My German ancestors immigrated to the United States, bringing their farming skills to towns like Fairfield and Ritzville—railroad stops strategically named to encourage farmers to move West in the homestead days. The Thams and the Heins travelled to the Washington Territory and claimed their 60 acres of Palouse dirt. Thirty years later, Mary Thams married Philip Hein, they built our farm, straddling her parents’ property and the rest is my history.
We spent our winter childhoods dragging #50 bales across barn floors, cutting them open over feeders lined opposite anxious, hungry cattle. Our summer childhoods were spent collecting the next winter’s supply of bales and playing Kick the Can—a deliciously terrifying game—especially at night. “It’s dark outside,” our mothers would say. “Time to come in.” But we resisted. The air was finally cool and smelled of alfalfa. And it wasn’t dark really, maybe adult dark, but not kid dark.
Owls hooting, coyotes in the distance, car lights going over the distant highway, maybe a plane whose route we tracked from on our backs on the lawn. And the stars and the smell of alfalfa.
Give me a starry night and a whiff of alfalfa and I’m back in a summer Palouse night in the 1960s.
Today my husband and I own a farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Jim lives mostly on the farm while I live mostly in Seattle. I think we both feel the farm in our hearts more than our apartment in Seattle, even though we argue about the definition of the farm. Jim thinks we should fill the greenhouses and fields with produce even though it’s just the two of us. He feels an injustice if we don’t cultivate, so at least two giant greenhouses are full of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lima beans, flowers and grapes. We have a garden outside—this year full of celery, Walla Wallas, favas and corn. Randomly placed around are hops, garlic and flowers.
I have in my core the knowledge of what it is like to really farm four seasons a year and would prefer a smaller garden, an annual battle I have yet to win.
My father’s place were the fields that he circumnavigated multiple times a year with a plow, then harrow, seeder, combine, manure spreader, and a plow started the cycle again. I wonder if at first he felt his place in the same way I felt mine: through the stars, playing Kick the Can in the dark, both of our Kick the Can careers launched in the same place.
These days I run a writing center in Seattle. Recently a group of children from the center came to our farm for a camping trip. After dinner and fireside tales, I curled up in a lawn chair in front of the barn…in my adult-dark world…as the kids pulled out headlamps for a late night game of Hide-and-Seek.
After some rounds, 10-year-old Faiz slumped in the chair next to me, a found Hide and Seeker. He told me he had been hiding in the field, lying in a patch of tall grass, watching the stars, undetected until Rowan tripped over him. “Have you seen the stars?” he whispered. “Amazing.”
At that moment it occurred to me that wherever I look at the stars, something rustles the Palouse in me. And that Faiz was looking at the same stars I saw from our Palouse lawn of fifty years ago. And how a person’s sense of place in the world can be driven by such things as lying on one’s back in the grass in the dark with eyes wide open.