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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004 10:35 am

prairie notes

This past year, the Illinois Department of Agriculture and local health departments offered financial incentives to assist in the sealing of abandoned wells. It's a worthwhile cause that I sometimes become involved with.

Often they're old dug wells, barely visible in such places as the middle of a field or hidden in a thicket where a farmstead once stood. Sometimes they have their own stories.

This particular well was near the center of a large cornfield, noticeable only because the remnants of an ancient hand pump and a sudden crook in the otherwise straight rows where the planter swerved to miss it.

The owner -- who, I guessed, was well into his nineties -- was having second thoughts about closing it, and became more and more agitated as the backhoe closed in:

"You know, there used to be a cabin here. My folks could remember playing on the rotten logs as children."

He moved not quite far enough away from the machine and looked around for something to sit on. Nothing was available.

Near the well, five generations of his family had lived and passed from one world into another. First there was a log cabin and crude barn, then a frame house and pegged barn with outbuildings. In his father's world, a machine shed evolved. In his, the chicken house became extinct. Now only a vast plane of rows merging into an obscure point on the horizon remains.

The old stewards of the soil were gone, and the farm had been taken over by "larger interests."

I walked him back to his car, and we watched as the burial crew went about the work of sealing the well. By this time next year, a new crop will have erased all traces of the work, and the memories will be the sole possession of an old man.

"My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward . . . We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings" -- Wallace Stegner, Angel of Repose, 1971

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