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Straight From the Jar

P1040057Walking through the orchard to feed the pigs, I stop under an apple-heavy tree to gather drops. Even as I fill the bucket, I hear the thump of more apples hitting the ground, like a clock ticking down the minutes until winter. The pigs are happy for the apples, they eat they voraciously, one bite and an apple is gone. I will bring them more this afternoon.

Later, I halter Pip at the height of the knoll overlooking the house, the barn, the old church steeple. The air is thick with humidity. I wish it would break to rain. We need the rain. Pip’s calf lingers nearby, watching as I take my share. I watch him back, then turn my gaze to the steeple. Milk fills the pail.

Still later, a shower. It is only passing, but the sky remains dark, the air still heavy. Maybe there will be more. The milk is cooling in the fridge. Later, I’ll drink it straight from the jar.

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Things in General

Sunday morning. The cats wake me earlier than usual, and for a moment I’m unsure if it’s night or day, but slowly my eyes adjust and I can see faint evidence of daylight’s impending arrival. The days are notably shorter now, and if I count the number of weeks until probable frost, it does not add up to very many. It has been a good summer so far, a proper one, hot and dry and full. I allow myself a few extra minutes in bed, the cats pacing, daylight advancing, listening for the mountain stream, the distant water-on-stone murmur I love so much. But it’s gone, low and quiet again in the absence of recent rain.
Later, after chores and breakfast and the assembling of the tools necessary to the day’s primary task, I run my usual out-and-back route. I run for 30 minutes and am passed by one tractor and one truck, and see one black bear. My iPod settles on Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, and I am reminded of a story I wrote a dozen or more years ago for Runner’s World about an ultrarunner named Dean Karnazes and his attempt to win a 135-mile race across Death Valley. To report the piece, I assisted on Dean’s race crew, and I remember pacing him through the night almost 100 miles in, me on a bicycle, Dean running doggedly, and that song on repeat blaring through the open windows of his support vehicle. Every so often, he’d stop to puke or piss or shit, then shake himself off and start running again. He won the race, though it didn’t stop me from wondering why people sometimes do the things they do.
My family is gone for a while, and I’m glad for the solitude, so rare in my life. Though of course at times it tips into loneliness. But even that’s ok. Besides, I have the animals – the cats and the cows and the clucking hens – and I have more tasks before me than I’m likely ever to finish, or at least that’s what it feels like. I have friends just down the road; last night we sat outside by a fire until late, solving the world’s problems until fatigue compelled us to part (besides, there were no more problems to solve, we’d fixed them all!), and I drove the mile home up the gravel road, windows down to the soft night air, feeling pretty good about things in general.

A few things to share:

This amazing interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer

Here’s the piece I wrote about Dean Karnazes

A beautiful essay by Donald Hall about solitude and loneliness

Oh, and Iggy Pop’s excellent song The Passenger 

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I Bet They’re Drinking it Even Now

I stopped to get gas, watched from whirring pump as two boys emerged from the store, early teens, bikes leaned against the bench outside. One set down the plastic bag he carried – two liters of Mountain Dew, I’m pretty sure – and removed his flip flops (“no shoes, no service”), then mounted his bike and pedaled away. The other, sneaker-clad, followed. I filled the car, paid, pulled back on Main St, and rolled past the paving crew, laying down a fresh course of asphalt. The man on the roller was large, he rode it sideways, he had something clamped between his lips. Not a cigarette. One of those little cigars, Swisher Sweets, I bet. The new asphalt smelled hot to me, like summer.

I went home, tired from killing chickens, really, really tired, and hot as the smell of new pavement, sweating sitting still. I shed my clothes, dove into the pond, the water warm on top, but progressively cooler as I knifed deeper and deeper until my chest connected with the soft bottom-mud. I tried to stay but my buoyancy dragged me back to the surface and I breathed deep of the soft summer air.

But the boys on their bikes, the one barefoot, the bag of soda. I bet they’re drinking it even now.

