The Birds I Never Saw Welcomed Me Home

I drove out to visit my mother, who still lives on the Madison County farm in Iowa where I grew up. After we played a few hands of Spite and Malice, she lay down for a nap. I pulled on my snow boots and went for a hike down Old Creamery Road.

It felt good to stretch my stride again, heading toward the creek bridge south of the barn.

It was 7 degrees and very still. Thick frost coated branches of the ash tree and the old elm, but there was a more delicate frosting on the weeds. The frozen Queen Anne's lace blossoms looked like round tattled doilies. Formerly purple thistle blossoms bowed their heads under white veils. A patch of stiff gray-green reeds floated down a snowy ravine.

A small flock of horned larks stayed just ahead of me on the snowy gravel. I wondered if there were horned larks out there when I was a kid. Probably. But I wouldn't have noticed them. I think I had to leave Iowa to appreciate what was here all along.

On a similar winter morning two decades earlier, I'd hiked alone down this same road with my camera. My husband was back from Vietnam, and we were making plans for life after the Air Force - not in Iowa, not in farming.

Staying with my parents while my husband was in Vietnam, it had occurred to me that Dad and Mom were going to be the last generation on the farm. I began to feel nostalgic for the place.

My husband didn't want to farm, and I didn't want to be married to a farmer - such a physically hard life and an irregular income. But I loved being able to tramp these country roads.

I began to record beloved landmarks so I could remember them. The first photo was taken from the bridge, showing the Y-shape made by the stream from the west meeting the creek, where once I'd watched a muskrat swimming.

I'd flung a leg over the gate to cross into the field, and waded the snowy path to the rock-and-cement bridge that Dad had built. This was near the spot where long ago I'd captured a crayfish to take to school in a shoebox for show-and-tell.

After climbing to the highest spot on the hundred acres, where the walnut grove used to be, I shot a picture to the northeast showing all the buildings: the modest greenhouse that Mom planned and Dad built, the granary where a mouse I had captured bit me, the steel-sided barn Dad had remodeled.

I could smell the barn's oily dust, feel hay and sweat that had collected in the bend of my arms while stacking bales in the haymow, and I could see the dark corners where we had played with Minnie and her kittens.

On the way back up the road, I photographed the hog shed. Once my sister and I had the job of painting it barn red.

And there were the four round metal grain bins that Dad had put up. The largest, the drying bin, had a slanted cement foundation. I'd held a flashlight for him so he could trowel the cement into shape before it hardened. These were the roads and fields I'd explored regularly, the trees I'd climbed, the road banks where lush blue violets grew every spring. The pictures would help me remember.

Those months my husband was overseas were almost a gift - a chance to begin my letting go of the creek, corn stubble, and the nights dark enough that the Milky Way was awesome.

Was I beginning to regret my eagerness to get off the farm and live anywhere but Iowa?

My husband accepted a job in Colorado, where our son was born three years later. By the time he was 2, we somehow sensed it was time to come home.

WE moved back, but settled in the city. I was surprised at the number of exotic birds that Iowa had acquired while we'd been gone. I reported to Mom that a library book helped me identify a beautiful yellow-shafted flicker in my backyard. She looked at me in disbelief.

She scoffed, "Why, the yellow hammer has been around here since the time you were growing up." I guess I had never really looked.

A flock of small gray, crested birds sent me to the bookstore for a field guide of my own. The flock turned out to be tufted titmice. Even Mom was impressed.

I'm amazed at the variety of birds that are easy to identify in our own yard, at the birdbath or feeders. Here in Iowa, right in the middle of town.

Yes, sometimes you do have to leave home to appreciate it. And because Mom still lives on the Madison County farm, I still get to hike Old Creamery Road - and watch for all the birds I didn't see growing up.

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