Where do you get your ideas from?
When people ask me that–they tend not to, although there are a few sweethearts who do–I have to wonder: isn’t it obvious? I am a tool for generating ideas. First I cut things up with my agonizing powers of analysis. Then I stick them back together with my glittery gluestick of intuition. Ideas are not the hard part. I wish someone would pay me just for the ideas–”Predict the next fifty years of fashion, given that our major energy source will shift from petroleum to solar.” “List ten locked-room murder mystery plots for a virtual reality that is not transcendental in any way.” “Fifty recipes using cricket flour.”
Bliss. I was made to generate ideas the way some people are made to generate kindness or stability or leadership or problem-solving or sheer bullshittery convincingness. Ideas are not the problem; you have to do something with them.
I used to get angry about this. (I’m sorry.) Just like those people who are like, “You’re depressed? Well, all you have to do is be more cheerful!” Privately I was like, “You’re out of motivation to write? Well, all you have to do is go get some magic!”
Everyone who creates art has their own reservoir of magic, and their own methods of going out and getting some more. Most people, I think, do, although what they use it for varies, and I think they mostly take it for granted that it will replenish itself, or that, conversely, it will never (if they are stressed out) replenish itself. The idea of making more of it is, I think, where the key to art comes from–not the ideas.
Which brings me to the snow.
After you have kitted yourself up and have gone outside and done your chores, it is time to go out. This may not mean going further than the yard, because the trailer house may be surrounded by untouched snowdrifts. But once the snowdrifts have been touched (or if it’s one of those annoying days where the snow is thin and crunchy on the ground), then you have to go further out.
There are, because this is a farm, piles of junk: sheds full of junk, piles of railroad ties, old chicken wire, parked equipment, firewood, busted parts that might be good for something someday, stuff that your parents haven’t hauled to the garbage dump just yet, either because they’re too busy doing something else, or because there has got to be something they can do with it.
These also make for some good snowdrifts, as long as you’re careful enough not to dig straight into a jagged piece of metal or broken glass.
Once the piles near the trailer house have been exhausted, then it’s time to circle the farmyard: the huge Quonset hut, which is often frosted on the inside with ice crystals that have blown through the cracks in the bay doors; the chicken coop; the hay shed and the shed with the snow chains hanging in the back, for one of the tractors; the old white garage, filled with junk and never parked in; the garden, with apple trees to climb, the enormous cottonwood that is almost a spirit of the farm, and the stock tank; the corrals. When that area has been restlessly circled and explored and dug into and slid down, either on one’s snowsuit or with a red plastic sled, then one moves outside the farmyard.
Follow the gravel road up the hill to Uncle Johnny’s old house site and its crumbling basement, and the silver barn where the sheep or the horses or whatever is there this year are huddled. To the old trailer house, where Bronc and/or Duke are staying, or aren’t, depending on the year. Across the road into a shelterbelt of trees, where in the summer sometimes you have to search for thistles, where there are haystacks and old tractors. (After Grandpa died, a lot of the equipment was sold off, an auctioneer and everything; even later, lightning hit one of the haystacks and burned out a lot of those trees.)
Walking past the turnoff to the old highway–or, really, the Knippling sign at the end of our road–was understood to be off-limits.
Or, you could walk out the heavy red wood gate at the bottom of the farmyard, over by the chicken coop, and head out to where most of the cattle stayed in the winter.
The ground is muddy: don’t bring your sled, bring your walking-stick.
The dirt road is packed pretty well, so that’s where you walk, because you’ll lose a boot in the sucking clay mud if you don’t. The cattle treat you like a dog: they know where you are, and the herd oozes away from you if you get too close. You don’t do anything to rile them up. You’ve seen what a herd of panicked cows can do.
The dirt road passes over a crick, which in winter is frozen solid. The culvert through which the water passes can be climbed into, although it’s annoying (because of the ridges in the metal, which you can’t lean comfortably against) and smells pretty horrible. It started out as a fairly small culvert, but was expanded later.
You can follow the crick up to a pond where, when your Uncle Howard and his kids were there, you once went ice skating on hockey skates. It was blissful, but once they left, nobody ever did it again. People end up going to a lot more effort to distract a large group of town kids than they do two farm kids.
