White Trash Symphony

John and Jake. This was a couple of weeks ago. The snow is finally gone, now. 

A windy night, and I was awakened by the instantly recognizable sound of an empty five-gallon bucket tumbling across the barnyard, the distinctive rattle of the metal handle slapping against the hard plastic. It’s a white trash symphony, I thought, and then was pleased enough at my cleverness that I lay awake imaging how much fun it’d be to start a band named White Trash Symphony. I have now offered a particularly intimate glimpse into the inner workings of my semi-conscious mind. It would be cruel of you to take advantage.

We have a lot of five-gallon plastic buckets. They blight the landscape, are forever upended, always rolling down hillsides to lay their smooth sides against the rough bark of an apple tree. But they’re as useful as they are ugly: We use them to carry feed to the pigs, as impromptu ladders, to haul sap. The boys draw targets on the leakers, then aerate them further with .22 rounds. It is hard to imagine life without these buckets, they’re one of those unheralded inventions, like strike-on-box matches or toilet paper, that we fail to appreciate until they’re gone, and then are thrown into a minor panic. Though the truth is we never allow our supply of buckets to run dry: I bet even a cursory search would unearth a dozen-and-a-half water-tight buckets on this property.

In the night, drifting softly between states of consciousness, I listened as the bucket tumbled and rattled with each gust. Soon enough, I heard only the wind, and I knew that come morning, I’d find the bucket up against a tree, or maybe the paddock fence. I’d retrieve it, return it to its proper resting place, pleased to have this small bit of order restored. Knowing how temporary it would be.



Some Unseen Force


Prin and her willow-basket-to-be

The heat came on fast, the snow receding by the hour, every ditch and depression now filled with flowing melt. The sun feels well-earned; it wasn’t a hard winter overall, but what hardness it contained was back-loaded, all the cold and snow we didn’t have in January saved up for March. In an interest-bearing account, at that.

Today I drove to Waterville, Maine to deliver a talk at Colby College and then back again, left arm propped in the window opening, slowly reddening under the high sun. Route 2 most of the way, an unfolding tour of small towns well past their prime, Dunkin’ Donuts and log yards, rusted trucks and trailer homes, a proliferation of under-dressed and over-tattooed women standing on debris-strewn front lawns, cigarettes in hand, skin pale as the departing snow. They looked so damn confident.

Coming into the town of Mexico, Maine, I drove for a time behind a man on a Harley Davidson. He sat the way men on Harley’s sit, knees cast wide, crotch to the wind, helmet-less, riding slow as he weaved from one side of the road to the other. Not drunkenly or dangerously, just enjoying himself. Like a bird or lazy fish. And though it’s been years since I’ve owned a motorcycle, and although the last time I rode a motorcycle I ended up in the hospital with a nurse shining a light in my eyes every 30 minutes to be sure there was still something going on in there, I couldn’t help wanting to be on that bike. It must have felt so good.

The Harley turned. I watched him go, and shortly thereafter passed an old man on a bicycle, a single hubcap slung over his handlebar end, shiny trinket plucked from the roadside. I waved as I passed, but I was just another car in an endless line of cars, and his gaze was forward facing, the bike’s wheels churning onward, the hubcap swinging side-to-side, as if propelled by some unseen force.



When it Makes the Least Sense


When the going gets tough, the tough send their wife up the ladder.

I sometimes think I’ve forgotten how to write, which I suspect is one of those irrational fears akin to believing I’ve forgotten how to ride a bicycle (actually, it’s been so long since I’ve pedaled a two-wheeler that this may be true). Someone – a writer – once wondered to me what it must be like to be a “real” writer, referring, I understood, to the fact that I am paid to write, and support my family on these earnings. My reply, which I still believe true, is that a real writer is anyone who puts the time in. Nothing more, nothing less. By my own definition, then, I am not a real writer, or at least not currently. This bothers me less than it might.

This morning it snowed again, before changing quickly to a sleety rain. I milked fast as I could, cold and raw-feeling, none of yesterday’s ebullience at the high sun and the flowing sap. March felt long and hard to me, I cannot remember one colder and snowier and less yielding, though surely it’s happened. Even on April 1 we awoke to seven or eight inches of new-fallen snow, and I took the boys to Burke Mountain – our older son’s first time ever on alpine skis; perhaps the third time for our younger boy – and paid $133 for half-day rentals and lift tickets. It hurt me to spend the money – that’s a big chunk of change for us – but it hurt me more to realize how long it’d been since I’d done something like that with my boys. Not that we don’t do things together, we do, all the time, but rarely something so unexpected and… what’s the right word? Frivolous? Not, that’s not it, not quite. Hell, I don’t know. But God we had fun.

The house is sweet-smelling and over-heated from boiling sap atop the cook stove. We have too much sap and not enough fire; we need a proper rig, it’s ridiculous what we’re trying to do, but there’s also something compelling to me about the lunacy of it. Sometimes life’s most interesting when it makes the least sense.



