled a Kool cigarette from the toolbox and lit it with just one match despite the light breeze. Menthol.

He smoked only when on the tractor and even then felt some shame because he was sixteen and enough a mama’s boy to still feel his sins deeply because they were new. That is, these sins were new: smoking, drinking, sexual exploration. There was nothing new about sin itself; he was taught it was the original condition. He would hide his shame in the dark shadows of his mind as long as denial and delusion could be chased with cheap beer.

For now—and there was only now at sixteen—he was still early in the first half of his life, happy and sweet, but not without the ability to bully the weaker boys as even good boys do. It was either that or be bullied. Like the time in sixth grade when he threw a punch at Thor Thorson’s doughy face and accidentally tore his soft flannel shirt when the smaller boy fought back. This all transpired in the boys’ lavatory since it was the only place Mrs. Engevik, their sixth grade teacher, couldn’t go. Fortunately for Thor the bathroom break was as short as the gauntlet of boys in the small class, but Thor could certainly have used his namesake’s hammer and shield. Our protagonist had taken his place reluctantly at the end of the line, for he had a soft spot for the unwilling antagonist. They were the only boys who took piano lessons and they were nearly friends at times. Besides, it was not like Thor was really “asking for it” just because he was such a “turkey.” Odd yes, but that designation becomes relative as one outgrows middle school mentality. In any case, it was assault. Simple as that. Terrible as that.

“This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it,” Dorothy Parker once wrote about the kind of terrible incident one can’t look away from. The boy immediately turned away from the beaten boy’s look of betrayal, but he would often look back on it and torture himself with the memory. Violence is always a failure to see the other person as a person. It is the superpower of a bully. It is kryptonite to the hero with moral courage. Karma being what it is, the boys in the bathroom chose to pick on the one among them who would grow up to be the richest, most successful man ever to leave that place. His resume would be longer than this book. Motivation can be murky and baffling. Google any of the other boys and you will find their obituary, or nothing at all.

When he was in junior high, our boy ordered the Charles Atlas program from the back of a comic book so he could be the one kicking sand in the face of the 98 pound weaklings on the beach. When a bigger classmate challenged him to a wrestling match on the playground, he put him off by saying, “In two weeks.” Well, Charles Atlas had promised that was all the time it would take to develop a buff body and how was he to know Atlas was a myth? Two weeks came and went and the challenge was forgotten, which was lucky since the body building died faster than the Sea Monkeys he had also ordered. No matter; what is a body builder but a well-muscled but still insecure human who had a dream? There are many ways to compensate. Many ways to change our origin story; that is, until our true strengths begin to serve us. If one cannot condition his body to perform like a professional athlete, he may find his mind has grown from being a voracious reader and an attentive student. He can dream of writing the great American novel until he sits down and faces a blank page late in life. A good story needs a hero and few memoirs can realistically deliver one. Memories of his own childhood cruelty would disturb his sleep in the second half of life which is about our inner work, not our chronological age. The second half roughly begins during that time between splaying and crossing one’s legs.

On this midsummer day, however, he felt as though he was in a gadda da vida and he gave no thought to the Fall for he sensed only the youthful intimations of immortality that precede the grievances of aging and resistance, which must themselves be surrendered at the gates of Paradise in exchange for the return of the innocence thought lost.

Today was another summer day filled with the unadulterated lightness of knowing there were many more to follow, too many to count yet. This day would be the source of that summer feeling that haunts one later in life when it is unrecoverable and the best we can hope for is that pleasant brain-tingle we get from hearing certain songs.

Finally, he engaged the power take-off, disengaged the clutch and was off and mowing. He contemplated the spectacular weeds as they fell to the mechanical scythe. Catch fly, thistle, fox tail, and wild mustard all mixed in with the quality grasses: timothy, alsike, alfalfa, and sweet clover. He was enamored of their loveliness as they dropped neatly to the ground. Watching the tall soldiers fall to the scythe he momentarily took his eyes off the thick hay coming at him. His heart nearly broke for a minute as a downy fledgling bird met the teeth of the relentless sickle bar. A hay meadow can be as gruesome as it is winsome. The regret would be forgotten before he made another full round.

When he turned his head to look behind at the falling grass, he cursed when he noticed a couple of sections on the sickle bar were plugged, leaving a strip of hay still standing. He disengaged the power take-off and jumped off the tractor to clean the machine. Back on the tractor, tortured by the ragged fifty feet of cutting behind him, he moved the accelerator away from the turtle symbol in which the tractor had been idling and toward the rabbit decal to keep the tractor from killing when he engaged the PTO.

