By Nancy Eberle
I wanted some land so badly. Just a little piece—five acres would be fine. And a ramshackle little cabin perched in the middle. Is that too much to ask? I know my husband Paul and I have both chosen relatively low-paying fields, and I still haven’t gone back to full-time work twelve years after having our first kid, but a little piece of land out in the country still seemed like something we should be able to have.
This was to be the compromise to the good-natured but unending country mouse/city mouse debate Paul and I had been having for twenty years. He liked living in a small city but I grew up mostly in the country and wanted that same experience for our two boys. It was more than just my dismay that as preschoolers our children could not reliably identify basic farm animals as we drove along country highways. The first time one of them asked, “Is that a pig or a cow over there?” my head whipped around so quickly they both gasped. “What?” I couldn’t help shouting at them in the back seat. “You’re growing up in Wisconsin and you don’t know the difference between a real-life pig and cow?” As they got older they delighted in teasing me as we drove along, “Hey Mommy, is that a giraffe over there by that barn, or maybe a rhino?”
It was ironic to find myself worrying about my children’s agricultural knowledge base. My dad had never really known how to connect with my brothers and sisters and me when we were little and, instead of asking about school or what was going on with our friends, would turn every drive into town into a farm trivia contest. “Quick!” he’d say, pointing his long tanned arm out the window at a tractor in a field, “Allis Chalmers or Massey Ferguson?” My older brother could usually get the opening round questions right, but that only encouraged my dad. “OK, but 4-cylinder gas or 6-cylinder diesel engine?” I knew this was a strange way for a father and his kids to communicate and wished he would talk to me about something I was interested in, but those rare signs of his approval–“Damn right that’s a soil conserving disker. Not many girls would know that!”—kept me paging through his farm implement dealer catalogs in the bathroom for years.
I wanted something for our boys that I found hard to describe. There were plenty of things about my own upbringing that I wanted to spare our kids, but there were things we learned and experiences we had growing up in the country that I knew they were missing out on.
When I was around eight or nine, my older brother Jim, two neighbor boys and I resurrected an old but elaborate tree house some older kids had built years before. My memories of it are fuzzy, but I know we were immensely proud that it had three stories. You pulled yourself up into the first floor by sticking your arms into the rectangular hole in the bottom, wedging your elbows against the floor, and walking your feet up the side of the tree trunk until you could lift yourself up inside the tiny plywood box. There was another hole in the ceiling and a ladder up to the second floor and then some way to climb out onto the roof of the whole thing where you could stand and look out across the neighbor’s alfalfa fields.
One strong memory of our times in the tree house is the afternoon my mom gave us some ground beef and a loaf of white bread and I, being the only girl involved in the venture, cooked us all dinner on an old 55-gallon metal barrel we had converted into a stove. God only knows how many years I took off our lives with those half-cooked burgers dotted with flecks of rust and black paint, but it felt so great to cook them myself and to eat them sitting on the roof of our rickety tree house.
There was also the time Jim and I were working on the tree house and didn’t notice the afternoon sky growing darker and darker. It wasn’t until our dog started running in circles, barking and jumping at the sky, that we looked up. We knew enough about tornadoes to take things seriously, though, when we saw that the sky was an icky shade of green and eerily still. The tree house was probably a half-mile from our house, across several open fields, and I’m still not sure how we decided that making a run for home was our best option. Those few minutes it took us to get home were terrifying but thrilling at the same time—running as fast as I could, my brother pulling on my arm to try and get me to go faster, the wind picking up and blowing dirt up into our faces and our dog running in circles around our feet. I don’t know how close the tornado really was to our farm but we had the sense our lives were in our own hands.
Looking back now, as a parent, there are plenty of things about my childhood in the country that make me shudder. The worst story is probably the one about my little brother at about four years old, chasing after one of the barn cats and stepping out onto the surface of the open manure pit in the center of one of the barns. The top layer of manure had hardened and was thick enough to support the cat’s weight, but not my brother’s. By some miracle, my dad happened to look up from whatever he was doing and see my brother step out onto the pit. He ran over, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him out. Had my dad not noticed what was happening it’s likely my brother would have sunk down and drowned in several feet of pig manure.
But horror stories aside, there was something about growing up in the country with little supervision, with room to roam and the space to get into trouble and find our own ways out of it, that gave us a sense of independence and self-reliance I wanted my own children to have. I love our neighborhood in the city and the variety of people and ways of life our kids are exposed to, but I knew there was something, a sense of the seasons and the cycle of life, that I wanted our kids to feel in their bones. I hoped a little piece of land where we could camp and hike, where they could build a fort or their own or a rickety little tree house, would be enough to give them that.
Nancy Eberle lives in Madison and spends time in the driftless area of Southwest Wisconsin whenever she can.