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All Day

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All ears

Storms rolled in last evening, fast and heavy, washing away the oppressive heat, and this morning the air feels almost silken. I walked outside at first light and climbed the small hill that overlooks our house and barn, and further in the distance, the town hall and old church, both now obscured by new leaves. All quiet but the breeze and bird song and the distant clucking of our chickens, scratching and strutting about, pecking apart last winter’s cow droppings. Such easy contentment.

I think about this space more than I visit it these days, often in the form of random thoughts or images I want to share. Like yesterday, driving into a small town not far from here, just before the storms, and watching as a big John Deere tractor towing a manure spreader pulled into the recently-constructed Dollar General, the farmer presumably needing to pick up something on his way home from spreading a field. And the incongruity of it – the old and the new, the solid mass of the tractor and cow shit and what feels to me like the flimsy, ephemeral nature of the store, with its faux-brick siding and neon yellow signage. There was a lot of debate when the store was announced – over the building site, mostly, but also the nature of its commerce, and whether it might draw business from the town’s small-but-vibrant main street. A lot of people didn’t want the new store. A lot of people did. It’s been open a couple of years now; I’ve passed it a hundred times or more, and I can’t say it doesn’t please me to note how often the parking lot is empty, or nearly so. If nothing else, the store is straight-up ugly, a blighted box, though I suppose even that is open to debate.

Today I work down the road on the digger, doing drainage work, mostly, but also loading a dump truck with mounds of steaming compost. I like digging in the compost; I like the smell of it, rich and on the verge of sweet, and variable depending on the age of the material. It’s the middle-age piles that smell best to me, the ones that are still ripening, right in the thick of transformation. I could dig those piles all day.

 

 

 

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Snow in May

Chestnuts. With any luck, they’ll produce before I’m dead

Lazy snow this morning, intermittent flakes against the windshield as I drove home in the pre-dawn from dropping my younger son at his favorite turkey hunting haunt. A big red Ford pickup pulled from a side road in front of me. The driver flicked a cigarette butt out the window, and in the dark I was captivated by the glowing ember as it bounced and scuttled across the hard-packed gravel road. A mile or so later, the passenger flicked his cigarette, too, but this one just lay there, slowly dimming, an animal drawing its last breaths. By the time I passed, it was done. The taillights of the Ford had disappeared, hidden around a sharp bend, and I thought I’d see them again once I got round, but the truck was moving too fast and I could not catch up.

A few minutes past five now, more light pouring into the sky by the minute, and I was glad to be out and about so early, the day stretched before me, my anticipation of it like a long-awaited meal. Snow still falling, but so, so softly, as if it didn’t even really want to land.

Haven’t posted music in a while, and maybe I’ve even posted this one before. But if so, it’s worth a second listen. James McMurtry doing Lights of Cheyenne. 

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In the Morning

Every day I drive the gravel road toward home, from one outing or another, and I see the flush of green creeping slowly up the mountain. Every day a little greener, a little higher. At home I feed the cows from the remaining reserves of hay, watch for a moment as they curl their long tongues around a chosen tuft, then retract the tongue and chew in that slow, side-to-side way of ruminants. Ignoring me. For what good am I now? They have their hay, and tomorrow must seem a long ways off.

It’s ok. They’ll like me again in the morning.

 

 

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Three Days

An old one

On Sunday evening, I drove to pick up a set of used tires for the truck, passing through a northern Vermont landscape on the cusp of spring, struck as I often am by the co-mingling of poverty and affluence in these rural hills. And also by the evident decline in our capacity (or is it desire?) to inhabit structures of grace and beauty. To be sure, the latter lives forever the eye of the beholder, but how else to describe the multitude of old barns that dot the land in varying stages of decline, many sitting atop foundations of dry-stacked stone, only a few in use for anything but storage of old furniture and discarded tires, dotted by the ubiquitous condiment of such buildings:Pigeon shit.

