View over Cameron Bluff atop Mt. Magazine
In the Boston Mountains in Arkansas
In late December I went to see one of my oncologists in the sarcoma clinic at Duke Cancer Center. Incidentally, I don’t have a sarcoma. I was seen and treated by an orthopedic oncologist who primarily takes care of people with sarcomas; malignant tumors arising in bone and soft tissues.
When my name was called I was asked to accompany a woman who introduced herself as, Alma, to be weighed and have my vital signs measured. I told the young Hispanic woman that my parents farm was near Alma, Arkansas, and asked if she knew what Alma meant. She said she didn’t, seemed uninterested, and quietly went about her business.
The name, Alma, comes down from Latin and is used primarily in Spanish speaking countries. Alma mater is straight from Latin and means “nourishing mother”. The name carries a similar meaning in Spanish, something like “lifting the soul”. Alma didn’t lift my soul and neither did the town near my parents’ home. Still, it is a nice name, and it has significance for me.
Near Alma is not where I grew up. We had a home just outside of the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas where my parents had something like a farm. We had dairy cows and chickens and even ducks, and dad had a garden that was about an acre in area. The operation was too small to come anywhere near being sustaining, but both of my parents grew up on farms and liked growing things and living off the land, and Dad had a day job.
During my college years, and most of medical school, Rex and Joyce, my parents, lived in the house I grew up in, and then they surprised us all by selling that place, buying forty acres between Ft. Smith and Alma, and switching from keeping dairy cattle to beef cattle. That move, my father’s retirement, and my marriage to L all happened about the same time.
The farm should have been named Alma. When my dad died and mother sold the farm there were two freezers full of food that had been grown on that forty acres, and a wall in the garage was lined with shelves of canned goods that they had put up.
The most surprising thing about Alma, the farm, was that my mother – who never in all of my experience did anything without my father’s approval – bought that farm on her own. I don’t mean she actually paid for it. She put down the earnest money and when my dad suggested that they go look at some land he was thinking of buying my mother said, “Why don’t we look at this place I bought.” Dad loved it, and for the next twenty years they lived on it.
On the top of a hill, in view of the Boston Mountains (the tallest portion of the Ozarks and the highest point between the Appalachian chain and the Rockies) and uphill from the Arkansas River basin, they lived out their retirement. Three ponds provided water for the cattle and fishing for all of us. My older daughter caught her first fish there. A roadrunner zipped through the yard occasionally, scissor-tailed flycatchers did their courtship dance over the yard, hives of bees sat near the back edge of the property, and a tall pole over an unpainted barn flew an enormous frayed American flag.
There were chickens in an enclosure off of the barn, and a flock of guinea fowl crossed and recrossed the pastures, doing their ca, clackety, clackety clackety work song as they spread in a line and ate ticks and any other insects in their way.
Don't play if your speakers are turned up
Himalaya berries – some sort of cultivated blackberry – grew on a large tangled mass of thorny vines in the center of one of the pastures providing wonderful summer desserts and the worst case of chigger bites to the unfortunate person chosen to pick the berries.
In later years my father who had been a wiry little man who could work anyone into the ground grew too infirm to farm. He couldn’t climb into the loft of the barn and throw hay down to the cows and that was the beginning of the end for him. To his credit he tried to stay busy. He went to the library and checked out books on horticulture and learned to graft plants. He grafted things to things that made no sense from the standpoint of a useful product, but he was having a lot of fun, and the grafts did well, as I could have told anyone they would.
My parents had two cattle herds. On one piece of land they had a really nice Black Angus herd. On the piece their house sat on they had a not so good herd of Hereford (white face) cattle. My father got the idea of buying a Charolais bull to improve his Hereford herd.
Charolais are a French breed from an area in Burgundy, and are tall cattle raised for beef. Their calves grow fast and sell well at market time. Charolais are often crossed with Angus, Hereford and even Brahmas to improve the market value of those breeds. There is just one problem with Charolais; the bulls. Charolais are in many ways much more like dairy breeds than beef cattle, and dairy breeds are notorious for the difficulty presented by their bulls. The bulls are big, fast, aggressive and have a strong herd building instinct.
The enclosure where my father kept his bull was made of railroad ties with 4X4 slats set into the railroad ties. When a cow came in season, regardless of whose cow that was, the bull would charge the fence until he broke through, race across the pasture, break barbed wire like it was spaghetti, and breed the neighbor’s cow. As though that wasn’t enough he brought her home with him.
The neighbors weren’t too happy about that and told my father that they would shoot the bull and he could sell the meat for hamburger if it crossed the fence again. So, ultimately, the bull was sold. I have to say that he was a magnificent animal, and the Herefords threw some outstanding calves that looked like pale colored Herefords.
There were a lot of calving problems because the calves were so big at delivery.
I was visiting shortly after Dad had sold the bull when a cow went into labor. Her labor went on for hours and she finally went down in the pasture and couldn’t get up. We went to help her – really save her life – and because I was the stronger one at this point, Dad held the cows head while I grabbed the calf’s exposed front feet, planted my feet on Mama’s rump, and pulled. There was a lot of frantic mooing, but the calf got delivered and both did fine.
I suppose it was because we were working together on something we both loved - I don’t know - but my father picked that time while I was pulling and the cow was bawling to apologize to me for the rotten way he treated me as a child; saying that there was just something about me that irritated him. And, he treated my brother better because he worried about how he would make it in the world while he always knew that I would be all right. None of that would make any sense to anyone but him and to anyone who knew the way he was raised. He didn’t like thinkers. He liked doers.
The covering of the brain consists of three layers; the arachnoid (spider web like) the pia mater (loving mother), and the dura mater (tough mother). My father was raised by a dura mater.
Mom, as I said, sold the farm when my father died. He was quite disappointed to find that niether of his sons wanted to buy the place when he got sick. It was the place that he had poured so much energy into and land that had given him so much. Mother, on the other hand, was practical, knew that she couldn’t take care of the farm by herself, and wanted to move into town. Neither my brother, nor I are farmers. It was better to let it go.
In my mind, like the house I grew up in, the farm is unchanged. The little white house still sits on the hill surrounded by a chain link fence to keep the cows out of the flowers. The mimosa tree still sits in the corner of the yard with my daughters climbing in it, and the big black walnut still soars above the drive. But, the guineas are gone, the pasture is empty of faded looking Herefords and the tattered American flag has finally fallen apart.
I made the mistake of going back to the house I grew up in. The white frame house had been covered with Arkansas field stone and a motorcycle was propped up in the front yard where someone had been working on it. Worst of all, the new owners had cut down the paper shell pecan tree that my father had planted, knowing that he would never see a pecan, but finding comfort in the knowledge that someone else would. No one did. It seemed like sacrilege. That house has been torn down and replaced by another house.
I’ve never gone back to see the farm I thought of as Alma.