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What a Score

P1010592On Thursday afternoon I passed a house where a crew was removing the old tin roofing, long sheets that in passing looked plenty sound, and because I am like one of those truffle-trained pigs when it comes to used building materials, I swung round for closer inspection.

Indeed the metal was sound; rusted in spots, sure, but already I was making plans in my head for another run-in shed for the cows, down in the orchard where we’ll overwinter them so they might distribute their black gold beneath the gnarled branches of those old trees. The patina of rust would only serve to help the shed to blend into its surroundings, and the cows, I was certain, would not think to complain.

Yes the tin was available, the homeowner told me, and the crew offered to stack it for easy access, and so yesterday afternoon I hitched the trailer to the truck and headed out. The trailer is – how shall I say this? – not entirely legal at all in the least even a little bit, so I drove a circuitous route of gravel roads, avoiding the center of the small towns between here and there. And in doing so was treated to an unfurling panorama of rural Vermont in seasonal transition. It was warm and the wind was blowing hard, shaking loose the dead and dying leaves. They lay thick on the shoulders of the road, and beyond, on the forest floor, and many of the trees were bare, or nearly so, their long, leafless limbs waving in the gusts. Along one high ridge, I passed a farm where a small herd of Scotch Highlanders waded flank-deep in a shallow pond. In the foreground, a flock of sheep picked over the remnants of late-season pasture. There were more sheep than cows.

I loaded the tin slowly, in no particular hurry to be finished, stacking the sheets neatly on the trailer deck so they’d stay put when strapped down. I was sweating in the heat, and I thought of the Highlanders, wondered if they were still wallowing, looked forward to seeing them on my drive home. I thought too if this was really all my life was meant to be, scavenging cast-off materials, anticipating the sight of those shaggy beasts as if seeing them again might illuminate something gone dim or just disused, even my criminality reduced to the pathos of traveling gravel roads to avoid being hassled for the illegal trailer I was using to tow home someone else’s trash. What set of circumstances had brought me to this point, what lack of ambition, what aimlessness?

Yet I couldn’t deny the pleasure at hand: The stack of tin, much taller than I’d anticipated, enough for the run-in shed and next year’s firewood and the as-yet-uncovered stack of rough saw lumber behind the barn and maybe even more. The subversive nature of my little escapade pleased me, too – sluicing through a latticework of dirt roads I know like the veins on the back of my hands, beyond the net of authority, and not merely the authority to fine me for my stupid trailer, but somehow something larger than that, something that remains for now outside my capacity to put words to.

Twenty minutes later, when I passed the cows again, now ambling across the wilted pasture, hair in wet whorls from the ribs down, of course they illuminated nothing. Nothing at all. I had not expected them to, but then again had thought it might be nice if they did, might prove that perhaps my life is somewhat bigger than it appears, not merely from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking in. To myself.

I drove slow past the cows, then watched them shrink from view in the sideview mirror, where I also caught a glimpse of the stack of tin. Man. What a score.

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Sometimes it’s Hard

Finally, rain, damping the dust and raising the color in the trees to a high pitch, almost a glow, really, so that now everything looks just the way God the tourism department intended, and I no longer feel sorry for the peepers, here from many states or even continents away, spending their hard-earned dollars in pursuit of dying leaves. Now they’re getting just what they came for, and it’s amazing, it’s beautiful, worth every penny spent and probably a few more. I pass them pulled over to the side of the road, over-dressed for the weather, iPhones locked and loaded, ass end of idling rental car protruding into the travel lane. I go slow and wave and am pleased when they wave back.

In the mornings I find the cows gathered at the gate. They’re off pasture now, dependent on their keepers for their daily ration. We’ll not let them down, and whether they know this or merely have no expectations is impossible to say, but either way that’s how I find them, waiting with uniquely bovine contentment under the outstretched limbs of a red maple, their hooves partially obscured by fallen leaves.

Driving the backroads yesterday I kept glancing in the rearview mirror to watch the spindrift of foliage in my wake, swirling and spiraling over the roadway, then falling to lay on the dirt again, a brief respite before the next car passes. It’s warm still, unseasonably so, and I bathe in the pond daily (or nearly so), thinking with every plunge that surely this will be the last of the year. Though of course I thought the same the day before. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the end of things.

 

 

 

 

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Some Habits Die Harder Than Others

Rain in the night, but only a passing shower, not the heavy soaking we desperately need. It’s been nearly a month without significant rainfall; the fall foliage is dulled by drought, the leaves dying and dropping in shades of rust, almost industrial-looking. I feel badly for the tourists, and I’m reminded of a line in a poem my father wrote, about a family of leaf-peepers who, gazing at the ever-green needles of a conifer, wonder if they’ve come too early. Maybe he’ll post it in the comments.