And the farmhouses: Even needing paint, rooflines sagging, first-floor windows covered in plastic to thwart the winter winds, porches flaking off like crusted scabs, yards warted with the detritus of rural northern living (snowmobiles, gas grills, oil drums), even in such a state prettier by far than most anything built over the past half-century. To each his or her own, I suppose, but still: Give me the old farmhouse and its accompanying barn, let them be falling right down around me, force me to thaw pipes every sub-zero morning and consider the leaks in the roof every spring rain. I’ll curse it, I know, but like most things I curse, I’d love it, too.

•     •     •

A day or two prior to that, I’d driven a couple of miles up the road with my younger son to do a little wandering. We live near to an 11,000-acre wildlife management area, as near to wilderness as one is likely to find in Vermont, and for us one of the main attractions to living where we do. We set off for a beaver pond we’ve explored many times over, a jaunty 20-minute hike from the truck, and then, because the weather was fine, and our moods commensurately buoyant, we kept walking, following the pond’s feeder stream. Higher and higher we pushed, hopping from one side of the stream to the other, circumnavigating another small pond, then another, now wallowing through patches of snow that in places lay thigh-deep in the shade of spruce and fir. Everywhere beaded piles of moose dung and the deep depressions of their cloven hooves, far enough from the road to have erased any signs of humankind: No footprints, no beer cans, no spent shotgun shells. Not a car to be heard, just the rustle of flowing water, the pond peepers, and the soft whistle from the wings of the mallards we flushed.

•     •     •

Then last night, in a misty rain, just before dark, we buried our old hound dog, laid her in a hole with a meaty bone and sent her on her way. This morning, for the first time in nearly a decade, I was not awakened by the sound of her toenails on the wooden floor.

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Someday I Want Horns Like That

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Peas

The snow is gone from the woods now. Yesterday I walked to the height of our land in the early light, as is my habit silently noting which maples should be culled for firewood. We have plenty split for the winter to come, much of it even stacked, and still more on the ground for the winter to follow, but if I’ve learned one thing in my life thus far, it’s that there’s no such thing as too much dry firewood. Plus, we bought an old sugaring rig, and there’s talk of situating it high up in the hardwoods, so I better be thinking about sugaring wood, and soon. I guess a couple cords will do. We’re only going to put out a hundred taps or so. Well, maybe a hundred and fifty.

The long days feel good. You can get properly fatigued on days like these, fall into bed at 8:45 with that bone deep tiredness, tell yourself you’re going to read until 9:00 (definitely, at least, for sure), and make it maybe five minutes. Maybe. I’ve been working a bit down at our friend Tom’s farm, doing some little jobs with the digger, mostly in sight of John’s team of Devon oxen. They watch me with a subtle wariness and I watch them back. Beautiful animals, long horns that curve twice before pointing skyward. Someday I want horns like that.

The pigs got out – they’re huge, eight months old and less than a week from the freezer, and in the herding process one charged between my legs and I ended up splayed on its back facedown, nose to tail, the damnable pig too fat and tall for me to reach the ground to push myself off, so it carried me at least a couple dozen feet while my family fell about itself with laughter. Eventually I squirmed off and we got the pigs situated, and then I laughed about it, too.

•     •     •

Also, I want to mention the upcoming woodscraft summer camp for teens that our friend Luke Boushee is running here. This year, the camp will be a full week of overnights, and as usual, Luke has a ton of amazing stuff up his sleeve. You can learn more here, and even more than that by contacting us at lazymilllivingarts@gmail.com. Thank you.

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White Trash Symphony

John and Jake. This was a couple of weeks ago. The snow is finally gone, now. 

A windy night, and I was awakened by the instantly recognizable sound of an empty five-gallon bucket tumbling across the barnyard, the distinctive rattle of the metal handle slapping against the hard plastic. It’s a white trash symphony, I thought, and then was pleased enough at my cleverness that I lay awake imaging how much fun it’d be to start a band named White Trash Symphony. I have now offered a particularly intimate glimpse into the inner workings of my semi-conscious mind. It would be cruel of you to take advantage.

