Wind and rain strip all but the most stubborn of the remaining leaves. The forest smells so good now, there’s a weight to the smell of it, a tangible thickness, almost a flavor. I cut firewood nearly every day, so close to my longtime goal of getting a full year ahead that I’m already pleased with myself. I like to drive east, up the mountain and then back down it, following the wet track of packed soil and gravel as it curves through the woods. The leafless maples skinny as shorn sheep. Still no frost, though one is surely coming soon, and snow not far behind. The apples have dropped, and the pond is cold enough for second thoughts. The cows are on the very last bit of pasture grass, only a day or two remains. Then six months of hay. No: Seven. Dark comes early and leaves late and for the first time I find that it helps to wear glasses for reading. It’s not so bad, really. It makes the words look close up. It feels like I’m winding down. I tell myself it’s just the season, and I’m pretty sure it’s true, though it’s also true I’m barely a month from 50. In the morning it will be warm again and I’ll awake to rain so soft that it might just be mist hanging in the air.
I ride in the morning, half-light, warm, remnants of the weekend’s rain in the air as I pass the same hill farm I’ve passed dozens of times already this summer. Now the lights are on in the milking parlor and I hear the metronomic chugging of the vacuum pump, smell the sweet-warm smell of manure and baleage and watch the dry cows and heifers graze the very last of the season’s grass. Fallen leaves thick on the road’s shoulders and I purposely steer through the thickest layers of them because I like the sound they make beneath my tires. A mile or so later I pass a man standing in his driveway, next to the open door of his car. He’s peeing and not even trying to hide it, an impressive stream collecting into a puddle at his feet, and part of me wants to wave and say good morning, and part of me wants to let him pretend that I never saw a thing, though it occurs to me that maybe he could care less. He’s just taking a piss. We’ve all done it.
The days tick past with the same metronomic chug of that vacuum pump. I haven’t written here lately because it feels like nothing much changes, like maybe I’m just writing the same thing again and again and again. Though of course everything changes always, there’s proof of it everywhere – the falling leaves, the diminishing daylight, the pasture grass gone dormant, even lights on in a milking parlor where last week there were none. At the selectboard meeting Jan arrives with a fat wad of cash, $1250 in 100s and 50s that someone gave him to procure five burial plots in our little town cemetery, and as he counts it onto the desk I look toward the window, where I can see both my reflection and beyond it, to the shadowy outlines of the trees in the gathering dark.
James McMurtry has a new album. Lots of goodies, including this one. Also, here’s a great conversation with the author Richard Powers. Finally, I’m almost finished with this book and am really liking it.
Riding my bicycle up a long climb I pass a man riding in the same direction. He’s older than me, wearing an orange tee shirt and a white helmet, and he has a holstered pistol on one hip. I say hi and he says hi back, friendly enough but neither of us trying too hard. I keep pedalling, not looking anywhere but where I’m going, deciding not to be unsettled by the presence of that gun, which is now behind me and out of sight, though not quite out of mind. It helps that I’ve seen the man riding before, at least a handful of times. I’ve noticed the pistol before. It’s not like he’s trying to conceal it. I might be more unsettled if he were concealing it, like most people who carry around here. But of course if he were concealing it, I wouldn’t know about it, and therefore wouldn’t know to be unsettled, even if maybe I should be. Funny how life works. It’s not usually what we know that gets us.
There’s not much left of summer. It’s going the way every season goes: Slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, then picking up speed until you’re waking in the dead dark and thinking you better get the hearth for the wood stove finished so you can get the damn stove hooked back up real soon. Besides, you’re sick of tripping over the stove which is sitting in the middle of the floor next to the big laundry rack you’re also sick of tripping over, but which is pretty much a permanent fixture at this point, so you’ve come to accept it. Or so you claim. Still, it’s going to be a nice hearth, big slate tiles set flush with the floor boards so there’s no more stubbing toes on the grubby old bricks that were always supposed to be a temporary solution. And here you are only six years later making good on that promise.
The pond is still warm. The last of the blueberries are so sweet and a little soft. The cows are on their final rotation of pasture. I watch them graze in the fading light, it seems to me as if they’re forever eating, eating, eating, fattening themselves for the winter that in their bones they must surely know is coming fast.
Driving up the mountain road, I trail a red Ford pickup hauling an old John Deere mower. Both the truck and the mower have seen better days by far, but the colors of them – the truck deep red, the mower that unmistakeable John Deere green – are bright and cheerful. The truck’s tailgate is lowered to accommodate the mower, which I can see is held loosely place by a rusty chain strung from bed rail to bed rail. None of those fancy ratchet straps I’m so fond of, the ones that always end up in knotted piles on the floor of my truck. The Ford rattles over the washboards, and the mower wags back and forth. An empty bottle shoots off the lip of the lowered tailgate, bounces into the road, and miraculously doesn’t break. I have the passing thought that I should stop to retrieve it, but I don’t. I’m not in the mood to deal with someone else’s trash.
