By Zinta Aistars
Published in Encore magazine
November 2013 Issue
"The Last Word," pages 45-46
My jaw dropped. My head fell back. My eyes went wide, wider. That sky!
Guinnez, my old chow pup, leaned against my legs, and his head seemed to tip up for a moment, too, but then his nose pointed in another direction, scenting the wild. There was a rustling out there in the woods, and it held his attention. It was our first night of living in the country, on the ten-acre plot I would come to call Z Acres.
The little red farmhouse was steeped in history. Once I had made the decision to buy the property in the winter of 2012, I poured over the old titles and deeds in fascination. Ownership dated back to 1832. The farmhouse was built later, but it had at least a century creaking in its wooden floors. The vintage stove, still functional, dated to the mid-1800s, and it had four burners on one side, fired up by propane, and the other side cooked on wood. I did not have to fear power outages here. I could heat the house on wood, and cook on it, too.
Some might call it a fluke, my finding this tucked-away fantasy in the countryside, an almost perfect midpoint between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. I called it a blessing. I called it Home, and knew it as such the moment I first walked on this land, still in deep snow, and stood out in the back field gazing at that sky, only it was daylight blue then, and two hawks circled overhead.
I’d found the property in a moment of frustration at the stresses and tensions of a more “civilized” life. I plugged the keywords into an Internet search engine: “wilderness, cottage, southwest Michigan.” And found this. The housing market had near bottomed out, and suddenly I found the distant dream affordable. It was a dream I’d held dear since childhood. While other little girls dreamed of wedding days and broods of children and grand houses on cul-de-sacs—well, maybe they didn’t, but surely I did not—I dreamt of a cabin deep in the woods, a woman in the lap of Nature, pursuing her art.
Over a lifetime with more than 30 addresses attached to it, my focus had always remained true. It had taken decades, a thousand just-so circumstances to fall into place, but when the last puzzle piece clicked, and this vista opened before my eyes, I recognized it for the long-awaited blessing it was.
I moved to Z Acres in early 2012, and a year and a half later, I still stand outside on so many nights, my jaw dropped open, my head thrown back, to watch the sky. It was the first great difference I experienced upon the move from city to country. I’d lived just a few blocks off that great commercial artery in Portage—Westnedge Avenue—in my previous life, and there the sky had always had a sickly orange patina. Light pollution erased all but a few determined stars.
There, that rustling again in the woods. Guinnez pulled at his leash. I’m not sure what came over me, because my dog had never been off his leash, had never run free outside the fenced-in yard where we had lived before, but I unleashed him now. Click, and he was free. He raced off toward the woods, and I heard a flourish of barking, a loud snort, and a buck came crashing out from the trees, and in a few great bounds, was gone into the beyond. That, here, would become as common as the wailing sirens back in the city.
The ten acres are a mix of woods in the front five, hiding the house from the winding dirt road, surrounding the pond filled with fish and blurping bullfrogs. To the south was a wooded hillside, and on that, along another path, a tiny cottage, perfect for those artistic pursuits I anticipated. Behind the house were random flowerbeds, surrounded by large rocks, space for more than one vegetable garden, a scattering of fruit trees, and then, the last five acres, a meadow delineated to the west by a tree line along its boundary. Pines, black walnuts, ancient willows, maples kept me hidden from all but the watching wildlife.
We become the place where we live. A year and a half later, I feel myself so deeply rooted here that I have warned my children: there will be no removing me. I will live to 106, because this is a life worth living, and you will scatter my ashes here, and bury my bones, too, in those piney woods.
My hands have become the hands of a farm woman. Fingers stained in summer with the purple juice of wild blackberries, fingernails lined with the rich dirt of the vegetable gardens, palms calloused from mowing acres of grass, hair gone white, white as those stars, because there is a different rule book of beauty here.
I remember now how to bake bread. I spread the blackberry jam I’ve made on the old stove thick on each slice. My shelves are lined with Mason jars of homemade applesauce, chunky with slices, all picked carefully from the old apple tree on the far side of the barn. I make rare visits to grocery stores, because this earth feeds me, and in a way that goes far beyond the carrots and tomatoes, the cabbages and squashes, the radishes and kale I grow here.
Guinnez has not felt a leash on him since, and whenever he trots out the door, he drops into the grass, or the fallen leaves, or the snow, and rolls, pawing the air, his mouth open with dog laughter.
I hear no sirens, only the howl of coyotes at night, and the chorus of frogs, the ones that have escaped the blue heron who sometimes flies down to cut short their blurping lives. Sometimes, because I can, I throw my head back not only to look at the stars, but to howl along with the coyotes in the wild joy of being alive.
Read the full issue of Encore, November 2013, including my second article in this issue about Tom Schlueter, Keystone Community Bank CEO.