April Snow in Wisconsin

The farm begins the last five days of March 2011 with freezing temperatures under full sun. A look at the forecast for the week ahead makes it a sure bet that somewhere in Wisconsin, even here is the state’s southwestern counties, there’ll be April snow. So it seems appropriate to share the poem below from my second book, Driving Away from East and West, published in 1990 by John Judson’s Juniper Press. The setting is Caledonia Township, Columbia County, Wisconsin, on a farm along County Highway U south of the city of Portage.

            April Snow in Wisconsin

Spring had turned to the winter and won
but snow returned so thick in wind
that plow clicked in my mind like a stutter
while I looked two ways at the order of the farm.

The day became a trip postponed and a barn to clean.
Measured by accumulations
it tossed on the swell of weather.
The roads closed. A neighbor phoned for help.

Had he called later with,
“Come quick, the calves are dying,”
the manure and its stale steam
would have spread over the lower forty.

But the load would wait. It wouldn’t freeze
in weather that wet. I snapped the M tractor free
for a trip through woods that marked
good neighbors with maple and oak.

Not a track in those woods marked life. None of the deer
or squirrel. Most everything waited that one out.
A single jay blued the air
as the tractor broke trail toward the Webers.

The lane skirted a kettle of rough hay. In bow season
the past fall, Joe Weber hit a buck there
and called me for help tracking. We followed blood
two hundred yards north. Above a ravine we lost it.

It was almost dark then and our lanterns weren’t sun.
Joe tied his scarf to a branch. “He broke
off the shaft, probably. The wound closes then
and the blood flows in. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

That day, Saturday, I got my limit of squirrel
and walked to the Webers for a cookie.
Grandma Weber made the best chocolate chips
in Caledonia township. Joe was in the kitchen eating some.

“No luck,” he said. “Since you had the oak logged
off that slope the ravine has gone thick in berries.
If he got in there to die only the fox will know,
and do by now, probably.” I took a cookie. Grandma poured coffee.

Joe’s Uncle Cliff came in from the barn.
His Angus cows were calving. “Wish I could be lazy,
hunting like you two.” He washed then grabbed a cookie.
Joe took another. I got the last one. Grandma laughed at Cliff.

That winter, putting up wood, I worked up some oak tops
the logging crew left along the ravine.
And ten feet of hollow heart trunk
not good enough for lumber but good enough for heat.

I cut the trunk into sections from the top
then flipped it over with a peavey.
But in the snow I read the slope wrong.
The thing rolled till the berry vines caught it.

I slid down with a log chain, backed up
the tractor, and pulled it out. Lucky.
But down there the ribs of Joe’s buck showed through.
I found bones, arrow and all. Fox had filled on the rest.

An ax got the skull and antlers off.
Next night when I went to the Webers for some euchre
I brought it along. Joe took it outside and
in the dark he nailed it to the side of Cliff’s barn.

You think of these things, nothing else to do
with a mile of wet snow piling up
and a neighbor needing help. Then, out of the trees
and there was Cliff wringing his hands, waiting. “Glad you’re here.”

We ran to the first three. They lay flat in the lee of the barn,
right under Joe’s trophy. You don’t look twice at a calf’s eyes
when they’re like that. You know. “There are four in the barn,”
Cliff said, “I’ll run call the vet again.” He was gone.

Of the four in the barn three were gone.
I leaned low to the other in the wet matted straw
to listen for breath, for any thin gift,
some oddment to offer Cliff for his grief.

There was a last breath, then nothing.
Angry, I yelled, “No you can’t! No you can’t!”
But the small form wouldn’t startle. The spine arched
away from me, away from all surprises.

Cliff was back. “The vet’s stuck at Blystone’s. Ed’s
going to try to get him here with the wrecker.”
“Well Cliff, I think we’re stuck here too.”
I just grabbed his shoulder and waited him out.

We dragged those four into the yard
and caught sight of Ed’s wrecker rattling in on chains.
“Poison.”
The four of us looked for the source.

And found it, an old door thrown over the stock tank
only that morning to keep out some of the snow.
“Wanted to keep it from slushing up.”
The thick coats of white, leaded paint were chewed away.

That’s all you had to see. Ed took off with the vet.
Cliff and I went in for coffee and cookies.
“They’re pretty small. I’ll drag ’em to the woods Cliff.”
“More fox than usual this year anyhow.”

“Someone has to smile,” Grandma said. I gave her the usual hug.
Cliff and I went out to get rid of the door and drain the tank.
We got it scrubbed and filled. He let some penned stock out
after we dragged the seven from the yard. “Cliff, I’ll handle it.”

One by one, snapped to the end of the chain, I skidded
them through the wet and deepening April snow.
Cookies and six quick cups between the seven trips.
And then in dark I retraced the lane toward chores.
Thirteen years this spring. I can still see each trip.
The snow steaming off the exhaust. The slack and snap
on the chain. A strange cortege: the M tractor and I and each calf
thumping to the ravine of fox and seasoned oak.

Copyright 1990, Karl Garson

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