Words


“First learn the meaning of what you say, then speak.”
    -Epictetus

I’ve been writing these essays about the farm life for almost ten years now. Before that I posted a lot of work anonymously in numerous forums, and before that I wrote under my own name; short stories, articles for third tier publications, jokes and two aborted attempts at The Great American Novel that occupy the better part of an old cardboard banana box and the hard drive of a Compaq laptop that hasn’t been turned on in over a decade. Looking back at the body of work I’ve produced has been a revelation of sorts. All that time and effort to turn thoughts into words, and for what exactly? The old cliché about insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result — comes to mind, but I think that all the hours has had a much different effect.

When I was 10 years old I recall vividly coming home from school one day in the middle of Winter and writing a dirty limerick on a bedside notebook I’d gotten as gift for Christmas. I don’t remember where I heard it and I know that I didn’t fully understand what it meant at the time, but something propelled me to put the words down in pen and ink on paper. The opening lines are as memorable to me now as they likely were then, “In days of old when knights were bold…” and even as I wrote it I felt a weight lifted off my young shoulders. My mother discovered the childish scrawl the following morning and confronted me to my shock and embarrassment and then forgave me for that act of…what exactly? I certainly didn’t understand then the power of those words in my unformed mind, or the release of getting them out of it, if only symbolically in crooked letters, but it has stayed with me all these years.

The other day as I was finishing up the last of the maple syrup orders — more on that in a moment — The Colonel drove up and parked by the garage barn. He got out and as I wiped up my hands and headed over to see what was up I noticed a look on his face that was dark and severe. I suspected trouble but called out to him in a normal tone. When he approached I could see how upset he was and I knew instantly it was because of something I had done. We’ve been friends long enough for me to sense the anxiety in his visit I stopped in my tracks and waited for him to address what I could have avoided. Over the past few years as he has gotten older I have taken on a few of the tasks around his place that are just too much for him to handle any longer; mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, plowing his driveway when it snows. Spring has gotten the best of me this year and I had spent the better part of every day deep in the weeds, between fulfilling orders that were in some cases three months old to rebuilding a fence line I’d left unfinished back in December when the ground had frozen solid. There was no excuse for not fulfilling the promise I had made to him and even though we never exchange money it was an assurance I’d made and until the past few weeks kept. He expressed his disappointment in me and said that it was something he hadn’t expected, me not keeping my word, and as he went on I stood silent and took his rebuke, hands at my sides and eyes on the ground. Before he turned to leave he said one thing that stung me — “I don’t want to hear your excuse” and so I remained mute, even as he turned and walked away, got in his car and drove off without a goodbye. I found it hard to continue my work after that and my evening was filled with disquiet. I’d let him down by not mowing the lawn, that was true, but what had bothered him to the point of coming up to chew me out was that I had given my word and now he knew how much that had meant. That night was one of troubled sleep and the next morning after chores I loaded the mower and weed whip into the trailer and took my sons with me to The Colonel’s place up on the mountain. I was half expecting him to tell me to get the hell off of his yard when I got there but I knew from experience that I had to at least make the effort, to make good on what I’d committed to and I wanted my sons to see not only my contrition, but how to correct a mistake rather than to let it slide. The Colonel came out of his house and stood in the driveway as I walked up. The lawn was overgrown and there were branches down on the edge of the property and I knew just how he must have felt to see that every morning. As I approached he straightened up and stood at attention and rendered me a salute, crisp as if he were still in uniform. I returned it and in that moment I could see that his chin was quivering and that there was a deep sadness in his eyes. I know that my family and I are not his only friends, but we matter a great deal to him. He’s taught my children how to play tennis and brings them magazines and books that fit their current interests almost every time he visits. There is not only the commonality of our service — we both served in the 82nd Airborne at roughly the same time and often share stories and anecdotes about our experience — but something deeper, a fellow feeling that some people have that tell them they are part of the same tribe. I could see on his face that he’d had a rough night too and after a sincere apology on my part we shook hands and he allowed me the opportunity to make right what I’d done wrong, to keep my word.

