Start Me Up

December 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

It was just a tick or two above zero this morning, so I duffed around for an hour or two, hoping it’d warm up a bit before I headed outside to replace the starter on the tractor. I would’ve waited for a warmer day, but the tractor had already been down for better than a week, and the projects are piling up and tomorrow we’re killing pigs and by gum it’s handy to have the loader to hang them from. So today it would be.

At a little after 9:00, fortified by a second cup of coffee and with the thermometer nudging a full ten degrees, I swaddled myself in multitudinous layers and waddled down to the tractor. I’d remembered the old trick of bringing two pairs of gloves; I’d tuck one pair under my overalls to stay warm, and swap them every five minutes or so. It’s amazing what a luxury such a simple thing can be under the right circumstances: I’ll take a half-warm pair of gloves fished out from my overalls while lying on my back under a tractor on a late December morning over practically any other extravagance I can imagine.

I tell you right now, I am no mechanic. Replacing a starter is a fairly simple task, even if whomever designed your machine saw fit to wedge it so tightly against the power steering pump that said pump must be removed, along with hydraulic lines feeding it, along with the fuel filter and a couple of fuel lines and… you get the picture. The bolts for the starter itself came off in about five minutes, but to actually extract the beast necessitated another hour’s worth of knuckle bashing. Then, install the new one and commence reassembly, cursing the fact that so many of the bolts must be threaded into ungenerous nooks and crannies that accommodate no more than a couple of ungloved fingers.

I’m a little ashamed to feel so dependent on our machines, grateful as I am for the toil they save us and gratifying as it can be to harness their power. But there’s a dead-endedness to them that nags at me, and it’s one of the reasons I end up crawling under them on a 10-degree morning: I just can’t bring myself to invest serious money in something that feels like such a backwards and callous way of interacting with the world around me. I recently read about someone who gave up cars for 17 years, and I swear just reading about it made my breath feel lighter. Over the holidays, we didn’t leave our land for three days straight, and it felt as much like freedom as any trip I’ve taken.

Still and all, it felt damn good to get hear that old diesel engine purr again, both for the personal satisfaction in having overcome both the elements and my mechanical ineptitude, and for the very real comfort in knowing that I again had so much sheer capacity at my command. Someday, perhaps, we will have figured out how to do without it. But for now, and at least until the next breakdown, I’m damn grateful for it.


December 23, 2011 § 5 Comments

On Monday I spotted a road-killed deer along Interstate 91. I knew I should pass it by; it was 8:00 AM, and I was headed to Massachusetts to do some interviews for a magazine story I’m working on. I knew the deer would be in the car for at least a dozen hours, and I knew that Penny’s parents were arriving early the next afternoon for a three day visit, and I knew that the house was a disaster of epic proportions and I knew that I would arrive home that night road-weary and grumpy. I knew it would be stupid to pick up that deer.

Naturally, I hit the brakes.

It was a nice deer, a doe carrying a winter’s worth of back fat on her slender legs, all four of which had been shattered by the impact. I pried and wedged her into the back of the Subaru; a few miles down the road, I stopped for a couple bags of ice and then continued on my way. Every so often, I’d glance in the rear view mirror and see her feet protruding over the backseat headrests. For some reason, this sight confirmed to me that I’d made the right decision.

The next morning, we let the boys go at the deer. They’d been wanting to butcher a large animal, having paid their dues on squirrels and chickens aplenty, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I hung the deer from the bucket of the tractor, sharpened the butchering knives, and left them to the task. They built a small fire over which to warm themselves and roast bits of meat and stayed at it for nearly three hours straight. By the time they drove off with Penny to retrieve their grandparents at the bus station, the deer had been reduced to primal cuts, and I was left with only the final processing and cleanup.

In the big picture, I suspect it doesn’t matter a bit whether or not I made use of that deer. It could just as easily have been left to rot at the side of the road, another victim of our culture’s self-serving choice in transportation. It would have fed a few birds, rather than us, and one could argue that this would have been a more appropriate use of its gifts. After all, we don’t particularly need the meat, though we’ll find ways to share it with those that do. To the deer, struck dead by two tons of metal and rubber, there is no preference. Everything that mattered – abundant browse, surviving winter, a fawn by its side come spring – ceased upon impact.

So I’m left with the inescapable conclusion that my satisfaction in having pulled that deer from the frozen shoulder of the interstate, in watching my boys apply themselves so completely, enthusiastically, and skillfully to the task of dressing it, in slipping the packages of venison in the freezer, in the smell of the simmering bone broth that wafted through the house for the next two days, is both self-serving and naively righteous.

But then again: When is it ever different?








The Other 99%

December 13, 2011 § 4 Comments

A couple of nights ago we ate an early dinner, strapped on our skis, and headed out across the hayfield above our house. It was the night after the full moon, and there was barely enough snow for skiing – three inches, maybe less – but our neighbor had let his milkers graze the field after second cut, so the surface was shorn low and smooth. The only obstacles were of the bovine fecal nature, and because these deposits were frozen, we could glide over them without breaking stride. Did I just say that we skied on cow shit? Why, yes, I did.

