A Change in the Weather

For the past several nights the predators have staged a comeback. We’ve had several years of peace on that front since our last serious run-in with them and there has been, I’m sorry to say, a complacency on my part. Living as we do and where we do was a conscious decision on our part. I prefer to deal with the challenges of the Natural world at a comfortable distance from the heavily populated urban centers for a reason and so we deal with a different set of exigencies. One of the first years we lived up here we lost nine lambs to coyotes in less than a week. I hadn’t developed the skills nor the resolve to deal with the situation and after all those years it still grieves me to think of that failure on my part to do what I should have when I had the opportunity. I made a point to find someone who knew how handle that kind of situation and who had a reputation for being one of the most skilled and talented woodsmen in the area and asked him for his advice. He was gracious enough to allow me to work with him and to watch him handle similar situations and in time I had picked up enough to handle the problems we faced with some degree of efficacy. Over time we pushed back our forest wall through selective cutting, expanded the range of our grazing for the cattle, brought in our flocks for lambing season and kept them under our watch and protected by a larger pack of guardian dogs than we had before. We used the hogs at the edge of the property to serve as a screen from the predators because we’d discovered that even bear are spooked by half-ton boars with six inch tusks. One trick I taught myself, almost by accident. When we slaughtered chickens I discovered that the scent of blood and viscera drew the coyote packs in from the State land to the west — you could hear them yipping and howling all night long during that week — and so I would dump the waste just over the big rock walls, mounds of feathers, entrails and chicken heads then rinse out the big tubs with water from the stream. The first few nights they’d clean up every scrap and keep their respectful distance from the farm proper. On the third night I had much less to dispose of and so I took the time to set traps all around the offal and sure enough in the first light of the next morning there were the swollen bodies of well fed coyotes fixed in place by old steel jaws, waiting for their dispatch. I did this for three years solid, every Summer when it was time to fill the freezer with fat broilers and on the third July I discovered something I hadn’t been expecting. While the remains on the far aide of the wall were cleaned up entirely, the piles on our side were untouched and the traps empty. They’d learned to keep to their side because the cost to their pack was more than the reward was worth to tempt a crossing.

You learn a great deal from seeing the same things over a very long period of time. Some secrets are kept simply because you haven’t taken the time to really pay attention to what is right in front of your eyes all along. For almost ten years I have been bringing a fifteen acre pasture back into shape by the regular addition of composted manure, seeding with vetches and clover. On the eastern side of the pasture is a long, low drumlin covered in red pine and white oak and the cows prefer to lounge there because of the shade the trees cast out into the deep green grass. There is a beautiful view of that aspect of the field every single time you come down the north face from the hay barn and every time I do I have noticed that there is an undulating line of superior growth interspersed regularly with a weakness in the soil, a sine wave that follows the base of the eskar from the sand pit at the bottom to the massive bull pine at the crest. I have made a hundred trips back and forth with one load after another, wood ash to sweeten the soil, manure to feed it and still that undulating line of green remains, vexing me. This year the drought was extreme and we have yet to come out of it despite the last couple of rains. A deep dry period reveals a lot in a landscape and as Autumn approached the weak trees were the first to go, their top branches dumping leaves unceremoniously, without color. Some of the biggest older ash and maples have given up their infirmity, skeletal branches rising up in the cerulean sky signalling their surrender. These will have to be felled this Winter after snow falls for next years firewood and to give some space to the new growth in the understory below. It pains me to see these ancient ones go, but that is the way things are and their sacrifice after all these years will serve others well, the stored up energy of 100,000 days of sunlight let loose in flames at night in half a dozen hearths across our village. The fields have done remarkably well considering and I take pride in having rebuilt the tilth of the soil to such a degree that the cattle still graze contentedly this late into the season. One day a few weeks ago I stopped to just look at the field from a vantage point across the brook. The dogs had settled around me in the shade and as they gazed off at whatever it was that caught their attention I suddenly saw what I had been missing all along. The curving line of dark green and weaker growth along the base of the hill beneath the grazing Herefords had nothing at all to do with soil quality, but with the shade patterns of the old growth on the flank of the hill. You could see clearly the way the light traced the edges of the treetops on the flattened surface of the big field, inclining as the Sun made its way to the western horizon. Part of the field spent more time in the cool darkness where the soil held the moisture longer and where there were gaps between the big stands of hardwood and conifers the field suffered under the bleaching light of day. All the manure on Earth wouldn’t have changed the pattern even if I had laid it down with mathematical precision and I may never have seen the cause and effect if I hadn’t taken that moment to simply pause in my day and behold a world that worked ceaselessly with or with me.

