Home Again

We spent the better part of the day cleaning up the sacrifice, one load after another of manure piled into windrows for composting in the warming air of May. The smell is powerful, but filled with promise, like the scent of bread rising, cider fermenting, meat roasting. What they produce isn’t waste, it’s essential to the life of the farm and once the bacteria and oxygen get to it the temperatures rise and with each lift of the bucket columns of steam escape the mounds of dark brown carbon filled with fragments of straw, hay stalks, wood chips, and shavings. By late afternoon I have begun to repave the area with fresh bank-run sand carved out of the face of the eskar down by the stream and all the while the cows have been keeping an eye on me, jaws working on the green grass of new pasture. Only one calf has joined us so far this season though the rest of the cows are swollen to the point of exhaustion and they groom themselves and each other in anticipation of their own calving. The new heifer calf, the only Hereford born on this farm with an all brown face, has taken an attachment to me and follows me as I make each pass on the tractor. Her mother, the second generation born on the farm, has always been affectionate towards me and I wonder if there isn’t a little bit of genetic pass through in their domestication. Towards the end of the day the mother and her calf trod up the long hill from the stream and the calf lay down in the corner and fell asleep while her mother returned to the herd for a last graze. I check each time I bring another load back and eventually I stop looking, lost in other thoughts. At nightfall I turn off the tractor and watch as the tired cows wander back into the hay barn, empty now but for the shavings on the floor and the chains and implements hung on the walls. As I make my way back to the house I can hear the mother bawling to her calf, calling her to milk, a solid trumpet of mooing that repeats itself four times, insistent and as old as time.

The temperatures so far have been well below normal this spring; the fiddle head ferns have been blackened by frost twice, the lilacs have yet to burst with their perfumed allure and the other morning when I pulled a tarp off a project from the evening before a sheet of ice flew off and shattered on the paved apron in front of the garage barn. In the morning there is a plume of blue vapor rising from the trout pond and they say we may get snow for Mother’s Day. It is hard to get too excited about the summer when we have yet to put away our winter gear in the mudroom but each day brings us just a little bit closer and the light lasts longer a few minutes every evening, so there’s that. Still with spring there is always the anticipation of something coming, of light and warmth and other things as well, even if we can’t articulate what that may be.

Our oldest son came home last week with a friend he met in Ohio, a senior at the University in Bowling Green and next week two more will join us for the summer. How he was able to talk them into serving internships on the farm I will never know, but we are grateful for it and he has decided to be their foreman for the twelve weeks they will be staying with us. I get the labor of four 20 year-old men and they get the experience of working on a diversified organic family farm in New England, satisfying their graduation requirement as well as their curiosity about the rocky world of the old east. Only one has any real experience having grown up on a large crop farm in the Midwest but the others come with their enthusiasm and we will do our level best to make this a year worth remembering. They’ve set up the loft in the big barn as living quarters, two thousand square feet under scissor trusses we put up when we rebuilt after the fire and they will turn it into a finished living space, setting electrical boxes and recessed lights, pulling wire and insulating walls and ceiling. They’ll harvest the rock maple and mill the boards that will serve as a finished floor and walls, learn how to sweat copper water lines and install the PVC plumbing, build cabinets and counter tops, and do everything a contractor would do for a fraction of the cost. We’ll show them how we manage planting and harvest schedules, they’ll spend the mornings caring for the livestock and doing the common chores of the homestead, but we’ll work on other things as well, looking at the bigger picture that we all have a small part in — the economics of labor and industry, the cycles of Nature, the underpinnings of everything that lives and dies here. For selfish reasons I look forward to having the summer to direct energies of people with younger bones and muscles as opposed to using my own, especially on the more arduous tasks. But there is an underlying desire to get to know these young men for what they represent to the future. My own son is an outlier, I understand that. His way of looking at the world, his work ethic and his sense of humor are rare in today’s world, especially with this generation, but he has drawn other young men into his sphere who are equally talented and driven and I have seen with my own two eyes the pure and unadulterated passion they have for whatever is coming. They understand that the world ahead is going to be radically different than the one that came before and if they put their best effort into preparing they stand a fair chance of riding a wave that will allow for them to fulfill their role as the next hero generation, that I truly believe.

