Late yesterday afternoon I hiked up to the south pasture to check conditions. The snow pack is still deep in places, but where the erratics poke through there are broad expanses of exposed ground and where the soil has softened in the sun the grasses have begun to emerge, dark green and healthy. From this distance I can watch the herd at the feeder in front of the hay barn and hear the sound of the calves calling out to their mothers with that feeble bleat of day olds in search of a teat. The stately maples that line the edge of our cleared land have already begun to bud and from a distance it appears like a rose colored fog has settled into the black lacework of bare branches. Lower, along the streams and the wetlands there is another color emerging that gives a golden glow to the poplar stands and behind it all there is the melodic percolation of melt water cascading between well worn paths of bare ledge and granite boulders. I started out the day with several layers, but have pared down to work pants, t-shirt and muck boots and the radiant heat from the setting sun is still so warm that for an instant I think about taking off the shirt, too, just to feel it on my skin for the first time in months. I climb up onto the front wall of the pound, a large stone construction at the edge of the property that we built to control animals and use as a pen for farrowing. Although we only built it six years ago it has begun to sink into the field and the color of the rock has mellowed from exposure so that it looks like an ancient structure already, a stone keep to repel intruders, a weathered ruin from another time. Sitting up on that wall in the declining light, listening to the distant sound of water and livestock, the occasional cry of a bird from the woodline and watching the flat, white moon slide up from the east above the maples brings such a deep sense of peace and purpose that I am at a loss for words, finally.
I have been working with a couple of young men lately, mid 20’s, healthy guys with quick minds and great attitudes. Neither of them come from material wealth or privelege, but I know their families and how they operate and I can see that what they may have missed out on in terms of new cars or trust fund legacies they have been more than compensated in the basic tools of success. When you work with someone on a physically demanding task what becomes apparent is the frame; how a person sets about accomplishing a goal. A guy who can dig a hole four feet deep into rocky soil with a shovel and a smile is better to work with than someone who does the same job in half the time complaining all the while. These young men, for all their millenial baggage, have none of the entitlement quirks so often associated with their genertional cohort. They put their shoulder to the day’s tasks with the same kind of enthusiasm they show when they are preparing to head out camping or snowboarding. They went to public school together as young boys, at the same schools my children attend and they often share stories with me as we work about how much they hated school and why. Both of them are clearly intelligent — you can see it in their eyes, close set and intense when they talk about something they find interesting — but neither have gone much further than a year or two of college. Both of them have travelled extensively across America, alone and using nothing more than a thumb to get from point a to point b and this experience has shaped their world view from what would have been parochial into something broader and insightful. I listen to the stories they tell about the people they’ve met, the trains they hopped, the situations they got into and out of relying on wits and slowly accrued knowledge of people and places and think that few, if any, degreed professionals would be able to do the same with anything approaching the confidence I see in these two. There are some lessons that cannot be taught, no matter how much someone pays for it and these young men have a well to draw on without the price tag of a four year degree. I show them all the tricks I know using tools and skill sets I have picked up over the last forty years or so and they are becoming capable tradesmen without having that as a goal. For now they are working for cash, one to pay for a) an outstanding student loan, albeit small and b) enough pay for a slot in medical school. The one who wants to be a doctor has his EMT certification as well as experience riding with a small urban ambulance squad. The compensation for that, he told me, was not much more than minimum wage even with his certification and I was surprised. I had always assumed that ambulance workers and EMT’s were part of that highly prized government jobs sector I always hear about, but it turns out that most of it is outsourced for high prices to the contractor and low wages to the employees. His stories about the conditions of most of the places they responded to were dismal and saddening; drug addicts, morbidly obese, violent, mentally ill, hoarders living in unimaginable filth. “It’s always the same people,” he told me once. “Same apartments, same situations, same outcomes.”
“What’s the solution?” I asked him.
His eyes smiled before his face did. “There isn’t one.” he answered.