We have a lot of five-gallon plastic buckets. They blight the landscape, are forever upended, always rolling down hillsides to lay their smooth sides against the rough bark of an apple tree. But they’re as useful as they are ugly: We use them to carry feed to the pigs, as impromptu ladders, to haul sap. The boys draw targets on the leakers, then aerate them further with .22 rounds. It is hard to imagine life without these buckets, they’re one of those unheralded inventions, like strike-on-box matches or toilet paper, that we fail to appreciate until they’re gone, and then are thrown into a minor panic. Though the truth is we never allow our supply of buckets to run dry: I bet even a cursory search would unearth a dozen-and-a-half water-tight buckets on this property.

In the night, drifting softly between states of consciousness, I listened as the bucket tumbled and rattled with each gust. Soon enough, I heard only the wind, and I knew that come morning, I’d find the bucket up against a tree, or maybe the paddock fence. I’d retrieve it, return it to its proper resting place, pleased to have this small bit of order restored. Knowing how temporary it would be.

 

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Some Unseen Force

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Prin and her willow-basket-to-be

The heat came on fast, the snow receding by the hour, every ditch and depression now filled with flowing melt. The sun feels well-earned; it wasn’t a hard winter overall, but what hardness it contained was back-loaded, all the cold and snow we didn’t have in January saved up for March. In an interest-bearing account, at that.

Today I drove to Waterville, Maine to deliver a talk at Colby College and then back again, left arm propped in the window opening, slowly reddening under the high sun. Route 2 most of the way, an unfolding tour of small towns well past their prime, Dunkin’ Donuts and log yards, rusted trucks and trailer homes, a proliferation of under-dressed and over-tattooed women standing on debris-strewn front lawns, cigarettes in hand, skin pale as the departing snow. They looked so damn confident.

Coming into the town of Mexico, Maine, I drove for a time behind a man on a Harley Davidson. He sat the way men on Harley’s sit, knees cast wide, crotch to the wind, helmet-less, riding slow as he weaved from one side of the road to the other. Not drunkenly or dangerously, just enjoying himself. Like a bird or lazy fish. And though it’s been years since I’ve owned a motorcycle, and although the last time I rode a motorcycle I ended up in the hospital with a nurse shining a light in my eyes every 30 minutes to be sure there was still something going on in there, I couldn’t help wanting to be on that bike. It must have felt so good.

The Harley turned. I watched him go, and shortly thereafter passed an old man on a bicycle, a single hubcap slung over his handlebar end, shiny trinket plucked from the roadside. I waved as I passed, but I was just another car in an endless line of cars, and his gaze was forward facing, the bike’s wheels churning onward, the hubcap swinging side-to-side, as if propelled by some unseen force.

 

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When it Makes the Least Sense

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When the going gets tough, the tough send their wife up the ladder.

I sometimes think I’ve forgotten how to write, which I suspect is one of those irrational fears akin to believing I’ve forgotten how to ride a bicycle (actually, it’s been so long since I’ve pedaled a two-wheeler that this may be true). Someone – a writer – once wondered to me what it must be like to be a “real” writer, referring, I understood, to the fact that I am paid to write, and support my family on these earnings. My reply, which I still believe true, is that a real writer is anyone who puts the time in. Nothing more, nothing less. By my own definition, then, I am not a real writer, or at least not currently. This bothers me less than it might.

This morning it snowed again, before changing quickly to a sleety rain. I milked fast as I could, cold and raw-feeling, none of yesterday’s ebullience at the high sun and the flowing sap. March felt long and hard to me, I cannot remember one colder and snowier and less yielding, though surely it’s happened. Even on April 1 we awoke to seven or eight inches of new-fallen snow, and I took the boys to Burke Mountain – our older son’s first time ever on alpine skis; perhaps the third time for our younger boy – and paid $133 for half-day rentals and lift tickets. It hurt me to spend the money – that’s a big chunk of change for us – but it hurt me more to realize how long it’d been since I’d done something like that with my boys. Not that we don’t do things together, we do, all the time, but rarely something so unexpected and… what’s the right word? Frivolous? Not, that’s not it, not quite. Hell, I don’t know. But God we had fun.