I haven’t written here in a long time; haven’t written much of consequence for many weeks, in fact, though I’ve thought of it many times, and carry with me a strange collection of ideas and images, all the moments of the past few weeks when I’ve been struck by something – the slivered, silvered moon hanging over the pond the night I swam late, or the way it feels to lean my forehead into Pip’s flank as I milk, or driving with one of my boys, me thinking about soon they’ll be gone, and how much I’ll miss the mundane moments I like to complain about – all the miles driven, all the dishes in the sink, all the dirty laundry. Don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone is how the saying goes, and maybe that’s true, but I suspect we’ve got more choice in the matter than that. I guess that if we stopped to think on it a bit we’d know exactly what we’ve got, and how someday we’re going to miss it so bad it’ll hurt to breathe.

This morning I walked outside in the dark, feet bare to feel the dampness of ground. The sky still thinly clouded, only a handful of stars faintly visible. Warm, but I’d lit a fire in the cookstove anyway. Because it’s that time of year, and some habits die harder than others.

Music: Patterson and Mike doing First Air of Autumn . Try it; I think you’ll like it.

 

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This Time

Mid-morning yesterday I dove into the pond, the fallen apples on the surface bobbing in rippled water displaced by my body. The water so cold that for a moment I found it hard to breathe and felt a flicker of panic that perhaps my lungs would somehow forget to fill again. Later, dried off and warmed up, I drove to the local filling station for diesel, parking next to an old Mercury Grand Marquis with a tattered landau roof and rusty quarter panels. I’d say mid-90’s vintage if I were a betting man, which I am, if the stakes are small enough. There was a value-size pack of Bounty paper towels and a pile of clothing in the back seat, an open case of Bud Light cans on front passenger floor, and a Trump That Bitch sticker in the rear window. A young couple eating something deeply fried at the single table inside the store. Rail thin, both of them, and I knew the car was theirs, because they were the only other customers in the place, and for a moment I struggled to make sense of it all: The car, the sticker, the couple, nothing what I expected, almost like that panicked moment in the pond waiting for my body to return to its usual business.

The young man met my gaze and offered a curt nod, and I nodded back.

Driving up the road toward home, I noted the foliage line on the mountain, saw that it was lower than the day before, and considered how in the fall I witness the season’s progress from the top of the mountain down, while in the spring, I watch the color creep upward, slowly rising toward the last stubborn holdouts at the height of the land where even in May you can find pockets of boot-topping snow.

Then this morning, milking, lost in rhythm and reverie, I was startled by a thump. I looked around, trying to place it. Then another, and this time, I saw the apple fall.

 

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Of No Less Value

I was in the pond early this morning, washing away sweat and soil from the previous day’s exertions. The water was notably colder than it was even a week ago, and on the opposite shore, a flock of Canadian geese waddled to and fro, paying me less attention than I paid them. Fourteen, I counted, then dove again.

Later, but still early, barely 7:30, I picked up a pair of hitchhikers, a man and a woman probably in their 50’s. They were dressed in insulated jackets, though it was 70-degrees. It’d been a while since I’d picked up a hitchhiker – since the last time I wrote about it here, I think – and I was glad for the opportunity, even if they smelled strongly of stale beer and something else even more sour, though I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. They lived just up the road in a mobile home and were headed into town where the man has a job cleaning the carwash, which greatly pleased my sense of whimsy (washing the car wash?), though I kept that to myself. “Yup,” he said, “then I’ve got a real good job at…” he interrupted himself “What time’s that at, hon?” He turned to the woman in the back seat. “Eleven?”

“Yeah, eleven.”

“What’s the job?” I asked.

“I’m helping kill 150 chickens. I’m cutting the heads off.”

When I dropped them at the car wash, he cast an appraising eye. “Looks pretty clean,” he said, clearly pleased. They thanked me and got out of the car.

I love these little windows in other people’s lives. I love for a minute trying to feel what it’s like to be them – to be hitchhiking to my job at the carwash (“not too fun in winter,” the woman told me), to be excited about the opportunity to cut the heads off 150 chickens, to walk that road with my thumb out, wondering in turn about the people in the passing cars, and why it’s always the ones with all sorts of shit in their cars that stop, forcing a frantic roadside reshuffling of (in my case) a roll of tarpaper, a can of diesel, and numerous tubes of construction adhesive.