Darkness Was Coming


Doing taxes. As you might imagine, I am thrilled to support the proposed expansion of our fighting forces, along with the gutting of the arts and numerous programs that support the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Oh, and the wall, of course, in both its literal and figurative manifestations.  Sometimes I can’t help but imagine what we could accomplish if we weren’t so damn scared all the time. Now back to our usual programming: 

Another drive, another hitchhiker, this one younger than the last, pear-shaped and out-of-breath, hands scrubbed so pink I couldn’t stop looking at them. He worked third shift at a mental health facility, but was on his way to a mid-day meeting. He’d worked the night before, grabbed an hour of sleep before sticking his thumb out, and was scheduled to work the night approaching. “It’s a good job,” he said. I understood then that the softness of his physique cloaked an inner strength, and I was glad I’d picked him up.

Later, in the almost-evening, I helped my younger son at the barn where he and his brother – on this day, at home sick – do chores twice weekly. The farmer had dehorned the heifers that afternoon, and the surrounding walls were streaked with blood, it ran down the animals’ faces in rivulets, dripped thickly onto the bedding below. The cows lapped grain off the concrete floor, 30 of them lapping and chewing in unison, a beautiful sound, almost meditative, and I knew I’d heard that sound before, not just in the barn, but somewhere else, too. Then, finally, I placed it: Rain on a tin roof. How strange.

On the drive home, the car thick with the smell of shit and hay and blood, the boy and I ate ice-cream sandwiches. Darkness was coming and snow began to fall.


A Dozen More


After the storm

Driving westward yesterday afternoon, the sun sweet on my face through the windshield, on my way to pick up a carload of used sap buckets, I picked up a hitchhiker. It is my rule to pick up hitchhikers; I think the world would be a better place if more people hitched, and if more people invited strangers into such intimate space. For is this not a basis for empathy? And do we not suffer a cultural deficit of empathy? I think it is and I believe we do.

The fellow I picked up looked a little rough around the edges. He carried the yeast-y smell of one who drinks with frequency; it hit hard the moment he opened the door. There were tattoos on his hands, something in script, poorly done and faded, simple blue ink. I tried to make out the words but could not. He was headed for a town near where I was born, and where my parent still hold title to a piece of land. He was going to visit someone he referred to as his “lady friend.”

“It’s a long ways to walk for a piece of ass,” is what he said, and I pointed out that at least now he wouldn’t need walk the entire distance, since I’d be dropping him a good twenty miles nearer to sexual gratification, if indeed he was actually sober enough to experience such by the time he arrived. Truthfully, the longer we talked, the less likely this seemed. Maybe I should have pointed out the exploitative nature of his comment, but I didn’t, and maybe that makes me complicit. I don’t know.

We didn’t talk about much of consequence. He told me about his kids, about the job he used to have working on a horse farm, about how he makes extra money harvesting chaga, about his pending divorce, about the recent storm, and so on. Small talk. He sat leaned over a bit, one hand against his side, as if something pained him.

I dropped him where my path diverged from his, and watched in the rearview as he walked through the juncture of the two roads. He’d told me he travels this route often; he knew he had exactly 19 miles to go. He claimed he’d walked those entire 19 miles a time or two, but I didn’t know whether or not to believe him. Could anyone really not get a ride in 19 miles of highway?

I thought about the last time I hitched, just last summer, actually. The truck’s alternator crapped out, and I had no phone, so I stuck out my thumb and in about two minutes a huge Dodge Ram pulled over, all black, tinted windows, thumpy exhaust, the whole nine. I hopped in and the driver had the gas to the floor before I even had my ass on the seat. Lit those tires right up. He was maybe 45, 50, and was grinning hugely, eyes twinkling like he and I were accomplices to something that was just on the edge of being wrong, and I had to laugh. He took me out of his way to drive me right to my doorstep.

I gave him a dozen eggs, and he was so grateful that I gave him a dozen more.


Another Short One


In the storm

The storm was impressive, three straight days of snow in waves of varying intensity and duration. By the time the sky cleared, I’d plowed the driveway four times, and our foot travel had become restricted to prescribed paths. Even on snowshoes, we sink deep.

Yesterday I skied the perimeter of our property; it was cold enough, but the high March sun had turned the top layer sticky, and I stopped no fewer than a half-dozen times to scrape the bottoms of my skis against the rough bark of a spruce or maple to remove the accumulated snow. It was frustrating, and more than once I thought of turning back, but my old body still knows a thing or two, and yesterday it knew it needed sun, and sweat, and, in the handful of minutes between scraping clean the bottom of my skis and the re-accumulation of snow, that ethereal feeling of gliding through the forest. Of being carried, almost.

It’s strange to be thrust back into winter this late in the game, particularly after so many mild weeks. I think about the deer; only a few days ago we watched them graze the south-facing, snow-bare field across the cleft of the mountain road. Our younger son took off one afternoon to see how close he could get; he counted 20. The shift in weather must be disorienting to them, too, the does fat with spring fawns, hungry as any of us for something green.

Daylight now. Chore time. It’s cold again, nearly zero. The ice on the animal’s water will be thick.







