Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

A study in lateness

 "People are late because they want to be late," concludes Dr. Irving Snerdpoof, Phd., in his recently-published study, "An Inquiry Into the Motivations of the Perpetually Tardy."

The inspiration for Snerdpoof's most recent study struck like a bolt of lightning while he sat in a pew in church. 

"It seemed that each Sunday, the same families would waltz in during the first hymn and march to the front pew," Snerdpoof said. 

"I became convinced that if these families arrived at church early by accident, they would sit in the car and wait for the service to begin just so they could make their grand entrance." 

Backed by financial support from the Institute for the Study of Inexplicable Human Behaviors (ISIHB), Snerdpoof spent two years researching the topic. 

Snerdpoof's conclusions have largely been ignored by the latecomer community, but others have taken note. 

"What I found is that, unconsciously or even consciously, people plan to be late in order to draw attention to themselves," Snerdpoof said. 

"Somewhere, somehow, these people became convinced that if they are on time for anything, it makes them look as if they have nothing better to do than to show up for things on time," he added. 

"By showing up late, people show their superiority to an event such as church and demonstrate that their busy lives are way more important than the lives of the losers who arrived early," the professor added. 

As Snerdpoof interviewed his subjects, he found himself developing more sympathy with their emotions and feelings. 

"I realized that I share some of their fears," he said. "I merely express them differently."

"For instance, who would ever want to be in the crowd that shows up a half-an-hour early for a co-op annual meeting just to make sure they get a donut?" Snerdpoof said. 

"First of all, co-op annual meetings are a waste of time. Second of all, they serve donuts just so they can lure in a quorum. Third of all, they get people to stay for the entire boring meeting by giving away the grill at the end." 

By definition, Snerdpoof argues, people who show up early for co-op annual meetings and new business open houses are the losingest losers of all. 

"Although I would never darken the door of an annual meeting, there are events, like church, where I am obliged to put in an occasional appearance." Snerdpoof added. 

"And yet I still want to demonstrate that I am too good for those events to those who show up early because they have nothing better to do," he added. 

"So, if there is no way for me to get out of attending, I demonstrate my superiority to the event and the losers attending it by showing up late," he concluded. 

Snerdpoof's findings are compelling: A stunning sixty-four percent of latecomers admitted under sustained questioning while attached to a lie detector that they go into a panic when they show up on time by mistake.

"How can you look busy when you get there early and have nothing to do?" Snerdpoof queried. 

Lateness is a matter of perspective, Snerdpoof has come to believe.

"As irritating and morally lax as latecomers seem to the rest of us, many latecomers equate busyness with righteousness," he said. "They actually feel that by being late, they are showing their moral superiority!" 

A solid 82% of latecomers interviewed agreed with the statement, "My life is busier, more dramatic and filled with more urgency than the life of anybody else I know."

Only 34% admitted to arranging to be late as a way of getting attention. That number expanded to 87% after a lie detector was attached to the subject's wrists. 

With the use of hypnosis and electric shock, deeper findings emerged from the latecomers, Snerdpoof continued.

"Subjects were asked if they would choose a carefully planned and calm schedule if they had the option," Snerdpoof reported. 

"A resounding 92% of latecomers under hypnosis admitted that a well-planned life of showing up everywhere in plenty of time would be a fate worse than death."

However, when brought out of the hypnotic state, only 5% admitted, even when under threat of electric shock, that constant lateness is an enduring facet of their sense of identity. 

"What we're dealing with here is a subconscious reality that needs to be brought to light," Snerdpoof concluded.

"I hope that my study can create better understanding of latecomers by those who always show up on time," he added, "and perhaps a few latecomers will, if they have time to read the study, realize that their behavior looks more silly than righteous." 

Nautical advice

Sometime this month, every campus and high school across this great nation will host a celebration where somebody who has allegedly met with success in life will dispense advice to graduates on how they, too, might meet with success in life. 

Remember the little people! Be kind! Help others! Live for the moment! Live for the future! Dream big! Don't go with the current! Swim against the tide!

What a waste of time and breath. 

If anybody has it all together, it is graduates. 

Nobody is less in the mood for advice than graduates. Graduates are at the top of their game. 

How can one tell? 

Only those at the top of the world would dare embark on a raft full of grandiose nautical metaphors.

You simply can't argue with a ship about to leave port. 

I mean, these kids just crafted a class motto about having crossed the bay with the ocean yet to follow, or something about how you cannot discover new oceans if you don't lose sight of the shore.

