"We come and go, the land is always here And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it -- for a little while." — Willa Cather
I had a favorite spot when I was a kid, a little clearing in the shelterbelt facing the biggest of our fields, just next to the road my Dad used to move machinery on from one field to the next.
The opening in the cargana bushes was just big enough for a small girl and I spent afternoons at a time there, dreaming, singing and reading poetry, all safely hidden from my Mom’s call for chores or my brother’s mocking eye.
The road, which was more like a two-track, had been beaten down by heavy tires long enough that the dirt had become a fine silt. To my 8-year-old hands, it’s what beach sand must have felt like. I sat there for hours daydreaming that the dirt was actual sand and I was on a beach someplace exotic, the vast expanse in front of me an ocean, instead of on acres upon acres of dryland cropground. The whoosh of the wind in the branches above me became the sound of the waves.
Just after my parents sold the farm in my mid-20s, I was living in D.C. and took a weekend trip to the Maryland coast. One night after a stroll, my friends and I sat in the sand. I closed my eyes and found myself daydreaming that the sand under me was dry Montana dirt, that the horizon in front of me was a swaying wheatfield and that the sound of the waves was wind whipping off the Rocky Mountain Front.
When I returned to Montana after that summer, I went back to the farm and sat in that spot and sobbed.
It’s a funny thing, how attached you can become to a little bit of dirt.
Which is why, when Jacob and I first started talking to David, our landlord, about leasing his place, his rather unsentimental take on everything surprised me. I don’t mean he was dispassionate. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. But he had this no-nonsense practicality that struck me. I can’t remember exactly how he put it, but essentially he told us that he wasn’t first on the land, nor would he be the last. No one really owns her land in the first place, he said.
It’s not a novel notion — but it is one I’ve heard mostly from the mouths of academics or environmentalists. Try it on a farmer who’s been on his land for 50 years and his family for three generations before that and it’s not going to fly. That’s why coming from a farmer — especially one staring down the reality of handing his land over to someone else — the idea held tremendous weight.
For the better part of the last eight years, I had been crying every time we flashed past the old farm. The thought of another family there, of another farmer’s plow in those fields, made me feel robbed. Something that was mine was no longer.
At the same time, I’ve watched my Dad grapple with the sale of his childhood farm. Just months after Jacob and I moved home, my uncle Joe died and with him, the Lowery homestead. My Dad went out to the farm almost every day after Joe’s death, clearing three generations of farm life out of bins and Quonsets, sorting through machinery and old cars, fond recollections and bitter memories.
There was a longing in him then that I didn’t see after my childhood farm sold.
Maybe I wasn’t as perceptive then. Or maybe, all this time, it was less about the land, for him and for me, than I thought.
Our farm is 20 miles from the one where I grew up and I now pass the it at least twice a week. When I remember, I glance over at the profile of the homestead. I sometimes get a little mushy about it, but I don’t cry anymore.
We even started considering the old place for us when we heard it was up for sale again. We walked around the place one cold March evening and, despite my hesitation, I could comfortably stand there, my past, present and future colliding in front of me.
Maybe that’s because it is no longer “the farm” now that “the farm” means our farm – Jacob’s and my farm, whether it’s one we’re leasing or the one we might someday own.
Or, maybe I am just finally able to intellectualize that the farm was never really mine to begin with, and that, like my Dad, what I am really mourning is a childhood, an innocence and an unscathed family, not a piece of ground.
Or, maybe I just know it would be a waste of moisture — so very precious in this eastern front wind — if I have to cry every time we pass that particular parcel.
Regardless, now that I’m digging in our dirt — which is actually owned by David, but technically still owned by the bank, and before that, owned by his parents and before that by someone whose name I don’t even know — I see what David was talking about: it’s about being able to see further back than yourself or even your parents or grandparents and further forward than your children or even their children.
Every spring, I read O Pioneers! by Willa Cather , after whom our 6-month-old daughter is named. And every time I read it, I am struck by how perfectly Cather manages to express this sentiment in the final pages, when Alexandra Bergstrom says to her friend:
“The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will there be in fifty years? I might as well will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, the land is always here And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor and farmer. She and her husband run Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm in Central Montana where they raise vegetables, turkeys and ancient and heritage grains. Her monthly column, Home Again, is about her journey home to rural central Montana, where she is starting over, starting a family and starting a farm.