When he was back in the groove, his mind shifted back into neutral. Mesmerized by the mowing motion, he went into a reverie about the romantic possibilities of a future blessed by the white ceramic statues of Jesus and Mary in the small church he attended every Sunday and holy day of obligation. He would listen to homilies on faith that never once contained the word love, wondering who, then, is this God we are to put our faith in? He had some wildly conflicting choices: the radiant, joyous Jesus etched into the round glass window behind the altar or the crucified figure on the wooden cross glued to the same window. He chose the former with a great fervor.

How could he know that religious zealotry is a good indicator of an overly repressed shadow? How could he know the great power of zeal could be expressed shamelessly in the ardent lover? That the physical center of zeal is the brain stem, that denying it could lead to great pain in the back of his neck. How can one feel so intimately and innately in love with art and nature and humanity at times and so not at home in the world at other times?

He truly felt he was God’s favorite son beloved in this moment and destined for some gaudy fame and fortune. Fortunately for him, “God has no favorites” (Acts 10:34). Somewhere between altar boy and cowboy, he had been churched by his motherand worked by his father. His mother loved her children and her church; his father loved his land and his children. The boy felt torn at times between his mother’s desire for him to be a priest and his father’s strict definition of manhood which involved agriculture. Heck, he could recite The Suscipiat in Latin as easily as he could back a tractor hitch into an implement’s towbar and drop the pin in the holes by leaning back from the tractor seat.

His father never drank liquor, smoked, nor swore in front of his children, but he was coarse, inarticulate, and alternately funny or angry. He never said ass when rump or hind-end were equally as funny or debasing. He never raised a hand to his wife and he didn’t beat his kids, but he was verbally scary when he was defied; thus, he left some invisible scars. Oftentimes his entitlement as the eldest son manifested as passive aggression; for instance, he would track across Mom’s clean kitchen floor in his muck-caked overshoes like some character out of Faulkner en route to foraging the fridge for a cold potato to slather in butter. His own father never cried and he would shake his sons by the shoulders, when they were no longer babies, until they stopped crying.

Pity those tear ducts dried out so early when they would be needed later in life to express what Cynthia Bourgeault calls “that vulnerability in which we can endure having our heart broken and go right on loving.” When they were too big to shake, he would just yell louder and criticize his boys into perfectionism though his own jobs often failed or went half-finished. After being gone all day, he would inspect the farm with a keen eye looking for any unfinished chores without acknowledging the hours and hours of hard work the second son had put in trying to please him.

“Who didn’t haul water to the pigs? Their barrel is nearly dry.”

The boy would bite his tongue bloody to keep from shouting, “EVERYBODY! Not just me, EVERYBODY didn’t do it!”

Now, his siblings would tell it differently, but they had a different experience of their father than the middle boy did. He would inherit as much of the farm as his two sisters, but not as much as his two brothers. Thus, this sensitive and emotional boy was primed for alcoholism at the first opportunity.

That opportunity had presented itself at a country dance with his friends earlier in the summer. His first date with brandy and co*ke was as liberating and yet as addicting as his first platonic love which was in its early stages that summer of ’72.

“Summer Side of Life” by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot played on CKRC AM from Winnipeg as the tractor’s radio and engine fought each other while he bounced on the hard tractor seat:

He came down from fields of green

On the summer side of life

His love was ripe

The melody of some songs might remain in his head for the rest of his life though he would forget the words and who sang them. A lovely song he wouldn’t hear for fifty years after he left the broadcast range of Canadian radio turned into a delightful ear worm that he would doggedly research until he found it on YouTube: “Anna Marie” by Susan Jacks. Lobo, Jim Croce, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Olivia Newton-John provided the sound track of his earliest lovelorn days. “Too Late to Turn Back Now” by The Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose left the most indelible impression on his highly impressionable brain.

In compliance with the MAPL system that required twenty-five percent of airplay on Canadian radio be devoted to Canadian music, he heard a lot of songs that would fade from his life when he moved farther from the border, but “I Wish I Were” by Toronto’s Andy Kim was next in the rotation that summer day:

You know what I do now every night

While laying in my bed

Take back all the things I did

And half the things I said

Love, a new emotion to him, made the boy look at the sky with a new awareness and appreciation for the mysteries of life. The boy would fall in love three times in his life; fortunately, the greatest of these was with his wife. He also had many crushes by the time he was sixteen. His first was when he was six; she had white cotton candy hair and her name was Doreen. Now, at sixteen, he had fallen in love for the first time and, as most people know, there is no turning back from first love even if it is unrequited. Especially if it is unrequited. One-sided romance has no expiration date. It changes everything. How quickly passion can turn to obsession, crowding out a large volume of childhood interests. Food seemed less interesting, but music took on whole new levels of meaning.