Or you can follow the crick on its winding trek downward, to another shelter belt of trees that hang over the water. Somewhere out in that direction is the garbage dump, which is a crack in the ground that seems to erupt with old washing machines and trucks and tractors, like an excavation site revealed by an earthquake, but you a) suspect that it’s too far to walk, and b) that you’ll get your ass whupped if you go out there without your dad. Probably because it’s too dangerous, although because of what you’re not sure.
If you don’t want to walk out by the cows, then there’s always the road north, which heads out to the silage pile and the hay and alfalfa bales. The silage pile smells like…bread. People will say that it smells alcoholic, but you’ve smelled beer, and it smells nothing like the Coors Lights and Buds that get tossed around at large gatherings, from a separate cooler than the soda, an icetank where adults shove their arms into the cold and pull out what should be the most delightful thing on earth, by their reactions, but that smells and tastes perfectly rancid and foul.
No: the silage pile smells like bread that’s been sitting in a ray of sunshine in the tiny kitchen-dining area in the spring or fall, only made out of corn silage. It is enormous, it is a ramp that leads to the stars, it is eaten away every day by tractors with enormous, toothed mouths, until it is a scrape of sludge on the ground in the spring. There are plastic tarps on top of it, and old tires to hold the tarp down, and even when it’s very cold, if the sun is out, the snow on top of the pile will melt into stale puddles of water in the middle of the tires.
However, the hay is even better than the silage.
If the hay is rolled up in large, round bales, then they are stacked in chained pyramids, two or sometimes even three bales high, and if the hay is tight, you can sometimes ooze backward into the cracks to get warm. You can climb to the top of the first bale, then run along it until you reach the last one–and slide down, thump thump thump, onto the ground. Or you can leap off into the snowdrifts, because haystacks collect snow like dogs collect fleas. Even if the rest of the snow has blown off across the prairie, then the hay bales will have a little bit of snow hiding around them somewhere.
If the hay is in huge, sloppy stacks, then you can climb to the top of one, take a flying leap, and jump onto the next one over. (If you miss, you just slide down the side.) Sometimes you miss but you’re able to shove your hands into the straw and cling onto the side, and then you have to climb up, slowly and carefully, because all children, everywhere, will invent the game of do not touch the ground or you will be killed by lava, even in -40F weather.
If the hay is in small square bales, that is often not terribly fun, because you’re always getting yelled at for breaking the twine on the bales or knocking them off the pile, or else they’re so tightly packed that you can’t even climb them without a bale hook, which is rusty and looks like Captain Hook’s spare hand.
You can drag a sled with you, and find what there is to launch it off of.
You can pull your brother, although when you take turns he always says he pulls more but really pulls less than you do.
You can dig holes in snowbanks–the new ones are best–and lie on your back and watch the sun sparkling through the thinnest crust of ice overhead. You can dig tunnels, some of which may or may not connect to your brother’s, and put carved pieces of snow over the doorway to keep the wind out, and then tell stories.
You can walk, carefully, on top of snowdrifts that have not thawed but have had the sun shine on them during the day, then the temperature drop at night again, freezing the top layer so hard after a few days that you don’t need snowshoes–you have never really needed snowshoes–even though the snow is three feet deep in places.
You can follow the tracks of birds, rabbits, squirrels, the dogs, coyotes, deer–through snow, embedded on the surface of the ice, in mud.
You can feel the wind and the sun burning your cheeks, your lips. You will always have cracked lips in the winter, and you will always have a bright red ring of chapped skin around your wrists and ankles, from them being frozen and wet all the time because of the gaps between your gloves and boots and your snowsuit.
You will see your breath on the air but you will never be able to make smoke rings with it.
You will often come home with feet frozen from breaking through ice over the crick, then dancing in the water.
All that time, you will not be thinking, this is magic, this is magic, which is about the dullest possible thing you could think, but when you come back into the house, when you step through the door from outside to inside, then you will know that you have been somewhere else, and it was not merely out.
And then you will read or color or play or set the table–or it will be time to do chores again, so you’ll do them again, quickly, and then come back in and eat and eat and eat–
Until the next time it is time to go out.