Why should grizzled, battered, blood-spattered veterans of life in the trenches like myself turn around and give advice to fresh-faced know-it-alls whose ship is about to set sail? 

It is spitting in the wind, I tell you. 

None but fresh graduates have the ability to look out across the watery depths with purity of purpose and clarity of vision. Instead of us old salts giving them advice, they should teach us the ropes.

If you cross the river to discover an ocean, will you still find a safe harbor? If you lose sight of the shore, will your ship still come in? 

These are important questions. And only a graduate can tell you the answer. 

Even graduates from institutions in the land-locked Upper Midwest can expertly navigate valedictory metaphors about oceans, bays and tides. 

If anything, the rest of us should be humbly crawling to the graduates for advice about how to get through life without drowning.  

Okay, Mr. and Miss Graduate, how come my life didn't turn out the way I planned it at graduation from high school? Where did I go wrong? Why didn't it work when I tried to swim against the tide? 

Did I take a wrong turn at the dock of the bay? Did I hit a sandbar? Did I improperly navigate the shoals? Did I forget how to swim with the sharks? 

By sharks, do you mean ex-wives? 

I suppose now you're going to tell me there are more fish in the sea.

What about my goal to study marine biology, a dream that was dashed because I couldn't understand my Chemistry 101 professor's weird foreign accent and dropped the course and changed my major to theater arts? 

What about my goal to improve humanity through theater, a dream which was dashed on the rocks when only seventeen people showed up for the premier of my play, "The Tides of Time?"

Will my life ever be smooth sailing, or am I merely playing "Nearer My God to Thee" with the band on the deck of the Titanic? 

Will the tide ever turn? Will my ship ever come in? Or will it even leave port? 

The longer I live, the more difficult it is to fathom life's depths, the more it seems like I am fishing without a net, adrift without a rudder, up a creek without a paddle. 

Oh, how I wish I could keep an even keel. How I long for smooth sailing.

At graduation, I was so ready to set my oars in the water. Unfortunately, life's vicissitudes took the wind out of my sails. 

I thought by casting a wide net I would find the one I loved, but I think we passed like two ships in the night. 

I feel like I've missed the boat. My life is dead in the water. I yearn to drop anchor. 

And that is just the tip of the iceberg!

My only consolation is that we're all in the same boat. 

My only hope is that a fresh-faced graduate, somebody who is well-schooled in nautical metaphors, will advise me on how to escape this watery grave. 

Instead of writing a column of advice to graduates, I am hoping one of them will throw me a metaphorical life-line. 

I'll likely fall for it, hook, line and sinker. 


Modern Hermits

Across the road on the old Henry Helm place is a little twenty acre field which is now rented by the Amish. 

Seventy years ago, Henry, who didn't get his first tractor until the late 1940s, plowed the field with horses. 

After Henry died, the land was farmed for thirty years by huge tractors which could barely turn around in that little field without tripping over themselves. 

Last year, the Amish took over. 

Last week, a young Amish lad plowed the field with a team of four plough horses. It took several days. 

After every few rounds, the young man brought five-gallon pails up to our hydrant and hauled water back to the field for the horses. 

Over those days, I learned a lot about the old days just by hearing old-timers share memories jogged by the sight of horses pulling a plow. 

I learned that you had to rest the horses every round or so. 

I learned that in the old days of small fields and many neighbors, farmers would arrange to rest the horses near the border of the field of a neighbor who was also plowing so they could visit while the horses rested. 

I can imagine that some of those visits stretched beyond what time the horses needed to rest.  

Yes, the old-timers worked hard. 

But they were also experts at finding ways to mix work with conversation and fun. 

Even during hard times, it seemed that people recognized the need to get together. Often. 

Church was a weekly social occasion. 

But there were many others. 

Using my grandparents as an example, I can't imagine how they got anything else done besides preparing for various meetings. 

In addition to church, there was Luther League every month. 

There was choir practice every Wednesday night. 

My grandparents met at the temperance union, which met every month. 

Grandpa was president of the Farm Bureau, which met once per month. 

Most Grandma's went to circle once per month. 

Ladies Aid met once per month, and then served a meal in the church basement which all attended. 

There was garden club, which met once per month. 

Just with these clubs, Grandma and Grandpa were busy at least one out of every four nights per week!

When they went to meetings, I assume they dragged the kids along. The kids would run amok outside, or in the upstairs of the church while the parents fellowshipped downstairs. 

