The meadowlark’s song is a signature memory of my childhood, that lilting call on a grassy knoll, melody carried above the grinding of grasshoppers or the rustling of wind through tall grass; a meadowlark perched on a fence post, head back and singing solo to the wind, then cocking his head to listen.
I recently drove several hours to western Minnesota, hailing distance from the North Dakota border, every week for six months. I had an interim position in a small Minnesota town, and grew to love that ride on rural roads, my re-introduction to small town life. I anticipated hearing the meadowlark, and drove with windows down through those fields planted to the shoulder with soybeans or corn or sugar beets. It had been years since I had lived in good meadowlark country, but this was not farmland the way I remembered. Even roadside strips were plowed and planted, and if the land wasn’t flat to the shoulder, the ditches were hayed, bales at regular intervals. No grassland was left on these once vast prairies for a bird to nest undisturbed. There are no fields for dairy cattle, or farms that have chickens and hogs and a few horses. Tractors are equipped with GPS to maximize yield per acre, mono-crops at maximum efficiency.
I visited state parks along the Yellow Medicine River, but it was either too early, too late, or in the heat of the day. I did walk battlefields of the Dakota uprising, and read old monuments from the 19th century. The last fight of the Minnesota Indian wars happened here, when Native Americans rose up to defend their pristine hunting lands against settlers. I heard no meadowlarks on those visits.
The small town where I worked had a grain elevator alongside railroad tracks and a stop light where trucks came in to unload, the one stop light in town. The gas station’s pizza rotated in a little tiered case, and the clerk made sandwiches at a makeshift deli counter – that and a serve-yourself soda fountain passed as the town’s restaurant.
The school closed a couple decades ago, and the property was fenced to keep kids off the aging playground, the only playground in town, but liability issues required fencing, the consolidated school board said. At the council meeting they discuss the height of weeds in vacant lots.
There were two bars and three churches in town, but competition was not what it used to be. All the churches had interim ministers and limited services in summer time; since everybody could fit in half the pews in one building, it seemed silly they couldn’t collaborate, but you know—Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics. The two bars were busier.
Main Street still had an active business with a sign that said Furniture Store and Funeral Parlor – back from the time when you built coffins in the same place you built tables and chairs, I guess. There was a grocer, hardware store, thrift store.
The pace at work was different, too. Ten a.m. was time for morning coffee; 3 p.m. is when warm cookies or bundt cake would appear in the break room, along with a fresh pot of joe.
One day, road construction caused a detour and I mindlessly followed the detour signs until I was passing through the town where I spent the first two years of my life. I didn’t realize I was so close; I hadn’t ever been back through this town, it was way off the main highway. I found the Lutheran church, and knocked on the door. No one answered but the church was open, of course, so I walked into the vestibule and looked at framed confirmation pictures from the 1950’s where my father, a very young minister, sat in the center of a dozen fresh-washed and curled confirmands, the 14-year-olds of town and surrounding area. The farmers were very productive in those years.
My father had stood in the pulpit in this church, and at the fount where I was baptized. It was odd, yet rooting, to be in this place; I had no memories, only stories. My mother arrived here as a new bride. She grew up outside New York City and went to museums or concerts on week-ends. Here, all one could see for 360 degrees was horizon. She told me that the parsonage was so old and rundown that bees had gotten in above the ceiling, and honey would drip down on the dining room table. The parsonage, freshly painted, still stood next to the church. I looked around outside to see if there was anyone I should talk to – looking for explanations—but I was on my own.
This story is cliché, but changes matter. The emptying out of rural America, those who stay on land their great grandparents homesteaded or in a place where everyone knows your history, these things matter. The sole playground in town is fenced up and unavailable, but the funeral parlor is open. Ironically, in farm country, the only food you can buy to eat comes in a cellophane package or has rotated under a heat lamp.
But you can buy a 3-bedroom house for $50,000. A traffic jam is getting stuck behind farm equipment. Most everyone has a fishing boat and an ATV and in some school districts the first day of hunting season is a school holiday. It might be a better quality of life – I heard that in the lunch room – but it feels hollowed out, too.
The meadowlark will not survive if it cannot find a place to nest; grassland birds are among the most endangered. What will we do without the meadowlark’s song?