Going over the top of the mountain, I see that the leaves are beginning to change, and for the first time this summer, I have the sense that another season is imminent, and I’m suddenly awash in all the things I still need to do. Finish the new hearth for the woodstove. Finish siding the barn. Replace the rotting boards on the paddock fence. Change the hydraulic fluid in the tractor. And on it goes, seemingly without end, a list I already know will have to be reconsidered, reprioritized, reordered, the tasks that address heat and the containment of livestock moved higher, above those relating to cosmetics and convenience.
And so as I follow the truck and mower through the curves on the west side of the mountain, that is exactly what I’m doing – reconsidering, reordering, reprioritizing – until by the time we hit the flats, I’ve got the list pared down to nearly nothing, a trifling weekend or two’s worth of work (if that), and I’m already getting all sorts of ideas about what I’m going to do with my free time.
I’ve shared this one before, I think. But it’s always worth another listen.
Summer stretches on. It rains here and there, though never as much as promised, nor nearly as much as we need. Out early on my bike I pass fields of fresh mown hay, the smell of drying grass suffusing the air, one of those smells that feels curative in some ill-defined way except perhaps in the understanding that my life would be poorer without it. In the evenings I lie in bed and listen to the boys and their friends down in the orchard. They’ve built a fire, there’s music on someone’s truck stereo, they’re jumping in the pond, and I hear splashes and laughter and the drumbeat of a new song and I suddenly feel very old, too old, and worse yet, as if I’ve somehow misspent all those years. And perhaps in some ways I have, though I’m also sure that in other ways I haven’t, and truth be told, I think that’s about the best any of us can aspire to. Life is lived in fractions. Or that’s how it seems to me, anyhow.
The next morning I move the cows to a new piece of grass. They are sleek and fat, at their peak of summer flesh. The young heifer pauses her grazing to size me up, then moves toward me. I’ve got her trained to my affections, she lets me scratch behind her ears and along her neck. She’s a fine animal, a gift from an old friend who recently sold his herd. Now his barn’s gone, too, torn down and hauled away. Grass growing where he used to milk his cows, and I do a double take every time I drive by, looking for what’s no longer there. Though one of these days soon, I bet I won’t even notice.
Pumping gas in a small town not far from home, I watch a man emerge from the store. He’s 40-ish and wearing a tee shirt that reads I bust my ass so I can bust yours but he doesn’t like much of an ass-buster, frankly, either of himself or of others. He’s tall and very thin, and as he comes closer I can see clearly the sallow hue of his face. I must be staring, because he nods to me, a not unfriendly nod, then climbs into an old Nissan sedan that starts with a mufflerless rumble and accelerates through the parking lot a good bit quicker than seems strictly necessary.
I myself am wearing my Smith’s Grocery: It’s where I get all my shit!! tee shirt, which was a birthday gift from my sons, along with a hat bearing the same slogan (I try to avoid wearing them simultaneously). Smith’s is our local general store, about three miles down the Mountain Road, and while it’s not strictly true that I get all my shit there, I do get at least a goodly portion of my shit there, and therefore I feel ok about wearing the shirt. Besides, I like the slogan. It’s not so much clever as simply correct: This is how people actually talk around here. Why sugarcoat it?
One pump over from me there’s a big F350 pickup, huge and new-ish and gleaming black, and on the tinted rear window there are two big stickers. One reads Fuckin’ Mint and the other (of course, quite naturally, it only stands to reason) says Nipples Matter. And I try to run through the scenarios – any scenario would do – whereby a reasonable-thinking adult might put Fuckin’ Mint and Nipples Matter stickers on their truck. I mean, Fuckin’ Mint, now I’m down with that. Totally. I could rock a Fuckin’ Mint sticker all day long. But the Nipples Matter one throws me – is as sexist as it seems? And is it not the very pinnacle of toxic masculinity to drive around in your jacked up F350 sporting a Nipples Matter sticker for all the world to see? How might you expect the world to respond?
Or is it possible the guy’s a dairy farmer, a consideration that offers an entirely new layer of context? Because in dairy farming, you can bet your bottom dollar that nipples matter. Indeed, they’re about the most important goddam thing in the world. And how ’bout this: Maybe it’s not even a guy driving that truck; maybe it’s a woman dairy farmer! Yes. That’s it. Gotta be. Or could be, anyway.
My pump clicks off and I round up to the nearest quarter dollar (that old habit). I’m moving slowly now, for no other reason that I want to see who’s driving that truck. But the day’s a’wasting and I’ve got better things to do than obsess over the identity of whomever owns those stickers. So I hop in my car, turn the key, and get on my way.
Just past the Price Chopper on Route 15, heading home after meeting a guy to pick up a used chainsaw for my son unless I decide to keep it for myself, I stop for a hitchhiker. His name is Ed, and he’s in his mid-60’s I guess, long black hair going grey, old tee shirt, worn-out jeans, faded tattoos on his forearms. Smoking a very thin handrolled cigarette that’s he’s considerate enough to extinguish before entering the car. Carrying a backpack and one of those reuseable shopping tote bags full of his just-bought groceries. A deli-container of chicken wings poking out the top.
