June 30, 2016 § 23 Comments
The sound of rain against the tin of our roof was the sound of a great weight being lifted. The dryness had become oppressive, day after day after day of blue skies and sunshine, with not even the slimmest prediction of a passing shower to hang a hope, to damp the dust, to slake the roots of the beans and squash and the new shoots of timothy in the field. I remembered this morning a story my mother used to tell, about how her mother once wrote to the TV weatherman in southeastern Iowa, where my grandparents farmed hundreds of acres of corn and soy, to explain to him that not everyone felt the same about a forecast of unending sunshine and would he please stop sounding so goshdarned chipper about it, anyway? So you see: Even the weather is subjective.
There was something I had in mind to say about writing, but already I’ve lost it inside my own storytelling, so I’ll say something else that comes to mind, because it’s one of those things that can really trip up an otherwise fantastic passage: Repetition. I find it all the time in my own work, even after I think it’s been expunged, and although there are times when it can work in one’s favor, I believe those times to be few and far between.
I’ll give you a small example, from yesterday’s piece.
His car was a Toyota Camry of a mid-90’s vintage; the right rear tire was nearly flat, the right headlight was missing, the accompanying fender crumpled beyond repair, and the entire car was covered in a layer of dust so thick I could see that he’d used his windshield wipers to facilitate the view from behind the driver’s seat. The car looked just pulled from long storage in a barn.
The repetition that troubles me in this passage is the word “car”; it appears three times in two sentences, which to my ears is at least one time too many. Indeed, maybe two times too many. Try this, instead:
His car was a Toyota Camry of a mid-90’s vintage; the right rear tire was nearly flat, the right headlight was missing, the accompanying fender crumpled beyond repair, and the entire vehicle was covered in a layer of dust so thick I could see that he’d used his windshield wipers to facilitate the view from behind the driver’s seat. It looked just pulled from long storage in a barn.
Yeah. I like that better. Small changes, but I find those are often the ones that make the biggest difference.
Oh, and now I’ve remembered what I’d originally intended to discuss. Someone wrote to me recently that they wished to have a greater vocabulary, that they feel as if their work is stymied by the lack of words at their immediate disposal. Now, I shall note at the outset that this person is already a phenomenal writer, which certainly bears on what I’m about to say, and I should probably also point out that it’s rarely a bad thing to have too many words at one’s disposal (although too much choice can be its own trap, that’s for damn sure). So for sure, dictionary, thesaurus, keep ‘em handy. They’re sort of like chainsaws, or firearms: They’re powerful tools, and they can be dangerous, but when used with a modicum of caution, they ain’t likely to hurt you too bad.
But what I said to this person, and what I really, really mean, and what I believe more and more with each passing day, is that the best writing is in many ways the plainest writing. It is writing that can be universally understood (or nearly so), in part because it speaks of universal truths, but also in part because it does not care to cloak those truths in the finery of fancy words.
I keep thinking about launching some sort of writing workshop, and I actually think I might get around to it one of these days. People have asked, I think it’d be fun, and that seems a good combination. In the meantime, however, I’ll just up and give away everything you need to know to write the pink off a pig: Speak the truth. And speak it plain.
June 29, 2016 § 28 Comments
On Monday afternoon I stopped at the feed store in town for a few bags of grain to fatten the insatiable meat birds. I placed my order and went to stand by the loading dock with an older man, also waiting for his order. In truth, he was not merely older, but flat out old, 80 at least, thin and hunched and moving in that gingerly way of the aged, attired in a rumpled white button down shirt, and rumpled white pants. Both the pants and the shirt bore innumerable stains of innumerable hues, and I did not care to guess at the origins. His car was a Toyota Camry of a mid-90’s vintage; the right rear tire was nearly flat, the right headlight was missing, the accompanying fender crumpled beyond repair, and the entire car was covered in a layer of dust so thick I could see that he’d used his windshield wipers to facilitate the view from behind the driver’s seat. The car looked just pulled from long storage in a barn. In the passenger seat, a small black dog sat at attention.
What do you have for critters, I asked, as we waited. I cannot help myself from asking questions of the elderly, they are inherently interesting to me, and none more so than those waiting to load grain into decrepit sedans with small dogs riding shotgun. I figured him for a couple more dogs at home, a few cats, maybe a small flock of layers.
