I Couldn’t be Sure

P1010869The tractor’s starter stopped starting, so yesterday I pulled it and drove over the mountain to an alternator and starter repair shop in a small town not far from here. The shop comprises a single room in a larger building; it’s situated almost directly under an overpass in the low rent district of what is generally a pretty low rent town.

I have been going to this shop for all of my adult years and probably a few prior; it’s been my fortune (good or bad, I can’t say) to have pulled many a starter and a handful of alternators in my time. I’m no mechanic, not by a long shot, but here, at least, is something I can do to make myself feel useful in a wrenches-and-grease kind of way, and so it’s almost pleasing to me when I hear the distinctive click or grind of a starter on it’s way out. It’s like an offering from the gods of competency.

It was snowing when I set out, as it had been almost all day, steady but slow, and at the top of the mountain I saw how the boughs of the conifers hung under the new weight and I thought about how something as inconsequential as a snowflake can amount to so much more. I catch them on my tongue all the time and don’t even think about it, the weight too small to even consider. And still the boughs drooped.

The shop was warm. The old man who runs it was smoking a cigarette and so the air was thick with smoke, and although I don’t smoke and don’t really enjoy being around cigarette smoke, there are times when brings forward something from my past, like my father smoking his Lucky Strikes in the kitchen of the cabin I grew up in, or Martha driving her John Deere during haying, the smoke from her Camels mixing with the smell of diesel exhaust and fresh cut grass. And so sometimes I don’t really mind, and this was one of those times.

“You the guy who called?” asked the man. There was another man working in the rear of the room, which was comprised almost entirely of counters covered by starters and alternators in varying states if disassembly. There were narrow footpaths woven between the counters.

“No,” I replied. He raised an eyebrow and I somehow got the sense that he didn’t believe me, which was a ridiculous thing to think, but there it was, in that raised eyebrow. Skepticism, at least, though on what basis I have no idea. Perhaps I just looked dishonest.

I described what was going on with the starter, and he assured me he could fix it, though I hadn’t needed any assurance. I wrote my name and number on a small tag that he affixed to the starter, squinting through the smoke of his cigarette, which he’d transferred to his mouth to free his hands for tagging.

“What happened to your nose?” he asked. My nose is all scabbed up because when the boys and me were camping last week I was busting up limb wood to fit in the little sheet metal stove for the wall tent, and I was whacking at the wood pretty hard with an axe cross grain, and one of the pieces shot up and thumped me good. Bled like crazy the way head wounds do.

So I told him what happened, and he chuckled, but in a commiserating way, and said “bet that pissed you off some,” and I acknowledged that it had. Then he told me to come back in two days and I left to drive back up and over the mountain, where it was still snowing and where I thought that maybe the boughs hung even a little lower.

Though truth be told, I couldn’t be sure.

Music: A rollickin’ new one from the Turnpike Troubadours. And a real pretty offering from Amanda Shires. Enjoy. 




Twenty Years Later


Early this morning I drove the boys to hunt with friends. It was dark, and snowing steadily, and the gravel road that would take us most of the way was unplowed and barely traveled since the storm had begun. I love driving in snow, it’s an art more than a science, requiring intermingled knowledge of car and terrain and the snow itself. And I’ve learned to love driving with my sons, the car a vessel for movement, sure, but also for a certain type of introspection and openness. A container just large and secure enough to hold certain words and thoughts that might otherwise go unshared for fear they’ll escape into the wider world.

I returned home in time for morning chores, the snow still falling but softer now, the sky a long sweep of grey and blue, with just a hint of pink to the east. I fed and watered the pigs, the cows, the chickens, then haltered Pip for milking. My bare hands were cold, but the good kind of cold, the kind that reminds one that comfort only exists in contrast to discomfort, and thus that discomfort is comfort, and vice versa.

Besides, I’d thrown a fat stick of beech on the fire right before chores. I’d put on another coffee after milking. I’d stand by the stove and warm my hands, palms down first, then turn them over to heat the knucklebones, study the lines, the calluses, the small, healing cuts, the one raised scar on the inside of my right thumb. I remember when I got that scar. Twenty years later, it’s still sensitive to the touch.


