Every fall, my dad, Oiva, would hook his trailer to the tractor (a trailer he’d made by welding together a frame and rear axles from two different vehicles—an old car and a Model T Ford more than a hundred years old), then he and my mom would head off to “The Forty.” My dad would fell trees—chainsaw whining—and cut them up. They’d load the wood onto the trailer, and if they were lucky, haul it home without hanging up in a mud hole. But my father had grown up on a farm. He knew how to get free of a mud hole. High school educated, he worked as a miner when he grew up and loved his work! My dad’s youngest brother Arne, on the other hand, went to college—the only one among the siblings. He’d grown up on that same farm but became a college professor. He too loved his work. I know personally. I was a student in his classes. My dad and Arne have both passed on. You might think those two farm boys would have had little in common as adults. You would be wrong.
Making wood (that’s idiom, back home, for cutting down trees and stacking the wood) is a cherished part of my heritage. I understand, ecologically speaking, that we’d be in trouble if everyone in the world began to burn wood. Aside from the effects on the atmosphere, my allergic sinuses give me grief when even one neighbor builds a bonfire in the evening, let alone everyone on the block. Still, because of the experience of my early years, wood speaks to me of comfort, of self-sufficiency.
I grew up along the border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every year when I was a kid, once the weather had cooled each fall, we would go to the Salli homestead on the Wisconsin side, where the family would make wood. My parents heated with it. Both sets of my grandparents did, too, and their cooking stoves and the sauna stoves (we’re American Finns) ate wood by the cord!
Making wood, the woodmaker get sweaty; you ache; you’re breathing chainsaw smoke that saturates your hair and clothes with the smell of gas and oil. My dad loved the woods, loved cutting down trees. Gathering wood provided for the future. You couldn’t get him to stop until winter halted the tractor, and even then he would be out at the woodpile, axe or splitting maul in hand. That’s my dad’s woodpile of 2008 in the photo. I look at the picture, and it feels to me like at any moment he’ll walk into the frame and start splitting wood.
During all that wood making at the Salli family farm, we kids got to explore while the grown-ups looked to the task at hand. I can still smell the pristine air, the loamy ground, the musky smell of fallen leaves. I can hear crunching beneath my feet. I’d search for puffballs and squish them to see the spores spurt out. More than one grade school project involved something from those woods or from the creek that ran through them. I picture my dad and his brother Arne having done the same things as boys.
The PhD that my Uncle Arne eventually earned was in zoology (studying “critters”) and limnology (the study of inland waters and ecosystems). Arne spent much of his research life lying in a “glass bottom” observation chamber he’d designed to suspend on poles over a trout stream, where he spent hours gathering data on trout spawning and the behaviors of young-of-the-year trout. Once, a group of anglers walked by when he was inside, and a woman lingered, wondering aloud about the strange “coffin” hanging over the stream. When Uncle Arne answered, a voice speaking from beyond, the woman shouted to the others, “It talked to me!” Arne would laugh his boisterous laugh every time he told that story. Anglers and the DNR were deeply interested in what Arne could tell them.
But back to my Salli grandparents’ woods. The most fascinating thing about them was that they were haunted.
The source of the haunting was a grave, sunken, as if it were being sucked down into the roots of a huge tree that had grown up next to it. There was a headstone on the grave. From a distance, if you didn’t know what it was, the stone was confusing and jarring. It looked like a lone tooth in the forest’s lower jaw. Even today, people who know of the grave will visit and leave flowers. The stone names the man beneath it—Hans Jensen, born in 1861, died November 9, 1888. He was likely an immigrant, like my grandparents.
Are you wondering why I’m telling you all this? Stay with me.
Railroad tracks ran by the Salli homestead, and my grandparents—Gust and Olga—believed that Hans Jensen had been killed by a falling tree while working to put the rails in. This was a sobering idea to me, even as a kid. I stood beside that grave every year, feeling Jensen’s invisible eyes on me and knowing that the adult members of my family were at that moment doing the same dangerous work, to keep us all warm, and fed, and safe.
Arne’s daughter Laura told me that our grandpa Gust had encouraged her dad to go to college and then grad school, to stick it out and finish. When Grandpa had been a young man, he’d started college at Suomi College, on the Michigan side of the border, but had left for financial reasons. Laura also said that Grandpa had told Arne that he’d always hoped to go back and finish college, but hadn’t. This floored me, because my dad told me specifically, when I questioned him about the family, that Grandpa hadn’t found college to his liking.
It’s interesting to me that my dad, a middle child, and Uncle Arne, the youngest, got such different messages from my grandfather. It says something about the unique relationship Grandpa had with each of his sons. It also suggests that my grandfather’s assessment of his own life changed over time. No surprise—don’t we all reassess, as we grow wiser?
What my dad and Uncle Arne both learned from Grandpa Gust was to love reading and learning. Gust was smart, self-educated. He read non-stop, though he could hardly speak English. Arne took that inherited love for learning all the way to a PhD in science. My dad took his into being like his father. Dad read eclectically and constantly—about world religion, history, science, and anthropology. He picked up and read Popular Mechanics whenever a new issue came out. The man could build or fix anything.