Jersey’s, mostly, he said. He spoke quietly. I strained to hear him. Most of them open. A few calves. No one uses the term “open” to describe unbred bovine except for those whose familiarly with cows is worn into them like a ravine, and so of course I was all the more intrigued.
His grain came, and I helped him load, four bags to his one, and to be honest, I was surprised that he managed even that. I almost offered to relieve him of that single sack, but did not, and was glad I did not, because an old man who knows enough to describe an unbred cow as “open” bloody well deserves to lift a bag of grain on his own now and then. So what if he dropped it (and it looked for a moment as if he might, he tottered unsteadily under its weight). No one would be hurt. It could be picked up again. I’d do it if he couldn’t.
The rear of the Camry settled a little with each bag, and the dog watched us best he could through the dusty side window. I closed the trunk lid, mentioned the almost airless tire, and watched as he drove away. Loudly, because as it turned out, the car needed a muffler, too.
It is my curse that I often cannot stop imagining the lives of people I meet, even fleetingly. And so it is with this old man. I imagine him arriving home in that listing car, unloading that grain one bag at a time, wobbling his way from trunk to barn, maybe pausing to lean against the open doorway a moment, gathering his marginal strength. I imagine him feeding his cows, a scoop or two each, and how it must be that he stands with them as they eat, because no one at his age would keep cows if it were not important enough to him that he stand with them for a while. Watching them. Hearing them. Smelling them.
I imagine he lives alone. I imagine him eating soup from a can and pre-sliced bread from a plastic bag, lettuce from the small garden he fertilizes with the manure from his cows. Miracle Whip, definitely. Listening to the radio as he eats. I imagine that his house is drafty, and that he is sometimes lonely, but that mostly, he does not mind being alone, or even the occasional loneliness. He has his dog, the cows, the little garden. There will be tomatoes if the weather holds.
I imagine he doesn’t leave home often, but that every couple of weeks, he slides open the big barn doors, and drives the dusted Camry from its resting place, winding his slow way into town to pick up a few bags of grain for his girls.
June 25, 2016 § 18 Comments
This morning I ran the same hill I wrote of nearly two weeks ago. No music this time, just the whump of my agitated heart, the scuffle-slap of my feet atop the graveled road, and the deep drawing of breath. It was early, and I saw no signs of wakefulness in the houses I passed, and I imagined the people within, still ensconced in slumber. For a moment I envied them.
In my previous life as a runner I was always motivated by fitness, or at least a certain assumption of what fitness meant. If I could run six, seven, eight miles at 7 minutes a mile, then surely I was fit. And I suppose I was, and for whatever reason, that once meant something to me. But now I run only because I like the way it feels, that peeling back of the extraneous that for me always accompanies hard physical exertion. I know I am slow, and lacking in grace, and short of endurance, but none of that matters to me now.
I climbed the hill in my lumpen way. Halfway up, I removed my shirt, let the blinding whiteness of my little belly fold itself over the belted brim of my work shorts, where it jostled in ways most unflattering. I watched the small bouncing pouch of it for a while as I ran, struck by an inexplicable sense of its hilarity. Then the height of the climb, where the road ends, and where someday, when I’m good and ready, I’m just going to keep on going, straight into those dense woods like an animal running for the place it knows best.
There I turned and fell back down the hill.
June 23, 2016 § 10 Comments
Sometime in the night – late, early, I don’t know anything but that it was dark and I’d been deeply asleep – I was awakened by a singular rise-and-fall wail of a coyote. I lay awake and still, ears straining for the responding chorus of yips and yowls, but none were forthcoming, and so I lay awake even longer, wondering at the circumstances. I’d never before heard just one coyote. Why was it alone? Why had none answered? I tried to place the animal in my mind; I’d thought perhaps the sound had come from the west, so maybe it was over by the stream, lapping from that cold water. Or I was wrong: Maybe the wail had come from the north, and the coyote was in the yard of the old church. And then I wished I hadn’t imagined that, because it was a confounding image – a lone coyote in the night shadow of a church, howling at that silent steeple. It’s red and yellow, that steeple. I love it.
