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Online Feature: “Property Lines” by Kathryn Nuernberger

A pink azalea is the kind of thing that bushes up into a wild mess if a generation passes without pruning, and then a zealous man can pick at it bough by bough until it’s just one more stump to mow over. It’s the kind of thing that would come springing back from such a stump though, if someone let the grass go again.

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We lived three springs on that field beside the pear trees where we buried the baby I miscarried at 16 weeks. She was so real and unreal I came to believe she was a breath now, running her fingers through the ironweed. I thought when the sumac gave over to a proper mixed hardwood forest, she’d put her feet down and run in the laughing way of children through the nettles and thick blanketed leaves. When a shock of azalea appeared over the grave it was like the beating of her heart or maybe it was someone speaking her name.

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We had to move for better work. Nice people with a child the age of our second child bought the house. I tried to explain the flowers without seeming like a crazy person, but I really couldn’t. Even her father didn’t know how the baby had been born in her way in the field after all. We had to move and you can’t keep people from cutting the weeds off their lawn or having their great wish be to live on the mowed grass of a golf course.

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I used to think I would tell our daughter how her sister shared her name. There was a day I was walking the property lines and she was in my arms and I held her down to the petals so she could put her finger on it. I said, “Look. So pretty. So soft.” And she made her small sounds that infants make and for a moment it felt like we were all together.

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Where we live now there is a field but it won’t spring up. The droughts have been on us every year since we came. It might rain again, it might not. We’re inside a burnt umber shadow on all of the climate change models I’ve seen. When you walk across the field your feet sink a little in the mole holes. They make ugly dead patches, but I can’t help thinking, “Good for you, moles.”

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Here there are no abandoned hillsides atop abandoned coal mines. No moss-covered cabins lost in the shadow of an everyday mountain. This is still valuable farm land, one flat mono-cropped acre after another, all sprayed and irrigated and flowering copyright signage for Monsanto or DuPont.

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The Black-Eyed Susans are valiant and attempt to be beautiful against so much brown scratch and when a little rain finally comes, thistles push up to make violet constellations across the barren, won’t-grow meadow. State law requires property owners to dig out these invasives before they go to seed, then salt and burn the holes with their lingering roots. Or your local extension office can recommend a spray. There is a fine for letting them go unchecked.

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It’s because cows are finicky creatures who are afraid of prickles. They will not share an acre with a bull thistle. Bees are similarly finicky and will not, it seems, live among pesticides or hectares of genetically modified corn. We have hives made of balsa wood at the heart of our acreage. You can see them tucked beneath the purple prickled sway of tall grass, but we lost our first swarm last fall. When the summons comes, I will throw it in the trash or write a check or maybe I will need a lawyer.

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I am sorry for the hardships my field causes. I love how the lowing of distant cows mingles sometimes with the morning hoot of the owl nesting in the stump of a dead maple at the edge of what’s ours. Cows are not entirely unlike buffalo, who used to belong here, although a buffalo would eat a thistle. Sometimes I walk up the gravel road to see if there might be a heifer near the neighbor’s fence who wants to blow warm air from that pink snout onto my hand as I scratch the coarse red hair between her eyes. My daughter used to carry a basket on these walks to fill with mulberries growing along the road, but the county sent someone out with a tractor to clear the ditches. I watched him all morning, he stopped to wave at every car that passed by. So cheerful to be mowing as deep into the fenceline as his machine would go.

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This essay appeared in Indiana Review 36.2, Winter 2014.

Anna Cabe (Web Editor): In this spare, lyrical essay, Nuernberger takes the land near her home and teases out the complex relationship between nature and what we make of it for our own uses. Despite the effortlessness of the prose, the conclusions she comes to are never as easy.

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Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink, which won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone, which won the Elixir Press Antivenom prize. A collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, won the Non/Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from OSU Press. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life. 

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