Ed lives way up East Hill one town down the road, in a cabin with his dog. He doesn’t have a car but says he might get one, though I don’t sense much commitment to the idea. I tell him I’ll take him all the way home, and this makes him very happy, because East Hill is long and steep and it’s hot out. And he’s got those wings. Plus who knows what else in that bag. As we drive, he points out houses along the way, ones he says he’s worked on over the decades. His voice is soft and I have to lean in a bit to hear him. I learn that he came to own his 10-acre parcel 26 years ago, having traded his Harley for it. Been living there ever since. Or that’s what I think he says, at least.
I drop him at the end of his driveway, which is really just a wide footpath into the woods with a chain across its entrance. Mailbox off to the side. He thanks me, and I say no problem, it’s my pleasure, and it is, in part because it’s been a long time since I picked up a hitcher and Ed’s reminded me of how much I enjoy it, that passing intimacy with a stranger whose life circumstances so often differ so drastically from my own.
And in part because even now, two days later, I like thinking about Ed and his dog in the cabin on the land he got in trade for a motorcycle, the chicken wings presumably long gone, their thin bones tossed out back into the swamp, and maybe tomorrow or the next day he’ll make the long walk down to the main road, where he’ll stick out his thumb and head back to Price Chopper for some more.
Hey, you were warned.
At Willey’s, I buy a 50 cent fudgesicle and a stopper for the drain of the old clawfoot tub I’ve dragged out to pasture to serve as a watering vessel for the cows. In the store everyone is masked, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve worn a mask in nearly 2 weeks. How quickly things are reverting to normal. How quickly we seem to have forgotten all the ways the pandemic was going to change us.
Back in the car, I sit for a minute and eat my fudgesicle in fewer bites than strictly necessary, wishing I’d bought a second. I mean, I don’t even like them all that much, but I know a bargain when I see one. The summer people flow in and out of the store. You can spot ’em a mile distant, they carry their awayness with them like one of those regretful tattoos that can’t quite be erased. I like the summer folk. They’re relaxed, friendly. They smile a lot. They grease this little town, and lord knows we need all the greasing we can get.
At home, I fit the stopper to the tub and run water. The cows watch from their patch of shade, their big eyes blinking against gathered flies, the ground beneath them worn grassless and dusty from their lingering.The tub flows over, the water spilling over its side in a curtain, wetting the thirsty soil below. God we need rain bad. I shut off the hydrant, pull the hose from the tub. The cows are still watching, still blinking, still lingering. As if there were nothing to do but sit and wait for the rain to fall.
Haven’t shared any music in a while. Here’s a nice one from Morgan Wade.
Finally, rain, and everything feels right again, as if the thirst had been my own. In the morning I stand just outside the front door and watch the cows grazing on the hill, and then watch them as they notice the cats, who’ve emerged from the house in that tentative way of theirs, tails swishing, necks elongated, eyes wide, thinking this might finally be the morning danger lurks. Well. Who knows. Perhaps it could be.
I grind my coffee as I stand in the rain. It’s a hand crank grinder, and I count the revolutions. I always shoot for at least 200, though it only takes about 175 to make a cup. But I like to have a little in reserve. It’s a strange comfort, I know. It’s not raining hard, and I think that I could stand here for a long time, just watching the cows and the cats, pushing the grinder crank round and round and round ’til I’m wet through and the coffee’s all ground up. But at 200 I stop grinding and pad back into the house, my wet feet leaving prints on the tile floor of the mud room.
The cows graze some more and then lie down. The cats find no danger, and return to sleep on the couch, side-by-side, almost symmetrical. The rain goes on. It’s not even June, and summer feels so long.
The days are long enough now that if I wake in the dark I know I’ve woken too early. Even this morning at 4:30, too soon for my tastes by 40 minutes or more, I could just discern the slimmest of openings in the night, a crack from which the day would soon emerge. I thought to go back to sleep, but the cat was mewling incessantly, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to close my eyes against the emergent light, so I stepped softly downstairs to toss the cat over the threshold and light a fire. Day after day it happens like this: The cat, the stairs, the threshold, the fire, and it’s the ever-repeating nature of this ritual, the sheer ordinariness of it, that imbue it with whatever meaning it has.
Later I ride my bicycle across a landscape of exploding green. It feels like everything is springing to life at once, and it’s a very good feeling. The late afternoon light is diffuse and the air is so, so soft, almost as if it were embedded with gossamer strands of silk. Agitated by my passing, an obese beagle runs ineffective laps inside the confines of a fenced yard. He doesn’t bark, maybe because he’s too fat to run and bark at the same time, or maybe just because he’s not into multi-tasking. He’s not the least bit threatening, and wouldn’t be even if there wasn’t that fence. I know I could kick his ass, and if for any reason that didn’t work, I know I can outrun him. My bike is fast, my legs are strong, and the road runs steadily downhill, into a valley where the dandelions are in full bloom and the air is softer still.