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More to the Story

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Rye, working a beaver hide

Five years after my last story, I was back on the Vineyard, this time in winter. A couple of the same friends I’d lived with that summer had an apartment, and it was cheap, and there was lots of good-paying work. Trevor and I were working for the same builder, restoring a massive old Victorian that overlooked the Atlantic. Place must’ve been worth… damn, I have no idea. Whatever number I throw out would probably be naively low, anyway. A lot of money, for sure.

This was a big step up from working for Ken. I was still the low man on the ladder, so to speak, but the ladder was a whole lot taller, if that makes any sense. I was responsible for most of the grunt work, but because there wasn’t a whole lot of grunt work, I got to partake of the finish work, and leveling the floors, and replacing clapboards and exterior trim, and so on. I no longer had the stupid-fast motorcycle, but I think I had another, or maybe I was between motorcycles. But I know I had a bicycle and I know I rode that a lot. A whole lot. Trevor and I would start work at 6:00 in the morning, work until our paid coffee break at 10:00, stuff our faces, and leave the job at 2:00 with a full eight-hour day behind us. I think I was up to $20/hr, which at that point in my life (and remember, this would’ve been the early 90’s), felt like a whole lot of money. Anyway, after work I’d climb on my bike and pedal all over the island.Yeah, it was winter, but winter on the Vineyard is pretty half-ass. I had me a Sony Walkman, one of those yellow ones that was supposed to be water and shock resistant, and I listened to that a lot. Appetite For Destruction had been out a few years, but I’d only just caught wind of it. That, and lots of Rush. Not sure what else, but probably something pretty awful.

So one morning Trevor and I are on the job, and it’s early – 6:30 or so – and this woman shows up to dig a ditch for the sprinkler system. It’s barely light out. It was February, and pretty chilly, maybe 40-degrees, and raining a bit, and generally just a shitshow. The ocean all gray and foreboding. The woman was riding a bicycle. She had a shovel and a mattock strapped to the frame of the bicycle. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, I actually don’t think I was even looking or cared much; I was into making money, riding my bicycle, and hanging out with my friends. Sure, I noticed attractive women; no doubt I made occasionally fumbling attempts to make myself seem attractive to them, but at that point in my life, it just wasn’t a focal point for me. Which in hindsight seems a little odd for a 21-year-old guy, but that’s just the way it was.

But this was something different for sure. I mean, this woman had ridden her bike a dozen miles in the rain, in the near-dark of early morning, in February, with a goddamned shovel and mattock, to dig a trench so some fool with more money than sense would be assured a green-enough lawn come the dry days of August. I was mighty intrigued, I was.

I flirted a bit, at least to the best of my ability, which wasn’t much. I remember being up on some scaffolding on the exterior of the house and there was some gloppy snow – maybe accumulated on the porch roof, or maybe on the scaffold planks themselves – and I remember throwing snowballs at her while she dug. Grade-school stuff. Real smooth operator.

I don’t recall much else from the job site; I think she finished the trench, went off to some other job, probably rode her bike to that one, too, lugging whatever tools were required. But I remember running into her in the book store in town – I used to go there quite a bit – and I asked if she wanted to go to my bosses wedding with me, which was coming right up. And she looked at me, and said: “Sure.”

And then she said: “What’s your name again?”

And a half-dozen years later, we got married ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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Funny How Stuff Like That Works

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I could feel the warmth upon waking, even smell it, although I suppose it’s not actually the temperature I smelled, but the catalyzed reactions to it: The awakening of the barnyard odors of shit and hay and bovine flesh, the oily-sweetness of the tarpaper stapled to the exterior of the house, one of those nostalgic smells to me, recalling construction crews and in particular, the summer I spent roofing on Martha’s Vineyard for a hard-charging lunatic named Ken. He smoked pot from dawn to dusk, screamed at me with impunity, and made me work sock-footed, so as not to damage the sun-softened asphalt shingles we installed. At 16, I was living a six-hour drive and a ferry ride away from my parents and making $15/hr under the table. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with three friends. I had a motorcycle I’d bought literally out of the weeds that had grown up around it after the previous owner had dumped it and decided not to push his luck. It leaked oil like crazy, but had four cylinders and 750cc and would do 100mph in third gear. I think I gave $500 for it. I had a wealthy girlfriend who was at least as crazyily stoned as my boss and who let me drive the brand new sports car her father had bought her. On Friday afternoons, me and my underage roommates would call for a home delivery of Rolling Rock cases from the local package store; then we’d leave a check taped to the door and hide in the woods so we didn’t get carded. Thinking back, I can’t believe this scheme worked, but it did, over and over and over again.

