I don’t do many interviews these days, but I really enjoyed doing this one with Daniel Vitalis. Hope you enjoy.
Morning light in the barnyard
On Saturday morning I turned left instead of right out our driveway, and so rode past Dan’s house just as he was emerging on his way to the logging job he’s on. It was barely 6:00, and we talked a few minutes, then I rode on, and he got in his truck and went to work. I rolled fast down a steep hill past still-unmown hayfields and at the bottom turned to pedal alongside the mountain stream, where I soon came upon a doe and her spotted fawn standing in water. Drinking. Each of us surprising the other, the doe suddenly alert, tail twitching, long legs moving this way then that, prancing in place, but all the while her attention trained on me. As was mine on her. The fawn hadn’t seen me, and kept trying to nurse, and eventually latched on. I wanted to stay but now felt an intruder, so began to pedal again. Uphill now. In another mile or so I passed a house where two rabbits sat under the front bumper of a Ford Mustang, the rabbits fat and furry, the car sleek and black. Then over the bridge and past the small house of the man who lives alone with no car and a yard full of perennial plantings. I see him working outside often, but he does not invite conversation, and I know little about him other than what I have just written plus the fact that he seems to me somehow ageless and I’ve heard he walks 10 miles a day or more, but surely this is exaggeration. Another half-mile, and I’m through the narrow bend where the old roadside maples bear the scars of vehicles traveling too fast, too wide, and there are John’s big Devon oxen, still bedded down, those goddamn magnificent horns thrusting skyward. They watch me disinterestedly, even dismissively, almost as if they have no idea how fascinating I am. They’ll figure it out eventually.
Soon I arrived home. I dove into the pond, the water exactly as cold as I’d hoped it would be.
Rain in the night, and still more as day broke. A relief, really; it’s amazing how quickly the ground turned to thirst, cars tailing plumes of dust along the mountain road, the creek low and quiet. Sometimes in the early mornings I ride my bicycle to the top of the mountain and back. I like how the trees – maples, mostly – knit their leafed branches together over the road, forming a tunnel as the climb begins in earnest. I pedal into the tunnel just as the sun is rising, and suddenly everything is dim again, and there I am in the near-dark with my heart in my ears, the birds in morning song, the dry dirt crackling beneath the tires of my old bike.
I realize just now how often I write of early day, and I’m pretty sure why: I think there is something about the break of day that brings one closer to the inner workings of heart and mind, even if only to realize that the inner workings of heart and mind are as cluttered and fumbling as ever. Which I suppose is itself a certain clarity for the truth it speaks.
It is my habit to sit in silence for few minutes upon awakening, in the winter before the wood stove, in the summer perhaps the same, or outside atop one of the large stones that protrudes from the ground at the height of the knoll above our house. I don’t entirely understand the value of this habit; I tried for a while to understand, but have finally (and wisely, I think) given up on the expectation of it even having value. But I continue to do it anyway, mostly even when I don’t much want to, and I sense it is doing something for me, even if I don’t know what “it” is.
Then it occurs to me that maybe it’s nothing. And maybe that’s ok.
We drove early this morning to drop the boys and a friend at an access point to the Long Trail, where they intend to spend three days hiking their way southward. This must be painfully obvious by now, but I like driving through the rural working class landscape of northern Vermont, past spray-painted lawn signs pitching firewood and snow plowing, maple syrup and cow manure. There’s a quiet dignity to way folks inhabit this land, not asking a whole lot and generally receiving somewhat less, but having understood how it’d be from the get-go not prone to lament. To be sure, there are those who seem to have surrendered, but under what pressures it’s hard to know and even fathom. Perhaps even they don’t understand the pressures themselves; they only feel the weight of them.
I grew up in northern Vermont, and I guess it’s true how a place gets inside you, the easy familiarity of it, even the way it smells. The little quirks of regionalized character – how people wave, for instance, or the lilt of their speech. I like the way you come to trust people you share a place with. Maybe you trust them too much sometimes, because for every local who doesn’t wave with just two fingers off the steering wheel, there’s probably one you can’t quite trust. But even most of those can be relied on in a fashion; they might stretch the truth or on occasion even break it, but they’re not out to get you.
What I remember from growing up here is pretty thin and sort of random. I remember getting firewood with my father, which is sort of strange, because I don’t think we did a whole lot of that. But I have a very specific memory of him bucking hardwood with his old Jonsereds chainsaw and me begrudgingly throwing the rounds into the back of whatever car he drove back then. A Honda Civic hatchback, I think, circa 1978 or so. He still has that chainsaw, though I doubt it’s been started in a decade or more. The Civic is long gone.
I remember the musty, wet-wood smell of the cabin we lived in, but that’s kind of a cheap memory, because in my experience all cabins smell like that, or some variation thereof. I remember a little bit the bar my dad frequented, though I can’t understand why I would’ve been there. But I was, at least enough to have a sense of it. Skiing up the hill to the cabin behind my mother. I think I remember that.
Every once in a while I catch myself wondering what my sons will remember. Probably not the things I’d choose for them to, such as the constant selfless sacrifice on the part of their mother and me. Sometimes I want to say, “hey, remember this,” but I know the minute one of my parents said that to me, I probably would’ve banished it from my mind forevermore, so I don’t. I’ll let them choose their memories, the good ones and the bad. Hopefully more of the former than the latter, but who knows.
Not long after we dropped the boys off, watched them disappear down the trail without so much as a glance back, Penny and I drove past a snack bar near a lake not far from where I grew up. My parents and I used to go to that lake, and unlikely as it seems four decades on, I know for certain we went to that snack bar. I don’t even know why I’m so sure, but I am. After we passed, I watched it in the side view mirror until we crested a hill and it dropped out of sight. Chances are, I’ll never see it again.
On the mornings I drive my 12-year-old son to the farm where he hunts turkeys, we are mostly quiet. It is a little after four in the morning, and I let him sip from my coffee, and together we peer through the mist that hangs low over the gravel road. Such a gift to be out at this time of day, or night, or whatever it is, alone with my boy and my thoughts and the sense of emergence.
On the drive home it is nearly light, and I think about my son when he was younger, a toddler, and how I never could have anticipated this. And what a gift that is, too, to realize how changeable and surprising life can be, how even a young human can determine his or her fate, choose things you’d never have chosen for them, and how those choices can lead you straight into this very moment, alone now in the early mist, driving slow, the window opened just an inch or two because nothing smells so good as the break of dawn in May.
Storms rolled in last evening, fast and heavy, washing away the oppressive heat, and this morning the air feels almost silken. I walked outside at first light and climbed the small hill that overlooks our house and barn, and further in the distance, the town hall and old church, both now obscured by new leaves. All quiet but the breeze and bird song and the distant clucking of our chickens, scratching and strutting about, pecking apart last winter’s cow droppings. Such easy contentment.
I think about this space more than I visit it these days, often in the form of random thoughts or images I want to share. Like yesterday, driving into a small town not far from here, just before the storms, and watching as a big John Deere tractor towing a manure spreader pulled into the recently-constructed Dollar General, the farmer presumably needing to pick up something on his way home from spreading a field. And the incongruity of it – the old and the new, the solid mass of the tractor and cow shit and what feels to me like the flimsy, ephemeral nature of the store, with its faux-brick siding and neon yellow signage. There was a lot of debate when the store was announced – over the building site, mostly, but also the nature of its commerce, and whether it might draw business from the town’s small-but-vibrant main street. A lot of people didn’t want the new store. A lot of people did. It’s been open a couple of years now; I’ve passed it a hundred times or more, and I can’t say it doesn’t please me to note how often the parking lot is empty, or nearly so. If nothing else, the store is straight-up ugly, a blighted box, though I suppose even that is open to debate.
Today I work down the road on the digger, doing drainage work, mostly, but also loading a dump truck with mounds of steaming compost. I like digging in the compost; I like the smell of it, rich and on the verge of sweet, and variable depending on the age of the material. It’s the middle-age piles that smell best to me, the ones that are still ripening, right in the thick of transformation. I could dig those piles all day.
Chestnuts. With any luck, they’ll produce before I’m dead
Lazy snow this morning, intermittent flakes against the windshield as I drove home in the pre-dawn from dropping my younger son at his favorite turkey hunting haunt. A big red Ford pickup pulled from a side road in front of me. The driver flicked a cigarette butt out the window, and in the dark I was captivated by the glowing ember as it bounced and scuttled across the hard-packed gravel road. A mile or so later, the passenger flicked his cigarette, too, but this one just lay there, slowly dimming, an animal drawing its last breaths. By the time I passed, it was done. The taillights of the Ford had disappeared, hidden around a sharp bend, and I thought I’d see them again once I got round, but the truck was moving too fast and I could not catch up.
A few minutes past five now, more light pouring into the sky by the minute, and I was glad to be out and about so early, the day stretched before me, my anticipation of it like a long-awaited meal. Snow still falling, but so, so softly, as if it didn’t even really want to land.
Haven’t posted music in a while, and maybe I’ve even posted this one before. But if so, it’s worth a second listen. James McMurtry doing Lights of Cheyenne.
Every day I drive the gravel road toward home, from one outing or another, and I see the flush of green creeping slowly up the mountain. Every day a little greener, a little higher. At home I feed the cows from the remaining reserves of hay, watch for a moment as they curl their long tongues around a chosen tuft, then retract the tongue and chew in that slow, side-to-side way of ruminants. Ignoring me. For what good am I now? They have their hay, and tomorrow must seem a long ways off.
It’s ok. They’ll like me again in the morning.
An old one
On Sunday evening, I drove to pick up a set of used tires for the truck, passing through a northern Vermont landscape on the cusp of spring, struck as I often am by the co-mingling of poverty and affluence in these rural hills. And also by the evident decline in our capacity (or is it desire?) to inhabit structures of grace and beauty. To be sure, the latter lives forever the eye of the beholder, but how else to describe the multitude of old barns that dot the land in varying stages of decline, many sitting atop foundations of dry-stacked stone, only a few in use for anything but storage of old furniture and discarded tires, dotted by the ubiquitous condiment of such buildings:Pigeon shit.
And the farmhouses: Even needing paint, rooflines sagging, first-floor windows covered in plastic to thwart the winter winds, porches flaking off like crusted scabs, yards warted with the detritus of rural northern living (snowmobiles, gas grills, oil drums), even in such a state prettier by far than most anything built over the past half-century. To each his or her own, I suppose, but still: Give me the old farmhouse and its accompanying barn, let them be falling right down around me, force me to thaw pipes every sub-zero morning and consider the leaks in the roof every spring rain. I’ll curse it, I know, but like most things I curse, I’d love it, too.
• • •
A day or two prior to that, I’d driven a couple of miles up the road with my younger son to do a little wandering. We live near to an 11,000-acre wildlife management area, as near to wilderness as one is likely to find in Vermont, and for us one of the main attractions to living where we do. We set off for a beaver pond we’ve explored many times over, a jaunty 20-minute hike from the truck, and then, because the weather was fine, and our moods commensurately buoyant, we kept walking, following the pond’s feeder stream. Higher and higher we pushed, hopping from one side of the stream to the other, circumnavigating another small pond, then another, now wallowing through patches of snow that in places lay thigh-deep in the shade of spruce and fir. Everywhere beaded piles of moose dung and the deep depressions of their cloven hooves, far enough from the road to have erased any signs of humankind: No footprints, no beer cans, no spent shotgun shells. Not a car to be heard, just the rustle of flowing water, the pond peepers, and the soft whistle from the wings of the mallards we flushed.
• • •
Then last night, in a misty rain, just before dark, we buried our old hound dog, laid her in a hole with a meaty bone and sent her on her way. This morning, for the first time in nearly a decade, I was not awakened by the sound of her toenails on the wooden floor.
The snow is gone from the woods now. Yesterday I walked to the height of our land in the early light, as is my habit silently noting which maples should be culled for firewood. We have plenty split for the winter to come, much of it even stacked, and still more on the ground for the winter to follow, but if I’ve learned one thing in my life thus far, it’s that there’s no such thing as too much dry firewood. Plus, we bought an old sugaring rig, and there’s talk of situating it high up in the hardwoods, so I better be thinking about sugaring wood, and soon. I guess a couple cords will do. We’re only going to put out a hundred taps or so. Well, maybe a hundred and fifty.
The long days feel good. You can get properly fatigued on days like these, fall into bed at 8:45 with that bone deep tiredness, tell yourself you’re going to read until 9:00 (definitely, at least, for sure), and make it maybe five minutes. Maybe. I’ve been working a bit down at our friend Tom’s farm, doing some little jobs with the digger, mostly in sight of John’s team of Devon oxen. They watch me with a subtle wariness and I watch them back. Beautiful animals, long horns that curve twice before pointing skyward. Someday I want horns like that.
The pigs got out – they’re huge, eight months old and less than a week from the freezer, and in the herding process one charged between my legs and I ended up splayed on its back facedown, nose to tail, the damnable pig too fat and tall for me to reach the ground to push myself off, so it carried me at least a couple dozen feet while my family fell about itself with laughter. Eventually I squirmed off and we got the pigs situated, and then I laughed about it, too.
• • •
Also, I want to mention the upcoming woodscraft summer camp for teens that our friend Luke Boushee is running here. This year, the camp will be a full week of overnights, and as usual, Luke has a ton of amazing stuff up his sleeve. You can learn more here, and even more than that by contacting us at email@example.com. Thank you.