A Story of a Decorah Transplant

By: Brett Steelman, Grocery Stocker

About to work the garden, I’m riding to the ridge top on the tailgate of the truck while the sun comes up before me. The swelling horizon. A young color of orange. The sun’s crown about to breach. It’s summer, trees’ve bloomed green, the morning’s fog rivers through the valley below, and it’s my first day and the farmer and the farmhand are driving while I’m on the tailgate observing the road to the garden unspool, and wondering: Where in the world.

I am from a city; I am from Ames, Iowa, a gray town concreted and sprawling and unfit for me. Luckily—I think it’s lucky—I am from a family of farmers. I grew under the care of a mother and a brother and two grandparents—and aunts and uncles, too—all of whom spoke fondly of the farm and its pleasures and spells. My family gathers around the kitchen table, books of crossword puzzles splayed open in the middle, our Styrofoam coffee cups up and down in our hands, sloshing, as stories escalate of barn dances and sweat-slick nights, of Scoop Shovel Scotty and the rasp of his dragging artifact behind him and of Grandpa’s brother drowning in Honey Creek. The table grows hot with stories, and, to me, the Farm—capital F—has only ever existed in stories, and I listen to the stories—to the hymns, the anthems, like being coaxed out of the house—and I admire the Farm and am spellbound.

That first day in the garden, my hands began to bleed (because I was without gloves), my feet became swallowed by mud (because I hadn’t great footwear), my forehead reddened (even though I wore a hat), thistles stabbed my butt (through my jeans) and my back cringed from the weight of the work. Yet, somehow, I looked out from the top of the bluff, sweat pearling from the tip of my nose, farmer Erik Sessions and fellow farmhand Connor Murphy singing their songs of world news and politics in my background, the veins of gravel roads below us, and I felt good company and good place.

I had gotten to Decorah because of school. In 2010, as a freshman, I moved into Brandt Hall to begin my first year at Luther College. Before long, I was walking to the cafeteria for brunch in my slippers. In Ames lived my family; I loved my family—I missed my family—but I embraced a new place. I embraced the woods. I’d steal away from studies and classes to jungle-gym about the new landscape, its trails, trees and springs. I’d drink the adrenaline of having pilgrimaged through the forests, thickly-weaved and brambly as spider webs, felt good company with the insects and the critters, and caught their eyes catching me from behind and above and within a tree. The ridges, the woods, were unlike any habitat I’d experienced and inside them I was discovering what can be home.

Then, my grandpa’s heart began to fail. The farmer—the farmer I am closest to, whose songs wake me up—my farmer, began to die, I realized. He’s entered that season. It was September of my senior year, 2013, when I was notified. Ames became strange and impossible; college classes irrelevant; the woods confrontational. That October, I asked Erik if I could join the Patchwork Green Farm team. This past June, I began in the garden.

Our stories from the garden: Early in the season, one morning, we were in the north end of the garden harvesting snow peas when the clear day around us got walled out by sudden, torrential rain. Big, cold raindrops that wake you up. Peas in my bucket began to float. On sunny days, the grasses and flowers edging the garden shimmer in unison, and look glittered, a songbird on a fence post conducting. We’ve harvested eight-thousand heads of garlic. We’ve dug from the ground seven-thousand pounds of spuds—five of us, eight-hour days—the spuds bubbling from the earth. With Always-going Erik, whose secret is granola, and whose farm is a mantle of growth. Kindred Connor, who yowls and yips like a coyote at me, calling me out of my den, who inquires like the kid he is—these stories that we live, with these good folks are enough to last a lifetime.

Now, it’s fall. The colors have come and soaked the landscape. Ancient oranges; reds red as embers. It’s the time of the year the trees click. As I am finishing my first season in the garden, I’ve got a bucket of brussels sprouts almost full, my boots are swallowed by mud but my feet are dry. I’m atop a bluff, perched over the valley; I’m living stories with good company. Yes, my grandpa’s dying—that’s fact; I’m gone from those who raised me—a fact, too. Sure, I visit Ames and my family, and when I do, I am gladdened and informed. Although, here, in Decorah, in the garden, I dig into my history and why my family loved the Farm; I discover kinship and cultivate it and expand it. I am growing, and am most importantly—embracingly—weathering on top of the world

Brett Steelman is a 2014 graduate of Luther College. He graduated with a BA in English, and works for the Oneota Co-op as a grocery stocker, and additionally was a farmhand at Patchwork Green Farm in Decorah.