It was the first spring after Joanna’s death that I started clearing her field, the spring of 1998. I didn’t know then that it was to be her field, that knowledge came a little later. The west most part of our rural place is secluded, and is located in the river bottom next to the Middle Fork of the Saline River in the Ouachita (wash-it-taw) Mountains. The waters of the old river channel there lap against the base of a sloping, one hundred foot high ridge.
The top of the ridge, where Native Americans used to camp, is now the resting place for our home. From the old channel to the present stream location it is sixty yards. This place of deep dark soil, about an acre and a half, was completely covered in timber when I began. The Hackberrys, Oaks, Gums, Hornbeams and Ashes had not been touched for generations. I’d never thought of clearing it before, and at first only planned to remove trees and brush along the west bank of the channel. This would make better access for fishing.
As I began to push over brush and the smaller trees with my tractor, it came to me that I should clear the entire area, and thus create a little hidden field. Other than being inundated by the occasional flood, the area was not being used. The field would be nestled between the present River channel and the old one. I proceeded by digging around bigger trees and those that had an extensive root system, then push them over with the front end loader. Smaller trees could be pushed to the sides of the opening and larger ones cut up then moved. The largest ones were Hackberry and some three feet in diameter. No need to burn the sawn and pushed aside tree tops, high water - often rising up ten or twelve feet - would move them ever seaward.
It took several months of full and part time work to clear the area. When working I would often uncover a nest of enraged ground bees or a prize winning Cottonmouth Moccasin. I would have to move my work to other parts if the bees were persistent in pursuing me. As I drove around on the tractor I would sometimes glance over to the sloping ridge beyond the water of the old channel. How long, I mused, had it been since the last hunting party of Caddo Indians came down that slope?
As the clearing work progressed I would envision in my mind’s eye a beautiful meadow, green in the spring sun and surrounded by the tall trees and bunches of wildflowers. It would be bordered on the east by the land locked channel and the high ridge, and on the west by the ever flowing waters of the Middle Fork.
The bed of the stream is gravel and rock and we can hear it from our lofty home as it gurgles it’s way southward. This vision of future beauty inspired me and kept me going, and fatigue was of no consequence. Whatever it took I was determined to do it. I did all of the work alone, as is my custom, and spent many hours riding the orange tractor, and in cutting logs from the felled trees.
It was sometime in this summer of 1998 that I decided to call it Joanna’s Field. People name things after happy memories and loved ones, and most certainly she was both. We had fished together many afternoons in the dark pool of the old channel’s still waters. The field would lie next to our fishing hole, and she would have called it “a small and cozy place”. Even as a toddler she loved small and hidden places, and had coined that phrase years ago. I even have a photo I took of her peeking out from a hiding place in our old house, with those big brown eyes and her blond curls.
She really loved to fish, and I can still see her standing on the bank above me and above the dark water of the old channel, casting a lure out and over the shadowed, still surface. We would lazily cast for fish as the afternoon sun waned and just enjoy doing something so peaceful together. My spirit took a snapshot of her in that pose on one particularly beautiful afternoon. I was at the south end of the pool, and I would glance up and watch her at length as she fished. Fathers never tire of seeing their children, and that picture has anchored itself forever in my heart.
On those afternoon excursions when it was time to go to supper, she would climb on the four wheeler behind me and put her arms around my waist. Joanna always had the prettiest hands, and a peaches and cream complexion as her mother described it. So then, with the mountain twilight beginning to fall we would ride together back up the darkening trail through the cedar filled hollow that wound to our highland home.
Joanna was insightful and sensitive. When I had to go away from home on business there would always be a note on the seat of my truck. It would be signed by her, Nathan and Laura. It would state their love and prayers for a safe trip and a safe return. I still have some of those precious scraps of paper. She would always see that the back porch light was on for dad. After her death I came home for the first time to a dark back porch. It was like a heavy blow, and I sat with my head resting on the steering wheel and wept for fifteen minutes. A light had been taken from me. Surely the world was just a little dimmer now. No, a lot dimmer.
Often as I worked in the field I would ponder the mysteries of life and death, and would be flooded with memories of my unforgettable fifteen year old daughter. To some secret watcher it would have seemed most peculiar to observe me. A grown man was riding around on an orange tractor and all the while crying his eyes out and intermittently wailing out to Heaven. I would beseech God to send something to fill up a massive Joanna shaped void. There must be something to remove the endless pain.
At times like that it seemed impossible that I could ever be comforted again. After awhile though, I would feel better and stop crying, blow my nose and wipe my eyes before I continued working. My comfort came from the knowledge that a wonderful wife, son and daughter still awaited me at the top of that winding trail, and that God was still in control.
As a believer in Jesus Christ I must know that all is in his hands, though I don’t understand things that happen. Counting your blessings is the best way to learn arithmetic. In this type of math you've got to pay much more attention to the plus signs than to the minus. Now though, I have to ride back up the trail alone with no small arms around me. I can feel them even now.
God took two of our children to be with him and left us two. There are many books in that sentence, trust me on this point. As always, my wife and I must bow before God’s almighty power and wisdom. After all, fourteen years went by before doctors told us we couldn’t have any children at all. My wife’s body killed my sperm on contact, and there was no medical fix. Even the test that determined the condition was new. But then God cast his creative and deciding vote and we won. No recount was required. Martha was thirty seven when Nathan was born and thirty nine when God sent Joanna. We lost a baby when Martha was forty two, and then Laura, our last “handful on purpose” from the Lord, came the spring after Martha had turned forty five.
After Joanna’s little field was cleared, I smoothed it out by disking and harrowing, filling in stump holes and leveling humps and rough places. There’s a unique beauty in a cultivated field that’s waiting for man and nature to fill the empty brown canvas and nothing at all compares with the scent of freshly turned earth. I rejoice in the creator, and so am able to appreciate his creation in the right way. It was in October of 1998 that I planted the fallow ground for the first time. It was very hot and dry that fall, as it had been all summer, and so I got a pump and rigged up irrigation lines to water the sown seed. There was no need, as it turned out, for me to do that though.
A gulf hurricane sent clouds our way, and it began to rain within a few days after it was planted. I was overjoyed and loved it. It was like God’s stamp of approval on all of my blood sweat and tears. When it all began to turn green the field was even more beautiful than I could have imagined. It’s always wonderful there now, and as long as I have the strength and help of God I will plant it each fall. Every time I take Martha there she weeps and says it’s a special place. We both know that it’s prayers and love that make places special.
When they were small, we once took the children to Pea Ridge Civil War battlefield in Northern Arkansas. Joanna remarked in a plaintive little voice “this place makes me sad”. She was tearing up as she spoke those profound words. Her innocent little spirit had discerned the uniqueness that was resident there. In case you didn’t know, that’s why many eyes tear up at old battle grounds.
The prayers of the soldiers that fought there are an oil of anointing that has totally saturated the ground. Those frightened living soldiers were pleading for life, the wounded praying for help, and the dying crying for forgiveness for themselves, and help for families they were leaving behind.
The spirit of God comes close when men are in prayer, and any time that he visits, a wonderful, subtle fragrance remains. We pray and God answers. It’s not hard to know what those men were saying. I would have been weeping and praying the same things. Men remain the same no matter what the century.