Like Most Things in Life


Apple eating carrots

For more than 20 years, I have made the bulk of my income as a writer. I’ve done other things, too: Banged nails, given presentations, cut down trees, guest lectured classes, operated machinery, sold meat and milk, worked for a non-profit, undercoated cars, and co-hosted online workshops. And I still do a bunch of this stuff. But by-and-large, I’ve earned my keep with the written word. It actually kind of blows my mind to think about, but I guess that’s just the way life is: The years sneak up on you, and pretty soon they’re piled up like so much cordwood.

For a period during the late 90’s and early ’00’s, I actually made a pretty decent middle class income with my writing work. I wasn’t picky, I produced halfway decent content, and perhaps most importantly, I hit my deadlines and generally made my editor’s lives easier. It helps a lot that I’ve always been a fast writer, and skilled enough that my first drafts were acceptable, or close enough to acceptable to not require major reworking.

In recent years, I have chosen to be more particular about the work I take, and the more particular I’ve become, the further my income has dipped. This is fine, because we have made other choices that have allowed us to absorb this dip, though I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many privileges we enjoy that have in large part enabled us to make these choices: To be white, english-speaking, land-owning, and so on. Even to be heterosexual. I try not to forget that everything we have was (and to a certain extent, still is) built on the exploitation of others, be it through slavery, genocide, or other less obvious means. This is not something most oppressing people want to think or talk about, maybe because we can’t figure out what the hell to do about it. Less charitably, maybe it’s because the only conceivable way we could possibly begin to atone for these crimes would require such a massive shift in our understanding of ourselves and in a redistribution of accumulated stolen wealth and opportunity that we just can’t face it. But just because we don’t want to face it doesn’t make it untrue.

I still like writing (and I particularly like writing in this space), but the older I get, the more lonely it feels, and the more desire I have to be out and about, connecting with others. I like people, and generally even people I disagree with. I’m curious about others, too; how they view the world, what set of experiences and circumstances has brought them to this place in their life. I think curiosity is a good thing, though I suppose some would call it nosiness, or remark that many of the things I’m curious about really aren’t my business. And maybe they’d be right. On the other hand, in my experience most people seem to enjoy having someone take an interest in them, and not in a facile way, but in a way that suggests maybe you actually care about what it’s like to be them. I’m not saying I do this all the time, or even very well when I do. But I try, and I’d like to think that counts.

I’m distraught by the current political climate in this country, which in many ways is being mirrored by the cultural climate. I’m not naive enough to think that if we’d just elected someone else president, it’d be all better. Nor I am naive enough to believe it doesn’t matter that we did elect a president who has bragged about grabbing women by their vaginas, and who is clearly racist, as well as being supportive of a racist agenda. I’ve heard it said that just because someone voted for Trump doesn’t make them a sexual predator or a racist, and this is true, but it DOES make them someone who is ok with having a sexual predator and a racist represent this country. I’m not sure how to come to terms with the fact that enough voting Americans (albeit not a majority of voting Americans) were ok with this to make it a reality. I really wish I could understand it; it just doesn’t make sense to me. Yet I can’t ignore that it happened, and that it must make sense to a significant number of people. What are the experiences that can make something like this add up? I think that’s a question more of us could be asking, and I wonder if maybe our aversion to it is in some ways similar to our aversion the question of privilege: Maybe we don’t really want to know the answers, because maybe the answers would force us to look more closely at ourselves, at our own assumptions and prejudices. That’s a tough pill to swallow, my friends. A person can choke on that one.

Shit. I’ve totally lost the thread of this one… started out talking about writing, moved onto privilege, then into curiosity and politics. Funny how that happens. Except, now that I think about it, the thread’s pretty obvious. Like most things in life, you just got a slow down and pay attention.





For Renee, Even Shorter


Heavy rain and wind in the night, and when I awoke at a wee hour, I tried for some time to differentiate between the two. But the noise was too chaotic, and just when I thought I knew which sound was wind, and which rain, I’d be certain it was the other way ’round. So then I thought of morning, of the kindling I’d split before bed, off a slab of kiln-dried pine, and how easy it would turn to fire in the cookstove. And how funny it is that for all the big plans we make (love, money, family, work, and so on), how often life boils down to almost nothing. Rain or wind, wind or rain. Fire in the stove. I like to sit by it while daylight comes.