I was awake for a while longer, wanting a confirming wail, anything to put that damn coyote-in-the-church-yard image out of mind. Or better yet, the banter of a dozen coyotes, proof that the one I’d heard was not alone, not separated, not lonely. But the night remained quiet, and I understood the futility of my wakefulness even as I continued listening, suddenly fearful of sleep and all the uncertainty that awaited me there.
June 21, 2016 § 22 Comments
The rain came late in the night, a cloudburst, heavy to begin, then quickly fading, and I lay unmoving for a minute under the open window, feeling the wetness on my face, letting it keep me awake, even as I anticipated the moment I’d close the sash and drift back into sleep. So nice.
In three days we put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1800 square bales. The weather was perfect, the sun at its annual apex, the air hot and dry, a restless breeze. On Saturday I rode the wagon, 800 bales that day alone, and I pulled each of them off the baler chute and stacked them high as prudence dictated and then a little higher, prideful of my neat rows. A well-stacked hay wagon does not just happen, there is strategy and knowing in it. Maybe even art.
I love riding the wagon; it demands strength and endurance, which I am in deficit of and therefore always seeking the means to bolster. And, because the field we hay is hilled like an unfurling cloth, and the wagons we use do not have sides to halt a fall, it requires a certain high-stakes agility: Grab the bale off the chute and scamper to the rear of the wagon for stacking, even as the wagon tilts beneath you, maybe front to back or, worse yet, a sidehill lean, booted feet slipping on the loose hay atop the wagon’s deck (here’s a rural truism, one of those things you have to experience to believe: Loose hay on a wagon deck is at least as slippery as ice). And really, you almost have to run to get that bale stacked before the next one is poking its nose over the chute edge, there’s no time to fuck around, to congratulate yourself, or just mop the sweat from your brow. I guess that’s the other thing I like about riding the wagon: The bales do not stop, the hay just keeps coming in time to the metronomic clatter of the baler, and above it all the smell of cigarette smoke, Martha cupping a lit Camel in one hand, steering the Deere with the other. In any other setting, I abhor the smell of cigarette smoke. In the hayfield, strangely, it is a comfort.
I am reading Sebastian’s Junger’s new book, Tribe, handed down to me by my friend Brett. I’m not far in yet (every night my ambitions of reading thwarted by fatigue), but far enough to get the gist of it, which is that our society has largely lost its sense of tribalism, and with it, in many ways, our sense of meaningful community. Junger writes of the early days of our nation’s settlement, of how it was not uncommon for settlers to defect to live with native peoples, but nearly unheard of for the opposite to occur. The relative comfort and material abundance the settlers enjoyed were a poor substitute for tribalism, and even many of the settlers knew it.
In reading this book, I think also of that interview with Rebecca Solnit I linked a few posts back. A large part of that interview is Solnit talking about her experiences observing and reporting on the social ramifications of disaster, and how surprised she first was when she realized that people spoke of previous disasters longingly. Almost with pleasure. And she realized, finally, that what they longed for, what pleasured them, was not the disaster itself, but the ways in which the disaster compelled them to band together with others. To become, in essence, a tribe, in which one person’s well-being is dependent on the next. And so on down the line, until the inescapable truth is realized: Everyone is dependent on everyone else.
I think most of us long for something more meaningful than simple social community, if even we’re fortunate enough to have that (and plenty don’t). Don’t get me wrong: There’s much to be said for social community, for coming together around events and celebrations, or even just because. To share a meal, or see a show, or throw a party, or whatever. But I think that what Junger and Solnit are getting at is that there’s an entirely different level of connection when the stakes are higher, when our reliance upon one another becomes essential to our survival, and therefore we become essential. How amazing that must feel, and how unusual now, with almost everything we need to know at our fingertips, everything we need to survive available for convenient purchase, free second-day shipping included.
I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m pretty sure that later in his book, Junger writes about the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and theorizes that PTSD might not be so much about the horrors of the battlefield, as it is about reentry into a fragmented, tribal-less society after the intensely tribal camaraderie of war. Is it really so hard to imagine this might be true?
I guess that’s one of the reasons I love haying so much. It is almost like a mini self-created disaster, all that hay down, and no choice but to get off the field before the rain. It’s social, sure, and there is plenty of laughter and teasing and plain ole shooting the shit, but it’s also serious, serious business, and everyone has their role to play, and if one person screws up, doesn’t show up or just doesn’t do what’s been agreed upon, things fall apart real fast.
