(Photo by Kurt Ulrich)

Once upon a time I knew how to hammer a nail, cut a chalk line, handle a circular saw, roof a barn, etc. However, I’ve never been smart enough to build something myself, and always look for guidance from someone who knows what’s going on. He was doing. (There has never been a foreman in my construction history) I was the guy on the crew who was there for the summer, or for a few months to help out a friend whose construction work was a little behind schedule. In other words, I was actually a tourist in the company of hardworking professional men who do this kind of work for a living.

I suppose I was competent enough, and I hope the others would not resent my presence: perhaps they should have. My fellow workers were the kind of people who kept this country moving forward. Me, not so much. My job is to appreciate the roads they built, the railroads they laid, the homes they built, the cars they made, and to make sure we understand the value of their work. This part of the look back stems from the fact that a neighbor gathered family and friends for a few days recently to build a building on his property and it was very cool and humbling to watch.

Some things have changed since barns were created centuries ago, such as the use of power tools, metal siding and roofing, and hydraulic lifting buckets. One thing that hasn’t changed is the sense of community that such a gathering brings.

Here, autumn is approaching, like a half-forgotten dream, hinting but not arriving. Canada geese move in their typical V-shaped flight formations, with the lead bird cutting through the air, and the rest moving behind. Several thousand pelicans are also moving, their formations a bit disorganized. Eventually, the giant birds will end up in the southern United States or Mexico for the winter.

Large, shimmering butterflies have decided to call my hollow home this year, sharing the thistle flowers with the bees. Goldenrod plants are everywhere. With luck, autumn will bring rain, because for so long the dust in the rearview mirror has been rising, rolling and folding into the ditches as I pass. Yesterday, a family pack of coyotes moved across the hollow, howling and groaning in pain, reminding me that I live in their world, and that my presence is of no particular importance to them.

My swing still tempts. It lies a few feet from a thigh-high wall assembled over twenty years ago from stones left behind by a glacier thousands of years ago. The wall is a favorite place to escape for ground squirrels, one of the really cute rodents. I can spend a lot of time on my back, doing nothing particularly useful to anyone, swaying a little while breathing, with the hair of Ted Kooser and Bill Holm in my hands, staying in the company of wild things, away from people, away from any city.

The only sound is a light breeze through the treetops and the short-lived eruption of cicadas. But every now and then, when the wind is right, I hear the sound of civilization rushing in from the north, from my neighbour’s place. It’s a sound I made when I was young, and it’s a sound I leave now to those who know what they’re doing, the competent men who say things to each other like: “We’re only sixteen inches back. No one’s going to notice.” It is the sound of a nail being hammered, a building rising from the ground where there once was grass.

Kurt Ulrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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