When I was a little girl I loved the smell of dirt. I still do. Mom said when I was a toddler, I liked to eat dirt, too; she couldn’t keep me out of it. Sometimes in the early spring, when the farmers are plowing the fields, I still think the earth smells like it would taste good, maybe it’s the minerals in the soil. I love the different textures and smells the earth has to offer.
In the springtime, it was time to open up the pastures and let the cows out to graze. All winter they were kept in a small fenced lot, or cooped up in the barn. I thought Belle and Lightfoot and the yearlings looked forward to getting out in the fields as much as I did. But, like almost everything else, there was work to be done first.
Dad hitched a little trailer to the back of the Ford tractor and loaded up with wire, insulators, wire-stretchers, and all kinds of other tool, including a boxed meter that slung around his neck that could tell Dad whether there was a “ground” in the fence. Then we drove around all the sections of the pastures and fixed the fence, opening each section to the cows as we got it all fixed up. As soon as I was big enough to put the clutch in by myself, without standing up, I got to drive.
I loved the way the pasture smelled like black dirt and clover, just starting out fresh, bright green and close to the ground. Before long it would be tall and in bloom; purple blossoms would dot the pasture. I liked to pick the flowers apart and suck the nectar out, just like a bee. So sweet.
In the spring, Belle’s and Lightfoot’s milk would taste sweeter and richer, not bland like it did in the winter when the cows were nearly dried-up and they ate mostly hay. One time the cows got out of the fence and into a field full of wild onion. Ooo-whee, that milk tasted like it came straight out of the cow all curdled and sour, nobody wanted to drink it. It the spring, the new calves were born and there would be enough milk for them and for us kids, with lots of thick yellow cream floating on top.
I drove the tractor from post to post, put-her in neutral, put the brake on, and hopped off the back to help Dad, never off the front, that’s too dangerous. Lots of times Dad gave the cousins a ride on the tractor, just for fun; he let them stand right up next to him on the little ledge over the axle. But my cousin Gary had less common sense than me: Dad was always asking me how I could be so smart at school and have no common sense at all. Gary almost got himself killed, ’cause for some lamed-brained reason, he decided to jump up over the fender of the moving wheel and ride on it. He said he thought it would be fun, like a Ferris wheel. Dad came running up from the field, dragging Gary by the hand behind him, both of them looking like they were ready to throw-up. Everyone knew something was wrong, ’cause Dad hardly ever ran; Mom said she never saw him move fast, even though she said he was a track star in high school. I tried to imagine Dad even in high-school; nope, I couldn’t do it. I think town kids had a hard time understanding the country, just like that story of the city mouse and the country mouse.
Dad showed me how to test the fence to see if there was a ground, if so, we traced back over the fence to find out where. Sometimes there was a connector touching the post or a crack in an insulator. Sometimes it was an easy fix, and sometimes we had to replace a whole section of wire. That’s where the wire stretchers came in: a bundle of pulleys, hooks, and rope, Dad fastened one end to the pole and threaded the wire through the other end, then pulled the wire tighter than anyone could do just on her own.
It took a few weeks to check every part of the pasture; as each section got checked, the cows got a little further to roam, still, they always knew just when to come to the barn for milking, and if they forgot, we just yelled “Ka-Boss, Ka-Boss,” and Belle headed home, with everyone else in a straight line behind. I never knew how they figured out Belle was the Boss-cow, but she knew and so did the rest of the herd.
At the top of a sandy hill in the second pasture, we had an apple tree. Mom could see it from the porch, and every spring she looked out at that tree and said, “Someday, I’m going to have a house up there, and it will be tight and warm, with no drafts. Wouldn’t that be the berries?” I could almost see that house up there, still, we planted potatoes on the hill and the only things that had a home there was a family of kildeer, the mother skittering along pretending like she had a broken wing, so we would stay away from the nest. Dad said it was a good idea to let the kildeer think it fooled us, and just stay away from her nest. Dad said sand is good soil to plant potatoes, then they can grow big and round, otherwise, they get all crooked and looking like an old man’s face, then they’re hard to clean and peel. I saw some like that in the grocery store.
In the springtime everything was just a promise, that I trusted would be kept. I still do. My daffodils and crocuses pushing their heads up through the black earth, still give me that same hopeful feeling; with a little work, just about anything is possible. The smell of the damp earth makes me just want to take a big bite and savor all the goodness life has to offer.