No wonder so many neighbor kids married each other. They didn't just go to school together, they spent many evenings per month rioting out back while the parents visited inside. They were practically family already!

Nowadays, such a social schedule would put most people in a mental institution. 

Back then, however, social activity was a necessary relief from the drudgery of farm work and the congestion in the farm house. 

Somewhere between then and now, increased prosperity created a concept which changed everything: privacy. 

In the old days, you didn't have privacy. 

You probably slept with two of your siblings. In the next bed were three more of your siblings. 

You walked to school with the neighbor kids. 

You didn't have time alone unless you stole it. 

My great-aunt talks of hiding with a book in the barn loft of an abandoned neighboring farmstead. Or, of spending hours with a friend sitting in the only place where they were safe from intrusion: the luxurious two-hole outhouse!

Today, we have more rooms in the house than people who live in the house. We can hide from each other. All day. All month. All year. 

Communal meals? Are you kidding? Nobody's on the same schedule. And nobody eats the same thing, either. This food has gluten, that food has lactose, this food is organic, that food is filled with chemical but has no worms. 

We have become private, isolated atoms, less connected to each other in face-to-face conversation, eating, work, politics and religion than ever before.  

We no longer arrange to gossip while plowing––unless you count texting. 

There were hermits in the old days, people who removed themselves from the social scene and didn't take part in the community. 

However, the hermits were regarded as strange. They were feared by children and distrusted by adults. 

Today, if you compare us to the old-timers, we're all hermits, hiding from the world in our half-empty homes entertained by electronic gadgets. 

Those gadgets need neither water nor rest.

Rail trail

Athough I live in the woods, my awareness of nature has been expanded by a trail four miles distant that follows the path of an old rail bed. 

I remember hearing trains rumble in the distance from my basement bedroom as a boy. However, the last train probably ran twenty-five years ago. 

The change of the rail bed into a trail for ATVs, snowmobiles, skiers and middle-aged people like me who run from the doctor has allowed something good to come of the loss of trains. 

Yes, as I run on the trail I imagine I am running from the doctor. I imagine him chasing me with his colon probe, his stethoscope, his bottle of statins and his insulin shots. 

If he catches me, it's rubber glove time. 

So, I run faster. 

The trail is grand in part because it is utterly abandoned. So far this spring, the only signs of use by other humans have been buggy ruts from the Amish who use the car-less path to get to town. 

Last fall, a parade of ATVs passed me as I ran. On another occasion, a family of chokecherry pickers greeted me. 

But for the most part, the rail bed is mine alone. 

As I run, I indulge my twin passions for history and nature. 

Can you imagine the thousands of trains that passed over that ground over those first 100 years of our history? The conversations in the cars? The boys going off to World War I? The hoop skirts? The coal dust? The hissing of the steam engines? 

Can you imagine the mail hauled on those trains? The heartbroken letters from parents back in Norway? The love letters from the Italian front? 

How about the goods: The cattle going to market, the crates of oranges coming in for Christmas, the unassembled Sears-Roebuck houses coming up from Chicago?

A lot of history rode over that ground. 


Whoever mapped out the railroad curved it gently to the right a quarter-of-a-mile before a 45 degree turn to the left towards the trestle and town.

The turn reminds me of how some old-timers anticipate a right turn with a little swoop to the left to get a straighter shot at the new road. 

The only logical reason for such a maneuver is if you're pulling a hay wagon, which I think many old-timers still imagine they're doing with their Buick. 

With the trail's reminders of the past come many pleasures of the present. 

The first oriole crossed the path this past week. Earlier, it was bluejays. Last fall, some woodpeckers flitted ahead of me from tree to tree for over a mile. 

Sandhill cranes hide in the reeds along the old track. Their ascent into flight only feet away is breathtaking. You can hear the crisp feathers of their massive wings whir against the air. Then you hear their rubbery croak from up to a half-mile away. 

Grouse pop up out of the brush with loud, thumping wing-beats. Mallards hide in the ravines along the old rail bed's edge until they can't bear my intrusion and beat their way into the air, quacking in protest. 

Deer graze silently across the trail in the far distance, blurred by heat waves. 

A massive whitetail buck bolted across the trail thirty feet in front of me a week before hunting season last fall. I wonder if he's still in circulation.

A pile of bear scat makes you wonder if you should be there by yourself that far away from your vehicle. 