I Guess I’m in a Hand Phase


It’s been cold, startlingly so, and until yesterday the wind was relentless. Now we await an impending storm that’s forecast to bring as much as two feet of snow and still more wind. It’d been an unremarkable winter until this snap; funny how a late-season taste of cold and snow can color the entire season. Suddenly, winter seems long and hard.

The cold has been good for pulling firewood, and we’ve amassed an impressive pile. It’s long been my ambition to stockpile two years worth, but like too many of my ambitions (six pack abs, four hour work week, financial independence, master Hot For Teacher on the guitar), it’s a goal perennially deferred. But this year, I think we’re going to make it, or close enough to claim it so within the margins of reasonable exaggeration. Wood is our sole source of heat and hot water, along with our primary cooking fuel, and for us there’s security in firewood, or at least the illusion of security, and since illusion is all any of us ever get, I’ll take it.

At our previous property, we burned a lot of “B grade” hardwood – red maple, mostly, and good bit of white birch. Here, we have access to an embarrassment of riches: Sugar maple is the primary hardwood species, but also some beech, a bit of black cherry, and lots of apple culled from the long-abandoned orchard. And still some white birch, which maybe isn’t the best from a BTU standpoint, but which I love for its papery bark, a built-in fire starter. Lately, we’ve been burning lots of spruce clapboard scraps, too, and while I’m very much looking forward to finishing the siding (at the rate we’re on, I’m figuring fall of ’21), I’ll sure miss the tinder-dry scraps.

I think I might’ve mentioned this once before, but I’ll never forget reading a historical non-fiction book to the boys about the colonists, and how they burned 50-70 cords of firewood per year (we burn about five). It’s an astonishing amount, unfathomable to me, and made all the more so to realize they had no tractors, nor chainsaws. It must have been all-consuming and exhausting, though I suppose it beat freezing to death by a pretty wide margin.

I guess I don’t have much else to say; I keep thinking I’ll come up with something more meaningful to share, but the days come and go and come again in a flurry of activity, and nothing really comes to mind. Life of the hand, life of the mind, as Will likes to say. I guess I’m in a hand phase.

Oh, and for those of you who are interested, we’ve been posting some photos over here.





Into the woods, on the hunt for Black Ash

The cold settled yesterday, slowly, stealthily, and by this morning it was a hammer blow to my face as I scurried from chore-to-chore, the wind buffeting the collar flaps of my jacket and driving spindrifts of new-fallen snow across the ground before relenting briefly to allow for dispersement and settling. Then another gust, the snow scuttling once again.

How cold was it? I cannot say, but very – the tractor barely chugged to life, and it’s generally good to about ten below – and besides, it wasn’t the cold so much as the wind, persistent and foul-tempered, like a herding dog at the ankles or a spoiled child in a toy store. Never satisfied no matter how much is offered.

I have been working on a number of other projects, both personal and professional (ha! Funny to use that word in relation to my work), and not writing so much in this space. And then when I do, not really sure what I want to say. Or worse yet, even when I know what I want to say, unsure of how to say it. The age old curse of this stone-turning work. So I thought I’d just share a few things. First, I think you should all watch this documentary. This one, too, which is quietly charming, and pretty short, if you’re pressed for time. And that accent! Music: Shakey Graves. And this one from The Dead South sure is a heel-tapper.






Balance Due Upon Completion


Someone asked us for the recipe to the wound salve Penny makes, so in the spirit of actually doing what I say I’ll do, here it is. This is real good stuff, perfect for all the nicks and scrapes that come of working with your hands.

The herbs we put in our salve vary but the constants are calendula, yarrow and comfrey.  Others may include St. John’s Wort, plantain, echinacea and chickweed. It just sorta depends on what we have lying around, or what’s in season. 

Stuff a jar with dried herbs and cover with olive oil. Put on lid and leave on a sunny warm window sill.  Shake once daily, precisely at 4:52 a.m. If you don’t wake up in time, toss the entire batch and start over. Six weeks later, strain out the plant matter.

Heat oil in a pot on the stove until warm enough to melt bees wax into it.  We use about ½ -3/4 cup beeswax chunks per pint of infused oil.  You can check the consistency by dropping a little bit onto a cold spoon and letting it set up.  Add more wax if you want your salve harder, such as for lip balm. Less wax makes it softer for slathering on the tender skin of wounds. If there’s any skin left, of course. 

Pour into containers and let cool. Now go cut yourself and apply liberally. 


Someone else asked for the recipe to the chokecherry “energy balls” above. They’re wicked simple – we just throw a bunch of sorta-dried chokecherries into our grain mill (we do NOT use our good mill for stuff like this – we have an older mill for this sort of abuse), then roll them into balls. They have just enough moisture to hold together. We eat a lot of chokecherries, which grow wild around here. If you want to know more about how we make them into all sorts of other delicacies, you might consider buying our book. Just sayin’. And if you want one of the super-cool, one-off spruce burl bowls as pictured above, send along $1,000 in small, unmarked bills.

That’s the down payment. Balance due upon completion;)


More to the Story


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.