I hadn’t thought of any of this in years until I smelled that tarpaper this morning. Funny how stuff like that works.

 

 

 

 

 

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Better Get Used To It

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The days are longer, but with a more-than-commensurate quota of tasks to fill them, so they actually feel shorter. Penny and I have been picking away at the siding, and next year’s firewood, and pulling cars out of ditches. Sometimes, not even our cars. The boys are on a multi-night, deep woods camping trip, and in their absence, it feels too quiet. In their absence, I feel older in a way that’s not entirely comfortable. Well. I guess I better get used to it.

Not much to say, but I did want to share this story I wrote about someone I like and respect a whole lot. I hope you enjoy it. Also, check out the behind-the-scenes photos… they’re amazing.

 

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All the Possibilities I’ll Never Know

img_5282I worked the woods all of Saturday, racing the impending storm that will surely render my skid roads impassable. They’re near to that already; the snow has accumulated to impressive depths. In places it reaches to my thighs, and though the temperature never lifted out of the single digits, I sweated profusely as I wallowed between the tractor and the fated trees, leaning sharply forward against the resistance of the unspooling winch cable clenched in gloved hand, savoring the delicious awareness of my body at work, muscles soaked in pounding blood, pillows of lungs expanding with each breath right down into their pale wrinkled corners.

Today I am flying many states away for work, sneaking out just before the storm and all its inherent complications for both travel and home. I don’t travel much; whenever I do, I am disoriented by the juxtaposition between the smallness of my life at home and the vastness of everything beyond. It’s not merely the scale of the geography passing 30,000-feet beneath the belly of this strange flying beast, but also the incalculable reach of unknown possibility sprawled across that distant land. It’s unmooring to me, so I sit and watch the ocean of clouds that extends beyond the wings’ reach, subsisting on cut-rate airplane air breathed through the shallow half-breaths of a body at rest. It’s like drinking skim milk.

I think many of you will appreciate Erica’s latest over at Rumblestrip; it is my favorite of all her episodes thus far, perhaps because I can so keenly relate to the sense of frustration she expresses regarding her capacity to make a difference in her community. Any difference at all. What a crazy, fucked-up world we inhabit. How seemingly intractable its crises, how wrong-headed our responses to these crises, how unfounded our fears. How lacking in empathy and compassion we can be. How stingy. Don’t think I’m absolving myself, either.

I guess what I’d like to say to Erica (who I know reads this space, so I guess I am saying this to Erica) is that you can’t dismiss the little things, like the fellow in your podcast talking about resurrection by colon cleanse, or your feelings about small groups and holding space, or even the other fellow who says “faith” like “fate” and it takes you a minute to figure out what he’s saying. These are all little gifts to your community. You might not have intended them as such, you might just have been doing what you do because you can’t figure out how to not do it. But that’s got nothing to do with it, really.

And I’d like to tell Erica about the times I pass our friend Tom’s farm down the road, and I see John out working his horses. He doesn’t even notice my passing, doesn’t have the foggiest idea that I’m watching, nor that my day is made better for having been granted this fleeting window into his life. I’ve not mentioned it to him, though perhaps he’ll read this, or maybe someday I’ll get around to telling him how fine I feel in these moments, and how that feeling stays with me awhile. How it’s an affirmation that really good things can come of really small things, even when those small things were never intended to be anything more than what they are: A young man, hitching his horses to an implement, preparing for a morning of work. Or maybe just standing at their sides. I think he’s talking to them. I wish I could hear what he’s saying.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think sometimes people get too caught up in trying create change in some measurable, quantifiable way. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that; no, I’m certain there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also think it’s a mistake to lose sight of the small things you might never have even intended to make much of an impact on anything or anyone. Like farming with horses. Like making a podcast about the quirks and corners of Vermont. Like a million other things.