The beaver have, for some reason, decided to spend the better part of the last year dragging reeds and sticks from the swamp on one side of the rail track, up and over the to the swamp on the opposite side of the track. 

In addition to the animal life, the trail pierces several thick groves of slender poplar which drench one with their intoxicating yellow and lime green colors, sappy smell and rustling sound three seasons per year. 

Alder leaves turns fire-coal orange in the fall. Prairie flowers bloom in summer. Willows leave branches on the trail after thunderstorms. 

Not all is idyllic. A dead swan's feathers littered the trail last fall. This spring, if my nose is accurate at all, a carcass of something large is rotting to the east of the trail. 

A severed deer hoof lies nearby. 

The more I run on the trail, the more motivation I find to run even more. 

Some days I savor nature. Others, I imagine history. 

When those fail, I run from the rubber glove. 


Alzheimer's Advocacy

As science finds cures for many diseases, people live longer. However, the longer we live, the more likely we will acquire the disease for which, as yet, there is no cure: Alzheimer's. 

If you are over 85, there is a 50% chance that you have Alzheimer's.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, the disease costs our medical system an astonishing $200 billion per year. 

That number does not include the economic cost in lost wages of the whopping 15 million Americans who provide unpaid care for somebody with Alzheimer's. 

Last week, seven hundred people with a direct stake in finding a cure gathered in Washington D. C. at the National Alzheimer's Advocacy Forum to urge Congress to increase funding for research and education. 

Dozens of those present were in early stages of the disease. Several sufferers gave moving speeches, including legendary University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who was diagnosed one year ago. 

The remainder of the crowd were nearly all present or former caregivers of people with the disease. 

I felt a bit out of place. Alzheimer's is rare in my family. So, I just sat and listened to people's stories. 

One man I met spent his teen years taking care of his mother, who contracted the disease in her 40s. After she died, his two brothers also were diagnosed. 

An elderly couple recently wed after losing both their spouses to Alzheimer's. They now volunteer to provide in-home respite care to caregivers who all too often wear themselves out caring for their stricken loved one. 

Although the stories flowed along the sidelines, the Forum itself was all business: How do we get Congress to act? 

Speakers included a former Congressional chief-of-staff. She schooled participants in the art of cornering a member of Congress. 

Attendees learned the right words and phrases to use on their member of Congress from Frank Luntz, a world-renowned pollster. 

Debilitating. Dreadful. Costly. Breakthrough. Tipping point. 

Apparently, those are the poll-tested words that will get a politician's attention. 

Eventually, each delegation (Minnesota and North Dakota's chapter had the largest representation) broke down into small groups and practiced an actual meeting with member of Congress. 

On the final day, bedecked in purple sashes, the 700 people descended upon Capitol Hill and demanded that their member of Congress support Alzheimer's research. 

With competing funding priorities and with concerns over deficit spending, proposals for new spending aren't always met with a friendly ear. 

"Where is the money going to come from?" is the likely response from members of Congress and their staffers.

The newly-trained Alzhiemer's advocates were coached to respond with dire statistics of how much Alzheimer's disease is going to cost us if we don't find a cure. 

Even delaying the onset of the disease five years would save billions. 

The night before the march to Capitol Hill, a gala dinner was held at the Renaissance Hotel a few blocks from the White House. 

Actress Jane Seymour spoke, as did several members of Congress, past and present, including one who was recently diagnosed. Maria Shriver helped emcee.

The goal of the dinner was to fire people up to go hit Congress hard the next morning to fight the fight against a devastating disease. 

I was moved by stories told, particularly by a teenage brother and sister from Minnesota whose mother, a victim of early-onset Alzheimer's, no longer recognizes them. 

The three-day trip was an eye-opener. 

My thought going in was that allocating money for research to fight Alzheimer's is a no-brainer. 

It soon became apparent that even such an obviously worthy cause has to be pressed with incredible vigor for anything to get done. 

What troubled me is that it takes such a well-oiled, well-funded, well-trained army to bring attention to even the most necessary and worthy cause. 

As I went down the elevator to the final dinner, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Georgia. 

Their name tags were of a different color, so I knew they weren't with the Alzheimer's group. 

"What brings you to Washington?" I asked. 

"We're here for the Ophthalmology Advocacy Day," one replied. 

"We're being trained to go to Capitol Hill and get funding for eye screening and testing that could save the government billions." 

I didn't think I'd ever feel sorry for a member of Congress. However, as I realized how many visitors representing good causes each member must see each day, I came close. 