When I came out to check on the cattle the other morning there was a new set of baleful eyes regarding me from a minature cow’s face. The bull calf must have come recently since the ragged end of the umbilicus was still hanging like a bloddy rag from his midsection, but he was standing on his own and regarding everything in the barnyard with an equal measure of curiosity. As soon as I entered the gate he made his way to me on wobbly legs to check me out and the cattle dogs circled him repeatedly, sniffing their newest charge with an equal measure of intrigue. The mother lowed plaintively rather than with concern and I thanked God for the gift. Having lost the first calf of the season stung, not so much because of the loss, but because I held myself partly responsible for not having prepared for such hard weather. I have learned, however, that I am not able to handle every exigency that comes up and that some things happen no matter what you do. One made it, one did not, seven more to go.
The Australian is in heat and the Border Collie has been making every effort to see to it that there will be a new litter of pups by June. My wife hates this part because she is convinced the female is not having a good time. I tend to agree with her, but there’s nothing I can do about nature and the dog is in season and it is what it is. There’s a waiting list for our puppies, both of whom have superior genetics for working dogs and over the top personalities to boot. The kids want a litter because puppies are cute and because we’ll be needing a replacement for the pack anyway, so my wife will have to endeavor to perservere, a doleful look in the dog’s eyes notwithstanding.
The young men I have been working with talk a great deal about social justice. They share an apartment with another young man who is an activist from the Occupy school. When they first started talking to me about that kind of thing I held my tongue because I wanted to hear what they had to say, not set up an adversarial situation where I was the old guy with conservative views and they were the fresh faces of a brave new world. Their friend is paid to speak at colleges about recycling and the environment and has a small foundation — non-profit — that gets all kinds of funding from foundations and government grants. He is, in their words, a social justice warrior. They feel like they should care about the kinds of things he does, but they cannot help but notice that there is a disconnect between the message — wealth inequality and the environment — and the reality — he doesn’t wash the dishes or clean up behind himself and he doesn’t work, he just talks about what other people should do. I have watched them gradually become cynical based not on intellectual points, but on tangible realities. Daily they have come to see their friend as a hypocrite for preaching about self sufficiency while living his life dependent on the work and financial support of others, and for constantly pushing an agenda of acceptance and tolerance while he judges harshly those who do not share his opinions. Last week the SJW was facing a dillema, they told me. He had to speak at a college in Indiana, but because of the recent law signed by the Governor he was considering a boycott in solidarity with the LGBT movement. “How did that turn out?” I asked. “He needed the money.” They answered, smiling. Lately they have been talking about moving out of their apartment, of finding a small piece of land and building a tiny house or in the case of the EMT, putting in the effort to go to medical school and becoming a doctor. Both want a dog. “Remember,” I told them, “It’s much easier to talk about things than to do them. Not everyone can make that distinction.” It wasn’t advice, but it was the kind of thing I knew they’d file away.
The other evening my youngest son kept coming over to me as I read, tilting his head back, mouth wide open to show me his loose tooth. He had blood smeared on his fingers and every time he’d walk away from he’d have his arms rocking akimbo as if he were wrestling angels, trying to work the tooth loose from it’s socket. Finally he came up, a big blood smeared smile on his jack-o-lantern face, an ivory tooth the size of a pebble displayed triumphantly between his thumb and finger. “What’ll I get for this one?” he asked me in a voice that sounded like a younger, calmer version of Daffy Duck. With the saw tooth edge of an adult tooth already showing in the vacant spot I know that as parents we have just crossed another threshold and that this is the end of this part of childhood for us.
Winter is on it’s way out for good even if there is still a decent snowpack out there. The sun has come up in the east and from where I sit and write I can see the flock of turkeys circling each other, the toms with their fans on full display, the hens admiring them from a distance. The Border Collie is still haunting the Australian as she trots out to the lower pasture, following her like a box car. My son got five dollars for the tooth, ten times what I got when I was his age, I tell him. The young men I was working with have gone on to another project but I told them to come see me about a puppy if they were serious and made sure to tell them what a good job they’d done and that I was proud of their efforts. I have no doubt that both of them will do whatever they set their minds to, that nothing will stop them if they keep doing the kind of work that they’ve done with me. Somewhere there will be a tiny house that will be well built and there will probably be a well trained dog attached to it. And hopefully, somewhere further down the line when I am older and in need of a good doctor, I will know exactly who to see and we will shake hands like old friends and I will take his advice, knowing full well that he knows what he is doing.