Last night when I came in there was a message on the refrigerator scrawled in my youngest son’s handwriting, a local phone number that I didn’t recognize and a woman’s name. I called and after a few rings she picked up and I told her who I was. She said that she was John Fortune’s daughter and that he had passed away on Wednesday and she thought I might like to know. I expressed my condolences and asked about the funeral arrangements and we said our goodbyes and then hung up the phone. I sat down at the desk for the longest time and thought about the old man and the times he had come up to visit since we’d moved here. I met him almost by accident and discovered that he had worked on our farm when he was in his teens, driving a team of horses to collect maple sap every Spring in the snow, spending countless hours in the cold collecting bucket after bucket on the hillsides and then turning the team back to the sugar shack at the end of each day. Later he had run the operation with the owner of the farm and another man and this I know because of the cache of bucket lids I found under a granite ledge, each one stenciled in orange letters- V.F.M. The F stood for Fortune, the M for Maxfield, the owner of the farm and the V? Neither man could remember due to age I supposed. Jack Maxfield passed away a couple of years ago but he visited us when he could and always thanked me for buying the farm from him even though there were several owners before I came along. His memory was not so good, but every time he came up the hill a lot of it came back and he would tell me stories about raising his family, hunting deer, treating patients in his home office where he doctored the small community in the years after the war. I showed him the bucket lids with the mysterious V. and he shook his head saying that he only remembered John Fortune and all the times they had spent making syrup and filling the gallon tins with sweet liquid in the earliest days of Spring before anything poked through the snow. The old sugar house, much larger than the one I built to replace it was nothing but a foundation now, but once when I was pulling artifacts of the old times out of it, I stumbled across some boards that had penciled writing on them. I pieced the boards together and then mounted them on the storage tank in the new sugar house, the records of the sugar operation going back to 1903; first tap, tapped out, buckets hung, gallons produced. This glimpse gave me an indication of what to expect from our own attempts and they were remarkably similar. The average start date from the beginning of the last century to the opening years of this one is still March 3rd, the number of taps has increased from 1,078 at its 1932 height then to almost 1,800 today, but that would be expected with the new lines and the growth of the new stock over the years. Last season, a couple of years after Dr. Maxfield had passed and while John Fortune was still alive I noticed something else I had overlooked. In 1952 the number of buckets dropped from its high by exactly 200. I thought on this for a while and one night it came to me. That was likely the year that V., whoever he was, had taken his buckets and gone home. The next time I saw John Fortune at the corner store nursing his coffee I brought that up and asked if maybe he remembered. He stood there in that befuddled way he had, still farming at 92 years old and nursing a bad shoulder from when the tractor rolled over on him the year before in the snow and his eyes lit up. He had remembered, but whoever it was he wasn’t sharing it with me and I let him keep that secret to himself. V. is just an initial on a sap bucket, a mystery that will never be solved now.

It was cold last night. There was steam rising in a column from the surface of the trout pond down at the bottom of the field and when I lay down to sleep I could barely move my right knee from the stiffness. I slept with the window open all night and dreamed about the kinds of things that old men dream about I suppose. Before dawn the yipping of the coyotes awoke me from my sleep and all the dark thoughts that have been swirling around because of the season, the climate, the change in the weather all filled that room with a sense of dread. The dogs took up after them, I could hear the sound of their furious paws galloping across the back yard heading off in the direction of the predators, the whole pack on a mission until I couldn’t hear them at all. There was a scant breeze that rattled the papery leaves of the maples in the dim light and I lay there in bed next to my sleeping wife and for the first time in a long while I wondered about the future. The weather is supposed to be stellar for the next few days and the leaf peepers will be up in force to see the blazing reds and yellows spread across the hillsides, offering an escape from the urban environments where other predators lurk. I don’t suppose that the changes coming will be anything new in the bigger sense of the world, but they will alter the landscape just the same. These movements from one season to the next, the ceaseless pendulum swing from one extreme to another are constantly visible but they conceal their own secrets for a very long time, in some cases forever. I wish I understood a great deal more than I do about how we wound up where we are in this particular moment in history and where it is that we are heading, but that’s not likely. I also think that there is not a great deal of difference between V.F.M. and U.S.A. and one day when I have long forgotten someone may ask me in my befuddled old age if I remember what the U. stood for a glimmer may come to my eyes as well but I will probably respond the way John did, gingerly holding his paper cup of coffee in a shaking hand and offer no answer at all.

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