Can you imagine choosing between all of the worthy and urgent causes which compete for federal dollars? 


Too much welfare!

According to some in the business, Minnesota's nursing home system is in financial trouble in large part because people seem to think that no matter what their net worth, when it comes time for long-term care, they have a right to go on the dole. 

"Well," they say as they set up a way to hide their assets, "if we don't do something, it'll all just go to the nursing home!" 

Since when is it unfair to expect a person to use their assets to pay for their own care? 

Yet, when faced with a $3000 per month bill, people who spent their lives looking down their nose at people who live on welfare suddenly think they're entitled to it themselves. 

Sometimes it is offspring salivating over their parents' wealth who become the most infuriated at the cost of nursing home care. 

"Ma and Pa's money's going to be gone before I get my hands on any of it!" the moochers lament.

The vultures forget that they don't have any right to any of Ma and Pa's money in the first place. Ma and Pa's money is for the benefit of Ma and Pa alone. 

Greedy relatives who are offended at the cost of nursing home care should consider caring for their elderly relatives themselves and see how they like that. 

The assumption seems to be that the nursing home doesn't provide any benefit in return for what it charges. 

In fact, nursing homes provide a tremendous service at the lowest rate possible. 

Nursing homes are staffed by underpaid workers who do some of the most important and sometimes unpleasant work in town. 

In addition to providing medical care, nursing home staff are often the only family elderly people have. 

Nobody's making big money. Few nursing homes even make a profit. After recent state and federal cuts, most facilities in Minnesota are skidding along just below break even. 

At the present rate of funding, the system will bleed to death.

We have a great nursing home system in rural Minnesota. Unlike other parts of this country and the world, we take good care of our old folks. 

But it takes money to provide humane and competent 24-hour care. That money has to come from somewhere. 

Some people can afford to pay their way, others cannot. Some can afford to pay for a while before having to go on assistance. That's how it was supposed to work. 

But the system was not designed to handle people who have plenty of land or money who think they have a right to go on welfare rather than pay their own way. 

When these people lawyer up to "protect" their assets, they do little more than game the system. They are bankrupting it in the process. 

The only beneficiaries are usually ungrateful children.

Inheritance is not a right. In fact, it is downright evil. Inheritance creates hard feelings between generations. It makes some people wish others dead. 

Of course, the law has loopholes which permit people to pass their assets on while they go on welfare. 

There are lawyers who do nothing but find perfectly legal ways to do this exact wrong thing. 

But due to these loopholes and those who exploit them, we are eventually going to have to raise taxes on people in their productive years to keep our eldercare system afloat. 

There is simply no other way to preserve a decent system of eldercare that is about to be overwhelmed by an age wave. 

One Minnesota legislator has come up with an ingenious solution. 

As tax law stands now, you stop paying Social Security taxes when your income exceeds $110,000. Above $110,000, your effective tax rate actually goes down. 

Minnesota could simply apply the tax rate of those who make just under $110,000 to those who make more than that by replacing the Social Security tax with a state tax devoted to elder care.

Such a tax would raise $1 billion in revenue annually. 

It would place Minnesota's eldercare system on a solid footing for decades to come. 

It would also be the largest tax increase in Minnesota history. For that reason, I doubt the idea stands a chance––at least until old people start getting thrown out on the street. 

In the mean-time, however, we should have no sympathy for people who scurry to find a way to keep their money away from the nursing home so they can give it to their kids. 

The kids don't deserve it. Ever. 

The nursing home does. 


Cultural exchange

Every culture thinks it has everything figured out and that the world would be a better place if everybody were more like us. 

In rural Minnesota we pride ourselves on our helpfulness towards our neighbors, our honesty in business, our disdain for tawdry shows of wealth, our ethic of hard work and our refusal to lock our doors or take the keys out of the car. 

If the rest of the world were just like us, we imply as we tell another story about somebody driving 40 miles to return a lost checkbook, things would be so much better. 

Never mind that people who move to rural Minnesota from other parts of the world often find us distant, snoopy, gossipy, afraid of risk, addicted to bland food and generally stuck in the mud. 

Never mind that many of our so-called good actions are motivated by guilt, fear, and the proud desire to never owe anybody for anything, even a slice of pie. 

I'll never forget the sense of superiority I felt when I sat alone at a breakfast cafe in Miami listening to retired men from New York City tell stories at the next table. 

I couldn't believe my ears: One by one, the old men bragged about ripping people off on land deals! 

