October 23, 2016 § 7 Comments
We awoke to wind-driven snow, four-inches on the ground and mounting, the cows on the wrong side of their sagging fence. I’d been pushing them to clean up the unsavory remnants of a round bale, and their displeasure was evident. It was not yet daylight, though the accumulated snow lent its particular luminescence. I lay flakes of hay to kneel on for milking, a little prayer mat on which to repent my sins one squirt at a time. Locked my sister in the closet. Squirt. Snitched one of my father’s Lucky Strikes. Squirt. Snitched another. Squirt. I’d keep going, but they only get worse, and I doubt you really want to know, anyway.
I’m always glad for chores on mornings like these, when I might otherwise not find my way outdoors. There is always a little detail I find striking; this morning it was Pip’s soft and intermittent lowing, uncharacteristic for her, maybe the result of the weather or some other grievance, though I didn’t try to imagine what she was saying or why. I just milked atop my hay mat, watching the wet flakes melt into the heat of Pip’s coat, until the bucket was full and my hands ached with the cold.
I released Pip from her halter and hung it over the fence post. She ambled back to her mates and I to mine.
The late, great Rory Gallagher with A Million Miles Away. Hell, yeah.
October 22, 2016 § 10 Comments
A welcome rain, steady and soaking. I went out last night deliver extra hay to the new piglets, my path only half-lit by a headlamp with dying batteries. I’d worn too little and was soon soaked through and cold, and thought briefly of returning to the house for dry shirt and jacket, but then tried to recall the last time I’d been soaked through and cold, and could not. So carried on. It’s been too dry, too warm, for too long. The rain is a relief.
Before it got wet, I spent the better part of two days harvesting softwood sawlogs from the lower reaches of our land. White spruce and balsam fir, mostly, and of the two, primarily the latter. Balsam doesn’t last long ’round here; it’s subject to a condition known as “red rot” (there’s maybe a more formal name, but red rot is what everyone calls it) that slowly eats the tree from the inside out, climbing up the trunk as it progresses. Of the mature balsam I’ve harvested in these parts, I bet nearly 90% showed some evidence of rot. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but if so, not much of one. Thus the impetus to cut them fairly early, before they succumb in full.
Though we own a small bandsaw mill, I’ve lately been taking logs to a sawyer a few miles down the road. He charges $.15/board foot for custom sawing (for those of you not fluent in lumber-speak, a board foot is the equivalent of board that’s one-inch thick, twelve-inches long, and twelve-inches wide. Thus, an eight-foot long 2×4 equals 5.28 board feet. Get it?), which is cheap enough that it’s become difficult for me to justify my time at our own mill. On a good day, I can saw about 1,000-feet by myself, and that’s with the benefit (and expense) of the tractor to load the mill, along with the myriad expenses associated with the mill: Gas, blades, maintenance, and the plethora tools lost when I hurl them into the woods in frustration. So. Considering we have a truck and trailer, and considering it’s a mere three miles of well-maintained dirt road to the mill, fifteen pennies to the foot is in my humble opinion approximately the bargain of the decade.
I’ve never kept real careful track of my time in the woods to see what it really costs me to produce our own lumber, but I’ve no doubt it’s a good bit less than the (entirely reasonable) $.60 – $.70/bd ft most of the local mills charge for their rough cut stock. It’s been so long since I’ve purchased dressed lumber at a building supply store that I honestly have no idea what they charge; it might not actually be all that much more than rough cut, but of course dressed lumber is actually of lesser dimensions than stated: A dressed 2×4 from the lumber yard measures 1.5″ thick by 3.5″ wide. Does it really make a substantive difference? Well, probably not, but it still bugs the shit out of me. It’s like buying decaf coffee, or skim milk, or one of them low-alcohol “session” beers that seem to be suddenly all the rage. Good lordy. You’d like to think you’re at least getting what you’re paying for.
Anyway, and as stated a time or two before, I rather enjoy working in the woods, so I’m not over concerned with the economic particulars, ‘specially because I’m at least certain they’re in my favor. Yesterday morning, with the sky closing in fast, I dropped and limbed trees, then skidded them to the barnyard, where Penny loaded them onto the trailer with the excavator. It was about as handy and efficient of a backyard logging operation as I’ve been involved in, and soon we had nice load – I’m guess 800-ish board feet or so. I can haul more, but rain was soon to fall, and my tasks for the day were not limited to playing woodsman. I strapped the load down tight, and headed for the mill, where I’d pick up the fruition of my previous load: 1,092 bd ft of two and one-by material for a whopping $163.80.
And now someone’s probably going to ask what we’re building. Truth is, I have no idea. Nothing now. But around here, a nice stack of drying lumber is good as money in the bank. Better, maybe.
