The October sky bends blue over the cornfields as I wind past faded barns and flame-edged trees. On the radio, mellow bluegrass trades places with static along each curve of the road. I’m driving south, leaving Ann Arbor behind for a day to visit my aunt and uncle on their farm in the tiny town of Tipton, MI. I’ve been in graduate school for more than a month now, and weariness is already creeping into my bones. I need some fresh air.
I’ve been visiting my family on this farm for as long as I can remember. My cousin Chelsea is two years my elder, two years younger than her sister Gillian, and we’ve always been close. When I was younger, my mom, sister, and I made the two-hour drive about once a year. When we pulled up the gravel driveway, Chelsea would fly out of the house and we’d fling ourselves out of the car and into each other’s arms.
The small farmstead captivated my suburban imagination. It was a place of earthy smells and textures, goats to scratch and eggs to collect from warm nests. My sister and I played at being farm-girls, but Gillian and Chelsea were the true homesteaders. They were homeschoolers, 4-Hers, chicken lovers, rabbit breeders. We pitched tents in the backyard, eating gooseberries and playing cards by flashlight late into the night. We donned long, flowing skirts and staged gypsy dances in the living room, our parents dutifully tossing pennies at our feet. We hunted for fossils in the nearby quarry, fed soggy dog food to whichever injured bird was recovering on the back porch, warmed our hands by the woodstove, washed the dinner dishes by hand. I loved every dusty, dewy, hay-scented moment.
Over the years, my aunt and uncle have added outbuildings, expanded their sprawling vegetable garden, adopted dogs, raised ducks and chickens, and cleared pastures for sheep and goats. Uncle Eric teaches high school science, but he pours every spare moment into the farm. My aunt—Mary to most, Tinker to some—homeschooled her daughters through high school. Now that the girls have grown and moved away, Tinker nurtures whatever people, plants, and animals come under her care.
Today, Gillian and Chelsea both live in West Michigan. Because I’ve been able to see Tinker and Eric when they visit their daughters, I haven’t returned to the farm in probably five years. But it’s an easy drive from Ann Arbor and the timing is finally right. Forty minutes after leaving the city, I pull into the gravel driveway of the big white farmhouse. Eric waves from the yard, where he’s raking wood chips into next year’s squash beds. I let myself through the back gate and am nearly tackled by two beefy, wriggling dogs. They festoon my sweatshirt with white hairs and I don’t mind a bit.
The dogs rocket around the yard as Tinker walks me through five years of change. There’s a new hothouse for peppers and winter spinach. They’ve added sweet potato beds beside the goat pasture. The barn rolls with a bumper crop of butternut squashes. Their cantankerous black cat is gone. Tinker and I step into the henhouse and I automatically scan the nest boxes, but the morning’s harvest has already been tallied and added to the wire basket hanging in the kitchen. I half expect Chelsea to come sprinting out of the house for a bear hug. Not today.
Tinker and I head into the pine-paneled kitchen for lunch. Surrounded by spice jars and mismatched green pottery, I brew tea and chop peppers while Tinker makes fresh guacamole for our taco salads. At the wooden dining table, we sip glasses of raw cow’s milk and gaze out the picture window, watching a goat amble through the wooded hill pasture. Eric pops a bottle of home-brewed kombucha and we clink our glasses in a murmured toast.
After lunch, Tinker and I head out to the sun-soaked garden. We pick thumb-sized raspberries and listen to the ducks muttering in their pen. I fill a basket with crisp lettuce and Swiss chard. A raspberry finds its way into my mouth. I close my eyes, breathe deep, and finally feel my shoulders relax.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.