Not saying that people don't rip people off up here in the virtuous Upper Midwest. But we certainly know better than to brag about it over pancakes!

We love getting good deals at the auction, sure. But when we brag that we picked up a mower for $25 that just needed a tune-up to run perfectly, we're really bragging about our frugality. 

If you ever pull a really big rip-off, decency requires that you keep your mouth shut. 

The pervasive influence of culture is complicated, and it shows up in the oddest places. 

In New Zealand, older people have an stern ethic of self-reliance that makes our crusty pioneers seem soft. 

Example: To help older people stay in their homes, New Zealand instituted the same wrist alarms we have here that people can push to call the paramedics if they fall and can't get up. 

Trouble is, those tough old Kiwis would rather lay on the floor for four days hoping somebody will just stop by than to officially call for help! 

Culture trumps technology. 

Late last fall, a wonderful woman moved from her native Thailand to our farm and married my brother. (Yes, another fraulein from afar falls for a Fertile man.) 

Before Kae arrived, she learned that our parents were of retirement age. She didn't realize that they work harder than ever. 

In Thailand, older people don't work. And they don't hesitate to accept help. In fact, when they get to a certain age, they just sit around and wait to be served. 

What's more, Thai young people are thrilled to do the serving. 

Kae arrived fully expecting that her job would be to wait hand-and-foot on in-laws she hadn't yet met. 

And she looked forward to it. 

What fun it has been to enjoy other benefits of Kae's culture. 

Kae loves to cook for others. 

Bonanza! Thai food is healthy and delicious.

Kae loves family unreservedly, even the one she just joined. 

Athough we three families live on the same farm, we generally keep to ourselves until some stupid holiday forces us to eat a meal together just to maintain appearances. 

Well, that won't do for Kae. She will whip up a meal on a Tuesday and call us together for a feast. 

A few weeks ago, we gathered for a meal by Kae. 

Afterwards, we moved to the living room and struggled to converse. 

You could tell Dad was just dying to sneak out the door to go putter somewhere on something. 

He stealthily rose from the couch. "Well, I think I had better..." 

He never finished the sentence. 

"No!" Kae shouted as she grabbed him by the shoulders. "Thai old people sit and enjoy their children!" Dad was to sit there like Buddha and absorb the bustle. 

He fell back into the couch in defeat.

Dad made it five minutes before the pain of human interaction became too much to bear. 

With Kae distracted by the dishes, he snuck out the side door to spend some quality time with his chainsaw. 

But the meal and those extra five minutes with Dad were a good thing for all of us. 

Several sentences of actual communication were exchanged, an odd phenomena for January. 

Yes, we Minnesotans were improved by Kae's insistence that we honor a part of her culture. 


A little revival

About twenty years ago, I reached a fork in the road. It was time to either commit to the small town, join the family business and try to make a go of it, or use my education to find a career in the suburbs. 

Most of my peers were long gone. To visit friends from college or high school, I had to travel to Grand Forks, Fargo, the Twin Cities or the West Coast. 

As I looked around the small town, things were moribund. Half the storefronts on Main Street stood empty. 

The town was dying and dying fast. It looked like tumbleweed time. 

So, I half-committed. I bought an aging trailer house. My payment was $125 per month. I slept on the floor. Buying a bed would have been too much commitment. 

That very year, the men at the cafe who spent hours playing cards––farmers, former farmers, businessmen, former businessmen and others of vague employment status had an idea. 

We need a golf course, they said. 

Almost none of them golfed. 

Coordinated by a couple of respected and smart leaders, the golf course movement took off. Within two years, using volunteer labor and donated goods, Fertile had itself a 9-hole gem. 

Although I did nothing but pick a few grubs myself, I remember the exhilarating sense of community action as the course took shape. 

Looking back, the golf course was a turning point in the town's history. 

About the same time the golf course started business, I sent my first email. Soon, I discovered that I could read the New York Times before breakfast on my computer in my trailer.  

The small-town isolation broke up like ice on a lake in spring. 

Two of my best friends sickened of life in the suburbs and moved back to take over the family farm. Their first house wasn't much fancier than my trailer. 

With farming a break-even proposition at best, some former farmers started other businesses. 

One started an elevator company––the type of elevator that hauls you to the third floor of a hotel, not the type that holds grain. 

Fertile had no elevators. 

But that elevator business took off. What's more important, it spawned a handful of young entrepreneurs who saw the possibility of making a good living while living in the small town. 

Turns out, you didn't have to farm to stay. 