He’d learned about engines working on his own cars and on planes during WWII, and he had figured out how to make or do countless thing on his own—like welding a trailer together out of parts from two abandoned vehicles. My dad could also do simple electrical wiring and plumbing. He’d built the house at the Salli homestead with Grandpa and his brothers, after the original house burned down. He eventually added onto or remodeled the homes he and my mom owned. Dad repaired and maintained his own equipment around the farm, could find parts on old cars that would fix the tractor. He was inventive, and imaginative.
The walls and drawers and crannies of my father’s barn overflowed with stuff he’d collected, much of it from the dump—stuff he knew he might use when need arose. Dad knew a need would always arise. Collecting things provided for the future. My mom was equally resourceful. They kept a garden and an apple orchard. Every so many years, they pinched “army worms” by the handful to protect the apple trees when the caterpillars came up the road en masse and reached the farm. Year after year, my mother froze or canned whatever produce was harvested. They gathered berries. They even brewed chokecherry wine.
Are you still wondering—why I’m telling you all this? That’s easy. It’s the coronavirus. This pandemic has me thinking about the things we’ve done wrong as a country and the things we need to change.
My grandparents’ generation lived through the Spanish Flu of 1918. My grandma Olga, my dad and Arne’s mother, caught that flu. She and grandpa Gust were already married, and their oldest daughter was an infant. Because people going into the hospital were dying at a high rate, Grandpa didn’t want to take my grandmother there, so he nursed her at home. Grandma’s friend, nursing a baby of her own, took Grandma’s baby, because she could tend her as if she were her own. She would keep the baby safe.
Grandma Olga survived, of course, but she often said her hair had fallen out during her illness, and when it grew back in, it was darker. Whether my other grandparents caught that flu, I don’t know, but I do know that the experience of the 1918 pandemic was something none of my grandparents ever forgot. They stayed vigilant and prepared. The most important places on their farms were the woodpiles, kept robust, and the root cellars, musky holes in the ground that were well stocked with food.
My Uncle Arne and my dad knew all those stories from 1918, having heard them many times from their parents. They themselves had experienced the Great Depression—and they, too, never forgot. Talking with my cousin Laura, Arne’s daughter, about life with our fathers, we discovered that we’d grown up in similar households. Not surprising, of course. Our fathers’ (and mothers’) early experiences made them consummate conservers and planners: reusing, repurposing, canning, drying, freezing, and stocking every kind of foodstuff that would keep. Laura’s father, a professor—and mine, a literate and curious copper miner—shared an emotion that grew out of the unknown: a realization, ever present, that a deadly virus is around the corner, some other threat always looms.
This new coronavirus now stares us all in the face with its invisible eyes, and we all feel variously shocked. I’ll wager we’re all feeling this: we have lost or thrown away—to our detriment—what our forebears possessed: humility and caution gained from experience. Everybody knows that when your roof develops a leak, you don’t bluster or rage or deny it. You fix it, or eventually the rafters will come down around you. Everybody knows that when a tree next to your house develops a detaching limb, aimed at the house, you remove that limb or cut down the tree. The evidence tells you. What we’re really talking about here is science. Science follows the evidence.
Science gets a bad rap these days, which perplexes me. Science is not our enemy.
I’ve had a lifelong association with scientists. My uncle Arne was my first scientist, but not the only one. His wife Nancy is a botanist, and I worked as a work-study student for a plant researcher when I was in college. I eventually even married a scientist. My first husband was a research scientist, and most of our friends were in the sciences. My sister’s husband is a molecular biologist, and I have a cousin who is an astrophysicist—and another who is a nuclear physicist. An uncle-by-marriage was also a physicist who worked for NASA and the Manhattan Project. I have known my scientists a long time. I respect them, trust them.
Here’s what most don’t know about science. It doesn’t arrive immediately at an unchanging answer. It follows the evidence—and when the evidence suggests a change in direction, science follows. Scientists reassess as evidence grows. We should all be so wise.
My Uncle Arne and my dad were themselves evidence—living proof that there is no divide between those who specialize in an academic field and those who specialize in what’s considered the more practical side of life. My father’s work as a driller/blaster was as important as Arne’s. Think what this world would be, without the copper—and iron—that my dad wrestled from the ground. Think what this world would be without Arne’s lifelong devotion to understanding how the natural world works.
The scientists I know are important now, as the country faces the coronavirus. But they’re not the only ones who are important. I have nephews working in the grocery business—stocking shelves, disinfecting carts, prepping deli foods. They’re keeping us fed. Who would argue now that workers like them don’t contribute as much as those who have locked themselves into labs in their race for answers? An obvious question arises: when will we pay the workers like my nephews what the evidence now shows they’re worth?
