Take Shelter

The apple trees are loaded this year, the red blush spreading across the sides of the fruit that face the Sun so that the trees themselves seem to glow like a bed of coals with each soft breeze breathing life into the orchard itself. It was something I’d never noticed before, thinking that the hue of each apple was simply the result of its genetic predisposition rather than an actual change brought about by effects of the environment. It’s like that these days, the things noticed that become a steady accumulation of knowledge that feeds us in advance of our hunger. Last year there were so few apples that we never got to press any for cider, made no vinegar and now are forced to buy it in to make pickles with the overflow of cucumbers that reproduce faster than a family can eat them, even though we give it our best shot every day. The maples too are so weighed down with samaras that the ends of the branches are bent as much as they have ever been and tinged gold where the wings of each pod have bleached out, delicate veins tracing the periphery of each whirly-gig, seeds swollen, expectant. Last year was the hundred year drought and despite all the rain in early Summer we are right back at levels lower than we ought to have at this time of the year and so the color has begun to appear in the low spots, weeks ahead of schedule. If I was to guess I’d say we were due for a severe and long Winter, but that’s only based on the experience of less than ten years on this piece of land. Maybe the harbingers I see indicate something else, but you never know so I’ve doubled my efforts lately to tighten up the ship ahead of the proverbial storm. There are other indicators as well — there more heifers than bull calves this year, same as it was before the last bad Winter and the spring pigs are 30% larger than they were this time last year even though they come from the same sows, born at the same time. The heads on the grasses were so loaded when we cut the last of the hay on the fallow fields that we just left it to turn back into the pasture and seed itself.

For the past couple of weeks since the interns departed my oldest son and I have been steady at it, finishing up the tasks we had begun with enthusiasm, now with the realization that not all of them would be completed before the first snows arrive. One of the jobs was to rebuild the road from the sand pit to the pole barn, a thousand foot winding path along the edge of the old sugar bush that had been badly eroded over the course of the past five years or so. I had cleared the face of the eskar back along its breadth, from the big field on the southern edge of the property to the low ground that ran at the top edge of the old apple orchard and back dragged it repeatedly to provide a long, easy approach that allowed me to run the loader into the sands without disturbing the new grass that ran up to the bank run like an emerald carpet. Each load weighs approximately a half ton and covers thirty or forty square feet six inches deep. I started at the bottom near the stream crossing and worked my way up running over the established borders again and again until it was compacted into a solid, level surface that opened the back forty to any kind of traffic. I probably cut out two hundred cubic yards of bank run sand, the finest band that ran through the middle of the drumlins around here. I’d been pecking away at it since we bought the place, utilizing the enormous stockpile of fine grained sands and quartzite cobbles that had been deposited in the Laurentide glaciation that occurred seventy-five thousand years ago and receded in waves between twenty-one and fourteen thousand years ago. The glaciers moved southward as far as the Cape pushing the accumulated soils of a hundred thousand years before it, like a mile thick wall of ice propelled by the forces of Earth’s ever changing climate. Underneath it all huge chasms and channels were carved on its underside as it slid over the bare bedrock beneath; granite, feldspar and schist, igneous rock formed during the Devonian period some 400 millions years ago. Inside these halls of ice were a slurry of frozen boulders, sands and gravels that ground against each other for hundreds of centuries, year by year leaving evidence of the altering landscape in a wavy strata of variegated bands that resembled freshly cut malachite. Near the bottom of the deposit where the bedrock was exposed in parallel runs of ledge the bigger boulders had been trapped against the solid floor of the valley and around them larger rocks, all of them smooth and ovate, some as big as basketballs, others as small as quail eggs forming an anchor for the smaller aggregates that built upon this foundation. One afternoon a section that reached the very top fell away into the cut as a whole, burying the banked floor of the quarry in a pyramid of sand and leaving behind it an exposed wall of time opened for the first time to human eyes. You could see where the spaces were between each eon were clearly defined by a small band of organic material, a dark stripe only inches thick that represented a thousand years of warm weather and perhaps three consecutive forestations that rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell again and again before the ice walls returned and buried life for as long as the earth spun in the cold depths of the Ice Age. Halfway up the wall I noticed a curious design that made me turn off the tractor and climb up to inspect up close. There, perhaps twenty feet deep from the top of the exhausted cap of the eskar was a line that ran at a 40 degree angle from west to east across the sand hill. It was clear that whatever had happened had happened suddenly, unlike the accumulated bands of snad beneath, this one cut them off at an oblique angle as if something massive had come upon it from the north, a single stroke that cut through the sands as effectively as the loader and carried off the evidence of the glaciers work above that spot. The new sands were built up differently, too; finer, whiter without the random pebbles that made up the material beneath. I have heard about the Champlain Sea, the build up of melt waters held back by the glaciers that backed up the valleys along the Connecticut River and above, how they had broken through as the ice retreated and poured forth in a flood some thirteen thousand years ago. Maybe this was the evidence of it, the wall of water that carried three times as much volume as present day Lake Ontario in a matter of hours, a biblical event preserved in the soil of our farm until now. I climbed back on the tractor and went back to my meager efforts, building something that might not last a decade.