Today, there are probably a dozen young families in town who make their living off elevators, and others who started in elevators and have moved on to other ventures. 

What a difference one entrepreneur can make!

Did you know that eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota lead the nation in honey production? 

Honey is another big employer in Fertile. Several started their own honey operations. Although it had become a difficult business, honey helps keep the local economy afloat. 

Other local men joined companies which build cell towers or pipelines. Because they were willing to travel and had a farmer’s instinct for hard work, their bosses soon said, "Are there more like you back home?" 

With many of the men on the road, the women revamped Main Street. 

Today on Main, we have an ice cream shop, a flower shop, a health food store, two gift shops, a used clothing store, a donut shop and a furniture store, all owned and run by women.


There are no empty storefronts on the main drag.

In another community project, a bunch of locals banded together to build a beautiful Veteran's Memorial Plaza right downtown. 

In the countryside, the phone company plowed in high-speed internet cable up to every  house. 

I laughed when they laid cable up to bachelor Joe Jacobson's house next door. Joe was 92 at the time and not one to use the phone, much less a computer. 

Well, when Joe passed away his house sold to a young couple (under 50!), one of whom uses the cable to manage software projects for IBM. 

A few miles down the road lives a young woman who fell in love with a Fertile man (it happens all the time) and moved up from Florida to start a new life amongst the cows. 

When she tried to quit her job in Florida, her boss said, wait a minute, do you have internet up there?

She now manages twenty pizza joints in central Florida from her kitchen table in rural Fertile. 

These examples just scratch the surface. 

Eventually, I sold my beloved trailer and built a house. 

And I bought a bed. 

It feels a lot better to set roots in a town on the upswing.


An exotic ecology

As the swamp in front of my house in Minnesota springs back to life, I think back to the truly odd history of wildlife in New Zealand. 

Completely isolated for eons of time, New Zealand developed a strange ecosystem which went undisturbed by man until the first humans arrived in roughly 1250 AD. 

In its pristine state, New Zealand had no land animals save for a tiny bat. Birds dominated the deep rain forests, many of them flightless like the famous kiwi. 

That's right: no mice, no deer, no rats, no gophers, no woodchucks, none of the critters we see here so often. 

New Zealand's only large mammals were marine. Forty species of whale, a dozen types of dolphin, as well as porpoises and seals frolic in the turquoise waters off shore. 

To this day, New Zealand has no snakes. 

Years back, when I asked a class of Kiwi school kids to draw their image of America, one drew a picture of an Air New Zealand jet on the tarmac in the United States with hundreds of snakes slithering below, waiting for the terrified passengers to emerge. 

Trees and plants native to New Zealand are leafy all year-round. There are no fall colors in the forests. 

The British brought in deciduous trees 150 years ago, but they are confined to settled areas. Falling leaves are a suburban phenomenon. 

Of course, when the first humans arrived to New Zealand, they brought mice. Later, possum made the jump from Australia with human help. 

The introduced mammals wreaked havoc on the flightless bird population. Possum were the only road-kill we encountered in 5000K of driving. 

Red deer were introduced from Europe. In New Zealand, the massive red stag antlers grow larger than usual, drawing trophy hunters from all over the world.

Only two small herds of white-tail deer have become established in the country. Hunting them is a rare privilege doled out by lottery. 

Because in its native condition New Zealand had no land mammals, it is the only country in the world where the mass killing of all mammals is backed by environmentalists.

To eradicate mammals from wildlife reserves so that the original flightless birds can reestablish, New Zealand conservationists use a chemical called 1080. 

Of course, the mammal-killing chemical also takes dogs, cats and livestock. As mammals, humans also can become ill or die.

No wonder there are signs in people's yards in the remote towns of the South Island proclaiming "Stop 1080!" 

For the most accessible wildlife experience in New Zealand, one must go to the shoreline. Shorebirds such as terns, gulls and the enormous albatross screech over the roar of the waves. 

Boats will take you to see the whales, dolphins and seals. Glass-bottom boats allow you to view the fish. 

While we were in New Zealand, a fisherman won a contest by reeling in a 738-lb. tuna, the world’s record. 

Inland, birds seem much less populous. New Zealand's rain forests are so thick that you hear birds but rarely see them. Birds have little reason to leave the permanent protection of the 100-foot canopy. 

The largest bird native to the country, the 12-foot tall flightless moa, was killed off for food by Maori and European settlers. 