No Accounting to be Made

Driving up the mountain road yesterday, I noted the bareness of the trees, the long grey sweep of the mountainside, and I felt the coolness of the air seeping through the truck window, open just a touch. The stream is running high and fast again, fed by a much-needed soaking rain. And more to come. It feels like fall, now, and I do not mind, though I’m not looking forward to winter in my usual manner. I can’t say why.

This morning, milking in the early sun, crouched at Pip’s side in the barely-frosted pasture grass, I watched one of the pigs scratch herself against the trunk of an apple tree, wriggling her body to maximize coverage. I could see how good it felt, could almost feel it myself, that rough bark scraping away the itch, the solidness of the tree against the softness of the flesh. And I was glad for that fleeting moment of escape, in which no season was coming or going, no rain was needed or not, nothing to mourn nor to rejoice. No accounting to be made.

Only the pig. That tree. The sound of milk filling the bucket.


What a Score

P1010592On Thursday afternoon I passed a house where a crew was removing the old tin roofing, long sheets that in passing looked plenty sound, and because I am like one of those truffle-trained pigs when it comes to used building materials, I swung round for closer inspection.

Indeed the metal was sound; rusted in spots, sure, but already I was making plans in my head for another run-in shed for the cows, down in the orchard where we’ll overwinter them so they might distribute their black gold beneath the gnarled branches of those old trees. The patina of rust would only serve to help the shed to blend into its surroundings, and the cows, I was certain, would not think to complain.

Yes the tin was available, the homeowner told me, and the crew offered to stack it for easy access, and so yesterday afternoon I hitched the trailer to the truck and headed out. The trailer is – how shall I say this? – not entirely legal at all in the least even a little bit, so I drove a circuitous route of gravel roads, avoiding the center of the small towns between here and there. And in doing so was treated to an unfurling panorama of rural Vermont in seasonal transition. It was warm and the wind was blowing hard, shaking loose the dead and dying leaves. They lay thick on the shoulders of the road, and beyond, on the forest floor, and many of the trees were bare, or nearly so, their long, leafless limbs waving in the gusts. Along one high ridge, I passed a farm where a small herd of Scotch Highlanders waded flank-deep in a shallow pond. In the foreground, a flock of sheep picked over the remnants of late-season pasture. There were more sheep than cows.

I loaded the tin slowly, in no particular hurry to be finished, stacking the sheets neatly on the trailer deck so they’d stay put when strapped down. I was sweating in the heat, and I thought of the Highlanders, wondered if they were still wallowing, looked forward to seeing them on my drive home. I thought too if this was really all my life was meant to be, scavenging cast-off materials, anticipating the sight of those shaggy beasts as if seeing them again might illuminate something gone dim or just disused, even my criminality reduced to the pathos of traveling gravel roads to avoid being hassled for the illegal trailer I was using to tow home someone else’s trash. What set of circumstances had brought me to this point, what lack of ambition, what aimlessness?

Yet I couldn’t deny the pleasure at hand: The stack of tin, much taller than I’d anticipated, enough for the run-in shed and next year’s firewood and the as-yet-uncovered stack of rough saw lumber behind the barn and maybe even more. The subversive nature of my little escapade pleased me, too – sluicing through a latticework of dirt roads I know like the veins on the back of my hands, beyond the net of authority, and not merely the authority to fine me for my stupid trailer, but somehow something larger than that, something that remains for now outside my capacity to put words to.

Twenty minutes later, when I passed the cows again, now ambling across the wilted pasture, hair in wet whorls from the ribs down, of course they illuminated nothing. Nothing at all. I had not expected them to, but then again had thought it might be nice if they did, might prove that perhaps my life is somewhat bigger than it appears, not merely from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking in. To myself.

I drove slow past the cows, then watched them shrink from view in the sideview mirror, where I also caught a glimpse of the stack of tin. Man. What a score.


