RURAL AMERICA — The line at Starbucks was long, but I happen to enjoy its extremely overpriced coffee, so there I stood. And because it’s the holidays, we do our darndest to conjure up the Christmas spirit, so I used my best Clint Eastwood voice and said quietly to the woman in line in front of me, “If you order six items I’m gonna have you killed.” She started laughing and said, “I know exactly what you mean.” She ordered two drinks, which was still one too many but it’s OK, because when she picked up her beverages we wished each other happy holidays as she passed.

My mind drifts to odd places during the holidays and, believe me, it’s much too late in life for counseling. A few days ago, I slowed my car to watch a neighbor’s cow lumber across an open, recently picked cornfield, and I felt inexorably sad about the scene. The older I get, the more pathetic I become. Heck, when I hear Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” come on the radio I quickly change the station because I don’t want to hear the sound of a whip on a horse, even though I know it’s just a member of the percussion section standing in the back line of some orchestra making the sound. And besides, Mr. Anderson wants you to accent the second syllable in his first name, not the first. Uh, OK.

Speaking of animals, many years ago I was wandering around Boulogne, France, at Christmastime and I stepped into a church in which a live nativity scene was well established in the back; you know: a donkey, a cow, and a couple of sheep. Nothing says Christmas quite like the close-up smell of animal waste, and it caused me to think the scene was extremely believable, very close to the real life events of a couple thousand years ago, a time when ripe shepherds, after many days hanging with sheep, brought their own odors to a manger where a young couple was doing their best to keep a baby warm in swaddling clothes.

These events may not have happened as we have been told, as so much of history has been passed down from generation to generation by storytellers, some of whom undoubtedly embellished the story to make it more interesting. But it doesn’t matter, as long as there are animals involved somewhere in the scripture.


Out here, there were animals wandering the landscape and swimming in the waters millions of years before you, me, Jesus, or anyone else walked the earth. I know there are good folks who don’t believe this kind of science, and I can’t do much about that. I could show them fossils that line the limestone bluffs towering over the hollow behind my house, but that wouldn’t convince them anyway, so I just keep my mouth shut.

Planets Saturn and Venus have been very visibly hanging low in the southwestern skies just after dusk, and the last full moon of the decade has now past. It was called the “cold” moon, and for a number of nights in a row it was bright enough to cast a shadow for every animal passing by.

Happy holidays everyone.

Ullrich is a free-lance writer who resides in rural Jackson County, Iowa. His book, “The Iowa State Fair,” is available from the University of Iowa Press.