So now the plane has descended through the cloudbank, and I can see the spread of the land, the rows of houses, the rivers of roads, the sun glinting off the windshields of the cars drifting along them. No snow here, not even a trace, way too far south for that. Still sipping the sorrowful airplane air, still thinking how good it felt to work the woods.

And then, looking down at the fast-approaching ground, of all the possibilities I’ll never know.

 

 

 

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So I Guess Don’t Hold Your Breath

img_5254I call this one “skiing through downtown.” Because that’s what I’m doing

This morning I drove down the mountain road in the early light, and when I cast my eyes skyward, I was pleased to see the multi-colored arc of a rainbow. It appeared to end in the forest just beyond the field where our friend John’s big work horses nosed at flakes of hay, but I’ve chased enough damnable rainbow ends to know that no matter how determinedly I trudged through the snow, it’d always be just a few steps ahead of me. Yeah. I’ve smartened up to that game.

I cannot remember the last time I saw a rainbow in February; this might be because it’s never happened, or it might be because my memory’s nothing to write home about. It had rained in the night – not hard, and not enough put much of a dent in the snowpack, but the air was warm and heavy with moisture. I could feel the heaviness in my step as I did morning chores, a quiet weariness, as if my nightly slumber had drained rather than rejuvenated. Even my thoughts felt thick and uncertain.

February. Everyone’s talking of the upcoming sugaring season, disappearing firewood piles, remaining hay stores. Maple syrup prices are down. The price of fluid milk is up from last year, down from last month, and remains far below the cost of production. Saw logs are low, too. At least the frequent snows mean the plow guys are making money. I drove home amongst them last night, before the storm had turned to rain, the car slipping and spinning in the fresh snow, and I was reminded of how much I like driving in the snow, soft on the gas, counter-steering through the corners. Not fast, not like when we were young, but a little loose. Truthfully, it’s the safest way to drive in snow.

We are looking for an Instagram-compatible iPhone (4 and up, I believe). Does anyone have one they’d part with cheap? You will be rewarded with blurry photos of work horses standing under February rainbows. The next time we get a February rainbow, that is. So I guess don’t hold your breath.

Music: In anticipation of tonight’s Drive-by Truckers show, I offer this version of one of my personal faves.

 

 

 

 

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Groundswell

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I call this one “wrong side of the fence” 

It snows almost daily now, not heavily but in measurable quantities, and the air has a hazy, dream-like quality that’s only occasionally interrupted by sun. It’s hard to tell sometimes if the flakes are falling or merely suspended, caught in perpetuity between sky and soil. The snow has accumulated such that I am barely able to navigate the woods by tractor; the wheels churn and grip, churn and grip, inching me along my skid path. Still, we’ve amassed a fine pile of firewood, mostly skidder-damaged sugar maple from the fringes of the old logging roads that spiderweb this land. A couple more cords and next year’s supply will be assured.

Over the past couple of months, I have been working part-time for a local non-profit organization called Rural Vermont. For more than 30 years, Rural Vermont has advocated for community-scale regenerative agriculture, primarily (though not exclusively) by maintaining a presence in the state legislature, doing what it can to influence policy in ways that are favorable to Vermont’s small farms. Of all the organizations doing good work around food and ag in VT (and there are many), I’ve long felt that Rural Vermont is unique in its holistic grasp of the issues at hand and its willingness to dive headfirst into the pigpen of policy.

And I very much appreciate their view of local food and agriculture as being about so much more than jobs and money. They see and articulate connections that most other organizations don’t or won’t: Connections between how we treat the land and feed ourselves and our state’s ecological health, for instance. Connections between how we treat the land and feed ourselves and the vitality of our communities. Connections between how we treat the land and feed ourselves and the current crisis in opiate addiction. Between how we treat the land and feed ourselves and our children’s educations. And so on.

