Lessons from the Farm

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Out at the farm, there’s an old trailer that my parents bought about 30 years ago after the farmhouse we’d been restoring burned to the ground. I’m sure that when Mom and Dad were alive and used it on weekends, the trailer had enough of Mom’s touches to make it seem homey and nice. But when I bought the farm six years ago, no one had stayed in the trailer since 1993, but birds, mice and insects.

Windows were missing. One door hung by a single hinge. I wondered, “How am I going to get someone to haul that piece of junk out of here?” Still, I spent a couple of nights there, with a table full of candles, a bottle of wine and enough computer battery to get some writing done as the long night fell. This was only doable in early April, after the cold weather but before the bugs.

Yeah, the trailer was definitely disgusting even to me — and that’s saying something. But the more I looked at it, the less real damage it appeared to have. Might it actually be salvageable?

On a Saturday in March, my cousin Lee, his buddy Brad and I set to work ripping out the moldy carpet and rotted flooring. We hauled it out along with a dozen 55-​gallon bags of crud. Next, I called the power company to see if, after 25 years, any of the electric might still work. And Eureka! Everything worked, including the furnace and the stove. Now, with electricity, Lee and Brad used power tools to patch the floor and fix the doors and windows, while I in my respirator attacked every surface of the 1,000-square-foot place with a shop vac. (I’ll spare you those details.)

We still don’t have water yet, but with my IPhone “personal hot spot,” the Internet works, and all in all, it’s a pretty reasonable version of roughing it.

Somehow, the wasps still haven’t gotten word that it belongs to people again, and I’ve had to whack about 40 of them, never less than two blows per wasp.

And one night, I was nearly asleep on the queen-​sized foam “bed” four inches off the floor, when I vaguely heard the patter of mouse footsteps, which was fine, until the mouse ran the length of my outstretched arm. I bolted up, turned on the light and stomped my foot, shaking the trailer. I sleep with a loaded 12-​gauge shotgun by the bed (it’s a secluded rural area), and I was pleased at my self-​control in not blasting away inside my new used trailer.

As I lay there after my “mouse attack,” it occurred to me how perfectly we’ve eradicated the irritations of nature from our lives in the city and suburbs. And at first blush, it looks like a pretty good deal. No bugs, no creatures, no annoyances. Park the car, grab some food, and prop your feet up in front of the tube. Has a certain ring to it, and it’s what you might call habit-​forming.

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I got up at dawn and walked down to the 2-​acre pond with my fishing pole. The air was saturated with the songs of so many kinds of birds that I couldn’t count them all.

Turkeys gobbled. Songbirds trilled. A kingfisher flashed by. Migrating ducks took off as I approached, and a pair of geese squawked as I got too close to their hidden shoreline nest. I walked past the gleaming, white skeleton of a big buck who had been killed last fall by coyotes just before he made it into the water. And as I neared the dam, a quail flushed and a rabbit hopped away. In the middle of the pond, an ancient-​looking snapping turtle eyed me before slowly submerging.

The fishing was great, and as the sun rose, I thought, “I’ll take the wasps and the mouse, and the lack of running water. This is worth the price of admission.”

Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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