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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.

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That’s How it Feels From Here

Coming in from morning chores at 25 below zero. Last day of the cold snap. 

Yesterday a warm and lashing rain, the snow disappearing fast, rivulets of water running down every slope, the tarpaper on the unsided exterior walls of our home ripping in the wind, the torn flaps thumping against the house. Hearing this in the night I had a sudden reminiscence from childhood, of how the branches of the trees by the cabin would rub against the roof in the wind, and how much I liked that sound. Yet I can’t be certain this happened; it was so long ago. So perhaps the memory is false, but I like it anyway.

By this morning, we’d lost 80% of the snow or more, though the temperature had dropped in the night, and the rain had turned over to ice, and then the ice, slowly, by degree, to snow. It is snowing now. I did chores with my shoulders hunched against the weather, 10 degrees and windy, the driven precipitation – whatever it was, snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain – sharp against my face.

Now we are firmly into the New Year. I am not one for resolutions – they’ve always felt too unyielding to me, and in my experience, that which does not yield eventually breaks. But I like the idea of intention, and if were to name my intentions for the New Year, I suppose I’d put openness at the top of my list. I’d like to remain open to possibility, to change, to being wrong, even, and therefore, to being humbled, because I think it’s a gift to be humbled, and I’d like to not lose sight of that.

I am doing some new things this year: For the first time, I am teaching a writing and speaking class at a nearby college, something that only a year or so ago, I would not have thought possible. Likewise, I have been accepted into the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, though whether or not I will actually attend depends on a handful of contingencies, including finances, logistics, and (I’m not too proud to admit) basic courage. It is a funny thing to consider returning to academia, having dropped out of high school, and with only a modicum of experience in college-level learning. Sometimes I do not doubt my capacities; at other times, I do, a waxing and waning I have come to understand as being inherent to the human condition. Or to my human condition, at least.

And I am doing some things the same. Still writing for Yankee magazine, and grateful for an amazing editor there, and the latitude he gives me to follow my whim. Finishing up an illustrated book with a good friend, and cooking up more book ideas. Heather and I have a project in the works that we’ll be announcing soon. And I continue my work with Rural Vermont, an organization I love dearly, partly for the work we do, but equally (if not more so) for the people that comprise the “we.” I like people, always have, and the older I get the more I like them, the more I seem able to accept their quirks and outright flaws, even as I become more accepting of my own, more able to chuckle at them, and to present them to the world without embarrassment or shame. Well, most of them, anyhow. There’s a correlation, of course, between acceptance of self and acceptance of others. But you probably knew that.

I hope to continue writing here – no, I’m sure I will – though my schedule is busier than it once was, and perhaps about to become busier still. But in so many ways, this remains my favorite outlet, free of the pressure of money and editorial expectation, and always greeted by a gracious, compassionate, and generous readership. Or that’s how it feels from here, and I am ever-grateful for it.

 

 

 

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First Morning of the Year

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Morning ski with my friend Dirk on the last day of 2017

Milking this morning at 18 below, I noticed the squeak of snow under Pip’s hooves as she shifted her weight; how the stream of milk made splashes that froze immediately against the sides of the bucket, coating it in white; the spiral of wood smoke rising from our chimney. My own breath pluming in the air, the expelled heat of blood and lung. Strangely, my bare fingers were warm, while my booted toes were not. But the bucket was almost full now, and I knew what awaited me in the house: The fire, so fierce I’d watched the stovetop glow orange in the early morning dark, the cats, connoisseurs of comfort, slumbering in patches of sun just slanting through easterly windows, a pair of this morning’s eggs tucked in my coat pocket. I’ll fry them in butter and eat them as the sun passes over the copse of spruce beyond the garden.

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Until I’m Too Tired to Carry On

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Pip and the church

On Christmas morning I awoke early, and as is my custom sat silent by the fire for a time. One cat rubbing my ankles, the other still sleeping on the couch, the darkness slowly easing toward light.

When the day had come in full, I could see that it was snowing, not hard, but not soft, either. Steady. Certain. I did chores, ate two eggs fried, drank coffee, and tiled the mudroom floor in my usual fashion, which means eschewing spacers in favor of a squinted-eye approximation of the gaps between individual tiles. Chasing the cats off the fresh-set tiles until exasperation won over and I pushed them outside into the snow, falling harder now.

