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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Meet Miss Buck

Air Date: Week of

Reporter John Gregory sends an audio postcard from southwestern Illinois, where he's visiting Emma Buck. The 95-year-old Miss Buck reminisces about her family's connection to a particular 70 acres of farmland, tended by Bucks since Civil War times. She also worries what will happen to the land when she is gone.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. America is a mobile nation. For millions of us, homes are just commodities. Our dwelling's briefly rented, or bought and sold after just a few years of residence. It's not surprising, then, that many of us have lost a connection to a specific place, one that's rooted in the cycles of nature and spans generations. But not Emma Buck. From her front porch swing in southwestern Illinois, Miss Buck can look out on land that her family has tended since before the Civil War. Land not too far from the Mississippi that supported cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, and the odd mule. Land that's given her and her ancestors more than 150 harvests of corn, oats, and wheat. At age 95, Emma Buck is among the last of a generation that practiced living and farming in a manner that directly connected people to their land. Producer John Gregory recently spent an afternoon with Miss Buck, and sent us her story.


GREGORY: The first thing you should know about 95-year-old Emma Buck is that she loves nature, but she hates weeds. Crabgrass, jumping grass, carrotweed, thistle, you name it, Miss Buck simply won't abide it growing in her yard. That's why even on a steamy summer day, when the temperature is nearly equal her age, this tiny wisp of a woman is sharpening her hoe, preparing to do battle.

BUCK: I cleaned all around the buildings. Now it looks as if I haven't done anything. Those grass and weeds grow up so fast.

GREGORY: That's another thing you should know about Emma Buck. She's a bit hard to understand at first. Even though she's lived in Illinois all her life, her speech still rings with a touch of her German heritage. Her ancestors came to the United States in 1841. They filtered through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Monroe County in southern Illinois. Emma Buck's great grandfather purchased this farm for five dollars from another German immigrant. The property is 70 acres of rolling prairie with fertile fields that slope gently down to a thick stand of pecan, oak, and walnut trees.

(Bird song)

GREGORY: The industrious family planted crops, raised livestock, tended a vegetable garden, and baked their bread in an outdoor oven. At harvest time, Emma Buck's grandfather worked by the light of the moon to avoid the heat of the day. He harvested and winnowed the wheat by hand.

BUCK: And then had baskets -- Dad called it winnowing baskets -- and they filled it out in the wind, and through the air the wind take the chaff out. It seemed impossible. It was such hard work in those days.

GREGORY: The farm was passed down through her mother's side of the family to Miss Buck's parents, Fred and Christina Buck. Her father was a self- sufficient man with little desire for modern conveniences. Fred Buck slaughtered and dressed his own animals, kept an orchard and vineyard, made his own tools, cultivated willow to weave baskets, and tilled the rich, dark soil.

BUCK: At first he had a team of mules [phrase?], but he didn't get along with them very well. They had their own ideas. And from then on he had horses, and they had about a half dozen cows and a couple of hawks and a hundred chickens there. They didn't go to Wal-Mart. (Laughs) We had it all here.

GREGORY: Emma Buck and her father farmed the acreage until Fred Buck's death in 1963. After that the crop land was leased to a neighbor. Today the farm looks much as it did earlier this century.

RIEKEN: Ah, this is Dad's workshop.

GREGORY: Annie Rieken is a preservationist with the Monroe County, Illinois, Heritage Foundation. A few years ago Emma Buck called Ms. Rieken to ask for help in maintaining the Buck family legacy. Now, the Illinois Landmarks Preservation Council lists the farm as one of the state's most endangered sites.


RIEKEN: And these are the tools of her life. And Grandpas's life. All these rasps and hasps and gorgeous little axes and everything that's so sharp.

GREGORY: Ms. Rieken is one of the people helping to document the Bucks' life on the farm. Along the way, Annie Rieken and Emma Buck have become friends. Ms. Rieken visits Miss Buck nearly every day to help with the weeding and other chores.

RIEKEN: We're just about a fourth of an inch off of our goal here, Emma.

BUCK: Yeah.

GREGORY: As the two struggle to open a barn door that's swollen with humidity, MissBuck bends down, grabs a metal bar, and shoves it under the door, hoping to pry it loose. Even at 95 years old and weighing only about 60 pounds, Emma Buck is determined to let nothing stop her, especially an old barn door.

BUCK: Now, give me a chance.


BUCK: The other day I did the corn.

RIEKEN: Did you?

BUCK: And I had to crawl through the -- (The door opens) There, now. Now wait until I get this out of there.


GREGORY: Successful at last, the women swing open the large wooden door, revealing what Ms. Rieken calls the new part of the barn, built around 1880. The older section was built around 1838. Even after more than a century the barn is in marvelous shape. Its main beams are solid, hand-hewn timbers a foot square and perhaps 30 feet long. The space contains a horse-drawn side binder, a machine once used for harvesting grain, as well as a horse-drawn carriage and buggy.

(Metal and water)

GREGORY: But her life wasn't all farm labor. She attended Sunday services and picnics at the nearby church. And when she was a teenager, after the chores were done, Emma Buck loved to draw copies of pictures featured in advertisements she clipped from the newspaper.

BUCK: This was in the Chicago Tribune, and I thought it was cute so I copied it.

GREGORY: Miss Buck's gnarled, leathery hands turn the fragile pages of colorful pencil, ink, and crayon sketches. Although her mind is still sharp, age and arthritis have slowed Emma Buck. With a cane in each hand she struggles to move her small, fragile body across the room and out the front door.

(Cane advancing)

GREGORY: On the front porch of the weathered frame house her grandfather
built, Miss Buck lowers herself onto a swing. She's dressed in a blue and white dress. Her hair is creamy white with curls that perch over each temple. Her eyes usually are cast shyly downward, but will flash upward to catch sight of a favorite song bird.

(Bird song)

GREGORY: From her porch, Emma Buck can look at her flowers, including a hollyhock her grandmother tended and a rose bush she believes her great grandmother planted. By choice, her lifestyle continues to be a simple one. The house has no indoor plumbing, and an old television is turned on only one hour a week, for a favorite religious program. She does read newspapers and magazines to stay up on current events. For example, she wonders why government policies allow farmers to go bankrupt, while so many people go hungry. She also deplores how disrespectful humans have been to nature.

BUCK: Years ago they didn't care what they did. I remember one time they even killedblackbirds to use the red feathers for their hats and things like that. To me, that would be a shame to use them for things like that. It's annoying to me to read that people are so careless.

GREGORY: Emma Buck has been alone on the farm since her sister Anna died in 1992. She worries about the fate of the property once she and her brother, who lives in a Chicago nursing home, are gone. There are no heirs, and Miss Buck fears that urban development spreading eastward from St. Louis, including a golf course that recently opened just down the road, could overtake her homestead. Emma Buck doesn't want her land sold to another farmer, either.

BUCK: Because he'd just sell the antiques for a lot of money and tear some of the old buildings down. They wouldn't be interested in history. I'm just interested in history.

GREGORY: With the help of the local preservation group, Emma Buck hopes her land can become a living history center, where people can come, experience the sights, sounds, and smells of a working farm. A place where curators will teach younger generations about the old ways of driving a team of horses, winnowing wheat, butchering hogs, and baking bread in an outdoor oven. Until that time, Miss Buck says she's happy to be surrounded by her family's nearly 160-year tradition of living on this land. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Monroe County, Illinois.

(Tree frog sings)

BUCK: Tree frog. They like that when it is stormy, when you can feel it. They feel that and then they squawk.



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