The morning after I finished up with the manure I awoke to the sound of the mother cow, just as I had heard her the night before — a four beat call, pause, and another. She waits to hear from the calf and so do I, my ears alert for the sound that doesn’t follow. What I do not want to write about again is another sad calf story, I have written enough of them. As soon as I get to the barn I can see the mother pacing the gate and of course, as expected there is no calf to be seen. Whether it went through under the fence during the night or wasn’t in the barn when I closed the gate the night before it is gone and my heart drops in my chest. Another failure on my part, trusting things instead of making sure with my own two eyes simply because the day has run long and my body has run out of steam. I kick myself and wonder how I will spin this when the kids come out to visit the calf as they do every morning. I open the gate and let the herd out to look for the calf together, something they seem eager to get on with and they pour through the opening heads bowed down at a trot. I stand by the gate for a moment before heading in the opposite direction, hoping that I find it before they do. We have had predator issues in the past and even with the dogs on full alert they always manage to reassert themselves once we’ve established some sort of control. We’ve seen the big cat twice now despite the repeated denials of the Fish and Game officers who state emphatically that there are no mountain lions in New Hampshire, but please, please do not shoot one if you see it because that’s against the law and we’d have to arrest you. So we keep a look out for signs of whatever may be out there scoping us out.

By nightfall it becomes clear that the calf is gone. I put the cows back into the paddock just before dark, the mother defeated but continuing her calls despite the entire day passing without success in locating her newborn. I feel beaten myself and when I confided in my wife the loss I asked her not to tell anyone, hoping I suppose to save face. I had told my daughter that calves have a masterful sense of how to remain still and hidden until their mother comes for them and how that ability allowed them to survive as a species and that it was probably just waiting for the cow to come back and find her wherever she’d been concealed. I tell that story to myself too, but it doesn’t shake my feeling of sadness that another calf, the first one since the one I lost on Christmas day, has gone missing, two days in a row and I wonder why I told her that story at all.

The next day our son and one of his friends spent the afternoon cleaning out the second floor of the garage barn, turning it into a dormitory of sorts for the summer. They organized and arranged our belongings that had been stashed up there and made sense of the space, even setting up a nice spot to sit and play cards while watching the sunsets. Halfway through the day and a dump trailer filled to the brim with discards to go to the transfer station, he came to me with an old metal box. I recognized it as the tote I had used when I was a comic on the road. “Look inside,” he told me and so I opened it up, for perhaps the first time in twenty years. And when I did there was, carefully filed away, every story, every script, every joke, article and essay I had written during that period. I thought that they had been lost in the fire five years ago and when I saw the titles of all those pieces I had written I am sure that a smile spread across my face. I try not to get attached to things and I think I have been that way for most of my life, but every once in a while something creates its own value that surpasses our expectations. It isn’t necessarily the things we think should be important that wind up being that way, but it happens just the same. To see all the years of effort I’d long ago written off — no pun intended — assembled carefully in that box and the happiness it brought my son to hand it back to me filled me with the kind of joy that makes being human worth the effort. I haven’t dug into them yet, I will most likely wait until winter when the nights are long and I have plenty of time to revisit the things I thought I lost a long, long time ago.

On Friday I made my usual run to the grocery store to pick up produce for the pigs and by the time I got back to the farm my son was out feeding the chickens in the yard and he came up to the truck as I pulled in. We exchanged good-mornings and he put his arm around my shoulders and we walked across the lawn, green now and soft with grass and I could feel him directing me as we slowly made our way to the hay barn. As we got closer I could see the cows mobbed up at the gate waiting to go back out onto the pasture and I couldn’t help but think of the calf but I kept my chin up and basked in the presence of my son walking beside me, the two of us working together and sharing the morning. When we got closer he dropped his arm and looked over at me with a big grin. I have to give it to him, in retrospect, he was very cool in keeping his secret. There, beside the gate, stood the calf with its coat shining in the glow of dawn as if it had never been gone at all.

In one week my son, my stories and the calf have all come back and I could not be a happier man.

Things fall away from us our entire lives; people, passions, things. We are really just transients here, taxi cabs for our genetic inheritance that make our way from the cradle to the grave. But all that time in between, all the associations and memories, our love and our sense of meaning always seems to find us lingering along the edges of something eternal. We make our marks, on paper or on the world, in our own way, one at a time. And as they spool out into the past they always seem to find their way back to us again, home at last.

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