A pheasant rooster struts and shows off his tail feathers and vivid colors on the horse pasture’s hilltop during summers, sneaking into safer grasses only when our mare nibbles nearby. This spring, the rooster has competition for the pasture territory. The two roosters’ lengthy fight for dominance plays out only on hilltops chosen for flatness and short grasses; the two pheasants walk peacefully together to these stages only to throw pheasant punches as soon as they arrive. A week after the fights began, two hens appeared and heightened the stakes, but two weeks have passed and no one is conclusively the winner. Desperate, one rooster displays dominance by yelling and beating his wings so fast the air reverberates, repeating the display from dawn til dusk.
My parents and I attend to the pheasant drama as if it were a soap opera, following the kicks and jabs like audiences at a boxing match. Recently I began to realize how my parents taught my brother and I to observe our broader surroundings, a different education than other families. When inside, they keep one eye on the pasture swooping across a road to public marsh; our house was built to maximize our view. Binoculars, used almost daily, sit on a windowsill with a bird guide nearby for reference. I grew up with telescope and microscope focused on the worlds around me, parents pointing to curiosities as often as children. To supplement our visual observations, my parents taught us to hear bird and anuran calls, delighting in last year’s screech-fest between the farm’s red-tailed hawk and sharp-shinned hawks nesting north of the house. We smell the direction of the wind, as northwestern winds always carry the distinct odor of hog manure.
I long mistook my upbringing as isolated, evidenced by a history of rocky friendships with schoolmates. Moving in with my parents again, a year out from college graduation, I realize I was not isolated. I have relationships built since childhood with violets and squill, leopard and chorus frogs, cranes, pelicans, and swans, not to mention bacteria, insects, and earthworms found in our gardens. I thrill to the patterns of sun and wind across woods, marsh, and reconstructed prairie; marvel at the weather patterns changing on the vast canvas of prairie sky; and know the contours of the land from curving my body to stay upright on the lawn mower, pounding over it barefoot after a ball or birdie, and trundling over it while farming.
The ecosystem and my family are in a long-term relationship with give and take. We add biodiversity and pollinator habitat across the farm and add to the soil’s health through our farming practices. We mow, chop, clear brush and weeds, relocate and even kill small pests. Nonhuman neighbors prey upon our chickens and crops, dig tunnels in yards and under building foundations, and attempt to suck our blood. They also provide beauty and entertainment, pollinate our crops, and lay a foundation for a successful farm.
I recently picked up a book opened to the essay that directed my attention to the person I am now engaged to marry. Rereading the essay, I saw my sense of home through new eyes. I understand now that my love of home is created by a knowledge of and relationship with the ecosystem of the farm. As I look to my future, I will create a home with my partner away from this farm. I want to intentionally relate to that ecosystem, building a foundation for loving a new home. Eventually, I hope we teach our children to view their surroundings with as much care and curiosity as my parents taught me.