On Work


This morning I milked just as the sun was clearing the copse of tall spruce to the east, illuminating the turning leaves on the maples lining the shallow cleft of the mountain road. The colors are coming on fast now. It’s frosted hard twice.

I milk outdoors, kneeling on the ground, subject to the vagaries of weather. Halter, fencepost, cow, bucket. Sometimes I wish for more commodious infrastructure, but not as often as I’m glad to not have it, because if I had it I’d use it, probably even on mornings like this one, that slanting light, warm enough in shirt sleeves, the laying hens gathering around me as if this might finally be the morning I do something other than shoo them away. Forever hopeful, those hens. A guy could learn a thing or two.

I spent much of the weekend on the excavator, building a compost discharge filtering system at our friend Tom’s farm, just down the road. I love driving by the place, which is situated right where the road narrows to snake through a stand of old mother maples. Between the horse logging, and the composting operation, and their own big flock of hopeful layers pecking about, and Tom’s family, and haying, and passers by, there’s a lot going on there. Sometimes Tom’s younger daughter and her friend sell lemonade at the side of road, and I’ll stop and give them a dollar for a twenty-five cent cup because I’m a sucker for a lemonade stand run by a couple of eight-year-olds who wave their arms frantically and shout “Stop! Ben! Stop!” when I pass. Anyway. There’s almost always an excuse to crane my neck, and even better, it’s almost always something that reminds me there’s still plenty of good shit happening in this crazy old world.

I’m a bit loathe to admit it, but I sort of like working with machinery, and I really enjoyed passing some time on the excavator, which is a remarkable piece of equipment, capable of destruction and production in equal measure. And there was just enough physical labor involved – raking and shoveling and whatnot – to keep me sweating, and so I did not succumb to the strange, numbing fatigue of uninterrupted machine operation, which is the one aspect of working machinery that I don’t like. Well, that, and when things break. I don’t like that much, either.

I sometimes suffer from the sense that writing is not real work, I think in part because we inhabit of community of people who by-and-large make their living from the sweat off their back. I know it’s not really true – writing is hard, damn hard, or at least it can be, probably should be, at least at times – but I also know a bit about what it takes to support a family through farming, or logging, or building, or the myriad other ways rural folk make their way in the world, and I occasionally feel as if what I do to support my family doesn’t quite measure up. It’s my own insecurity talking, much as anything else, but still. That’s how I feel.

So it was real nice to make something tangible, and not just in service to myself and my family, but for someone else in our community. I left feeling pleased about the work I’d done, happy with the way the system had taken shape, graded out just so to shed rainwater and send the discharge in the proper direction, the smooth lines of the berm I’d formed with the excavator bucket.

I drove home real slow, the truck laboring to pull the digger, the leaves on the trees high on the side of the mountain well into their irreversible decline.




Under Again

New well. Pre-pump taste test.
New well. Pre-pump taste test.

On Friday evening I killed the second of our three hogs, and afterwards walked down to the pond to rinse away the piggut smell before bed. It was nearly dark, and the air was cooling fast, and I was goose bumped even before I came to the water’s edge, where I stripped and dove before I could second-guess myself. The water was colder than expected (and I’d expected cold) but I forced myself under again and again and again, scrubbing at my bloodied hands and forearms with a palmful of the sandy clay that forms the banks.

When I emerged it was just light enough that I could see heated water rising off my body. Now I was truly cold, that pinprick feeling of muscles tensed against it, and I started back up the path to home. Moving quickly. But still I smelled that dead pig smell on my skin; it’s one of those smells, like sex or fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, that once known cannot be mistaken. So I walked back to where water meets land. And then I walked a little farther, and then a little farther still, and finally, when I’d walked far enough that turning back no longer seemed preferable to staying the course, I went under again.


One of These Days

Last night I walked home from a meeting at the town hall along a graveled road, my path lit by the near-full moon, fat and buoyant in the sky behind me. To my left, a dozen or so yards beyond the roadway’s sloped shoulder, I could hear the mountain stream that runs through the center of town (which is to say, it passes behind the old church). The stream is weak with drought but still makes those pleasing stream sounds, the whispery sluice of water over rock, the burble of water falling and folding on itself, a noise like little beads of some soft alloy.

I turned up our drive and faced the moon in full, and now could clearly see that its light had blued the darkened sky ever so slightly. At the top of the drive, where the barn comes full into view, I saw the cows as I see them so often: Gathered into their small herd, three lying, two standing, all turned the same direction, heads to the west. As if facing something.

Not for the first time, not even close, and surely not for the last, I stood for a minute  or two and considered the small comfort of these animals in my life. And how in times of uncertainty or discontent – and yes, of course I have those, probably no less nor more than most –  the cows seem always to offer something. It’s not certainty. It’s not an answer to anything, but rather what feels to me like an invitation to share in their evident bovine contentment: The metronomic chewing of cud, the sheer mass of all that warm flesh and long bone against the ground, the faith that the day to come will be not unlike those that have passed. Or perhaps there is such faith – such a deep, embodied faith – that no faith is necessary. Yes. I think that more likely.

I stood a short while longer, then turned away, feeling chilled now, wanting the warmth of the cook stove. I could still hear the weakened stream in the distance, though only just. We sure could use some rain. We’ll get some one of these days.











I’d Known it Would be that Good All Along

img_4110This is John Wayne Blassingame. He is 89 years old but looks and moves like a man 20 years his junior. Within minutes of our meeting, he told us that he has a 14 year-old biological daughter with his wife, who is 39 years younger than him. He seemed quite smitten by his vigor, and really, who could blame him?

It is true that after meeting John Wayne, I have a whole new perspective on the possibilities for the second half of my life.