The work I’m doing is co-organizing and presenting a six-stop, statewide conversation tour with my friend Graham, who is also works for RV (the office joke is that Graham is the organizer and I’m the disorganizer, which is a little too close to the truth for my tastes). The tour is called Groundswell, which I think is a pretty clever name, mostly because I came up with it. Although Graham and I are coming with a clear agenda, these events will be based around dialogue. We will be listening as much as, if not more than, we will be talking. I suspect this will be easier for Graham than for me.

The impetus for this tour is many-fold, but certainly rooted in our desire to understand how this organization can best serve Vermont’s small-farm community, as well as those who value and depend on them (which should be all of us, but you know how it goes). The truth is, the policy work we’ve long done is fraught with frustration and often marked by marginal gains, at least when compared to the scope and scale of the challenges our constituency faces. It will surprise no one with even a passing understanding of ag and food policy that it’s engineered in favor of large scale agribusiness, and that it tends to disincentivize practices that return wealth to the land and to the community in which the operation is located. Often, I hear people speak of our “broken” food and ag systems, and while I understand why they use this language, I don’t agree. I don’t believe they’re broken in the least; I think they’re operating precisely as designed. Which is to say, they are engineered to extract wealth from the land and the vast majority of those inhabiting it, both human and non-human. That’s just the cold, hard truth. The other cold, hard truth is that we cannot wait for the political process to bring equality to our working-class, rural communities. And yes, I would be saying this no matter who won the election.

Anyway. I wanted to tell you about this tour because I would be honored if those of you within spittin’ distance would turn out to one of these events (the schedule is below). You can come to listen, to talk, or just to make us feel a little less lonely. And yes, there will be food. Free food. Finally, if any of you are so inclined, I’d like to offer a brief, soft pitch for supporting Rural Vermont. I think it’s fair to say that this work is more important than ever, and we truly need your support to maintain our efforts. You can learn more about becoming a member here.

Thank you.

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Should Be a Good One

It was nine below zero this morning, the air stone still, the ground draped in the fleece of new snow that fell over the weekend. I milked hurriedly, anticipating an ache in my fingers that never came, and I recalled the old adage that dry = warm. It’s true, as old adages tend to be. My hands have been colder milking in a 40 degree rain.

Pip was haltered to an apple tree in a section of the orchard we’re slowly converting to pasture. We’ve installed two strands of barbed wire, using cedar posts I harvested from our stand, hauling them out of the woods two at at time, a shoulder for each. We set the posts in the early days of December, racing the frost, but it’s taken until now to finish running the wire. We can’t quite seem to get traction on all the projects needing our attention – siding the house, firewood, cleaning the barn, more posts for more fencing in the spring, saw logs, and so on – but I’m getting better at accepting the occasionally-floundering nature of this life. Or any life, I suppose.

I don’t have much else for you today, except to say that the comments in response to last week’s post reminded me yet again of how gracious and insightful my readers are. I consider it an honor that you visit here. Thank you.

Oh, and for the locals: Whiskey Myers is playing Higher Ground on Thursday. For twelve bucks, no less. Should be a good one. And Drive-By Truckers next Wed. Whew.

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That Will be Real Nice

img_5184We awoke to freezing rain, falling sideways on a sharp and persistent wind, and by the time I emerged from the house for chores, the land and everything it bore was rimed in ice. As it does every morning, my right shoulder brushed the outermost branches of the apple tree where I turn toward the pig’s winter quarters, and the sound of the ice breaking upon that soft impact was indistinguishable from the crackling of the clapboard cut-offs I’d used to kindle the fire.

It’s been something less than a real winter – we’ve had more snow than last year, but the thaws have arrived in clockwork fashion, and the latest has been a real doozy. It’s hardly been below freezing for the past week. If there’s an upside, it’s that Penny and I ski every chance we get, fearful that the next thaw will take us down to bare ground. So, in our own paranoid and semi-frantic fashion, we’ve actually skied a good bit, and there is no better tool for thriving in winter than a pair of cross-country skis. A chainsaw helps, too. And a splitting maul.

