Monday, July 27, 2015

When You Love the Land

When you love the land there are sounds and smells that kindle memories and anticipate experiences. Aside from the pure pleasure of looking at a prospect, a view across fields or rivers or canyons, memories are made and refreshed just by standing still and listening, inhaling, caressing. Woodsmoke on a winter’s day, raindrops on broad green leaves, mist on your skin early in the morning on a summer’s day all recall one to the land, to experiences and to expectations.

If you chance to be around when hay is being made, especially in your own fields, the sweet, woody odor of fresh-cut grass calls up earlier times: summer and living with the land, perhaps. Maybe it simply serves as a call-up for the winter ahead when the hay will unroll as feed or bedding, blanket or insulation for wintering-over plants and animals.

Here we tell the seasons by the smells in the air. Frost and snow are kin but slightly different. One is edged with a sharpness, the other a soft, fleecy kind of smell that warns of harder times coming. Green smells welcome the new season of growth, when we begin thinking of getting the garden ready, and a simple rain will bring the sweetness of spring to the air. In early summer especially, boxwood around the house add both color and scent: a metallic, heavy breath of green.

Most years the smell of boxwood slides into the smell of new mown hay, but some years, this year especially, with daily rains week after week, we have had to wait for haying season to begin. Suddenly, a period of dry weather comes. For three days the sounds and smells rising from our fields are of cutting and raking, baling and loading what should have been gone two months ago. The shoulder-high grass falls to the mower, is raked and made into windrows, gathered into big round bales. Finally the hay is loaded and taken off to a barn or, as is more and more the practice, wrapped in white plastic creating giant caterpillars a hundred feet long.

Now, up on the mountain overlooking the fields, evening comes and with it the silence of tractors parked for the night, of breeze heavy with the smell of new mown hay. The scent will linger for a few days, then gradually change as sun and maybe more rain reawaken the growth mechanism buried in the roots.

Another benchmark of the season has come and gone.

Monday, July 20, 2015

About Tomorrow

The world is going to hell, and we are all out there paving the road. This year has proven to be the warmest ever recorded. There are fires and drought, floods and drowned crops, empty pools and underwater beaches. And we stand around complaining about either the wet summer or the dry croplands. There are things we can be doing to help, but talking about it isn’t one of them. So we really do need to pay attention.

We’ve lived in these mountains for nearly a quarter of a century now; much more if you crank in the dozen or so years when we had only weekends and an occasional week here or our previous getaway cabin in the Blue Ridge to the east. We’ve experienced colder summers, dryer springs, deeper snowy winters and faded-color falls, but lately it seems, we are experiencing all the things we hoped to escape by moving here from the city.

More people, it seems, are running away from the environments they have helped make unpleasant, finding country roads preferable to city streets. Our narrow dirt and gravel road dead-ends just two miles from its beginning. For years just two places were occupied full-time. The other half-dozen or so were mostly home-places held onto as hunting camps or family reunion sites. In less than three years we have doubled that number, and now anticipate another increase of 25% within the next year. It’s getting crowded.

I write this half in jest, fully aware that we are among the most fortunate of people, knowing that even ten full-time residents on the road would not really impact our lives beyond having to be more wary of traffic on the road, accepting of increased sounds of other lives being lived. We can live with that. Will we live with the rest of it?

We have made this world what it is: crowded, disturbed, fearsome and frightening at the same time. We have all contributed to the slow, destructive changes that cast doubt on our future as a planet, not just "life as we know it." There is good science that tells us what to expect, and equally good research to indicate solutions (if solutions are indeed possible). We need to respect the science and inspect the solutions and take what steps we can to project a future for those yet to come that will give real meaning to the words "life" and "living" and "tomorrow."

"The future," as Mort Sahl told us a couple of generations ago, "lies ahead."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Tools and Trades

I’ve been trying to simplify my days, get rid of obligations and demands that complicate my life. It’s hard.

We live in a place that is remote and poorly served by simple things: dependable utilities, roads that grow potholes faster than weeds, trees inching closer to buildings as the land beneath loosens in the constant rain. It takes its toll on creativity. Just keeping up with routine maintenance is taxing.

For the last several months we have had almost constant rainfall. Not overwhelming (though we’ve had a few big ones), but repetitive, daily rain. Hay is simply rotting in the fields. When it is dry it stands shoulder high. But it is never dry enough to cut. When you cut it wet, or cut it dry and it gets wet before it can be baled, it really isn’t good for much. Ours has turned brown, struggles to stand up by mid-day, gets rained on again about nightfall and is serving only as habitat for deer, a bear or two, maybe a fox or coyote family, and birds. Usually by now, we’d be thinking about a second cutting, but this year it looks as though we won’t really get a first one.

We aren’t dependent on our land for our livelihood, but we do like to make use of what we grow. This year we’re back to our basic crops: rocks and trees. Of the two, we prefer the rocks. They come up by themselves and don’t rot perceptibly if left alone. The trees, especially the ones within twenty or thirty feet of the buildings, do take a bit more effort and a lot more surveillance than rocks. The game is to stay one or two limbs ahead so we maintain our sense of living in a natural environment without losing a roof or a wall.

While we leave the rest of the land in a natural state, we keep the areas around the house and outbuildings clean and neat. We’re not particularly compulsive about it: I cut grass only where we want to be able to walk easily, and to make it possible to see (and avoid) the snakes that control our wild rodent population, for instance. Still, it takes time and tools to keep things under some control. And the equipment takes maintenance.

We have a small tractor we use to mow trails and pathways, a tool with multiple heads that can cut trees branches, trim hedges, and cuts grass where the tractor can’t go. A somewhat larger tractor is useful for taking equipment to where it is needed, and bringing trimmings to various piles to compost. There is a truck that seldom leaves the farm, adding about 300 miles a year doing snow removal, road grading, log hauling and the like. All of that requires maintenance and sometimes repair. And there is a chain saw and a log splitter to convert the trees into the eight or ten cords of wood we burn in a year. When I’m not cutting and splitting, I’m getting ready to, it seems. There is no lack of things needing attention. I suspect that if I ever completed my “to do” list, I’d really not know what to do with my time!

Except, of course, that all of that takes away from my writing time. Every morning, after a walk that might take us (one or two dogs and I) around the fields or up on the ridge behind he house, and enough food and coffee to fire up my internal machinery, I come here to the small room where I write, and try to take up where I left off the day before. It is also where and when I take care of business other than writing.

Opening whatever story I’m working on finally begins the part of the day I protect most carefully. Right now I’m working on what I hope will be the final re-write of a novel I have written (according the versions in my file) five times. I think this last re-write will be the version I mark as “final” when I write “The End.” It is a story I feel is important to tell, and I want to get it right. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, because that is a sure way of not finishing it. I learned early on that talking a story is the same as killing it.

It’s a different kind of harvest, and maintenance is just as important here at the desk as it is in the barn or shop or house. The difference is that there is only one tool I can use.

It’s called “imagination.”