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The Limits of Language

Last night, near dark, clambering out of the pond, newly charged from heavy rains, I thought about how when I was teaching, I bought each of my students one of those little pocket-size, spiral-bound memo books, and how for every class, I asked them to bring me at least 10 observations from the day before. I placed few stipulations on this assignment, only that they carry the books with them wherever they went, that they consider all the senses, and that they write down whatever catches their attention. I told them that writing, like life, is mostly about paying attention (or as I like to call it – in consideration of my scruffy, young charges – paying f’in attention), and then engaging with that attention. Not letting it just drift by on the flotsam of life.

It was the shock of the water, colder than in recent days, the slow turn toward autumn begun in earnest the week before, and the realizing that I had no good words for what my sudden immersion felt like, or at least no words that filled the hole in my vocabulary where I thought maybe such a word should reside. And therefore, the notebook useless (not that I had one with me, anyway), the limits of language (or of my language, anyway) rearing its head yet again, and wondering how to talk about experience that just won’t fit itself into the alphabet, no matter how carefully I arrange the letters.

But still, words or no: Pay f’ing attention. Engage. I’m pretty sure it’s the best free advice you’ll ever receive.

 

 

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Just a Story

P1040216Our older son wanted a motorcycle, and though we wished it were otherwise, we also knew that wishing would not make it so. He is almost 17, and our sphere of control is narrowing by the day. But I did make one demand: His first motorcycle must be a dirt bike, rather than one made for the street. I grew up riding dirt bikes, and know how they cultivate skills that simply can’t be learned on the road, at least not readily, and probably not without a good deal of pain. You can dump a dirt bike time and again without suffering serious injury, in the process learning the minutia of balance and traction, the razor’s line between the point of no return and the possibility of recovery. You can learn what it feels like to sling the rear wheel around a corner, and you will discover that just because you lose traction with the front wheel doesn’t mean you’re going down; it only means you’re probably going down.

Anyway, through a convoluted set of circumstances that involved a smoking deal on a little Suzuki DR250, Fin’s work schedule, and the fact that our dear friend and neighbor Tom was using our big truck to tow his trailer while his rig in the shop getting a new motor (modern diesels: my advice: steer clear), I drove alone to Middlebury, VT, two-and-a-half hours distant, in Tom’s little Tacoma. 220,000 miles on the clock, chattering clutch, hesitation under acceleration, baling twine wrapped around the sideview mirror. “I didn’t realize you were taking it that far” Tom said when I picked it up. “It’s totally fine with me, but you might want to think twice.” But it was too late for that, so I didn’t.

The owner of the bike worked at a farm machinery repair shop. A big one, with big machinery to match. Middlebury is in Addison County, and Addison County is home to some of Vermont’s largest dairy farms, which are getting bigger and bigger by the year, as smaller farms continue going under, unable to stay afloat in a era of impoverished milk prices (when I was born, in 1971, VT had more than 6,000 dairy farms. We’re now down to about 750, with approximately the same number of total cows. You can see the trajectory). And so the shop was filled with massive assemblages of metal and rubber and oil, and walking into it, I was reminded suddenly of riding with my Grandfather in his combine, harvesting corn on his Iowa farm. This would have been late 70’s, early 80’s. My Grandfather didn’t talk much, and I guess neither did I, so we just sat there, me mesmerized by endless rows of falling corn, him lost in thoughts I’d never know, the radio a constant stream of crop and weather reports.

Anyhow. The motorcycle was owned by a young man named Cale, and I liked him immediately, because when I couldn’t get bike to start by rolling it down a small hill and dumping the clutch (he’d explained before I’d come that it was electric start-only, and the battery was toast), he suggested that he tow me behind his truck. Well, yes. Exactly my kind of fellow. So we hitched a strap to the bumper of his big, heavily-stickered Ford, and then to the handlebars of the bike, and he took off across the parking lot, and once I deemed we’d achieved sufficient velocity, I dumped the clutch, the bike roared to life, and I tried really hard not to slam into Cale’s tailgate. Barely succeeding.

The bike ran great, so I handed Cale his money, loaded it into Tom’s truck, and bucked and chattered my way home, up and over the Appalachian gap, down the valley beyond, through the streets of Vermont’s small capitol city, and finally to home, where I unloaded it alone (Fin still at work), and drove it fast down our little dirt road just as the last light of day faded from the sky.

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How It’ll Be

We’ve had enough rain the past few mornings to ease the worse of the dryness, which I’d begun to experience in a bodily way, as if the soil’s thirst were my own. But despite the rain, it remains dry, the stream is low, the pond is low, the pasture grass slow to recover. It has been hot, too, which I’ve found to be only as unpleasant as I believe it to be. Yesterday I ran in the thick of the heat and humidity, like pushing through a wall, my shirt drenched before I’d gone a mile, pleased with myself for the effort of it, though later I couldn’t seem to drink enough water to sate myself, and was glad I’d not pushed too hard.

Later, I drove one of my usual routes on my way to one of my usual destinations, passing one of my now-usual sights: two women, one middle-aged, one older (mother and daughter?) sitting in one of those self-contained swinging love seats in the lawn of a mobile home at the highway’s edge, enjoying the company of a large goat. I’ve passed this scene three times this summer, once with three women rather than two, but always the big goat, an astonishing presence, a real double-taker, all floppy ear and spindly leg, tall as a small pony. A person could ride a goat like that, I figure, a notion that elevates my delight even further.

Still later, on the cusp of dark – so early now – I dive into the blessed wet chill of the pond, rinse away the dirt of the day, let it mingle with the clean spring water bubbling from some crevice deep below. I don’t want summer to end. But it will, and soon, and I guess that’s just how it’ll be.

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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.