How quickly and completely we lose sight of the fact that everyone has their own story, their own ways of perceiving the world, and their own beliefs, all rooted in an experience of being themselves that they and only they can truly know. Which only exposes the futility in my attempt – there’s simply no possible way for me to understand what it’s like to be them, full as I am of my own feelings, assumptions, and perceptions. But still I think there’s value in trying, or even in just understanding that the way this man and woman experience the world is different than the way I experience it. And of no less value.

When I returned home a few hours later, I walked down to the pond to see if the geese were still around, but they’d flown. For a quick minute I looked for a dropped feather, a reminder of their visit. Finding none, I headed through the woods toward the house, noticing how already the leaves on the weaker maples have started to change.

 

 

 

 

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And Then to Take Them

Every evening I walk the young steer across the pasture to his pen, where I separate him from his mother so that in the morning I might take her milk. And every evening we play the same game: He ducks and dodges and feints, moves I know so well I can see them coming and match them long before they’ve arrived. He’s more than a year old, weighs a good 600-pounds, and could easily elude or otherwise overpower me, yet this lasts only a couple dozen seconds or so, until he has proved to himself that he’s at least made an effort. Then he trots complacently down the hoof-worn path directly into his pen. I latch the gate behind him and go pick blueberries.

I have been slowly reading the book Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson. It’s a dense book, and I don’t want to say too much about it, because then maybe you’ll decide you don’t need to read it, which would mean you’d miss out on a whole lot. In short, Jenkinson makes the case that death deserves more than our culture currently allows it, that we short change the experience (and ourselves) by not fully attending to it, by refusing to face it head on: The grief, the pain, the lack of control, the simple reality of it, the inescapable truth that it is death itself that makes life so worth living. Reading it, I am reminded of my experience surrounding the death of one of my oldest and best friends (I wrote about it here). It profoundly affected my understanding of death, and of grief; it was the first time I truly understood how rich both can be, and that they do not diminish the quality of our lives, but actually enhance them. I guess that’s all I’ll say on the subject for now, except to add that there’s a short film on Jenkinson and his work called Griefwalker. It’s worth watching.

Wait, no, I do have more to say, which is that like many (most?) people, I question choices I have made, things I have done. I try to live without regret, or in a way that I think will protect me from future regret, even as I realize how absurd this is, because how can we possibly know what we might later wish we’d done differently? Yet I believe it true that it’s most often the things we don’t do that we later count among our failings, and perhaps for all of Jenkinson’s nearly 400-pages on the subject (which I’d still recommend you read), the real secret of dying wise is living wise, which is maybe nothing more than having the courage to see the chances as they arise. And then to take them.

Music: What better way to recover from death talk than a little Leonard Cohen

 

 

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How I Wish I Had

I milked early the morning, the moon still visible in the sky, the air heavy and fragrant with the remnants of nighttime rain. I love when it rains in the night, and just hard enough that I woke in the dark to raindrops on my face angling through the open window above my head. Huck the cat sleeping at my side, beyond range of the window and thus unperturbed. I sat up and pulled the window down, but not quite all the way, because I wanted to hear the rain as I drifted back to sleep. Huck rose, rotated himself a time or two, and settled down again, purring softly.

I like sleeping next to animals, and I like being woken in the night in such a gentle way, all the unbidden thoughts and memories that rise to the surface during these semi-conscious moments. Last night it was me riding my Big Wheel in the swath of shorn grass behind my father as he mowed at the cabin where we spent most of the first six or seven years of my life. Which is odd, because I do not recall there being a lawn, but the image and sensation of it are so strong. I’m certain that’s where it was.

My parents still own the land where that cabin still stands, though it’s been many years since it’s been fit for human habitation. It’s about 90 minutes north and west of here; I haven’t been there for nearly a decade. It’s a beautiful piece of land, 150-acres or so, not far from the Canadian border. I think maybe I’ll head up there again soon, wander the woods a bit.

By the time I finished milking I could still see the moon, but only faintly. The sky patches of grey and steely blue. I walked back to the house with the bucket of milk, moving slow, thinking about how much I have to do today, thinking I should move faster, put this task behind me and move onto the next. Thinking that I’m pretty sure I never got my boys a Big Wheel, and how I wish I had.

 

 

 

 

 

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Maybe a Pretty Good Rule

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Packed up

My family departed this morning for two weeks or more, bound for the wilderness of northern Minnesota, leaving me to tend to projects and beasts both large and small. I don’t mind the solitude as much as once I might have. This is not the same as saying I don’t get lonely, because I do, but I also appreciate the stripped-down nature of my time alone, the way it allows both mind and body to focus on the tasks and thoughts at hand. And of course the small pleasures one allows oneself in such circumstances, most of which (in my case, at least) revolve around food consumption: Drinking straight from the jar of milk, eating directly from the pan in which the meat was cooked, generally at the edge of the fire over which it was cooked, and possibly with no utensils beyond the thumb and pointer fingers, salads picked and consumed in the garden – a handful of lettuce washed down by a few green beans. Maybe a carrot, extra crunchy for the soil packed into its creases. There. A complete meal. It’s not a pretty sight, I’ll grant you that, but the sink remains free of dishes, the food tastes just fine, and I find my body feels best when unencumbered by overly much attention to detail.

