"Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in 12 minutes. Half-times take 12 minutes. This is not coincidence."

- Erma Bombeck


Change is a funny thing. It's nice to look back and remember how things "used to be," but it's also exciting to look at how the world continues to change - hopefully for the better - every few generations.

I realize the "good old days" weren't always that great. In fact, at times they were downright ugly. But if you are allowed to pick and choose, most of us can find a decent number of bright and shiny days.

I took a quick trip home over the weekend. I wanted to see how the old farm looked from above. It didn't take long to fly to that little quarter section in Fairfield Township, Russell County, Kansas, via satellite map on my laptop.

About four years ago, I returned physically to the farm after an absence of 30 years. I was struck by how much had changed. No one has lived there since we moved away in the sixties, and while much of the land has been continuously planted in wheat, milo and alfalfa hay, the pasture hasn't seen a cow in half a century.

When my great-grandfather first purchased the land from the Union Pacific Railroad in 1886, the homestead was just a square on a railroad baron's map, cheap land that drew all four branches of my father's family by covered wagon and by rail to the end of the tracks, staking a claim on what they hoped would be a better future.

The native unbroken prairie stretched to the horizon, devoid of trees except a few cottonwoods along creek beds. One of those ravines cut through his land, flowing only when it rained. After carving out a spot for a small frame home, a barn and a few sheds, he fenced off 40 acres for pasture, surrounded it with limestone posts and barbed wire, and plowed up the rest to plant Russian Red winter wheat.

His son-in-law, my granddad, built a substantial dam on the creek and terraced the fields to corral more of the runoff. Tree rows planted after the Dust Bowl kept the strong Kansas winds from scouring away the topsoil. With my dad's help, he built a new barn to replace the one taken by a tornado and installed a biplane propeller on a tower above the outhouse to generate electricity.

My father, the only son, left high school after his first year to work the farm when granddad was slowed by diabetes. The war took him away for five years, but the family held on until he returned to run the farm with his new bride. He built another small dam to create a second pond for the cattle, dug a water well, expanded the little house to fit a family of seven and cinched up the fences to put in more Hereford cattle and a few Holsteins for milk.

When we were young, my two brothers and two sisters worked the fields, tended the garden, collected eggs and fed the cattle. The boys attacked weeds that threatened to take over the farmyard, burned tumbleweeds and sprayed bindweed in the ditches. We gathered rocks from the alfalfa fields, hauling them to the pasture in the old Dodge truck, where we dumped them to reinforce the little dam.

But once we moved into town, nature took over. The elms in the tree rows spread north filling the ravine, prairie grasses grew tall in the pasture and sunflowers took over the fence lines.

When I was young, we roamed freely through the dry pasture. With prairie grasses cropped short, we watched and listened for the large diamondbacks that shared our space. Reared back to strike, their giant heads bobbing from side to side, you heeded their warning and gave them their space.

Four years ago, I waded into waist-deep grass, picking my way gingerly along game trails, listening for rattlesnakes, worrying about deer ticks, trying to make it as far as the little pond. What had been shin-high grass was then a tangled mat of weeds, thistles and thorn-covered locust trees grown to maturity.

The little pond, where we had fished for catfish with cane poles, had been transformed into an established marsh surrounded by cattails, home to bullfrogs, catfish and dragonflies, frequented by coyotes and bobcats.

The crumbling barns and sheds of the farmyard were obscured from view, overtaken by a thick growth of elm trees, offspring of those that had long ago escaped from the shelterbelt. Forests filled the ravine and half the pasture.

The satellite images from above are crisp and clear now. Looking down, the little pond is a dark blue eye surrounded by green eye shadow. The groves and thickets that fill the entire northern third of the farm look like a place we would have enjoyed exploring in our younger days.

I hope I get another chance to walk out into the pasture, like I did on that crisp fall day in 2011. Ellen, the widow of my cousin and current landowner, has extended an invitation to come back any time. I will take her up on that.

It's not like it was when I was a kid. It might actually be better. I'm okay with that.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column runs every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.

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