One summer Henry and his mom moved from Grass Valley to his grandparent’s farm and vineyard in Estrella. Henry’s mom really liked living on the farm.
It’s early summer. Henry wonders if he will make friends when he starts school in a couple weeks.
One afternoon Henry and his mom sat on the front porch, drinking iced tea and talking. “It’s now our job to help grandma and grandpa take care of this house and all the living things on the farm,” said his mom. Henry thought she was looking at him a little too closely. He wondered if his mom could see that he was worried about living there.
“But I miss Grass Valley, our old house and my friends,” said Henry. “I wonder what they are doing right now?”
“I have no idea,” said his mom with a smile. “But could you help me with the goats and chickens? Or they will be wondering why they haven’t been fed yet.”
The shadows of the fence posts around the goat yard grew longer and longer as the warm afternoon wore on. Henry and his mom fed the goats, gathered eggs and cleaned the yard. Henry’s mom left him to finish up and went into the house to start dinner. She turned on her “cooking music.” That afternoon, it was “Kinda Blue” again and Miles Davis could be heard all over the farm.
Henry turned to look at the open door of the kitchen and smiled. When he turned back around, he couldn’t help noticing that all the animals, down to the smallest chick, seemed to be looking at him.
“Come closer,” said a chick.
Henry moved in.
“Do you know much about us?” continued the chick. Henry stared at the talking bird. “Thank you for feeding all of us,” she continued. “And I hear your grandma makes the creamiest goat cheese in the north county, and my four-legged friends thank her for that. We need you. And we want you to like living here. By the way, we love your mom’s tunes. It’s our jam.”
At that moment the goats and chickens started dancing. Henry watched with “udder” amazement.
But after a time the music changed from Miles to Jack Teagarten. And instead of a cool jazz trumpet, Jack Teagarten’s jazz trombone could be heard all around the farm. Henry turned to look at the open kitchen door and realized that his grandpa must have come into the house and changed the music. Then he heard his mom call him for dinner.
Henry turned around to say goodbye to his new friends, but they were no longer dancing and had all gone back to roaming around the yard, just like regular chickens and goats. It was like that magical musical moment had never happened. “They must not be fans of Dixieland jazz,” thought Henry to himself. He felt kind of sorry for his grandpa because there weren’t many humans left who seemed to like listening to Dixieland either.
Henry wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but he decided to keep it to himself, for now.
The next morning Henry woke up as the sun’s first rays of the day came into his bedroom. He decided to spend the morning looking for more unusual living things on the farm. He packed a few of his usual exploring items in his backpack and headed out the back door.
Henry tramped through the dew-covered sunflower maze his grandmother had planted that spring. He saw a few beetles crawling around some of the stems, but none of them stopped to talk. Disappointed, Henry started to leave. To his surprise, he saw some red beetles gathering on a couple of the flower heads. He quickly grabbed the bug net and hand lens from this backpack.
The red beetles began telling funny jokes and some brown ones made pictures as they hovered in the air. And green beetles crash landed onto his bug net and began writing about the weather. Henry watched all of this activity for a minute or two. Then all of a sudden a gust of wind shook the red bugs from the sunflower heads. The brown ones scattered like dust in the sky. And the green beetles flashed as they rolled from the net, struggling to fly away. Just like that, they were all gone. Henry hurried out of the sunflower maze, looking up and down the rows of flowers hoping to find them again.
Once out of the maze he saw his mom standing under an oak tree at the edge of the vineyard. She seemed to be watching a bunch of blackbirds flying around and around in the sky.
He ran up to her and immediately started talking. “Mom, you’ll never guess what I just saw,” said Henry excitedly. “I mean, is this place magical or something?”
“I like to think so,” she said.
Just then, Henry saw what seemed like 100 bright dots of light flashing all over the vineyard. “What’s going on?” said Henry. “Where are those flashes coming from? Can beetles make that kind of light?” said Henry, remembering his recent beetle encounter.
“I don’t know,” said his mom. “Your grandpa and I and some of the vineyard workers tied pieces of reflective tape to the plants this morning. When the wind blows, the sun reflects tiny bits of light all around the vineyard. The random flashes scare the blackbirds. That should keep them from landing on the plants and eating up our grape crop.”
And just like that she turned around and started running towards the house. “That group of birds are headed for the house,” said his mom over her shoulder as she ran. Henry ran close behind her.
“Something’s different this morning,” whispered one of the birds on the roof.
“Yeah,” said another. “Yesterday, we were happily eating some of those tasty grapes. But now there’s something out there that’s scaring me right down to my pin feathers.”