I finished the tiling, filled the cookstove firebox, and skied, straight uphill to the height of our land, then traversing the sugarwoods, feeling in love with the solemn beauty of the forest in winter, the rangy limbs of the maples dark against the lidded sky, wind-driven snow adhered to the rough bark of their trunks. The air was cold, but I was not, and so continued through the woods until I could sense that the light had reversed its journey, now easing toward dark. I bee-lined for the mountain road, and skied its unplowed shoulder toward home, face into the wind, past the old church, then the town hall, and over the bridge where the Jamaicans didn’t die.

Chores again, cleared our drive and those of my small plow route, then drove a dozen miles to Melvin’s to help with the feeding out and bedding down of his small herd. Enjoying driving through the new snow, the storm winding down but not yet finished, the heater on high, the truck in four wheel drive, steady and sure on the slick roads. At Melvin’s I fed the cows, peeling armfuls of hay off a first cut round bale for the heifers, then from a bale of second cut for his 14 milkers. Christmas music on the radio. The air thick with the sweet smell of fermented hay and cow itself. Melvin going about the pre-milking routine he’s gone about for the majority of his nearly 70 years. Almost 70 years old and putting 14 cows in the tank; I guess that’s what retirement looks like when retirement’s not an option. Or not much of one, anyway. The snow still falling outside, both of us absorbed in the rhythm of our work and not talking much, the cows shifting in their stanchions, watching me pass with something between wariness and anticipation.

Back home, the fire’s gone out. I light it again, the house so quiet I can hear the flames from upstairs in bed, where I lie reading until I’m too tired to carry on.

 

 

 

 

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I Have No Idea

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Bringing in the Solstice tree

There are so many stories I want to be telling, like about the two Jamaican men Penny and I found standing in the middle of the mountain road as we headed out for a ski. There was no car to be seen, no indication of how they’d arrived there, it was as if they’d been delivered by some invisible force, or perhaps a fast-moving tornado, dropped into the snowy landscape (and how could I not notice the darkness of their skin against the whiteness of the surroundings, and how beautiful this contrast was, and I hesitate to even mention this for fear it reveals something unflattering about my relationship to race, and yet: It was so), and just as I started to ask if they needed anything, I happened a glance over the guardrail of the bridge we all stood upon, and there, a good 15-feet below us, lay their car. It was in the stream, and crumpled like a sheet of the newspaper I use to start the morning fire. I looked at the car, and then at the men, who seemed shaken but otherwise unblemished, and then at the car again. Their survival seemed unfathomable to me, as near to a miracle as I have witnessed. They were cold, very, very cold, and while the driver waited for the police, the other man – Jed was his name – followed us back to our house to sit by the fire and drink tea and tell us about his life in rural Jamaica and we laughed a lot about this and that, and while I was sorry for the misfortune of the accident that had brought him to our doorstep, I was delighted by his company and though I knew him for only 90 minutes or so, I missed him when he left.

Or even just this morning, milking in the early stillness, the sky breaking open blue to the west in advance of a predicted Christmas storm, and after that, a trough of deep cold, twenty below or colder, the days not reaching zero. My family is away for the next 10 days or so – gone to hunt deer in North Carolina, where the season runs into the New Year and does are legal game – and I am home, happy for the quiet time, unafraid of the aloneness, though also glad to have plenty to keep me busy. I will feed the fire and ski and break the ice on the animals’ water and bring the truck battery inside to sit by the stove at night. Though where I’ll go if the truck actually starts, I have no idea.

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Maybe Not Closely Enough

I am feeding the cows on the knoll behind the barn in order to distribute seed and manure across the deficient pasture. Because this is where I leave their hay, this is where they congregate, and this is where I walk every morning to collect Pip for milking. I enjoy climbing the hill; it’s just high and steep enough to demand something of me, and I like the pressurized feel of blood pushing through my veins, the sound in my ears the steady thumpitythump of my laboring heart.

At the hill’s apex I look down onto the village: The town hall, an old church, a single residence. A line of mother maples aside the road. Beyond that, sloping hayfield and more forest.

This morning it was snowing as it had for half the night, and snow had accumulated atop the cows’ backs. I straddled their spines with fore and middle fingers, then ran my fingers from neck to base of tail and back again, leaving cow-colored stripes in the snow. I did this for no other reason than it felt good to do so, and maybe because it forestalled the journey back down the hill, where mundane tasks awaited me: The remainder of chores, finish installing the snowplow on the truck, a trip to Willey’s Hardware for finish nails. Work.

Pip started down the hill first, and I followed, the view of town slowly diminishing as we dropped, until I had no reason to train my eyes to anything but the hoof-worn path before me. My heart getting quieter, but I listened to it anyway. Maybe too closely. Maybe not closely enough. The air cold and full in my chest.