Life in the country is good for your vocabulary

Farm chores not only take you through the muck of the back pasture, they take you knee-deep into the colorful field of common English expressions as well. If you have a scholarly interest in vocabulary, please stop by. Mrs. Karlsen, a fine silver hen, will be happy to demonstrate the many nuances of ruffling one's feathers.

Jerome's antique pitchfork is available for digging into the origins of the phrase "pitching in." We could certainly use a little help around here making hay while the sun shines.

These quaint expressions often have an undertone of danger.

Too many roosters trying to rule the roost can result in minor bloodshed. If a chicken flies the coop at dusk, when predators emerge, you will need all the undercover skills of a James Bond to rescue her in the growing dark and the overgrown thistles. Ducks roost on the ground and may be, well, sitting ducks for a hungry fox. Fortifications must be maintained.

You can smell a rat before you see him. He can create havoc in a coop, ruining large quantities of feed and going after baby chicks. I know what it means to smell a rat. I can also smell a raccoon, weasel, coyote, or skunk (the last is quite easy, even for beginners).

All of these poultry predators have their own distinct odor, all less pungent than other farm fragrances but detectable with practice. Without bragging, I think I can honestly say that I have one of the best farm noses in Franksville, Wis. I can smell the presence of the predator even before she sticks her head up unexpectedly and pop! goes the weasel.

Jerome lives in the old farmhouse with me and has worked this land for seven decades. His stories, told after long silences and never in chronological order, are filled with humor. Beneath the humor is a calm acceptance of the survival skills he learned in Depression-era farming.

Jerome has never fully accepted that when I drain potatoes, I don't save the cooking water. For him, watching me pour out the water is like watching me tear up a 10-dollar bill. He always averts his eyes. I can see in the back of those eyes that water is still a precious and heavy thing, to be hauled, prized, and reused after cooking for washing down the chicken coop.

I don't let Jerome subject our modern chicken coop to old potato water.

I do look the other way when he picks up grass clippings after I mow the lawn, gently lining each nest with them. I have been through enough sudden crises on the farm – falling branches, winter storms, and broken brooders – to appreciate that danger and survival were once deeper and more chronic matters.

Jerome tells me that during World War II, a lot of old farm machinery was melted down for the war effort. People shared what was left. After the war, the government made surplus Army jeeps available to farmers to plow with until new tractors could be made.

"Burned out in about a year, looked funny in the field; cows didn't like 'em," was Jerome's succinct description.

Today, when the combine comes (which is often at 3 a.m., since contract farmers work all three shifts), it looks like a space ship that has landed in the field. The lights flash. The sucking, whooshing noises are worthy of science fiction. I try to imagine the back 40 filled with war-surplus jeeps dragging two row-corn planters on a sunny Wisconsin afternoon.

Jerome calls me back to reality. He is turning the eggs in the incubator by hand and telling me literally not to count our chickens before they hatch, as he has detected a hairline crack in one of them and is unsure of its future.

I have also stopped crying over spilled milk, for I have learned that the cats will take care of it. I no longer put all my eggs in one modern plastic basket just in case it gets dropped. Like our hen Mrs. Karlsen, I am feathering my nest so I can save up for a rainy day.

Mrs. Karlsen is a broody hen and today did not want to let go of her nest egg. Perhaps, like so many, she is worried about the economy and is planning for the future.

Life in the country is good for your vocabulary. You will learn quickly that if you wait until the cows come home, you will wait a long time. You have to go get them. Even one day on a farm will teach you that all geese go wild when you chase them.

I have already been on one wild goose chase this morning. The duck pond still needs to be filled and the coop swept out and our three dogs have not been walked since 5 a.m. I think, however, that I will have another hot drink, put my feet up, and ponder the beauty of the English language.

Sometimes it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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