Buck’s Square: A Missouri pasture’s lesson about life.
“Why are we going to the farm?”
I pestered Dad as we bumped off the blacktop between Carl McClintock’s farm and the old Cheek place.
“You’ll see,” he replied, “I’ve got something I want you to do for me when we get there.” I asked again for specifics but for some reason Dad was a man of few words this morning. He also had a fiery temper and a quick fuse when he got “that look” in his eye so I didn’t press him for the trip’s purpose. Maybe fishing. I was just glad to be going to the farm. Just Dad and me.
It was the spring of my 14th year and I had been writing a kid’s column in The Jasper County News for about a year. Nothing great, just a kid’s gossip column. Dad had been encouraging my writing for some time even though we both knew I was a long way from developing any talent for the craft. My parents owned the weekly News and we lived behind the print shop on the two-block-long main street in downtown Jasper. The farm was home to my mother’s parents, William Denzel and Catherine Johnson Hewlett Wilson. We grandkids called them Buck and Mamo and the names stuck.
Dad turned off the dirt road into the long gravel lane that led to the house and its necklace of buildings and sheds. But when we got to the house, Dad didn’t stop. He kept driving, across the machinery parking area past the gas barrel, pausing at the gate to the barn lot.
“Open the gate and shut it when I drive through.” he commanded. Of course. I wasn’t stupid. I’d been around the farm long enough to know you never left a gate open but it wasn’t often that you’d drive a car into the barn lot. This trip was rapidly taking on the characteristics of one of Dad’s infrequent but always interesting adventures. We hadn’t stopped at the house to see my grandparents and we were taking the car, not a truck or tractor into the fields. I correctly guessed we were headed for the creek.
Going to the farm was always a treat. The farm had everything. There were deep woods, cheery meadows, rows of flourishing crops and pastures dotted with cattle and pigs. A small creek split the land diagonally and was home to fish, frogs, tadpoles and cattails where red wing blackbirds built their nests. My brother and I often went to the farm, riding our bikes or walking the dusty roads. Occasionally, when school was in session, we’d stay the night and catch the yellow school bus at the end of the lane the next morning.
As we bounced down the hill from the barn, I asked again,
“Where are we going?”
“We’re almost there.” was his only comment.
To my amazement, we drove into the creek’s rocky low-water crossing that Buck used to get machinery to fields on the north side of the farm. Dad laughed at my bewildered look and said, “We’re going to the North Pasture.”
The North Pasture was the most remote part of the farm. It was tucked into the very northwest corner of the quarter-section and had only one entrance. The stretched barb wire gate was a tough one for even a man to handle, so I sat in the car while Dad slipped the smooth wire loop off the top of the tension post and peeled the barbed strands back beside the car.
Dad pulled the car into the pasture and stopped in a grassy spot in the meadow about 100 yards from a big Sycamore guarding the northern border of the creek and the western boundary of the farm. He shut off the engine and we both got out.
“This looks like a good spot.” Dad said as he opened the trunk and removed a familiar looking cardboard box from the News office. But I was quickly mystified by the next sequence of events. Dad walked a few yards away, set down the box and took out four wooden stakes about two feet long, several feet of white sash cord and a hammer.
I began to suspect that Dad was having a terrific joke at my expense. When he pounded the pine 2x2s into the ground in a square pattern about three feet apart and began to tie the cord around the perimeter, I knew he was up to something really mysterious.
He stood. Apparently satisfied with his handiwork, he reached back into the box and removed a yellow tablet and two ballpoint pens. Extending the pens and paper, he pointed to the square of cord.
“Here, take these and sit down next to that spot and tell me about it. I’m going to the house to talk to Buck. I’ll be back to get you in a while.”
He returned to the car and drove away. I was left standing alone.
I wasn’t afraid to be there by myself because we had camped in the woods and along the creek many times. Even though I couldn’t see it from where I stood, the house was only minutes away. But for the moment I truly felt alone. Dad was up to something but I couldn’t figure it out and was feeling very unsure about what to do next. Still contemplating a course of action, I put the pens and tablet inside the square and headed for the creek just a short distance away behind the tree line.
On the creek bank, I found a few good skipping stones and one rock with some really neat fossils. While chucking large pebbles at some bobbing turtle heads, I realized Dad would be back soon and would expect me to have something on that paper for him. I reluctantly left the creek and headed back to the white cord square in the meadow.
I sat down with one corner of the square pointed into my crotch, picked up the tablet and began to write. Drawing on my experience with school term papers, I began to fill the sheet.