George Jones, one of his father’s favorite country singers, once said, “When you’re happy you enjoy the music. When you’re sad you understand the lyrics.” But what of the exquisite pain created by a symphony of strings? The effect of lonesome lyrics underscored by a piercing violin is to fall backwards into the arms of one’s angels and give thanks in all directions.

Confused, not knowing what to do with his longing, he would sob and gasp at times but he refused to cry. Just hearing the heart-broke songs was somehow consoling. Most men would rather be angry than sad, yet life without the blues would not be worth living, even in the summer side of life. He dreamed of being a blue-eyed soul singer before he learned not to sing, which was before he was told he could not carry a tune. He had not yet come to appreciate the voices of Sam Cooke and Etta James as he would as an adult, but Elton John’s “Your Song” was his song.

Sadness could be a superpower, the antidote to the toxic positivity of the superficial cool kids. Longing, yearning, and the blues hurt so good. Bittersweet emotion is at its peak beauty when the melancholy is cut by possibility. We all do better in part sun, part shade. Besotted, but not yet jaded, a young man can cheat despair if faith in love is still there.

He took a drag off his cigarette and enjoyed the slightly dizzy feeling one point more intoxicating than gulping pure country air. Perhaps because of his childish dedication to his chastity he burned with an intense lust that would not have been as painful in some of the more experienced boys his age. He had simultaneously shuddered and felt aroused when one of his oversexed schoolmates had unabashedly confided to him in the school locker room that he had lost his virginity at fourteen.

“The only bad part was that her mother walked in on us,” confessed the friend.

“What did she say?” the boy asked in shock.

“Moooo!” replied his friend facetiously.

Thought leads to thought on the tractor as the boy silently chuckles at the memory of the day last school year when the economics/psychology teacher who never got to psychology was allowed to show an innocuous portion of a sex ed film. The young male coach/teacher turned the projector light and sound off during the part of the film banned by the school board. Hilariously, he accidentally resumed the film too soon and the class got to see a rubber stretched over a banana as the narrator cautioned against using plastic bags in lieu of condoms. “Better Glad than mad,” the normally shy boy piped up to the rowdy and raucous glee of his classmates. It was the boldest thing the boy had ever said and the response made him feel accepted and happy.

He was looking forward to wearing his new skin-tight pleather pants and white muscle shirt to the dance that night. He was old enough now to pick out his own clothes and pay for them with his “pig money.” He bought this hot outfit at Bjorkman’s teen shop in Thief River in the hopes that this might be the night. Ah, the optimism of a horny teenage boy; alas, it would be several more years before his services would be in demand. Do we need a better example of the saying “Ignorance is bliss?” As the exciting reverie faded he found himself back in the hayfield. He cleansed his mind by breathing deeply until he felt holy again. Pity the poor boy who is both zealot and sensualist. The boy crushed the hot cherry of his cigarette on the moving tractor tire and felt the sunburn on the back of his neck as he raised his eyes to look upon the cloudless sky and mumble a prayer as he turned westward down the field.

Pull back, now, the camera and observe the boy as he grows smaller in the more panoramic landscape. Lest one feels a sharp poignancy that he seems small and alone in the field, remember how he himself feels: invincible and energetic as a spring colt. He can be happy in a party of peers like the pine siskin that arrives at the bird feeder in legion, and he can be content alone in the field like the solitary chickadee that swoops in to chase away the smaller finches. Better to save one’s tears for the friendless child on the playground who is truly alone because she does not want to be. May she turn her longing into a creative and spiritual life.

My mother interrupts my dream state as she restlessly vocalizes seemingly random images from deep in her dementia that make her laugh.

Yellow. I hope she can see yellow with her eyes closed. Mom was daffy about yellow. She loved yellow sun dresses, yellow flowers, yellow finches, and her yellow ’56 Chevy.

Her voice is as comforting now as it was in those Sunday night phone calls after I left home, though “home” to her now is where she grew up, or perhaps some place more ancient. She always made the best word salad, but her sentences are now fragments where names and places and situations shift among moments of glossolalia and repeated phrases like “those pigs” that she finds so funny. When she stops laughing, I decide to recite a verse by Galway Kinnell:

Saint Francis put his hand on the creased forehead of the sow,

and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow,

and the sow began remembering…

the long perfect loveliness of sow.

“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” Mom giggles.

I smile and stare at the ceiling until I become a boy again.