October 18, 2016 § 11 Comments
I milked this morning in a tee shirt, the wind gusting, the high clouds dense and layered and strangely still. Painting-like. I think today will bring the last swim in the pond; I went in two days ago and it was almost colder than I could bear, though the truth is I bet I could bear it a lot colder. I just don’t want to.
The wind has coaxed the leaves from the trees; what foliage remains has mostly gone dull. It’ll drop soon, too. Yesterday we passed through Stowe, where the sidewalks bustled with tourists. A little late to the party, but they looked happy enough.
Later in the day, nearer to home, solo now, I passed a dairy farm on a little-traveled backroad, slowing to watch a young family drive the cows to evening milking. Jersey’s, mostly, tawny and narrow-ribbed. The family rode an open-cab tractor, the father driving, the mother and infant child sitting on the footstep, her feet just shy of the pasture grass, light green and low from overgrazing. Both parents obese. I say this not to demean, but merely as a point of fact. The baby loose in her thick arms. I could see they do this every day.
Back home, I mixed milk and grain for the big pig, hiked it to the top of the knoll where she resides, packed boot path yellowed by blown-down leaves, the pig moving fast to her bowl as I approached. She knows the routine. Well. I guess we both do.
Music: Whiskey Myers with an acoustic take on one of their new ones. Enjoy.
October 14, 2016 § 24 Comments
My first bike was a Raleigh single speed I got when I was six or maybe seven. My parents bought it for me. It was red with gold lettering, had those old-fashioned swept back handlebars.
I learned to ride the Raleigh on the sloping driveway of the old, defunct country inn my folks rented after moving from the unelectrified, unplumbed cabin where I spent the majority of my early years. I remember climbing on the bike at the top of the drive, and I recall climbing out of the ditch at the bottom of the drive, bleeding and wailing, but I don’t remember anything in between. Hell no, I didn’t have a helmet. No one wore bike helmets back then. No one knew they were supposed to.
I finally figured out how to stop the damn thing without bleeding. This was a welcome development and ushered in a whole new era of freedom, just like a child’s first bicycle is supposed to. I rode that sucker all over the place, though of course my preferred route was the stretch of gravel road connecting the inn with the local country store, where one could still buy penny candy for a penny. I could always scrape together a few pennies.
I got to thinking about my old Raleigh the other day, when the clerk at the nearest convenience store mentioned to me that my boys had stopped in on their bikes this summer (probably trying to buy smokes, or maybe a case of Twisted Tea. I don’t know. I didn’t dare ask). He knows where we live. “That’s a long ways to ride,” he said, shaking his head. It’s actually only three miles, and the boys regularly ride much farther afield than that, but I since I didn’t really know what to say, I just nodded. “I guess it is,” I said, though I didn’t think it was a long ways, really. A kid oughta be able to ride his or her bike six miles roundtrip without it making an impression is what I think.
I can’t remember what my next bike was after that Raleigh, which I eventually broke in a catastrophic way by making ramps out of stacked firewood and a length of scrap lumber, and then repeatedly riding over them at a high rate of speed until I crashed or just got bored, at which point I probably rode back to the store for more penny candy. Remember those little rootbeer barrels? I liked to pack them between my cheek and upper gum, one on each side of my mouth. Let ’em slowly dissolve as I rode home.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I eventually became a halfway-decent competitive cyclist. Funny to think about now, but it’s true. I really liked riding my bike; sometimes, I rode 300 or more miles a week. I even wore those tight black shorts and ridiculous sunglasses. I rode up steep hills over and over and over again, because hills are often where races are won or lost. My weight dropped to 160-ish pounds; I weigh 185-ish now, and I’m not exactly a prime candidate for Weight Watchers, if you know what I mean. I could ride a bike pretty fast, but I sure wasn’t healthy.
Anyhow. That’s all for now.
Back to some music: The incomparable Townes Van Zandt doing Black Crow Blues
October 10, 2016 § 4 Comments
I awoke early this morning, thrust groggily into the blue-black of pre-dawn by the dog’s restless pacing, the outside air cold as it’s been in many weeks. Later, after I’d milked and breakfasted, after the light had come, with Penny bustling over a simmering pot of pears from our top-secret roadside gleaning tree and the boys just emerging from their respective cocoons of sleep, I took the tractor to the other end of our property to retrieve a round bale for the cows. My breath streamed in the air, and I steered with one gloveless hand, the other tucked into the protective fold of my old wool jacket, the one that’s been missing three of its six buttons for at least four years now. For a time I thought I’d get around to sewing on some new fasteners, but it never happened, and now three seems the right number, anyway. I’m already anticipating getting by with two.
The foliage is spectacular, at peak or close enough to it, and since we’ve yet to have much wind or rain the trees have lost relatively few of their leaves. Right this very moment, the hardwood-forested hill across the mountain road is lit by a shaft of sunlight emerging from an otherwise socked-in sky, all yellows, oranges, reds, and golds. It’s an impressive sight, even for one born to this state, with more than four decades worth of Vermont autumns in his blood.
