I don’t know how many people know Margo Hansen, but it’s got to be a bunch, especially in the Clinton area.
The plant-lover with a horticulture degree from Iowa State University has lived in the Gateway area for more than 30 years, running garden centers for herself and others, raising and selling food at the farmers market, serving as a public speaker on the air and at events and, most recently, directing programs at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum.
Now Margo has accomplished a “bucket list” goal of writing and publishing a book. Titled “Down on the Farm: Margo’s Memories,” the paperback is a collection of stories from growing up on a Davenport dairy farm in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
As readers of this column know, I, too, have farm memories, so when Margo gave me a copy of hers, I wondered how they would compare.
I realized straight away that her experiences were way different from mine.
While I have written about all the work my dad did, Margo performed this same kind of work herself. As one of five children – and eventually six -- she had outside chores every day in the livestock barns and in the fields.
She drove a tractor, helped butcher turkeys, swung 40- to 60-pound bales of hay from the baler onto a wagon in stacks, pitched manure, built fences and killed rats with a shovel. And she did all this with very little instruction. Her father told her what to do, then let her figure it out, which probably accounts for the confident, think-on-her-feet kind of woman she is today.
I did none of this kind of work. I watched others do it, but mine was in the house, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry, and in the yard, mowing and tending to the flower and vegetable gardens.
Another big difference between us is all the actual life-threatening accidents Margo fell into. She was run over by a pickup when she fell off the back and the driver (her mother) did not see her on the ground. She wiped out on her bicycle while tearing down a gravel road, her body skidding across the gravel until it came to a bloody stop. Then there was the injury sustained when, while racing her sister, she jumped over a big mud puddle and landed wrong with her full body weight on her twisted ankle. I really wish I hadn’t read that paragraph.
The worst that ever happened to me is I stepped on a rusty nail and had to go to town to get a tetanus shot.
Through all the work and downright danger, Margo had a childhood she says she “would never trade for anything in the world.”
“When I tell my friends what makes my heart smile (like an afternoon of picking sun-ripened fruit off a tree), they just laugh and shake their heads,” she writes. “ ‘That sounds like work to me,’ ” they say. “ ‘It sounds like life to me!’ is my response.”
And that spirit is the strongest take-away message of her book.
Yes, you will learn about the practices of a small-time dairy farm in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You’ll learn, for example, of a time when four-row cultivators were mounted on tractors and driven between rows of corn to uproot weeds rather than using preemptive chemicals to keep the fields clean. In that sense, hers is an excellent reference book.
And you will learn Margo’s opinion of turkeys as being stupid when she recalls a morning when the family was trying to move a small flock out of their shed to a new, outdoor pasture.
“We all stood back as the door on the shed was opened,” she writes. “One curious tom stuck his head out. We looked at him and he looked back at us. There was no expression on this face. Not even a glimmer of intelligence, I thought to myself. If you have ever looked into a turkey’s eyes, all you will see is a tiny black hole. Black holes are not just in outer space. They exist in each and every turkey’s brain cavity. Poultry people know this, but they don’t like to talk about it.”
But, again, it’s the indomitable force of Margo herself that carries the book. And if her life story didn’t already encourage and inspire readers to pursue the possibilities of their own lives, she spells it out.
On the last page she talks about finally getting her stories down in print. Although her work may not rank as Great Literature, it is something she wanted to accomplish, and she did.
“Know this… You can be or do anything you set your heart on,” Margo writes. “If you want to paint, then paint. If you want to sing but the notes come out flat, sing anyway. Stop worrying about what other people think and live life to the fullest. Every day is a new day.”
Words of wisdom culled from the memories of a dairy farm.