Last night as I rode the wagon for one final load, right at the leading cusp of the waning light, I watched as my boys drove our truck in laps around the field, gathering errant bales. It’s been nearly a decade they’ve been helping with haying, almost as long as our younger son’s been alive – I remember propping him a protective cocoon of stacked bales on the wagon – and truth be told, sometimes they’re more helpful than others. But last night they knew the chips were down, the rain was coming, and besides, I’d given them the keys to the truck, and what pair of 11 and 14 year old boys can resist the combination of truck and mown hayfield? Hell, I can barely resist it. They swapped places between driver and passenger seats every so often, according to some metric of negotiated fairness I could not decipher from the wagon, and I knew they were tired. As was I. But there was hay to be got, and there was no one else to do it, and so we all kept plugging along until the field was clean and we could go home to bed.
June 17, 2016 § 12 Comments
This morning I switched my usual routine and ran after chores, the sun already hot and heavy in the sky. Sometimes when I run I listen to music, and other times I do not, but today I felt like disappearing into something as heavy as the sun, so I dialed up a medley of old school favorites – early Metallica and Iron Maiden, and live Motorhead. I think what I sometimes fail to convey about my lingering affection for this music is its inherent expression of raw enthusiasm, and the way I rarely fail to be swept up in that energy. And so I found myself charging down a graveled road, Metallica’s Motorbreath ringing in my ears (living and dying/laughing and crying/those who have seen it will never be the same), and I started punching the air with my fist in time to the beat as I ran and wailing the lyrics into the warming day, and at just that moment – I shit you not – an elderly man passed me from behind in his truck, and when I startled to his presence and glanced over, I saw that his expression was arranged at the juncture of fear and concern, and I tried to change my fist pumps into a wave. But by then he was gone.
And not a beer can to be found. I’ve been doing my job too well.
• • •
Michael came and we spent two long days finishing stairs. He brought treads from a cherry tree he’d felled some years back, for risers we used boards I’d sawn out of a white pine that’d grown fat and happy at our previous property, and along the stringer that’s exposed to the living room (also: kitchen. also: guitar studio. also: craft room. also: office), we affixed a slab of spalted maple procured from our friend Luke.
It pleases me to work with materials of known origins, and even to accommodate all the minor imperfections of lumber dressed on backyard mills, all those dings and wanes and waves. The great bicycle frame builder Richard Sachs has a saying “Imperfection is perfection,” and I guess I don’t know exactly what that means to him, but I know what it means to me, and to me it means that all the little defects built into these newly-trimmed stairs are small reminders of the people and process that gave rise to these stairs: Michael and his lively eyes, his irreproachable work ethic (11 hours straight yesterday, and nary a moment of it frittered), Luke and his ever present grin, me scraping away the years of accumulated dust and chicken shit covering those spalted boards in his barn, even how I nailed the landing of that big pine, just where I wanted it for easy access with the winch and minimal damage to the surrounding trees. And the resonant thump of it against the forest floor: There’s no other sound like it, the way a big tree comes to earth, maybe because it’s not so much a sound as a sensation. You hear it in your ears and you feel it in your feet, and the hearing and the feeling come together somewhere between these appendages, in some yet-to-be-discovered sensory organ deep in the body where also resides a small sadness at having taken the life of one so grand.
Last night I drove Michael home, and everywhere the first cutting of hay is down, drying in windrows stretched from field corner to field corner, like waves across water. Already I can feel the fatigue of this coming weekend, a certain foreboding, I guess, all the bales that must be loaded, thrown, stacked. One bale at a time, one windrow at a time, one wagon at a time, until the barn is full and the field is bare to pale green stubble. You can’t see it yet, but the second cutting of hay is growing already, straining for the sun and rain. In six weeks or so, you’re going to knock it all down again.
June 12, 2016 § 21 Comments
I’ve been enjoying writing again, which is nice, although I reserve the right to freak out and delete 90% of my work in this space (again). Actually, I bet I will do that someday; I learned a lot about my work the last time I did so, it was worth a ton, and I think it’s a truism that an astute writer learns as much – if not more – from the work he or she deletes as from the stuff that endures. Also, on the above picture: For various reasons, I don’t post many photos of myself, but I thought this one was pretty cool, mostly because of the birch. I’m harvesting the bark, which is amazing stuff. Since I haven’t cut through the cambium, the tree will be fine, and the outer bark will eventually regenerate.