As recent intruders, humans wreaked havoc on New Zealand's strange and fragile plants and animals. 

Settlers burned most of the North Island forests, either to force the moa out for slaughter, or to establish sheep pasture. 

The verdant hills which make New Zealand look so primeval in movies such as "Lord of the Rings" are bare today due to massive fires in the 19th century. 

The monstrous kauri trees which once formed forests in parts of the North Island are now confined to a few small reserves. 

Without forest cover, big rains and frequent tremors cause landslides and slippage. With New Zealand's volatile geology and vertical geography, roads and bridges are frequently wiped out altogether. 

On average, New Zealand experiences 20,000 earthquakes per year, 200 of which are strong enough to be noticed by humans. 

I suspect many American tourists come to New Zealand, look around, take a few pictures, say 'oh for pretty!" and go home without truly realizing how truly different the place is from here. 

But as a swamp dweller, I couldn't help but compare the place to my experience of Minnesota swamp life in spring. 

During our deep winters, the swamp is pretty quiet.

But when life burbles forth in spring, nature in the northland becomes more riotous than it is in the lushest sub-tropical paradise. 


You can change the world!

Do you want to do something for your country? Do you long to make a difference? 

Do you want to make life better for your children, or your nieces and nephews, or your grandchildren? 

Do you want to leave the world a better place than you found it? Do you want to make our society more functional? 

If you want to attain these high ideals, there is only one thing you need to do: 

Get off your duff and exercise. 

People who exercise for a mere one-half an hour per day dramatically reduce their risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, fatigue, arthritis, Alzheimer's, depression, anxiety and any number of other problems.

The reductions in these problems by exercise is not small. By exercising one half-an-hour per day, you can reduce your chance of having the above problems as much as 40-50%. 

You don't have to run marathons. The exercise needed to dramatically reduce health problems is only one-half an hour per day of walking. 

That's it. All you have to do is walk. 

Why is exercise a service to your nation? 

Take a look at our recent problems. Medicare costs are running out of control. Health insurance rates are going up. 

What happens when health insurance rates go up? Employers cut benefits. 

What happens when employers cut benefits? Employees don't like it, as they shouldn't!

The political turmoil in Wisconsin last year is directly attributable to health care costs. Gov. Walker decided that since health care benefits won by the unions were getting prohibitively expensive, he would break the union in order to strip employees of their benefits and keep his state solvent. 

Locally, the labor dispute at Crystal Sugar is directly the result of increasing health care costs for employees. Benefits that once were taken for granted now are simply too big a cost for employers to ignore. 

Our nation's deficit is driven by many things, but the cost of health care is one of the biggest culprits. 

How can we reduce health care costs? Policy experts spend millions juggling numbers, policies and proposals. 

However, all the think-tank machinations would be moot if the people would merely get off their duff and exercise. 

If our entire nation got up once per day and walked a half-an-hour, health care costs would plummet. 

Studies have shown that half-an-hour is all it takes to achieve huge health benefits.

So, why don't we exercise? 

Well, it is tough to change habits. It is tough to shut of the TV. It is tough to pull away from the computer screen. It is tough to get outside when you are used to a vegetative life. 

We make it worse on ourselves by idolizing people who are in impossibly good shape. 

We'll never be a running back for an NFL team, so why even try? 

We'll never pitch for the Twins, so why even try? 

We'll never turn a triple-axle in the Winter Olympics, so why bother? 

By setting impossible standards for ourselves, we cheat ourselves out of the benefits of simple walking. 

For me, the biggest barrier is the notion that I have to do more every day or I am not making progress. 

If I walk ten minutes today, I had better walk fifteen minutes tomorrow or I am not improving. If I don't improve, I had just as well quit. 


If you walk even five minutes, it is better than walking no minutes. 

If you walk an hour one day and a half-an-hour the next, it is not a defeat. The half-an-hour you walked is still better than not walking at all.

Other countries are better about creating a culture of lifetime activity. In New Zealand, the seventy-plus ladies lawn bowling league gets the same headlines in the local sports section as the high school rugby team. 

"We may need to replace Mrs. Nelson, as she has been slumping of late," said the coach in one article I read by way of excusing the team's latest loss. 

We don't have to go that far. 

But we do need to stop thinking that the only people who need to be active in our community are our high school sports stars. 

Any activity at all will improve our health. 

If you need motivation to get out and walk, just do it for those you love. Do it for your country. Do it to reduce the deficit.

Let's get off our duff and make the world a better place.