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.