For now, we wait for the pandemic to play out, to get back to a new normal. Thank God for Drs. Fauci and Birx. Otherwise, on the federal level, the response to the pandemic of 2020 has been to let the rain run down through the rafters and to let the tree fall on the house. Scientists have said for years that such an infectious outbreak was coming. Even I, who spend my time writing poetry and prose, have known it and watched for it.
But what did we do as a country, in response to those scientists’ warnings?
Not what Oiva and Arne would have done. For one, we refused to “stock up” when we first learned of the new coronavirus outbreak. When the virus eventually came up the road en masse, like those army worms back home, because of the lagging federal response there were no tests readily available to see who had it, no system in place to track whom they might have given it to, no orchestrated plan to eventually test everyone for antibodies so we could hopefully get back to everyday life.
Over time, we’d opted as a nation to buy too many critical things like medications and medical supplies from other countries. Tariffs complicated matters. When a virus no one had seen before arrived, the supply dwindled. Our medical personnel were left holding a contagious bag, with protective gear in short supply, no approved meds, and a long wait for a vaccine. The people in government who should have seen to preparedness, to keeping us safe, had been let go. There was no national woodpile stretching into the distance, no stocked root cellar. The national larder was bare.
There’s one other story that bears telling here. My husband’s father was three years old during the Spanish Flu of 1918. He caught the virus, and his lungs so filled up with fluid, he couldn’t breathe. To save his life, the doctor punctured his lung, inserting a tube through his back. My husband says he and his siblings were fascinated as kids by the deep pit that puncture had left in their father’s back. That is what we need to do to fix our ailing country—puncture the national body and let out the infection of ignoring common sense.
In our effort to get free of this infectious mud hole we’re in, there have been pro-active people on both sides of the political aisle. Democrat, or Republican—they’ve listened to the scientists, followed the evidence. Then there are others who have not. Those who don’t know or don’t understand need to be cut from leadership. The November election is crucial. The vote is our scalpel. Do we want to let what happened to Wisconsin voters in their recent primary election happen to the whole country? This is a rhetorical question. You know my answer. Expand voting-by-mail. Revive the art of sending letters by post—send some of them to your Congress people, about saving the Postal Service.
My husband and I have been sheltering at home for about a month now, since my mom’s senior living place closed its doors to visitors. After we’d been at home a couple weeks, I woke one morning just as the final image of a dream floated through my mind. A canoe was rising out of a body of water, like Botticelli’s famous image of the goddess Venus rising from the sea, standing on a sea shell. In my dream, the water was bubbling up and around the sides of the canoe as it emerged, and rooted solidly in the center of the canoe was a mature, green-leafed tree, its leaves vibrant with summer’s glory.
I thought immediately of my Uncle Arne, and I have been thinking of him ever since. A couple of summers ago, Arne’s wife and daughter showed me a “what’s it” they’d found somewhere—some antique store or flea market—which they’d bought for Arne as a gift. It’s a little opossum, paddling a canoe, a beatifically happy and quizzical expression on its face. My Uncle Arne was in a personal Heaven, out in a canoe.
I understood, seeing the canoe rising from the water in my dream, that it was a good sign. As bad as our current situation is, I hope for good things to blossom out of it. Skies around the world are clearing. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we would finally take steps to implement green technology to keep them that way, so every child could breathe the pristine air that I breathed, out in my grandparents’ woods?
We are fortunate that so many state and local leaders took the science seriously when the federal government was doing nothing. I am praying that we will create a pandemic response team at the federal level that is charged with working globally to keep us safe—one that no one in government can ever defund or mess with again. By the end of this pandemic, everyone should understand why. Disregarding evidence kills.
I’m lucky to have grown up in the world of my father and Uncle Arne. They gave me a broad picture and taught me to be curious, logical, imaginative. When the two of them got together, it was like they were those farm boys again, laughing, reminiscing. They both had that raucous, easy laugh. Their joy and humor were contagious.
Seeing them together, it was obvious they loved each other. I first saw how much, when I was a kid and Arne got married. My dad went into his shop, dug in the drawers, and pulled out a punch can opener. He’d been using it to open oilcans. My dad used elbow grease to get the oil and rust off, then he and my mom wrapped it, a beautifully wrapped box inside a nest of beautifully wrapped boxes, and gave it to Arne and his bride as a wedding gift. Why was that a gift of love? Because a teen-aged Arne had given that can opener to my mom and dad when they were married. The laughter as that gift was opened was immediate and priceless.
Hans Jensen is the ghost who haunts my grandparents’ woods. He haunts my memories. Our nation has a ghost, too. It’s the memory of our forebears’ resourcefulness, generations back. We have thrown their wise and practical counsel to the ditch. Our country faces not only other pandemics ahead, but also earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfire, and potential bioterrorism. If we don’t take heed of Oiva and Arne’s mantra (Prepare!), if we don’t take heed of the respectful, loving way they treated one another—and especially if we don’t rise up, together, and demand serious changes to our government and our politics—we’re fools.