 

 

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Too Far Down the Road

Two nights ago I pulled home the day’s last load of hay. It was a little after seven, still in the mid-80’s down from a high of 95, the honeyed light of the evening sun washing over everything, me fatigue drunk and thirsty, wanting the pond, a beer, sleep. I crested a steep hill, gas to brake, easy, easy, 8,000 pounds of trailer and hay behind me. And then I could see – first only in profile, a shadowed outline – a man crossing the road at the hill’s bottom, leading what looked like a dog with a length of rope. Except as I got closer I could see it wasn’t a dog, it was a calf, and the man was shirtless and shoeless and wearing an outlandishly wide-brimmed cowboy hat, half pulling the reluctant animal behind him. There was a trailer house at roadside, and a bit of beaten-down pasture, but they were moving away from that, perhaps toward more plentiful feed. The man looked up as a passed, met my eyes, nodded the curt nod of men who do not wave (or men whose hand are otherwise occupied coaxing calves across country roads), and they were soon behind me.

I looked in my rearview mirror, but the bales piled high in the truck bed blocked my view, and soon I was too far down the road to see more, anyway.

Funny thing: This post was written about another calf experience, almost exactly a year prior, in almost exactly the same place. 

 

 

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Back the Way I’d Come

tractorpic

My absence from this space has little to do with much save the nature of the season, which this year has been accompanied by long stretches of sun-filled skies that have caused the streams to run low and quiet and dust to hang in the air behind the car as I drive down the mountain road.

I have been working the woods every day, skidding spruce and fir logs for projects pending and finishing the last cords of firewood. I like this work for pleasures great and small: The mounting pile of saw logs, the neat rows of stacked firewood, the day’s end fatigue, the strange intimacy of kneeling to wrap the choker chain around the butt log, almost an embrace, really. And yesterday, tractoring along an old logging road near the height of our property, a hawk (what kind, I do not know) swooped from the height of a sugar maple and flew low over the ground, then veered and was gone. Soon after, I came across a mother grouse and her chicks; the former on one side of the rutted road, the latter on the other, frantically seeking one another amidst the sudden chaos of the big, rumbling machine.

I shut down the tractor, let them come back together, scolding me all the while, then reversed and retreated slowly back the way I’d come.

 

 

 

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Yesterday

In the late afternoon I drive slowly down the mountain road, my attention drawn to the stream, running lower now than two weeks ago, when it was still charged by melting snow, when it was the first thing I heard when I awoke. It’s quieter now and I hear birds.

I stop at the store for diesel, fill my can, walk past three trucks to pay. In two I see open beers in the dashboard cup holders. The other – a white Ford of 80’s vintage – sags under the weight of cedar posts. Can’t be less than 50 of them, and they’re nice posts. Six feet long at least, none less than four-inches round at the narrow end.

I pay. The man with the white Ford follows me out of the store, carrying a case of bottled beer. No dashboard cup holder in that old Ford, so I’m thinking he’ll do the ole crotch wedge. The bottles clank as he carries them. The man looks to be 55, maybe 60. I bet there’s a day’s worth of work in the back of that truck. I bet there’s a night’s worth of beer in that case. I bet he bought the truck new.

A few miles down the road I stop at Jimmy and Sara’s farm to pick up waste milk for the pigs. Jimmy and Sara and their young daughter are behind the barn, watching the man who came to butcher the cow that slipped and broke her leg. He’s got the broken leg skinned out; the shattered bone protrudes, knife-like. We all stand for a bit, mostly quiet, mostly watching. The sun feels so nice on my skin.

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It’s Enough to Know it’s There

At four this morning I drive my younger son to where he’d scouted turkeys the week before. It is opening day of spring turkey season. The road is spongy; fog obscures the potholes, and I drive slowly. There are vestiges of the prior day’s snowfall visible at the fringe of the headlights’ range.  We climb a knoll, then the road flattens, and suddenly there is a man running in the dark, plodding through the mud and melting snow along the roadside, his shoulders leaning into the effort. I love being out at this time of day, it’s a window into a secret world, things are happening that I never knew happened, and I like the sense of possibility that comes with that awareness. I slow as we pass the man and try to see his face, but though he wears a headlamp, the fog is thick, and the darkness is near-complete, and I don’t want him to notice me staring. But I want badly to know what he looks like, what it looks like to be somebody who rises so early (or stays up so late? Even more intriguing!) to run a muddy back road in northern Vermont.

I’m not much of a turkey hunter (not much of a hunter of anything, honestly, though I generally do ok during black fly season), so I drop my son and head home, hoping to catch another hour of sleep. I look for the running man, but he’s not to be found. Still, I imagine him carrying on, one labored step after another, shoes and socks wetted through, shins aching cold with mud and melted snow. It’s not light yet, but it’s a different shade a dark, a shade in the direction of light. I think I’ll be able to sleep when I get home. I think about my son, sitting at the base of the tree he’d picked out, the day slowly coming alive around him. I don’t know what kind of tree it is; I wasn’t there when he decided, and I didn’t ask, and because I cannot picture the tree, I can no longer picture my son sitting beneath it, it’s like that one missing detail throws everything off.