I spent much of Saturday in the woods, felling, skidding, and processing a white ash. It was a beautiful tree, extending into serpentine curves along each of its three fat boles, containing maybe a cord of firewood in total. The curves began about two thirds of the way up the stem of each bole, and I was reminded again of outreached fingers, but this time not the gnarled, arthritic appendages of the apple trees. A pianist, maybe. Or a maker of fine instruments, one who wields his tools with micrometer precision. And though it was one of the tallest trees within sight, there was nothing magisterial in its bearing; it was too graceful for that.
But it had been wounded during the last softwood harvest on this land ten years ago or more, most likely by the outermost log in a hitch of logs, scraping off a swath of protective bark as the skidder passed. The tree might have healed – many do – but this one did not, and at least half the upper branches bore no leaves, and while there would have been nothing wrong with letting it proceed along its slow path toward dignified death, the fire that heats this home is like a newborn baby, wanting only to be lovingly tended and fed no matter what the costs might be and who might bear them. Dignified death be damned.
It rained as I worked – suddenly, it’s always raining – and I remembered how much I like working in the rain in the forest, how the moisture releases colors and smells, the yeasty sweetness of the soil and the fresh cut stumps, the acridness of the saw exhaust, and even the occasional whiff of myself when I reach to raise the visor of my helmet to rub-scratch a cheek itch with the back of hand, the skin there salted by sweat, smudged with woods detritus from wriggling my arm under the log to affix the choker, a little high-test gasoline on my fingers from when I’d overfilled the saw and wetted the cap. And then I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years – decades, really – about the time Trevor and I ran out of gas along a back road at something like two in the morning, and how we snuck into a barn and found a can and emptied it into his Volkswagen, and then days later felt so wracked by guilt that we snuck back, took the empty can, refilled it, and returned it under the cover of night. Crikes. It would’ve been easier to just walk home. And then I thought about how many times I’ve smelled gas in the intervening years – hundreds, at least – and wondered why I remembered this now. For that, I have no answer.
Ash is generally considered premium firewood – it burns pretty hot and long enough, dries quick, and splits like it’s been waiting to fall apart since the day it came together – but I just don’t find it that engaging, I guess because it’s a little too easy. I can swing a splitting axe into ash all day and not even be sore the next morning, and what fun is that? I guess I like to feel the work I’ve done. I guess it’s proof of something.
Me, I’m a beech man. I love the way it holds a fire, and it’s just hard enough to split that it feels like I’ve earned it. But there’s not much beech on this land. Not much ash, either, come to think of it, so mostly I’ve been working my way through the stands of sugar maple, culling the dead and dying, burning them down to near nothing, then spreading their ashes on the pasture without even a hint of ceremony. Sugar maple’s real good firewood, too, though sometimes it feels like maybe I have to work a little too hard for it. Jeez. See how fickle I am?
I think I’ve lived without wood heat for maybe two winters of my life, both rentals in my early 20’s. I was born into a house with wood heat, raised in houses with wood heat, and have now built and lived in two houses with wood heat. The older I get, the better I am learning to avoid beginning sentences with the phrase “I would never,” so I won’t say that I’d never live without wood heat, only that I cannot imagine living without wood heat. This is in part because I like the vagaries of the heat itself – the inconsistency of it, the engagement with it, the knowing and patience it demands, even the functional beauty of a good stove – but also because I like working in the woods. A lot. It contains, for me, the perfect ratio of risk to reward, of strength and finesse, of skill and a certain brute persistence. It keeps you on your toes, forces your attention to the matter at hand. There are many tools that can be used in a half-minded way, but a chainsaw is not one of them.
It was nearly 9:00 by the time I walked down from where I’d been splitting that ash, on a little mossed knoll above the barn. I was shocked to find it so late (I don’t wear a watch, or carry a device that tells time); my eyes had adjusted with the waning light, and I would’ve sworn it was 8:00 or even earlier. It was cool, too, the way it’s been for the last week or so, cool enough that though I’d been splitting for nearly two hours straight, I was uncomfortable in my tee shirt, which was damp from the showers and the earlier sweat.
So what I did was go inside and start a fire.