The idea had been to ski under the nearly-full moon, but we were too early, and for a while I had everyone convinced that the idea of a waning moon is a myth, that the lunar cycle goes from full start to full stop in just one day. At first, I thought I was joking, but after another moonless half-hour, I started to wonder if perhaps I was onto something. Such is my hubris.

Then we saw it begin to rise, emerging from behind the northeastern horizon first as a preceding glow, and then by inches as itself. We stopped and watched, and even the boys – especially the boys – were transfixed. It happened so fast, we could actually see it rising, as if it had been catapulted from somewhere deep in the earth’s core. Within minutes, the entire landscape was brushed in a warm, almost intoxicating glow. After a while, we skied on.

At Thanksgiving, friend of ours told me that humans can perceive only 1% of what’s out there. In other words, there is another 99% of sights and sounds, smells, tastes, textures and feelings that we know nothing about. I’m not sure how she knows this or if I should even believe it. Still, for whatever reason, I decided to. At first, I found it mildly unsettling, if only because I am at times already overwhelmed by how much I do not know.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the closer I’ve come to feeling comforted that so much could exist beyond the realm of common human understanding. The older I get, the more important it feels to me to believe that we are only consequential within the context of our humanness, that all the havoc our species has wrought upon the natural world only matters in the very narrow and specific perspective of that single percent. To think that there might be another 99% that could be as ignorant of us, as we are of it, is immensely appealing, if for no other reason than it grants me a complicated (and arguably naive) form of absolution.

There’s another reason it appeals to me, and it’s the same reason I stood still for a dozen minutes in a hayfield on a freezing night in early December watching the moon climb into the sky: A sheer, unadulterated sense of wonder at forces so profoundly beyond my control and with it, the simple gift of the knowledge that I’m not nearly as important as I think I am.




Waiting for Winter

December 7, 2011 § 3 Comments

Given the disturbingly mild weather of late, I felt compelled to revisit this piece, originally written for Vermont Commons.

The season’s first big snow finds me on the shed roof by 7:00, trying to nail down the last few sheets of tin before the storm begins in earnest. Already, the air is thick with driven flakes. When I look up, I see the cows, bent to their feed, broad backs coated with white. I see the boys, sleds in hand, trudging through the accumulating snow. They are yelling. Maybe they are arguing, maybe they are just yelling to notice how the snow hushes their voices. I yell, too, but they don’t hear or, if they do, don’t acknowledge hearing. They are getting older, learning that I can be ignored.

It is 16-degrees. The bare fingers of my nail-holding hand burn with the cold, and I have to stop every three or four nails to tuck the fingers into my armpit. Beneath my feet, the tin is extraordinarily slippery, and twice I almost slide over the roof’s edge. It is not a long drop, so I allow myself to enjoy the sensation of sliding, knowing that even if the worst should come to pass, it won’t be that bad. But it doesn’t.

I have always loved winter. For years, it was for the skiing, the cut-loose feeling of falling down a mountain, of being at once in control and out of it. I still covet this sensation, but have noticed a shift in my appreciation of the season. Maybe it is age. Maybe it is fatherhood. Or maybe it just is. Whatever the reason, I find it in the sight of those cows, uncomplaining as the snow piles atop their hides. They stand so still, as if giving the storm permission to fall upon them. There is something honorable in it.

And I find it in the way a block of hard maple sounds when it submits to the maul. Goodness, but I love that sound, love the lubricated feeling of my muscles working in the cold, love gathering up the wood and carrying it indoors and watching the flames take it.

Even the absurdity of laying roof on a 16-degree morning, in a snowstorm, no sure footing to be found. I should be cold – hell, I am cold – should be miserable, should probably wait for the storm to pass. It’s not my work ethic that keeps me up here, nor some misguided notion of what defines valor. Believe me, I have no surfeit of these particular traits, although it is true that a small part of myself will measure its worth against the portion of the job that remains unfinished at day’s end. It is true that I can feel myself taking strength from the sight of those cows, from the sound of his boys whooping in the cold.

But it is truer that the settled, elemental nature of winter soothes and fortifies me in a way I can’t quite define. I do not see it as a battle with the elements; it is more like an acquiescing to them, a simple, humble acknowledgement that there is so much beyond my control. The cows know it; perhaps I have learned some of it from them. I’m pretty sure the boys know it, too, though it probably won’t be long before they forget. They are only human, after all. That is their only failing.

I come down. The task is unfinished but I am, at last, too cold to carry on. My fingers no longer burn, but I know it would be better if they did. I stick them under my armpit, look up through the hole in the roof, feel the snow on my face. In a moment, I’ll go inside, hang my coat, put my gloves by the fire to dry. In a moment, I’ll be warm. But for now, I stand there, doing nothing.


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