The cold always carries with it a certain urgency. I feel it now. There is still much to do before winter proper: Piles of softwood logs to be extracted and hauled, downed firewood logs to be skidded and bucked (the splitting is best saved for the colder months, when the moisture contained within the wood is frozen to expansive hardness, and the heat generated by the repeated swinging of the maul is a welcome respite rather than a burden to be borne), gardens to be put to bed, still a fat pig to leave this world, more piglets to procure. A living room window to be repositioned, one of those tasks I’m likely to put off until the day before first snow and maybe even longer.
Maybe even until a day so cold I’ll work bundled in that old woolen jacket, cursing how the wind blows through the openings where those three buttons used to be.
October 7, 2016 § 13 Comments
If you climb far enough into our woods (and you don’t have to climb very far), you’ll find that the softwoods give way to their deciduous cousins. Soon you are surrounded by sugar maples, interspersed with yellow birch and the odd black cherry, the occasional white ash, the infrequent beech. But still. Mostly sugar maple, the leaves now gone to shades of orange. Come spring a guy could tap them all, have himself a little sugaring business, stay up nights boiling, maybe pay the property taxes on the profit.
Last year, we put out about 40 taps. We didn’t pay the property taxes in syrup. We didn’t pay much of anything in syrup, for that matter.
I like to walk up past the imprecise divide between the spruce and the maple, where the forest opens wide, and I find ledge-y outcroppings good for sitting a spell and pondering the ways of the world. Or if not the ways of the world, then the ways of humankind. Because let’s be honest: The ways of the word are long sight beyond my pay grade. So too the ways of humankind, come to think of it. But that don’t stop me from trying.
Anyway. These are the places for the big thoughts – the many variants of love, for instance, or the impermanence of most anything, or the responsibilities of parenthood, or what constitutes compassion, or whether or not Blackberry Smoke’s new offering is as good as their last (fuck yeah, it is. Better, maybe. Check it).
And they’re a good place for the small questions, too, like will the goddamned calf we’re weaning ever shut the eff up, or should I buy new snow tires for the car or go my usual used route and then regret it later, or did I have enough diesel in the tractor to spend all of tomorrow in the woods, or will we get siding on the house before snowfall? Yeah, well. Probably not. Maybe next year.
And sometimes those ledge-y outcroppings are just a good place to sit a spell and think as little as possible, until the rock is too hard and too cold against your inadequate ass, and the sun is too low in the sky, and so you walk back down the hill, back under the evershadows of the evergreens, past the remaining pig, lonely and large, down the tractor road. Nothing determined, nothing affirmed. Nothing more than home to family. Home to bed.
October 5, 2016 § 15 Comments
Yesterday morning I milked in a misting rain, the low-slung sky easing open, my shirt slowly wetting through to my back skin. I like the wet earth smell of the barnyard when it rains, the shit and hay and soil and maybe even the rain itself, though I guess I’m not sure exactly what rain smells like. I know it’s subtle and somewhere on the scale between leafing plant and just-sanded metal. I know it smells like something.
I milk pretty fast. I’ve never timed myself, but I’m guessing it takes me ten minutes, maybe a dozen tops, to fill our two-and-a-half gallon bucket. The bucket’s big enough, but by a only a whisker; sometimes, the layer of foam that forms atop the milk actually rises above the bucket rim, and I think today will be the day it runs over. But it never does. Or at least it hasn’t yet. There’s always tomorrow.
One of the reasons I like milking is because I like rhythmic tasks that through repetition have become like an extension of my body. Not a task anymore but a piece, if that makes any sense. Stacking wood. Splitting wood. Loading a hay wagon. That sort of thing. I don’t necessarily mind work I have to think about, but truth be told I’m a bit of a daydreamer. I like to wander in the head, think about random shit, notice random pieces of my little world. Like the smell of rain. Like the ravens wheeling overhead, the air so still I almost convince myself I can feel the beat of their wings.
I can’t feel the beat of their wings.
Or I remember strange things, little snippets from my life. Yesterday it was remembering the cabin I grew up in, how my father rigged a hand pump to draw water from nearly a half-mile away. Uphill. He was mighty pleased. And from there, with no apparent connection, how ten years ago I had to shoot the first milk cow we ever had, Lily, after she broke into the grain bin and gorged herself. Blew out her liver on all that fermenting feed. We nursed her along for a couple days with the aid of our neighbor Melvin and the vet, but it eventually came clear she wasn’t going to recover, so I shot her. I loved that cow something fierce. It was the hardest thing I’d done in my life to that point and I cried for days.
Truth be told, I’ve done harder things since.