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Thinking All the While

Yesterday evening I drove the back roads slowly, past fields thick with fresh-spread manure, the smell of it heavy in the air and as familiar as wood smoke in winter. I topped a hill and at its crest where the tree canopy parted saw a cloud tower in the sky, tall and ominous-looking, as if the faintest breeze would send it toppling. Rain coming, I figured, or at least the threat of it. Let it come. Hay’s in. Firewood’s under tin. Streams and rivers still running high, but they can run higher. The banks have held worse. I’ve seen it myself.

Truth is, I could drive these backroads just about forever. I guess more than anything they remind me of what I love about Vermont, and not just the land, but the people who inhabit it and maybe just as much how they inhabit it. They live in old farmhouses, and new ranches, and mobile homes leveled on cinder blocks and funky cabins with rows of Tibetan peace flags hanging across the driveway. Chickens ranging in the yard. They plow driveways and clean houses and pour concrete and milk cows and go to school and get DWIs and lord knows what else.

As I drove, I remembered passing a dairy farm a few days back, not a prosperous-looking one (those are getting fewer and farther between by the year) and seeing in the middle of a nubbed-down pasture behind a sagging line of rusted wire a small hay wagon stacked with what looked to be about a cord of firewood. A nice, neat stack, spray-painted plywood sign leaning against it: “$220” No name, no phone number, nothing more than the price.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about that wagon, that wood, and the farmer who thought to stack it just so. How many hours already he must have into its procurement. And who would buy it? For it was not deliverable by hay wagon, least not over any distance, and as a rule it’s pretty hard to sell firewood you can’t deliver. So what, then? Someone would see the wagon, stop in to the barn at milking time, inquire about the wood, strike a deal, back their truck into the field, throw each piece into the bed or as many as would fit, because truth is it’s pretty much impossible to fit a full loose cord into a the bed of even a full-size pickup, which I know because I’ve tried. So now on top of it all they’re having to come back for the rest. Really? Someone would do all this for a cord of wood? My head wouldn’t stop swirling with the details, and what seemed to me the futility of it. Because I really wanted someone to buy that damn wood. But I didn’t see how it’d happen.

Yet I couldn’t relinquish the image of it. Still can’t, I guess, because here I am writing about it though I never planned to, not even at the top of this page. There was something beautiful about it, something of great substance (Firewood! Heat! Survival!) and yet also a little heartwarming, which I suppose was the hope it represented, enough to be worth however long it took to fell and cut and split and stack that wood, to pull it into the pasture with the old Farmall I could see resting out behind the barn, to find the plywood, the rattle can, to paint the sign. And yet all this was tempered by that sense of futility in a way that actually felt a little achy in my gut, like I didn’t quite know which to believe: Hope or futility? Futility or hope? Perhaps that wagon of wood is not unlike the “eggs for sale” sign mentioned in the comments a while back; something that comforts in its commonplace nature and yet is just incongruous enough that we imbue it with meaning even we can’t quite understand. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Later that night I finally settled on what I think is going to happen to that wagonload of wood. I think the farmer’s going to leave it there until the wood is well-seasoned, and maybe even covered by snow, the sign long since tipped flat by the wind. The pasture cold and windswept, the cows huddled around a bale feeder in the barnyard. Then I think at some point this winter the farmer’s going to cast his appraising eye on the stacks in the woodshed and, realizing they’re dwindling faster than anticipated, he’s going to drive the old Farmall out to pasture and pull that cord of wood home. Thinking all the while how glad he is it didn’t sell.

Music: A new one from Isbell. 

30 thoughts on “Thinking All the While”

  1. Yes Ben, a lifestyle unique to itself, comfortable to all who embrace it, rich with its simple pleasures . . . brutally honest living. Thanks for illuminating this so beautifully!

  2. Ben

    Lovely writing. Your prose always transports me back to my Vermont/ New Hampsire beginnings from my adopted East Texas home

  3. Your story got to me, not because of the wood in the hay wagon (although that was a beautiful image), but because of the cloud tower. It reminded me of the fact that we haven’t had any rain in almost two months. There’s a drought in the usually rainy Pacific Northwest, and wildfires are raging in three directions from us. We can’t see the mountains, the light is eerie, the sun and moon in the sky tinged and unnatural, bright yellow.
    I want some of your rain. And sorry, we don’t need to buy wood but have a whole woodshed loaded with it for a few winters to come.

  4. Amazing the common thread that runs through all small town kids in rural areas. I’m from Tennessee but your descriptions invoke memories. I’ve never been to Vermont but now I see it in my mind. 💜

  5. I find the grinding rural poverty depressing wherever it is.

    I often wonder what high school teachers think when there are kids in their classes who drive newer, more expensive, cars than they can afford to drive.

    I understand that it costs dairy farmers more to produce a gallon milk than they can sell it for, so they spend their own money to support their way of life until they run out of money, sell their herds, sell their equipment, watch their dreams drive off and when the tears are gone they try to figure what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

  6. Nearly every farmer I know here in Nebraska has a second job, either off the farm or a skill that he leverages to earn the cash that he needs to keep farming. If they are married, most of the wives who work in town so that they have a steady/dependable income source and health care insurance. Farming is a way of life, but not always an easy life. Or so it seems to me.

  7. I wondered yesterday how long it would take you to suggest Cumberland Gap here, and this morning I see this. I’m completely in love with the new album. Especially Cumberland Gap. That man is a poet.
    Also quite enjoyed your thoughts on this piece. Nice one.

  8. “Tibetan peace flags” is what stuck with me in here and in VT, and down the yard a boy shooting his gun into straw bale targets. 60-something year olds jumping off the trees into swimming holes with their grandkids, and endless berry patches. Libraries that give you a library card without even checking your ID, just because they trust you, and ferries that open the gates even it is past closing time, to get you across the lake. Vegetable stands with a bucketfulls of honor system cash and overpriced little stores with so much dusty crap that you wonder how long its been sitting there. Vermont. ❤

  9. Your description of the wood gave me a primal sense of comfort and security. Even on a day like today where our sky is filled with smoke from wild fires and the land is parched. Yes, he will be glad to tow that wagon to the barn come the end of winter.

  10. I would totally buy that wood, and make two trips….but that’s because I don’t have a woodstove! I badly want one, and I’m so green and dumb about burning wood that I would see this display and be so giddy and ridiculous that I’d have no idea that there was anything wrong with it…..

  11. I hope you always keep wondering enough to share thoughts like this with us. Lovely…start to finish. Thank you!

      1. We are. thank you. Immersed in the transition to our new property – exciting, exhausting, invigorating and inspiring all at once. Peace and Blessings to you and yours, always!

      1. Maybe I’ll do a post on it. In the meantime, I recommend it highly. Or I highly recommend it. Or it I highly recommend. Or highly, I recommend it.

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