This year was one of the best we’ve had with the maple syrup. I had twice as many orders as I had the year before and it was about as good as any we’d ever made. I feel like we’re starting to get a grasp on the complexity of the process and we’ve learned a lot of tricks to make it every bit as fun as it was the first time; every bit as magical and rewarding with fewer mistakes and hiccups than in the past. Bottling and boxing are the choke points and this year it was far more daunting, especially when we offered the cured meats as an almost offhand extra. I can’t say I’ll try and repeat the effort without some serious thoughts of outsourcing the product fulfillment, hopefully to my children. I still have six boxes packed and sitting on a shelf in the sugarhouse, contents noted on the outside and no mailing label to go with them. If you are one of those readers who requested an order and found that it has yet to come and can still manage to grant me forgiveness for my oversight I will ship the box out promptly. If you are one of those who already received yours we thank-you sincerely. Each morning when we make the trip to the Post Office I find myself opening the handwritten envelopes with something approximating childish glee, not because there are checks or FRN’s enclosed, but because of the notes within. I read the words that people took the time to write to me with a smile on my face and the ladies that work there always comment on how happy they are when they place the letters in our box knowing what we’re getting back. This year I received so many unusual and thoughtful gifts, homemade preserves and chili sauce, fresh roasted coffee beans and a beautiful hand turned bird’s eye maple conductor’s baton. A subscription to what is now my favorite magazine, several books written by the same people who enjoy what I write and which now line my shelves. I received an especially beautiful monograph landscape by an artist who somehow captured the light of our fields in his studio two thousand miles away, and it hangs on the wall right across from where I write each morning. Of all these gifts and offerings the thing I can’t help but notice just how meaningful the words written on the craft paper and note cards are, how they have the power to bring up my spirits every time and send me back to whatever it is that is on my plate with a smile on my face and feeling that some kind of connection has been made with people I will never meet. I keep them all in bundles tied with baling string in an old trunk and if I ever feel like the day is more than I can stand up to, I open that box and sit for a bit and re-read them again to remind myself that there are far more good people out there than any other kind even if it seems that all the focus is on what’s gone wrong.

I rose up early this morning to catch the sunrise from the terrace. The sky began to lighten at 3:30, the color of lead against the fading blue-black of space. I made my coffee and went out and stood with the dogs watching the steam rise up from the trout pond and saw the gold come up in the east, ragged tatters of clouds sliding to meet the Sun. The ducks walked up the driveway in file murmuring to themselves and the new bull criss-crossed the paddock over and over while we stood there. To the left of the house in the distance Mount Kearsarge stood against the backdrop of dawn, and for just a moment the Sun held beneath the edge of the far treeline and then appeared. Summer. I turned back towards the west and watched as the sweep of color rose against the trees and the fields and the bull stood motionless regarding the sunrise just as we had, that ephemeral moment in time that marked not only the zenith, but the procession back towards the darkness. And so I came back in and sat down to write this, one word after another, as close to what I wanted to say as I am likely to get.

Words have an effect and once they are let loose there is no taking them back. When you are younger you are far more apt to say things without first considering the long term effects, but over time you slowly figure out that some things are best left unsaid. And so I keep a great deal in, the things I ruminate on, and before I let them loose I try and craft them into something that will approximate the truth as I understand it. I do not wish to do much more than record the passing of the years as we experience them on this piece of land in a place removed from epic struggles of our time, but what I try to do is to represent as closely as I am able the way that these moments unfurl. Sometimes the things I have said have missed their mark, or failed to keep my actions to their account. Promises made have been broken, but with the right frame and a commitment, they have been cobbled back together into something that will do and sometimes that is all you have. What I have learned is that just as it is with sailing, we have to constantly change our tack if we wish to reach our destination, judging the direction of our travel by reckoning, zig-zagging back and forth to reach whatever it is that we think we are heading towards, one word at a time.

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