It is one of those rare, warm, early-autumn afternoons when the air is low in humidity and smells of an ancient dream of childhood innocence. The birdsong, so remarkable in early spring, is now unnoticed white noise. Second cutting is finished, the grain is ripe, and the boy’s junior year in high school will begin soon. He rides Roby, a one-eyed spotted pony his Grandfather bought for him from a horse trader locals disparaged as a sheeny, past farm buildings that have not yet become gray abandonings, through the stand of sturdy oak trees where the grove south of the house petered out.

Weaving around a small pasture dotted with cow pies, log piles, and several mysterious sink holes as long as graves but not as deep. Rural legend held they were the sunken graves of “The Indians.”

He rubs the whorl of horse hair on the spotted pony’s forehead, then smells his hand. The rich, earthy fragrance like that of purple petunias emanates from long, slender fingers. His arms and shoulders are now deeply brown. He rides through the third crop of blue alfalfa, stunned by the bewildering beauty of life.

His stomach is in love. Lovesickness. First love is confusingly and exquisitely painful. Now he knew what loneliness was, being alone in an intensely passionate emotional affair.

Then a sensation as unexpected as a snowdrop on one’s face when the sun is still shining through a break in the clouds. A pleasurable tickling swirls outward from inside his navel. A oneness with the pony and the earth beneath his hooves.

Present and free and open to the possibilities of a day without plans or apparent purpose, boy and horse gallop to the yellow popples and weathered oaks with spookily twisted branches. There he swings his long left leg over the pony’s back, dismounts, opens the gate, unbridles the pony and returns him to the peaceful pasture he shares with the rocks and cattle.

Ambling back to the fence, he sidesteps the cowpies he would have let ooze between his toes when he was a barefoot kid. He closes the gate by grabbing the insulated handle attached to the barbed wire and stretching it far enough to hook onto the loop of wire that connected it to the electricity. He had long ago mastered the art of dodging hot wires after receiving more than a few stunning shocks. He could duck under a low fence by slithering like a snake.

The distant sound of a tractor draws his attention to a far field where his older brother is plowing a recently thrashed oat field. The fresh dirt had already attracted a substantial flock of landbound seagulls that had mistaken the furrows for the waves of some distant sea. He was aware it wouldn’t be too many days until he was out there picking the newly upturned rocks with his brother while his father drove the tractor pulling the wagon just a little too fast. It was dirty and exhausting work, but no worse than riding the hay wagon behind the bailer, crusted with chaff and sweat while trying to keep up with stacking each new bale five or six rows high before the next bale was birthed.

Ugh, his mind needed a cool, clean escape.

Contemplating the ripe and still leafy grove where photosynthesis has largely finished its work, his loneliness leaves, along with the separation between observer and observed. He gives himself to the scene, devoid of responsibility but rife with invincibility. The hum of the tractor is replaced by a silent sleepy indolence, his breath deep but quiet, his heart filled with deep tranquility as pleasant and peaceful daydreams arise in his awareness. Once every sight, sound, and scent has soaked into every pore of his being, his eyes turn to the west and the possibility of one day going to California.

California. The word was gorgeous with gold. Hollywood, horses, mountains, California girls, orange groves, and water that drinks like cherry wine.

Flash forward to his first road trip to California with his best college friend, Ron. They were both English majors who took a class in Steinbeck from Rosemary Smith whose account of the Dust Bowl migration, aided by the Library of Congress recordings of Woody Guthrie songs, made skipping a semester of college to go west irresistible. Her guided tour through East of Eden was filled with the images that enticed these two 21-year-old Aaron Trasks to load up the boy’s old Mercury Comet and cross the bridge between Moorhead and Fargo that Steinbeck and his dog Charley had taken in search of America. The following is a Facebook exchange between the friends-for-life thirty-three years later:

Ron: I have a hazy memory of taking the spring quarter off from college in our Junior year, me and Mr. Neuschwander lighting out for the territory in his little red car to see the West Coast. It was 1977, and the Eagles' "Hotel California" was ... still new. We wore out the eight track (or maybe it was a cassette -- Neusch was avant garde that way). The scene was part Wayne and Garth head banging to Queen and part Chris Farley and David Spade in Tommy Boy singing and crying on their road trip with the hood flying off the car. We were headed west for Paradise, the place to be, to watch the lazy sun sinking in the sea. By the time it was over we were broke from getting the car fixed after the accident (en route to see Bob Hope and Johnny Carson in a taping of The Tonight Show), and after getting it towed off the cliff where we slid off the road in Colorado in a blizzard, hung over, pissed at each other, limping home. Desperados, not quite come to our senses. Not such a fine sight to see by the time we were standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona on the way home. The girl, my Lord, in the flat bed Ford didn't even slow down to take a look at me. I don't know. Paradise wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