John Wayne is a dowser, and we met him after we hired him to dowse for a well, which we needed because our spring has not performed to expectations. Long story. Might tell it later, but then again, might not. Probably won’t. We wanted to dowse in part because the wells around here tend to be pretty deep – 300 to 400-feet is not uncommon; indeed, the well of our nearest neighbor is 390-feet and produces a mere 3 gallons per minute. Because well drillers charge by the foot ($12 per foot is about average, plus $16-ish per foot of casing, which must be installed to the depth of bedrock), we were keen to do what we could to stack the deck in our favor.

When John Wayne showed up, he explained that he’d actually be teaching us how to dowse, because he wanted us to be the ones to find water. “I want your energy in it,” is how he put it. So we’d find the water, and he’d confirm. Cool.

I’d never dowsed before, but it was real simple. There aren’t many rules, with the exception that to dowse accurately, one must dowse only for “need, not greed.” And according to John Wayne, you shouldn’t dowse for negative information. He told us about the time he was teaching a couple to dowse, and the woman asked “is my husband having an affair?” and John Wayne grabbed the dowsing rods out of her hands before they could register a response, because the response to negative information cannot be trusted, and she might have gotten a false positive. And then what? Hearing this story, I have refrained from dowsing for potentially disruptive and deal-breaking information, such as is my wife listening to James Taylor when I’m not around? Because that would be very, very bad, indeed.


I found water very quickly and, as you can see from the above photo, I thought it was pretty neat. If before I’d had any doubts about dowsing, I sure didn’t after this experience.  There was absolutely no question in my mind. Penny got the same result, and then John Wayne confirmed our findings and drove a stake in the precise spot we wanted to drillers to set their rig. Then he went home to his wife and daughter.

On Friday, the drilling rig finally showed up. At 165-feet, they hit 50 gallons-per-minute. Or somewhere around 50 gpm; truth is, the water was coming in so hard, they couldn’t really do an accurate count. “It’s a hell of a well,” the driller told me. “Best one in town, probably.”

I just nodded, sort of like I’d known it would be that good all along.

Back to some music. How ’bout Hank III doing Cecil Brown







Everything Interrupted

On Friday I killed the first of our three fatted hogs in preparation for a friend’s wedding this afternoon. I started early, the sky barely clear of night, the grass dewy-wet, the sound of the gun almost too much for the soft morning air. Wham. The birds silenced mid-song. Everything interrupted.

Maybe it was just the fragile newness of the day, but for a few moments after the act I could do nothing but stand there, watching thick arterial blood drench the thirsty soil, still holding the sticking knife, with that same warm liquid redness spreading down the blade and over the handle and into the creases of my palm, shocked by what I’d done. By what I’m capable of when I decide I’m capable of it.

Soon enough the blood stopped flowing, and the pig’s hind legs ceased their frantic churning, finally accepting the truth. The birds took up singing again. And there was still so much to do and not enough time to do it, but damned if I didn’t just stand there a minute or two more, staring down at what I’d done, not knowing whether to feel sorrow or relief.

Eventually deciding on both.









Step by Step

IMG_4211Early September and hot. Around here it’s always hot the first few days of September, just like it’s always cool the first few days of August. I think the cool weather in August is nature’s way of reminding us to get our shit together when we still have just enough time to do so. And I think the hot weather in September is her way of reminding us what she’s about to take away just before she does so. Be grateful, she’s saying. Ok, ok: I’m grateful. True, I still don’t have my shit together, but at least I know when to give thanks.

I passed the morning with the chainsaw, gratefully sweating puddles beneath chaps and helmet, clearing behind the pigs for future pasture. I’d burn a tank of gas, then pile brush, then refill, and repeat. The pigs snurffled about, unafraid of the saw’s roar, nosing the fallen trees, sampling of the leaves.

Snurffle. I made that one up. I like it.

I’m reading The Power of Myth, which is a book-length interview with Joseph Campbell, by Bill Moyers, who is perhaps the preeminent living interviewer. That I know of, at least. It’s a good book, you should read it if you haven’t. And then today when I came inside to drink some water and rest up a bit, I looked at Brett’s blog for the first time in a little while, and she had just written about Campbell. Coincidence, maybe. Or not: I’m not sure I believe in coincidence the way I used to.

Anyway. I like the Campbell quote Brett used:

If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path. 

I read that, then had me another drink of water, then put my chaps back on and picked up my saw and walked up the hill. Step by step.




Something Else I Don’t Have a Word For

Camping on Lake Superior
Camping on Lake Superior

On the final evening of August I drive home from Jimmy and Sara’s with buckets full of milk for the pigs. Already the light is waning, and I pass a field of head-high corn, the leaves so deeply green I wonder if green is still the right word, but no other comes to mind. I pass grazing cows, just off evening milking, udders loose, heads bent to the shorn pasture. I see row after row of firewood under old roofing tin, the tin weighed down by rocks and old tires. A poor man’s woodshed. I have one, too.

Those who took first cut in early June are onto third cutting; everyone else is into second and that’s all they’ll get; the grass is almost finished growing. But it was a good year for making hay, at least this far north. It was hot and we got just enough rain just when we needed it.

Once home I carry a bucket up the hill to the pigs. They crowd the trough in anticipation. I pour the soured milk over their heads and they shake it onto me and so I curse them, an order of business as predictable as a stopped clock. The pigs do not have long to live, but lacking this foreknowledge they are free to enjoy the moment for what it is: A bellyful of milk. The sun slinking lower in the sky. A breeze so soft it might not even be a breeze at all, and I realize there’s something else I don’t have a word for, like the nameless feeling I have right now, milk-splattered and a little shivery in the cooling air, watching the pigs drink, considering the deaths they don’t know are soon to come.