“We didn’t really mean to scare you,” shouted Henry’s mom. “But you need to go somewhere else to eat. Leave our grapes alone!”
The blackbirds looked at Henry and his mother, made a collective loud squawk and flew away.
Henry wanted to talk to her about the talking birds. But she had already climbed all the way down the ladder.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled,” said his mom. “I think they’re headed for the cattails by the pond.”
Now she was running towards the pond. Again, Henry was right behind her.
Henry and his mom got to the pond just after the birds had landed on the cattails. “You can talk to these birds?” said Henry, panting a little bit.
“I warned them not to eat the grapes anymore,” said his mom. “I hope your grandpa’s trick will keep then out of the vineyard. By the way, I wish there was some kind of magic to get rid of these mosquitoes. I don’t think blackbirds or chickens will eat them. Maybe we can get some kind of pump out here. That should keep the water moving and get rid of the wigglers. I’ll get your grandpa on that.”
Henry smiled, remembering how his grandpa was always trying to fix things. “Remember when grandpa was going to put great hunks of bubble gum down the gopher holes in grandma’s rose garden?”
“I think the idea was that the gophers would chew the gum and then never have room in their mouths to eat your grandma’s roses,” said his mom. “Kind of gruesome, actually, I guess they were supposed to starve to death as they endlessly chewed gum.”
The blackbirds seemed to have calmed down. They clung to the cattails and sang to each other as they bounced on the stalks in the breeze. A few hens and chicks scratched in the dirt. Bright orange dragonflies hovered over the pond water, while sparkling beetles climbed the golden cattail stalks. Henry and his mom made mud pies. Then they invited all the living things to tea. No one seemed at all interested.
Henry and his mom were ready for some real tea and headed back to the house. Even though they were both hungry, neither felt the need to run this time.
Henry and his family sat on the porch, drinking lemonade and eating goat cheese on crackers. “Well, Henry, that’s what I thought I’d write,” said his mom after she finished telling the story of their amazing and magical life on the farm. “I knew you were worried about coming here and leaving your friends. I thought this story might help. What do you think?”
“I really love the part about grandpa trying to get rid of gophers with chewing gum,” said Henry.
“He didn’t actually do it, but we did talk about maybe trying it one afternoon,” said Henry’s mom, grinning at her dad. “Hey dad, do you think the reflective tape will keep the birds away?”
But Henry’s grandpa wasn’t really listening to them. Jack Teagarten had just started singing his “bluesy” rendition of “Weary River.” It could be heard all over the farm. Henry’s mom looked over at the goats and chickens in the nearby yard. She believed so passionately in the real and imagined magic of their life on the farm. Were her eyes playing tricks? Or were they swaying, ever so slightly, to the music?
“I have been just like a weary river that keeps winding endlessly.
Fate has been a very cheerful giver to most everyone, but me.
Oh, how long it took me to learn, hope is strong and tides have to turn.
And now I know that every weary river, someday meets the sea.”
Post notes for “Life on the Farm:”
When I first got the idea for this story (late 1990s, early 2000s) it was meant to be a picture book for young children. There were to be two kinds of “magical” events going on simultaneously in the story. The first kind was to make the reader believe in the practical wonder and magic of the real world. It was meant as a kind of stewardship message of how we should not only be in awe of life on Earth, but also be “people of parts” who take care of that life. The second kind was meant to be the “get down and dirty” fantastic kind (e.g. talking birds, beetles that tell jokes etc). That was meant to help the reader suspend belief, making you want to go down the magical “rabbit hole” right along with the characters in the story.
I wrote several versions of “Life on the Farm,” maintaining the same basic storyline in each. The first one was done completely in rhyme and the second was written as a kind of math book with specific details related to computations and shapes. I wrote the final story in straight and simple prose, similar to what you see here. But, for this 2018 version, I modified many of the details (e.g. there was no mention of chewing gum and gophers in the first “go round”) and I believe it now has more humor. Oh, and the jazz references reflect real aspects of my family, and that contributes to my life growing up in Silicon Valley.
I make “light” of a couple real problems that people/farmers face in everyday life (e.g. birds eating a cash crop, mosquitoes in standing water and gophers). And those kinds of pests can be a real hazard, no foolin’ around. But I think that supports the idea that we should be stewards of life on Earth and sometimes we need to make hard decisions when faced with not only the good parts of life here, but also the bad parts as well.
I have lots more to say about magic and how it is portrayed in books, movies etc, but this post is already long enough. The discussion of magical events we have in our actual and imaginary lives will have to wait for another time. Stay tuned.