Sometimes it’s Hard

Finally, rain, damping the dust and raising the color in the trees to a high pitch, almost a glow, really, so that now everything looks just the way God the tourism department intended, and I no longer feel sorry for the peepers, here from many states or even continents away, spending their hard-earned dollars in pursuit of dying leaves. Now they’re getting just what they came for, and it’s amazing, it’s beautiful, worth every penny spent and probably a few more. I pass them pulled over to the side of the road, over-dressed for the weather, iPhones locked and loaded, ass end of idling rental car protruding into the travel lane. I go slow and wave and am pleased when they wave back.

In the mornings I find the cows gathered at the gate. They’re off pasture now, dependent on their keepers for their daily ration. We’ll not let them down, and whether they know this or merely have no expectations is impossible to say, but either way that’s how I find them, waiting with uniquely bovine contentment under the outstretched limbs of a red maple, their hooves partially obscured by fallen leaves.

Driving the backroads yesterday I kept glancing in the rearview mirror to watch the spindrift of foliage in my wake, swirling and spiraling over the roadway, then falling to lay on the dirt again, a brief respite before the next car passes. It’s warm still, unseasonably so, and I bathe in the pond daily (or nearly so), thinking with every plunge that surely this will be the last of the year. Though of course I thought the same the day before. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the end of things.






Some Habits Die Harder Than Others

Rain in the night, but only a passing shower, not the heavy soaking we desperately need. It’s been nearly a month without significant rainfall; the fall foliage is dulled by drought, the leaves dying and dropping in shades of rust, almost industrial-looking. I feel badly for the tourists, and I’m reminded of a line in a poem my father wrote, about a family of leaf-peepers who, gazing at the ever-green needles of a conifer, wonder if they’ve come too early. Maybe he’ll post it in the comments.

I haven’t written here in a long time; haven’t written much of consequence for many weeks, in fact, though I’ve thought of it many times, and carry with me a strange collection of ideas and images, all the moments of the past few weeks when I’ve been struck by something – the slivered, silvered moon hanging over the pond the night I swam late, or the way it feels to lean my forehead into Pip’s flank as I milk, or driving with one of my boys, me thinking about soon they’ll be gone, and how much I’ll miss the mundane moments I like to complain about – all the miles driven, all the dishes in the sink, all the dirty laundry. Don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone is how the saying goes, and maybe that’s true, but I suspect we’ve got more choice in the matter than that. I guess that if we stopped to think on it a bit we’d know exactly what we’ve got, and how someday we’re going to miss it so bad it’ll hurt to breathe.

This morning I walked outside in the dark, feet bare to feel the dampness of ground. The sky still thinly clouded, only a handful of stars faintly visible. Warm, but I’d lit a fire in the cookstove anyway. Because it’s that time of year, and some habits die harder than others.

Music: Patterson and Mike doing First Air of Autumn . Try it; I think you’ll like it.



This Time

Mid-morning yesterday I dove into the pond, the fallen apples on the surface bobbing in rippled water displaced by my body. The water so cold that for a moment I found it hard to breathe and felt a flicker of panic that perhaps my lungs would somehow forget to fill again. Later, dried off and warmed up, I drove to the local filling station for diesel, parking next to an old Mercury Grand Marquis with a tattered landau roof and rusty quarter panels. I’d say mid-90’s vintage if I were a betting man, which I am, if the stakes are small enough. There was a value-size pack of Bounty paper towels and a pile of clothing in the back seat, an open case of Bud Light cans on front passenger floor, and a Trump That Bitch sticker in the rear window. A young couple eating something deeply fried at the single table inside the store. Rail thin, both of them, and I knew the car was theirs, because they were the only other customers in the place, and for a moment I struggled to make sense of it all: The car, the sticker, the couple, nothing what I expected, almost like that panicked moment in the pond waiting for my body to return to its usual business.

The young man met my gaze and offered a curt nod, and I nodded back.

Driving up the road toward home, I noted the foliage line on the mountain, saw that it was lower than the day before, and considered how in the fall I witness the season’s progress from the top of the mountain down, while in the spring, I watch the color creep upward, slowly rising toward the last stubborn holdouts at the height of the land where even in May you can find pockets of boot-topping snow.

Then this morning, milking, lost in rhythm and reverie, I was startled by a thump. I looked around, trying to place it. Then another, and this time, I saw the apple fall.