You look back over your life and certain moments stand out, certain years. Big things happen when you are seven, or eighteen, then again at twenty-five and thirty-three and in your memory they etch a kind of mark across your life, a trace of who you were before you became who you are today. You don’t often get to look at life with the clarity you apply to the rest of the world, rarely do you find it as easy to solve your own trivial problems the way you imagine you’d fix the bigger ones because you are too close to them to appraise the issues. In this way we help to create the problems of the larger kind because all the real changes that have meaning begin with each of us. I tried this past Summer to step back a little bit from the things out there that have troubled me for so many years now to try and find a way to just repair what I could. I taught some young men the things I knew how to do in the best way I could manage and their development during that time taught me a great deal as well. They mastered some basic skills and built some things they could be proud of, they worked well together, ate good food and slept the sleep of the just. They learned how to do quite a few things that they’ll probably use over and over for the rest of their lives and built up enough confidence in their abilities to tackle just about anything that comes along. A few days after they left I went to the workbench in the garage barn and discovered four birdhouses, each one different and signed on the bottom with the date and this morning I went out and mounted them to the last of the fence posts that they’d installed at the beginning of the Summer. I missed having them around not for what they’d done for us, but for being able to watch what they’d done for themselves. I got an email from one of them the other day, a kind of post script to the weekly essays I’d had them write each Friday to help them remember what they had done, what they’d accomplished.


“Sorry for sending this to you so late. I wanted to reminisce on the whole experience. It was hard to put the whole summer into words but there is only one way to really explain it and it was a once in a life time Summer. I want to say thanks again to you and your family for all that you had done for Pat, Willex, and I. We all will remember this Summer for as long as we live, at least I know I will. I can’t say thank-you enough for letting us come out and have you teach us as much about farming and life lessons that you did. “ -Anthony


The other night I couldn’t sleep and so I decided to watch a movie I’d been meaning to get to for a while now. The actor portrayed a working man living in Ohio who experienced a sense of dread about an uncertain future and did his best to prepare for it. He dreamed about a storm that was just over the horizon and he began to make preparations in his real life to save his family from an event that haunted his thoughts. I understood his motivation and though it was dark and brooding and it reflected the way that things seemed to be heading in the bigger world outside — the conflicts that seem to be brewing between people, about the course of our nation. He spent as much time questioning his own internal motivations as he did preparing a storm shelter in his backyard and while the community slowly turned on him for his actions, his unease grew sublimated by his determination to do what he must for the safety of his family. I wondered, as I watched it, if the writer and director understood the metaphor they’d crafted and when the climax reached its peak it became clear that there are no answers to the questions that we have, that the future comes for us all and we do the best we can in the meantime. We do what we can to find the meaning in life that we all desire, we can prepare as best we can but the rest is just beyond our reach, out there somewhere in the uncertain days ahead.

I’m pretty sure that the Winter ahead will be a long one and so I make what preparations I can but I could just as easily be wrong. Our story isn’t over yet, each layer being laid out one upon another, building on itself over time until we find a way to see where we’ve come from, and where we’re heading. The dogs are barking at unseen things in the dark as they do every night and the days are shorter now, one by one as we move out again in another orbit, colder, further, darker than the last. But today was a good one and that is enough for now.

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