Which is maybe a pretty good rule for a whole lot of other things, too.

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Other People’s Stuff

First, if you’re looking for a piece of VT to call your own, you should probably buy the one our friends Hart and Michael are selling. I’ve spent a fair bit of time there, and it’s really quite spectacular and unique. Here are a couple of pictures, but they can’t begin to do the place justice, so check out this link for more.

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Second, I know I’ve mentioned my friend Brett’s blog in the past, but I’m going to do it again just to be a pain in the ass. Brett’s a great writer and I really enjoy her short, almost-daily missives. I bet you will, too.

 

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Thinking All the While

Yesterday evening I drove the back roads slowly, past fields thick with fresh-spread manure, the smell of it heavy in the air and as familiar as wood smoke in winter. I topped a hill and at its crest where the tree canopy parted saw a cloud tower in the sky, tall and ominous-looking, as if the faintest breeze would send it toppling. Rain coming, I figured, or at least the threat of it. Let it come. Hay’s in. Firewood’s under tin. Streams and rivers still running high, but they can run higher. The banks have held worse. I’ve seen it myself.

Truth is, I could drive these backroads just about forever. I guess more than anything they remind me of what I love about Vermont, and not just the land, but the people who inhabit it and maybe just as much how they inhabit it. They live in old farmhouses, and new ranches, and mobile homes leveled on cinder blocks and funky cabins with rows of Tibetan peace flags hanging across the driveway. Chickens ranging in the yard. They plow driveways and clean houses and pour concrete and milk cows and go to school and get DWIs and lord knows what else.

As I drove, I remembered passing a dairy farm a few days back, not a prosperous-looking one (those are getting fewer and farther between by the year) and seeing in the middle of a nubbed-down pasture behind a sagging line of rusted wire a small hay wagon stacked with what looked to be about a cord of firewood. A nice, neat stack, spray-painted plywood sign leaning against it: “$220” No name, no phone number, nothing more than the price.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about that wagon, that wood, and the farmer who thought to stack it just so. How many hours already he must have into its procurement. And who would buy it? For it was not deliverable by hay wagon, least not over any distance, and as a rule it’s pretty hard to sell firewood you can’t deliver. So what, then? Someone would see the wagon, stop in to the barn at milking time, inquire about the wood, strike a deal, back their truck into the field, throw each piece into the bed or as many as would fit, because truth is it’s pretty much impossible to fit a full loose cord into a the bed of even a full-size pickup, which I know because I’ve tried. So now on top of it all they’re having to come back for the rest. Really? Someone would do all this for a cord of wood? My head wouldn’t stop swirling with the details, and what seemed to me the futility of it. Because I really wanted someone to buy that damn wood. But I didn’t see how it’d happen.

Yet I couldn’t relinquish the image of it. Still can’t, I guess, because here I am writing about it though I never planned to, not even at the top of this page. There was something beautiful about it, something of great substance (Firewood! Heat! Survival!) and yet also a little heartwarming, which I suppose was the hope it represented, enough to be worth however long it took to fell and cut and split and stack that wood, to pull it into the pasture with the old Farmall I could see resting out behind the barn, to find the plywood, the rattle can, to paint the sign. And yet all this was tempered by that sense of futility in a way that actually felt a little achy in my gut, like I didn’t quite know which to believe: Hope or futility? Futility or hope? Perhaps that wagon of wood is not unlike the “eggs for sale” sign mentioned in the comments a while back; something that comforts in its commonplace nature and yet is just incongruous enough that we imbue it with meaning even we can’t quite understand. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Later that night I finally settled on what I think is going to happen to that wagonload of wood. I think the farmer’s going to leave it there until the wood is well-seasoned, and maybe even covered by snow, the sign long since tipped flat by the wind. The pasture cold and windswept, the cows huddled around a bale feeder in the barnyard. Then I think at some point this winter the farmer’s going to cast his appraising eye on the stacks in the woodshed and, realizing they’re dwindling faster than anticipated, he’s going to drive the old Farmall out to pasture and pull that cord of wood home. Thinking all the while how glad he is it didn’t sell.

Music: A new one from Isbell.