Reluctantly, I let it go. The tree will be what the tree will be. It’s enough to know it’s there.

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Barely Any Help at All

Scrolling through the last few months of posts, I see the same themes repeated again and again: Snow. Driving. Cows. Writing, either the act of, or the teaching of (as if). And so I’m leery of mentioning the snow in the night, or how I awoke to the sound of it sliding off the metal roof (Vermont roofs. Two words: Metal. Steep.) and thumping to the ground. Or how yesterday I drove back roads (again) past rotting snow banks, churning through mud and potholes, balancing on the spines of deep ruts. Or how today is the last class of the semester, and how much I’m going to miss my students. In a strange way I don’t yet understand, I’ve come to rely on them for something.

It’s nearly full daylight now. A beautiful morning, the air lit from the ground by the new snow, the closed-up sky barely any help at all.

Here’s a quote from Edward Abbey to start your day:

“If I had been as capable of trust as I am susceptible to fear I might have learned something new or some truth so very old we have all forgotten it…” 

 

 

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What One Gives After One Has Taken

P1030571

Early morning turkey scouting

Barely more than a week ago it snowed, and not just a dusting but an honest-to-goodness four-inches, a dispiriting accumulation for the end of April. But then the sun came ’round and the temps were in the 60’s, and then a steady rain, and now the snow is almost gone, even the piles and banks formed by the snowplow are much diminished. Spring is here for sure. It feels hard-earned, and very welcome.

In the rain the other day I followed a school bus through the outskirts of a nearby town, idling at intermittent intervals as it stopped to disgorge students, most bound for the trailer homes that lined the roadway. Trucks with rusted rocker panels, snowmachines perched at the apex of those receding snowbanks. Dogs rushing to greet the children, almost all of whom were dressed inadequately for the weather. No rain jackets. Short sleeves. I turned the heat up in the car, as if it would somehow warm these intrepid kids. I watched through the edges of the windshield, the wipers swaying back-and-forth, back-and-forth.

Later that same day I did chores in our friend’s barn. So light now at chore time. The light filters through the gaps in the barn siding, the cobwebbed windows, past the used round bale wrappers plugging some (but not all) of the broken panes. I roll the bale down the aisle, a wet one, I lean into it, it’s heavy but getting lighter by the minute as I distribute the hay to the long line of hungry cows, straining at their chains for evening ration. One is bleeding mysteriously from the nose, but seems otherwise fine. Blood has pooled on the floor. I cover it with hay. The gutter cleaner clacks and clanks, moving shit around the perimeter of the barn and then up and out the conveyor to drop into the spreader parked beneath. To be spread tomorrow. Shit, that forever link between beast and land. It’s part of the unspoken deal one makes. It’s what one gives after one has taken.

My students bring Kendrick Lamar lyrics to class. They read them like poems, then we listen to the songs, turned low so not to disturb the class in room above us, but still the bass is heavy and we bob to the beat. Outside the gray sky looks to be easing, but so little I could be wrong.

The song ends, we talk awhile, then Dante reads his essay on communism. It’s really quite good.

Music: A nice one from Tyler. 

 

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It Was a Very Nice Thought to Think

It snowed again in the night, and was still snowing when I awoke, three inches on the ground already and mounting. At chore time I loaded square bales into a utility sled and pulled them through the orchard to the cows, who marked my progress from under the outstretched boughs of the big spruce trees lining the pasture’s crest. I watched them watch me, their heads slowly swiveling to track my journey. The snow was dense and the sled heavy, and I was glad I’d worn my new boots, the ones with the deep tread and the soles that don’t leak. I like them very much.

Yesterday, driving a back road not far from here, but far enough that I don’t drive it often, I passed a sap bucket hanging from a telephone pole and then another, affixed to a spruce. I remembered the roadside pumpkins I saw last December, and was grateful all over again for those, and now for the whimsy of these sap buckets. I imagined the delight of the person hanging them, how in some form or another they must have envisioned a moment just like this one. And then I thought (the buckets now far behind me, a sleety substance pelting my windshield, the sky heavy, low, insistent) of how they’d been delighted to imagine my delight, and how I was delighted to imagine theirs.

Ah. It was a very nice thought to think.