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Finally the Summer is Over!

Mike Hillman

I donít know about anyone else, but I for one am happy this summer is finally over!

This year started off with so much promise. The winterís back-to-back blizzards made the snow stay around for a while, adding much needed moisture to the ground, unlike most snowstorms Iíve experienced over the past 20 years. Spring brought an unusual amount of early rain that became frustrating to farmers who desperately needed to plant crops in their fields, and to hobby horse-farm owners like me, who had to cut pastures more than we cared to.

May came and Mother Nature turned off the spigot. The dry weather gave everyone a chance to catch up, but with the first cut hay safely in the barns and the fields nicely mowed, eyes began to turn upwards. ďOK, you can bring on some more rain...Ē But none came.

Now having spent the past 20 summers on the farm, Iíve long gotten used to dry summers, and fully expect to spend more than my fair share of time down at Toms Creek pumping water for my wifeís gardens and the brood of young trees weíve planted around the farm. Until this summer Iíve never found cause to make that trip in July, let alone in June.

However, something told me this year was going to be hard, so instead of waiting for the trees to show stress, I started early. Being the engineer that I am, I laid out a schedule for how much water each tree would receive and when. I watered the younger trees, which had shallower and less developed roots, more frequently. I let the older trees, with their well established roots, tough it out. As the dry spell dragged on, they too were eventually added to the watering schedule.

My job called me away for the second half of June, but I left feeling confident the trees would be fine. Every night as my wife and I caught up with each other, the conversation always turned to the subject of rain. ďNope,Ē was her only reply to my question on the chance of rain. With each passing day I found myself worrying more and more about the trees. Having planted each and every one of them as seedlings no bigger than my thumb, I had a special attachment to each one.

By the time I returned home in early July, my worst fears were realized. Many trees were showing signs of drought stress, and several had already lost half or more of their leaves. I had no sooner unpacked my bags than I was headed down to the creek for water. And so it went for the rest of the summer.

While in many ways it was work, watering the trees provided me a much-needed opportunity to take a deep breath and draw some enjoyment for life.

My two canine traveling companions, Kira and Neilex, never seemed to tire of the trips to the creek. While I pumped water, they hunted Crawdads in the water under Toms Creek Bridge. They never caught any, but that didnít seem to bother them. They were just happy being dogs. Neilex would wade in the shallows with his tail in constant motion in anticipation of a Ďfind,í while Kira would patrol the deeper sections. I enjoyed watching them enjoy themselves. As they hunted I read, something I find harder and harder to do these days.

On many occasions a neighbor would join me to draw water for his vegetable garden and his wifeís roses. Our conversations almost always turned to the depth of the water in the creek. Having lived in the country all his life, he believed this summerís drought was the worst ever, and with temperatures stuck in the high 90's and no rain in sight, it was only going to get worse.

As the summer wore on, the creek grew shallower and shallower as feeder streams dried up. And with the feeder streamsí drying, wildlife that depended upon them for water had to seek out water wherever they could. It wasnít exactly wildlifeís ĎGrapes of Wrathí event, not yet at least, but I nevertheless felt for them.

After noticing paw prints in the muddy bottom of a now-dry, small vernal pond at the bottom of our hill, I decided to add it to my watering regime. While larger wildlife could make the mile-long trek to the creek, smaller animals, like snakes, chipmunks, mice, and turtles, could not.

I was not disappointed. The evening of the first refilling of the pond I sat on the hill and watched as animals descended upon it. It was like watching a caravan arrive at an oasis in the desert. Though I could not solve world hunger or bring about world peace by myself, in this case I was able to make a difference for the most innocent of Godís creatures, and thatís all the reward I needed.

Try as I might, I could not water everything. As the summer wore on, underbrush in the woods began to shrivel up and die, revealing long forgotten trails and tire tracks formed years before I was born.

Near the vernal pond, the vestige of the long-abandoned driveway that runs adjacent to the boundary of my farm is now visible. It is only the second time I have been able to make out its path, the first time being in the early 1990ís. Unlike the first time, this time I can walk the full path and make out every twist and turn. When I close my eyes, I can envision a Model T spinning its wheels, cutting deep grooves in the wet clay, grooves that are still visible today.

The loss of underbrush also reveals the Ďdumpsí of the farmers and homeowners who once called my farm home. Time and the elements have done their work on the dumps, and now all that remains are treasures from a bygone era: old medicine bottles, pots and plates, and occasionally an old car headlight. I would thoroughly enjoy a good archaeological dig, but with trees to water and a pond to fill, I simply donít have the time. When I donít need to water my trees, the underbrush is too dense and the dumps disappear from view, so exploring them is impossible. Itís the classic catch-22.

While the old paths and dumps that come to life in droughts attract my attention, itís the outline of an old foundation just inside my fence line alongside the road that only appears during periods of severe drought that really gets my curiosity going.

I measured the outline once to be 24 feet by 20 feet, precisely the size of the original portion of my house. It is all that remains of the foundation of my houseís twin. Both houses were built for sisters in the 1880ís. When the properties were combined in the 1920's, the owner chose one for his home and the other was rented out. In the 1930's the rental was torn down and the ground it stood upon plowed over. The outline of its foundation comes back every drought to remind me that it once served a purpose.

The remnants of this sister house remind me that like all things, time is fleeting; that our time here is short and we should make the most of it.

In the country a personís worth is not measured by how much he or she owns or controls, but by how much he or she gives and cares.

During this hot summer I enjoyed the shade of trees that a nameless person planted and watered long before I was born. Long after Iím gone, the trees that I watered this summer will provide shade for owners to whom my name will only be a footnote in a deed record.

Like them, like me, like all things, the trees will grow old and die, and the cycle of life will go on. That is the way of life in the country. Thatís the beauty of life in the country.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman