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It Was a Very Nice Thought to Think

It snowed again in the night, and was still snowing when I awoke, three inches on the ground already and mounting. At chore time I loaded square bales into a utility sled and pulled them through the orchard to the cows, who marked my progress from under the outstretched boughs of the big spruce trees lining the pasture’s crest. I watched them watch me, their heads slowly swiveling to track my journey. The snow was dense and the sled heavy, and I was glad I’d worn my new boots, the ones with the deep tread and the soles that don’t leak. I like them very much.

Yesterday, driving a back road not far from here, but far enough that I don’t drive it often, I passed a sap bucket hanging from a telephone pole and then another, affixed to a spruce. I remembered the roadside pumpkins I saw last December, and was grateful all over again for those, and now for the whimsy of these sap buckets. I imagined the delight of the person hanging them, how in some form or another they must have envisioned a moment just like this one. And then I thought (the buckets now far behind me, a sleety substance pelting my windshield, the sky heavy, low, insistent) of how they’d been delighted to imagine my delight, and how I was delighted to imagine theirs.

Ah. It was a very nice thought to think.

 

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Continued

Later in the day, snow still falling, I drive a mile down the road to borrow a wheelbarrow, then another two miles to buy a beer. The roads are slick; the ruts beneath the snow are frozen, pulling at the truck. I drive slowly, in part for safety, and in part because I feel no urgency. The snow and cold have sapped my energy like a low-grade fever.

Near the Bend, idling down a steep grade, I come upon two boys on bicycles, riding uphill through the unplowed snow. The older one is in the lead, he’s 13, maybe 14 years old, standing on the pedals, weaving against the pitch, leaving deep set tracks. The younger one is 100-feet behind him, and as I watch, he dismounts his bicycle and begins to push. I roll down my window and yell “looks like fun!” which I immediately regret because it sounds just like something a 46-year old man would yell at a couple of kids riding their bikes in the snow, but they’re polite enough to flash smiles, and I watch them in my rear view mirror after I pass.

A few minutes later, heading home,  I pass them again, now at the bottom of the hill, and I realize they’d been riding up for the sole purpose of riding down, for the sheer novelty of it, and for the remainder of my short drive, I imagine how good it must felt to fly down that hill, snow in the face, wheels slipping and catching, slipping and catching, the risk of falling always close at hand. The way the risk of falling always is.

 

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I Can Barely Fathom

The temperature has dropped again, and gusty winds have delivered snow, it’s falling now, steady and slanting on what remains of the wind. I watch the chickens retreating to the shelter of their coop, walking in their forward-falling way. I watch what ground had been bared by cold rain and warm sun turning white again. The wood box is empty; the boy whose turn it is to fill it is away, and I know I’ll be stepping outside in a matter of minutes to fetch an armload or two. I think that filling the wood box is a good chore for a child or even (in this case) an almost-adult, so I will bring in only enough to last until his return.

The cat sleeps beside me, folded into himself, rear paws tucked between the fronts. Tail, too. I taught class this morning and we all had a fine time of it, reading and writing and talking and laughing, and I’m realizing that soon the semester will be over and how much I will miss my students. The quiet ones, the bawdy ones, the funny ones, the serious ones, the one who’s progressively losing both his vision and his hearing, the one whose father was murdered and who tells me that even now, when he returns home, he can’t be certain there’ll be enough food on the table, the one who can write so pretty you’d hardly believe it but doesn’t want to share it much. I don’t push her. She’s young yet, not even out of her teens. There’s time yet. Lots of time. Indeed, I can barely fathom how much time she has.

 

 

 

 

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Coupla Things

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First, Penny’s hosting a black ash pack basket workshop at our place the last weekend in April. You should probably  absofreakinglutely come. You’ll leave with a beautiful basket made with your own two hands, though of course folks with any number of hands are encouraged to attend. Untitled.jpgcollage

Second, Penny’s now offering a limited supply of her birch bark handcraft through her Etsy shop, which you can access here. Leather straps, antler buttons, buckskin closures: These will NOT be available at a WalMart near you anytime soon, if you get my drift.

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Someone Will

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The thawing back roads are a mess – rutted, soupy, pot-holed – but I drive them anyway, in part for the challenge, and in part because the back roads of Vermont are where I’m most comfortable, where I can watch the part of the world and the way of life I know and understand best unfurl beside me. The listing barns and haggard cows of the few remaining hill farms, less prosperous by the day, the trailer homes with mechanical detritus slowly spawning through the receding snow, the newer homes (or the tastefully restored older ones) of those retired or with town jobs, the ones that pay decent money, health benefits, 401k. I won’t lie: Sometimes I want one of those jobs. Then a long line of roadside maples warted by sap buckets, one tree after another, sentinel in their bearing. I crest a hill, and in the trough below me there’s a mini-van, rusted and weary looking, buried in mud to its axles, the driver standing fender-side in the road. He’s older than me, baseball-hatted and looking weary as his van, stoop-shouldered and skinny. I stop and roll my window down, say damn, sorry, wish I could help (I’m driving our little low-slung, two-wheel-drive car, as useless to his predicament as a screen door on a submarine), and he smiles, shrugs those stooped shoulders, says it’s ok. Someone’ll be along. 

And he’s right. Someone will.

 

 

 

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Tell Me About That

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The snow is almost ceaseless. It is snowing even now, again, as I write this. I plow, then I plow again, then again. The driveway is a narrow chute wending between walls of snow, and I cannot believe I have not gotten the plow truck stuck. Not yet, anyway. The cats sit on windowsills, watching over the their domain, keeping their paws warm. Yesterday, someone said to me “we were so close,” and I wanted to be cheeky and say “close to what?” but I didn’t, and besides, I knew. The ground was nearly bare for a time. One day it was 60-degrees and the sap ran. We made a half-gallon of syrup. The time changed and I remembered my father’s saying: Daylight savings is just the government’s way of reminding you who’s in charge, but when I told this to Melvin one night in the barn when I was feeding hay to his cows he just scoffed and said doesn’t seem to me like the government’s in charge of much of anything. To which I said I wish you were right, and was pleased with myself.

I love the sound of 40 cows chewing.

I do my work. I walk the narrow footpaths between barn and house and car and tractor. I feed the cows, water them. I tell my students “don’t write it was dark. Instead, write it was darker than a carload of assholes.” (hat tip to George V. Higgins) I tell them not to spend so much time flying at 30,000-feet, and instead get down on the ground, in the mud. Maybe even roll around in it. Feel how cool it is, how squishy and sweet-smelling? Take up a handful. Squeeze it. See how dark it is? Maybe not darker than a carload of assholes, but still pretty damn dark. I say Tell me about that.

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When the Reading Gets Thin

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Finally finished the south wall clapboards. The cats are pleased and frankly, so am I.

Last week’s short-but-serious thaw reduced the snowpack to scant and intermittent patches, in the process revealing a strange assortment of items lost or misplaced or intended for winter burial. In the shadows of the barn, I found the pair of choker chains I’d long assumed had been sacrificed to the woods, and the pleasure of this discovery mitigated the revelation that the cats have spent the winter masticating rats and leaving their half-eaten corpses to mingle with the accumulating snow. I’m glad for the catching, less glad for the gruesome remainders, the long, slick tails like frozen baby snakes. I found three bucket lids and one tape measure, all well-preserved and in perfect operating condition. Now, everywhere is ice, glare and glistening under the rare moments of sun, and every step is fraught with peril. I fall at least once per day, grateful that I still have some bounce in my bones.

I have been absent this space a long time, fallen right out of practice, which puts me in violation of my very best writing advice, which is simply to write. Though in truth, I have been writing, just not here, and perhaps not with the recommended frequency. I’ve also been teaching, and I love my class, I love the students, and the conversations we have, and I’m repeatedly struck by their maturity and openness, which I can’t help but measure against their youth, and think damn: I wish I’d known what they know when I was that age. But I didn’t, and in some regards still don’t, and I suppose that right there is a big part of why the teaching is so fun: Because I’m the one being taught.

I’m gonna try to keep up with this space a little better. I like the connection I feel to it, and also to my readers, particularly those who’ve stuck with me for so long. Thank you all for sticking around, even when the reading gets thin.

Music: Tyler Childers doing Whitehouse Road. For you locals, he’s playing Higher Ground tonight. For ten freakin’ bucks. We’re fired up. 

 

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Not in my Experience (a true story)

Sunset in the orchard

Yesterday afternoon I hauled a load of logs for my friend John. He’s logging with his horses about a mile up the road, a nice patch of spruce belonging to our neighbor Scotty. He sells the spruce to David, who lives about three miles down the road, where he used to do custom milling, but now sells spruce cambium to a local cheesemaker; I guess they use it for aging cheese or something. David build this nifty steam chamber to remove the cambium; he’s the kind of guy who can just pick up a torch and build precisely such a contraption, which means I always feel a little dumb and clumsy in his presence.

Anyway. It was a big load of logs, maybe 1200 feet, which I was happy to see, since my deal with John pays me per 1000-feet hauled. I ain’t getting rich off it – no one gets rich of much of anything to do with forest products, at least no one who actually gets their hands dirty in the process – but I don’t mind a bit when John hands me a check for the loads I hauled the month before, which I’d pretty much forgotten about in the intervening weeks. So in that way it’s like found money.

The mountain was – how to put this nicely? – icy as fuck. Truly, a sheet of ice. I put the truck in low, and basically idled down the hill, tapping the brakes every time I found even a bit of sand for traction, and otherwise just letting the gears hold back the load. Twelve hundred-ish feet of spruce plus trailer isn’t near to the most I’ve hauled, but it’s enough weight that I damn well knew it was back there, and what with the ice and the stream along one side of the road (not to mention my pride), I really didn’t want to end up needing to be pulled out of somewhere I oughtn’t be.

About halfway down the road, I passed a truck coming the other way, towing uphill, a nice, newer Chevy Duramax with a sweet gooseneck trailer upon which was loaded an old plow truck. Even at the time I thought damn, I think I’d rather be towing down than up, because while towing downhill in those conditions can be a little hairy, there’s nothing worse that hauling a heavy load up a slippery hill, losing traction, and sliding backwards. Don’t ask me how I know.

