I took my nephew Blake for a 4-wheeler ride through the cattle pasture last Sunday afternoon when I parked in front of a few sprigs of milk vetch blooming along the barbed-wire fence.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea what milk vetch was, but now that it’s growing in our 4-H club’s prairie garden, I’m excited to see the same species actually flourishing in the wild.
My excitement was carrying over to an attentive Blake, who was asking questions about each of the flowers — like which ones I thought were pretty and which ones were my favorite.
When he looked at the milk vetch, he asked, “What do you think of this one?”
“I dunno,” I shrugged. “It’s not the prettiest one in our prairie pasture, now is it?”
“Nah,” he answered. “It’s OK.”
A little while later we stopped along the waterway, and he spotted a broad-leafed plant standing tall amid the green grasses.
“That one’s kind of pretty, don’t you think?” he asked me.
I took one look and said, “No, that’s a weed — milkweed!”
Naturally, the inquisitive almost-9-year-old wanted to know why it was called milk weed. (Why he didn’t ask why milk vetch is called milk vetch, I don’t know.)
Anyway, I explained to Blake that a milkweed, when you break it open, has a milky-white substance inside.
“Is that where milk comes from?” he asked.
After an immediate guffaw and a rather loud laugh, I realized that probably wasn’t the best reaction to give such an inquisitive child.
“You know milk comes from a cow, don’t you?” I asked, wondering what in the world he’s learning in school.
“Oh,” he replied. “That was a dumb question, wasn’t it?”
Did he have to ask? Of course!
Sometimes I think Blake is so busy thinking up his next question that he doesn’t think things through! This kid asks more questions than anyone I know, except maybe me, but I have a good excuse — I’m a reporter.
(I have to be careful not to mention the name of any guy around Blake because it will lead to 100 questions that begin with, “Is he your boyfriend?” and follow with “When are you going to get married?” “Are you ever going to have kids?” and “Why don’t you want to have kids?”)
Thinking Blake needed to truly experience the nastiness of milkweed, I plucked one by the root and took it up to the farm yard.
“Here, break it open,” I offered.
He did, then immediately wrinkled up his nose and looked at the sticky substance splattered on his hands.
“Exactly. That’s milkweed — a weed!” I said. “Now, do you really want to drink a glass of that?”
Of course he didn’t.
Back in the olden days when we had to walk beans — actually walk down every single row with a hoe — the milkweed was my foe. I’d chop, and chop and chop some more and, when I was done, my hoe was covered in the sticky white residue, disguised by clinging specks of dirt.
Oh, how I hated the milkweed.
It was so exciting when the farmers in the neighborhood invested in bean bars, and we could actually sit on a cushioned seat, strapped in by a seatbelt, and cling to a spray nozzle that delivered a potent purple-dyed dose of death to those menacing milkweeds.
Of course, the bean bar has long been retired — replaced by aerial sprayers that attack weed growth on Round-Up Ready soybean fields.
I feel kind of sorry for farm kids today. They don’t get to walk beans and they don’t get to ride a bean bar. I wonder if they even know what a milkweed looks like.
Oh well, I’ll at least take comfort in believing farm kids (and now my citified nephew) know the milk in their glass comes from a cow … and not an ugly ol’ weed growing out in the back 40.