On Saturday, along with an estimated 14,996 others, we attended the Women’s March in Montpelier. I do not think I have ever been in a crowd so large; indeed, the traffic to and from the event was enough to close the interstate. Bernie showed and did his Bernie thing, and there was wonderful spoken word poetry from a quartet of Muslim girls, and singing, and chanting, and all the things one might expect of such a gathering. I was disappointed that Vermont’s newly-elected governor, a Republican who has gone to great pains to distance himself from Trump, did not make an appearance, but then again, if it’d come down to him or the poetry, I’d’ve taken the poetry every time. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that poetry trumps politics every time, even when poetry is politics. If that makes any sense.

I do not like our new president. I find him boorish and crude, loutish, an embodiment of a particular Americanized concept of power and success, which to me seems rooted in some sort of primal fear I cannot understand. If it weren’t for his newly-anointed position, he’d be almost laughable. Or, as I like to say: It’d be funny. If it were funny. My own fear is primarily the fear I feel on behalf of those who do not enjoy the privilege of my white, American-born, male skin. Though it’s true I fear for myself, too, and my children, and even so many of those who voted for him. Despite his proclamations to the contrary, I do not believe he has our best interests at heart.

In my mind, I distinguish between Trump and those who support him. Which is to say, in most cases, I feel empathy for those who saw fit to cast their ballot his way; I understand the disillusionment, the sense of being forgotten, unheard, misunderstood. Sure, there are surely some who voted for reasons I cannot fathom or even forgive, but I truly believe that those who cast this election as being solely about hate or intolerance are egregiously oversimplifying the matter. There is much more at play, here. Much more.

On the way home from the rally, I commented to my family that if Hillary had been elected, there wouldn’t have even been a rally, and that perhaps Trump’s election will in hindsight prove to be a turning point, a moment of awakening. And that furthermore, perhaps a Hillary presidency would have been more dangerous, if only because it might have enabled us to keep snoozing. I could be wrong about this.

To be sure, the rally was only a moment in time, an almost instinctual reaction to the circumstances. Perhaps its energy cannot be sustained, and we will all retreat to our respective corners to lick our wounds and figure out how best to carry on in this baffling world. But I’d like to think there’s something more behind it than that. Not that we won’t still have wounds to tend; not that the world won’t continue to baffle and bewilder, as it would have no matter who’d been elected. This much is assured.

Still, I’d like to think that the rally we attended – along with the hundreds of other rallies that millions more attended – isn’t merely a silk purse hewn from a sow’s ear, but rather the foundational supports of an entirely new container, a vessel that will carry us much longer and farther than the next four years, one that has room for many more than were present at these rallies, including, even, those who see salvation in our current president.

Now I see that the freezing rain has changed over to snow, and I think that maybe later, if it keeps up, there’ll be a fresh layer upon which to ski. We’ll climb the field across the road and glide into the sugar woods, and I’ll forget about everything else but the feel of my hammering blood and breath and the liquid sound of my skis in the new snow. Yes. That will be real nice.

 

 

 

 

 

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What a Difference That’s Made

img_5138Last Friday I left the house early to run. The moon was still high and bright in the bluing sky, and I watched it over my shoulder, frayed clouds passing across it at irregular intervals. The road passed a sugarbush, and there my view was altered by the long bones of leafless maples, half-lit and shadowy. I liked how the moon seemed to bounce in time to the rhythm of my steps. Ball-like.

A bit farther down the road I came to the tracks of a large deer. It’d been warm the day before, and the tracks were sunk into the road surface. But overnight the road had frozen, and there’d been a wisp of snow. The snow had softened the hard cloven edges of the tracks, and so they looked much like little hearts pressed into the road, just visible in the milky pre-dawn light. I followed them until they veered into the woods.

It’s funny how that moon and those tracks have stuck with me, how much pleasure they’ve brought me over the intervening almost-week. I keep returning to them, again and again, as if they held some meaning beyond their inherent beauty and my good fortune at bearing witness to that beauty, though I know without a doubt how ridiculous this is. Just a moon. Just some tracks. On any other morning, I might have hardly noticed either.

But on this one, I did. And what a difference that’s made.