And you can see them there,
On Sunday morning
They stand up and sing about
what it's like up there
They call it paradise
I don't know why
You call someplace paradise,
kiss it goodbye

Dale: A clever and highly evocative ode to an epic journey, Ron. It was an eight track. I still have it. I guess we were just not ready for life in the fast lane. We were more like the new kids in town when we rolled into the city with our Midwest ways. Still, I recall some peaceful, easy feelings as we watched the sunset at Big Sur. I also liked the way your sparkling earrings laid against your skin so white. It's been a long run now and we are too old to live, too young to die. Bye bye.

Ah, the power of a dream! Haha. Now my stream of consciousness flows back to “Mr. Neuschwander” in an earlier time:

At the edge of the woods where the goldenrod—that forerunner of the first frost of fall—and saplings grow, he strips back the greenish bark on a young tree to reveal the white watermelon wood still in its virginity. He sits in the first-fallen leaves with his back leaning into a tall oak, the rough, rusty bark protecting the sweet, sappy pulp within. In a moment of Zen, the guiltless boy becomes the epitome of what Alan Watts would call “…one who manages to be human with the same artless grace and absence of inner conflict with which a tree is a tree.”

He drifts off until the chill wakes him. The sun is westering behind a towering cottonwood adorning its still shiny green leaves with glistering white diamonds as he bounds through the woods like a deer on the run until he slows for the riverbank that leads him down through thick weeds to a thin trickle of water. His light feet quickly find the rocks that help him effortlessly across the muddy bottom. Blood pumping, adrenaline flowing like the sap in the trees, his brain infused with spicy air, he comes to the far end of the woods which shelter the small white country church. It is not his church; it would have been his father’s had his father gone to church. Here the trees lean over the edges of the graveyard on three sides, ready to devour the headstones. Moose have left deep tracks in the dirt when the ground was wet from the spring overflow.

One monument in particular catches his eye: the moss-topped white stone memorializes a woman who was murdered in a Fargo hotel at age 18 on her first train trip away from home in 1921. The boy could not have known that she once had dreams of leaving the wetlands just as he did. But she could not hope to escape her history; it was her future as well. The rail she rode west had brought her back for burial in the ground she shared with atoms from her long dead ancestors. Two generations later her relatives would move to higher ground her remaining hair, bones, and clothes from the rotted coffin ensnared by creeping tree roots. She would at last rest beside her parents who survived her.

If at least half of the Neanderthal genome is still found in living humans, what is extinction? If we survive our ancestors, do they not also survive? Such ghostly thoughts buzz around his young brain as he studies the faded inscriptions on the mossy tombstones and his body shivers.

Late in life the boy would shiver again as the words of Patty Krawec, an Anishinaabe writer from Lac Seul First Nation, would resonate in his soul:

The land itself and the conditions of that land, like altitude and climate,

impact our genome just as our human ancestors do. We are born on it, die on it;

we come from it and return to it. The land and the waters, oceans and rivers,

are part of us, relatives and ancestors in a very real way.

Unbeknown to the boy, the small river which had been dammed at its source so the farmland could produce grain would one day submerge the graveyard and reclaim its bed. He could not know that his roots in cold, hard flatlands would not transplant well in sunny, hilly cities where he hoped to bloom.

He shudders like an aspen leaf quaking in the Indian summer breeze as he reverently approaches the sunken marker of a friend dead these five years. Loosening a stone from the hard-packed ground with the tip of his tennis shoe, he fills with the melancholy that infuses the forest shade that creeps across the grave marker.

The sun is setting whiskey yellow in the northwest as the wind changes direction dragging with it peat smoke, the early chorus of crickets, and a big chill from the memory of his first funeral. He can clearly recall the reflection of the overhead light in the eyeglasses of his great-aunt lying in a gleaming casket in the lobby of the church, an image fraught with foreboding.

He was as yet unaware that in one month 27 Uruguayan rugby players would be fighting for their young lives after a plane crash in the Andes while he would be partying to The Raspberries and The Moody Blues during the school break for the Minnesota teachers’ convention. We, the privileged, would hear of the 16 survivors that were rescued 72 days later and thank God for the miracle, unmindful that the 29 who died looked to the same sky and prayed the same Lord’s Prayer.

Mercifully, our boy was too young to consider the randomness of life. For being such a big state, Minnesota was a small vantage point from which to view the world. Every secluded life, even at a young age, knows something of tragedy, however.

Part II: In the Fall of a Sparrow (2024)
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