I dropped the trailer at David’s, shot the proverbial shit for a few, then headed back up the mountain road. I was in a fine mood, and had already forgotten about the rig I’d passed on the way down, my sense of self-importance so finely honed that in my mind I was onto the next task of my day, and thinking about how good it’d feel to have that one ticked off, too.

Except that right where the road pitches up before it levels out again (before it gets really steep) at the town hall and the old church, I found the Chevy. Or both Chevy’s, I guess, because the trailered truck was also of GM lineage. Indeed, they had lost traction on the iced road, come to a halt, and begun sliding backwards. Fortunately, the driver had been able to stop the truck and trailer before tipping into the ditch, and with just enough room for traffic to pass. But to put it mildly, it was not a good situation. Not at all.

Let me preface the remainder of my tale with this: While I am no builder of custom cambium-removal devices, and while in so many ways my ingenuity and general resourcefulness fall tragically short, one thing I am pretty good at (and rather enjoy) is extracting stuck vehicles. It’s a niche skill, I’ll give you that, but one that comes in handy ’round these parts. And if it’s someone else who’s stuck, all the better, because of course then the pressure is off. Plus, there’s none of the small embarrassment of being the one who perhaps made a less-than-stellar judgment call and now finds him/her/theirself in a marginalized situation. Yes, I know this small embarrassment very, very well, which is why I can write about it with some authority.

I stop to assess the situation. It’s three men. The center console of the truck is populated by energy drinks, candy wrappers, and a handful of loose ammunition in what looks to me like .270, though I could be wrong. They’re friendly, but a little tense looking, which is understandable given the circumstances, which boils down to the fact that they’re frankly a little screwed. Can’t go forward, can’t go backward, and with the roads so slippery, it’s really not a good place to be sitting on top of 20,000-ish pounds of immobile metal.

I’ll go get my tractor, I say, but already I’m thinking it’s long shot. For one, I don’t have chains on the tractor, and for another, we’re talking 10 tons, uphill, from a dead stop, behind a 50-hp Kubota. I don’t even know how to begin calculating the physics, but simple common sense is telling me it’s not likely. Then again, it’s hard knowin’ not knowin’, as the saying goes.

Alas, I’m right. The tractor spins uselessly, the Duramax spins uselessly, and nothing is resolved with the exception that the quickest, most-convenient extraction option is off the table. I make a  trip over to Danny’s to see if he’s around with his skidder, but as expected, he’s off in the woods somewhere, working. Everyone who’s serious about working the woods is working all the time right now, prices are sky high and the conditions are near to perfect. Scotty has a skidder, too, but I’ve already been past his place on my way to get the logs, so I know he’s not home, either. So I head down the road to Tom’s, because Tom also has a 50-hp Kubota (can’t swing a dead cat ’round this parts without hitting 50-hp of over-priced orange paint), and I figure maybe we can hitch up BOTH tractors to the twin Chevy’s and at least get them up to where things flatten out and then maybe they can turn around and sneak their way back down to where they came from. Because like I said, after the flat section, the road gets really steep again, and there’s not a chance in hell they’ll clear that section.

And this is what we do, and it is (I am not ashamed to say) the absolute highlight of my day (and perhaps my weekend, though who knows what fun today has yet to deliver) to be riding tractors side-by-side with my friend Tom, inching the stranded trucks and trailer up the iced-over mountain road, feeling the dominion thrill of harnessed horsepower, all that metal and rubber and oil and noise at our command, and even better, a couple of stout choker chains thrown into the mix. Does it get any better? Maybe, but not in my life experience thus far. Well… maybe seeing my sons being born. Yeah. That was close, at least.

Soon the tractors, trucks, and trailer are safely to the flattish section of road, so we unhitch, and Tom heads his way and I head mine, back to where I’m framing walls in the upstairs of the house. While I’m working, I think of the men and their load, and hoping they made it back down the hill ok, and I briefly consider taking a little trip, just to be sure.

But the wall won’t frame itself, so I decide to trust that they did.

 

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Looking the Wrong Way

The snow that fell on the backside of the rain was a disappointment; two inches at best, a scant blanket that barely covered the ice-encrusted ground. Yet the texture was silky and pleasing underfoot, so I strapped on my skis and headed for the long, sloped field across the mountain road. It was late in the afternoon, and I skied as the light changed, noticing that the transition felt like someone draping fine layers of gauze over the lens of the sun, one layer after another, the layers coming more rapidly as the day wore out.

From the height of the field I looked back across the road, over the church steeple, to our barn tucked into the fold of a hill. How many times I’ve stood in the barnyard, looking to the field, to the precise spot I now stood, and it was strangely unsettling to stand there now, seeing everything in reverse, looking the wrong way through a window I always thought offered only one view.

The light was leaving fast now, no space between the strips of gauze, the snow covered field luminescent in the gathering dark. I pointed my skis straight down the slope and pushed off. The cold air bit at my face; the snow hissed beneath my skis. If I hurried, I might still do chores without a headlamp.