“My name is Richard Norman Ward and I live in Jasper, Missouri. My
father, Harry Norman Ward has driven me to my grandfather’s farm four miles east of Jasper just down the lane off Sumac Road in Jasper County, State of Missouri, United States of America, in North America, the Northern Hemisphere of the planet Earth, which is the third plant from the sun in our solar system….”
Schoolwork taught me how to fill pages when word count was important, but this was just fluff. The next flurry of words described my specific location on the farm.
‘I’m sitting cross legged at Buck’s farm in the North Pasture looking at a square which my Dad staked off in the ground. There are four 2x2s made of pine lumber and each is about two feet long. They are the corners of the square and are driven into the ground about halfway. A white cotton sash cord is tied around each stake to form the outside boundaries of the square.”
“Inside the square I see three dandelions with yellow flowers and one with just a stem because the little white parachutes have been launched into the gentle breeze.”
Continuing, I inventoried the rest of the plants inside the ropes. Some names I knew and some I didn’t but the ones I didn’t know I just described. Two sprigs of sour sheep sorrel with bright yellow miniature buttercups lived inside the square. There were the purplish puffed tufts of red clover, white clover to make neck chains and bracelets, fescue and pigweed.
But there was more in my domain than plants. There were dead things, too. Twigs blown from the Sycamore, a few burr oak leaves joined with an empty acorn cap. A solitary locust thorn that must have come from the big tree in the fence row next to Dutch Isenman’s cornfield.
I counted the rocks, described them, and contemplated in my flourishing journal how these specimens came to rest in this particular spot. Maybe they were like the fossil rocks down at the creek, relics of a much earlier time when oceans covered the Great Plains. Perhaps Ice Age glaciers rolled the smooth stones from Canada to Missouri.
Blue-black ink tracked across the yellow sheets as my adventure continued. I saw an Indian hunting party cross the land in search of buffalo and checked my square for arrowheads. A flicker of movement caught my eye. There was something arriving on the eastern border of my territory.
A large black ant scurried across the square ignoring the arbitrary boundary. “Where do you suppose he’s going in such a hurry?” I wondered aloud while recording the event on my tablet. I noticed there were several bugs crawling in many directions and I tried but failed to get all their movements in my log.
There were bird tracks in the small bare spots near the far corner of the square so I moved around for a better look. Perhaps the marks were from a nesting covey of quail. Nearby was a cluster of what could have been worm or beetle holes, so perhaps the tracks were evidence of a robin catching an early breakfast. A butterfly stopped to slowly fan the yellow petals and then flitted away as a bee checked out the clover and an assortment of other flying insects invaded the square’s air space. Signs of activity were everywhere and I recorded most of the action.
As clouds flew lightly overhead and the sun grew taller in the sky, I sat beside Buck’s Square and chronicled the things I saw and the ones I imagined.
I didn’t hear Dad return. My back was to the gate and he had stopped the car some distance away to keep from disturbing me. He was standing about twenty feet away when I stopped writing. The tablet was full. Both sides.
“Are you ready to go, son?”
I jumped. Then mumbled something like, “Yeah, I guess so. I’m out of paper.”
Dad walked to where I sat and knelt. He unwound the cord, loosened and pulled the wooden stakes and tossed the framework of my square into the cardboard box.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said, standing and heading for the car. I followed carrying my tablet and the pens, shrugging and twisting my body to ease my stiff muscles.
He put the box in the trunk and got into the car. When I was seated beside him he finally turned and asked, “Could I see what you’ve written?”
I handed him the tablet. He skimming each page, pausing and nodding, sometimes shaking his head but not speaking.
Finally, he gave me a quizzical look and said, “Learn anything today?”
“I’m not sure, Dad. What did you want me to learn?”
Softly tapping the tablet into his palm, lowering his chin slightly, he paused and then returned the yellow-leafed diary to me. Our eyes locked for a moment. His were moist and sparkling.
“Do you realize son, if you can find this much in that little piece of land, just think how much the world holds for you!”
It took me nearly a decade to realize what really happened that cool and sunny Saturday morning. I was in the Navy half a world away in Southeast Asia when I realized what he had been trying to teach me. By the time I returned home to share my lesson, a stroke had dimmed his memory and he couldn’t recall any details about our journey that day.
He’s gone now and I will never know what made him decide to teach me to carefully observe one very, very small piece of this planet. I do know, however, as each day unfolds the many wonders and mysteries of the world and its people, I can still summon the look that was in his eyes when he read my scribbled observations. He knew that if I could recognize, understand and appreciate the little things that hold the larger world together, the challenges and experiences of the universe would be unlimited.