The house is sweet-smelling and over-heated from boiling sap atop the cook stove. We have too much sap and not enough fire; we need a proper rig, it’s ridiculous what we’re trying to do, but there’s also something compelling to me about the lunacy of it. Sometimes life’s most interesting when it makes the least sense.

 

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Darkness Was Coming

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Doing taxes. As you might imagine, I am thrilled to support the proposed expansion of our fighting forces, along with the gutting of the arts and numerous programs that support the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Oh, and the wall, of course, in both its literal and figurative manifestations.  Sometimes I can’t help but imagine what we could accomplish if we weren’t so damn scared all the time. Now back to our usual programming: 

Another drive, another hitchhiker, this one younger than the last, pear-shaped and out-of-breath, hands scrubbed so pink I couldn’t stop looking at them. He worked third shift at a mental health facility, but was on his way to a mid-day meeting. He’d worked the night before, grabbed an hour of sleep before sticking his thumb out, and was scheduled to work the night approaching. “It’s a good job,” he said. I understood then that the softness of his physique cloaked an inner strength, and I was glad I’d picked him up.

Later, in the almost-evening, I helped my younger son at the barn where he and his brother – on this day, at home sick – do chores twice weekly. The farmer had dehorned the heifers that afternoon, and the surrounding walls were streaked with blood, it ran down the animals’ faces in rivulets, dripped thickly onto the bedding below. The cows lapped grain off the concrete floor, 30 of them lapping and chewing in unison, a beautiful sound, almost meditative, and I knew I’d heard that sound before, not just in the barn, but somewhere else, too. Then, finally, I placed it: Rain on a tin roof. How strange.

On the drive home, the car thick with the smell of shit and hay and blood, the boy and I ate ice-cream sandwiches. Darkness was coming and snow began to fall.

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A Dozen More

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After the storm

Driving westward yesterday afternoon, the sun sweet on my face through the windshield, on my way to pick up a carload of used sap buckets, I picked up a hitchhiker. It is my rule to pick up hitchhikers; I think the world would be a better place if more people hitched, and if more people invited strangers into such intimate space. For is this not a basis for empathy? And do we not suffer a cultural deficit of empathy? I think it is and I believe we do.

The fellow I picked up looked a little rough around the edges. He carried the yeast-y smell of one who drinks with frequency; it hit hard the moment he opened the door. There were tattoos on his hands, something in script, poorly done and faded, simple blue ink. I tried to make out the words but could not. He was headed for a town near where I was born, and where my parent still hold title to a piece of land. He was going to visit someone he referred to as his “lady friend.”

“It’s a long ways to walk for a piece of ass,” is what he said, and I pointed out that at least now he wouldn’t need walk the entire distance, since I’d be dropping him a good twenty miles nearer to sexual gratification, if indeed he was actually sober enough to experience such by the time he arrived. Truthfully, the longer we talked, the less likely this seemed. Maybe I should have pointed out the exploitative nature of his comment, but I didn’t, and maybe that makes me complicit. I don’t know.

We didn’t talk about much of consequence. He told me about his kids, about the job he used to have working on a horse farm, about how he makes extra money harvesting chaga, about his pending divorce, about the recent storm, and so on. Small talk. He sat leaned over a bit, one hand against his side, as if something pained him.

I dropped him where my path diverged from his, and watched in the rearview as he walked through the juncture of the two roads. He’d told me he travels this route often; he knew he had exactly 19 miles to go. He claimed he’d walked those entire 19 miles a time or two, but I didn’t know whether or not to believe him. Could anyone really not get a ride in 19 miles of highway?

I thought about the last time I hitched, just last summer, actually. The truck’s alternator crapped out, and I had no phone, so I stuck out my thumb and in about two minutes a huge Dodge Ram pulled over, all black, tinted windows, thumpy exhaust, the whole nine. I hopped in and the driver had the gas to the floor before I even had my ass on the seat. Lit those tires right up. He was maybe 45, 50, and was grinning hugely, eyes twinkling like he and I were accomplices to something that was just on the edge of being wrong, and I had to laugh. He took me out of his way to drive me right to my doorstep.

I gave him a dozen eggs, and he was so grateful that I gave him a dozen more.