Building Something

The plan for the day was to drive out around the lake to the mill and load up wood shavings. This meant installing the sideboards on the dump trailer and I was up in the back with the screw gun and a handful of GRK’s when the Jehovah’s Witnesses drove up. They stop by the farm a few times a year to see how we’re doing and give me the latest copy of their tract AWAKE! and we have developed an easy going friendship over the years. They know our children by name, always comment on the view or the fact that I’m always working on something when they visit and then we talk about whatever else is going on. Sometimes they’ll read a couple of verses from the Bible — they always ask first — and then we’ll say our goodbyes. They have an agenda, I understand that, but it’s clear by now that I’m not a soft target so they’ve dropped their pitch and go more for the casual visit approach. They seem to genuinely enjoy the conversation and I know they like the place and the activity. They often bring children with them, sitting with forlorn looks in the backseat of the car until I offer to show them the new piglets, calves, puppies or whatever happen to be around at the time. I climbed down from the back of the trailer and set the screw gun on the tailgate and shook hands all around and inquired to their health and life in general. We chatted for a bit and they got to their pitch.

“Do you think it’s important to have a positive attitude?” the woman asked. I smiled and turned my head back towards the sugar house with the tanks full of sap waiting to be turned into syrup, the big space where the old barn used to stand before the fire, the fields lined with fences below, animals standing in paddocks watching us; hogs and weaners, cows and calves, flocks of chickens wandering among the crusted scabs of snow along the edge of the driveway.

“What do you think?” I replied.

“Of course, of course…”

They asked me, for the first time, what I thought of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I responded that they were always welcome up here, that I found their positive attitude to be inspirational and then asked them what it’s like to go up to people and try to engage them on such a personal topic on their own turf, knowing that most folks have their minds made up.

“Not everybody is as happy to see you, I bet.”

The older man smiled and shook his head, “No, not always. Men especially. Lots of doors get slammed in your face.”

“Do you think it’s important to have a positive attitude?” I asked him.

They both smiled at that question, coming back their way and we all laughed a little bit at the congruence.

We talked a little bit about the newest dog who had been watching us with rapt attention and I showed them a couple of the tricks that we’d taught her. They walked with me into the barn so I could get them some eggs to take home and before they left we all stood on the edge of the big hill and looked at the mountains off in the distance without saying anything at all. We said our goodbyes and then they got back into their car and drove down the lane with the dogs running escort alongside and I returned to my work.

I load up shavings at a small mill on the far side of the lake, a family run operation that’s been four generations in the same family. They do flooring and siding, milled hardwood for the big lake houses and some big timbers for the post and beam builders and except for Sundays the place is always running. I pull the truck in and back the trailer into the slip beneath the bin room where the blowers throw the shavings and fetch the key from its hidey hole under the stairs. The machinery of the mill slows and then dies as they always turn off the equipment when someone loads, how they know still a mystery to me. The treads on the staircase are narrow and each riser is ten or eleven inches in height, definitely not OSHA approved, but sturdy still after a hundred and seventy years of use. Shoveling shavings is a job that is both easy and difficult. You first have to scrape away enough of the wood chips and dust to find the trap door in a room with no light, then you open it and the ambient light from below illuminates the room so that you see the swirling mist of particles that float in the room, the air carrying them upwards from the hatch in the floor. You poke at the mounds of shavings with a three prong fork until the drifts collapse on themselves and then use an old snow shovel to push them through the hole into the trailer below. No matter how you try and protect your eyes there is a film that stays for hours afterward, a gauzy screen of maple dust that irritates and dulls the world. I tie a bandanna over my mouth and nose and set to work. As you pull at the pile and it gives way in clumps and falls around you feet, you can see the history of the wood they’ve been milling over the past few days; undulating waves and stripes of whitish ash, the ochre of pine, the dark red bands of oak atop the umber swirl of walnut. I can almost tell how many board feet they’ve produced just by looking at the excavated pile, the days of labor that went into each layer, one on top of another. It reminds me not a little of the eskar on the farm, how each loader cut into the hillside reveals the lamina of bank run and silt, gravels and fine sand carried on the underside of a half mile of glacier and deposited in frozen history for whomever decides to reveal what lies beneath. Shoveling wood shavings in cold weather is nowhere near as troublesome as it is when the temperature in that room is hovering in the nineties. Something about the cold turns the chore into a soothing retreat in the semi-darkness, the chuff-chuff sound of the blade across the well worn floorboards like a monastic chant, powdery effluent falling through the illuminated square at my feet again and again.

When I finish loading I sweep up the drift of spilled shavings around the trailer up into the tailgate section and fasten down the tarp with bungees then head into the shop to pay for the load. The sound of the equipment turning back on builds slowly, an ascending hum and a higher whine of the engines behind it, the mill coming back to life.

I try and bundle my off-farm chores into blocks so that I waste as few miles and fuel as possible. On my way back from the mill I stop at the grocery store and pull around to the loading dock in back. The produce department bags and boxes the skins and rinds of the watermelons and apples they cut up each day for the salad bar along with the old bananas, cabbages, sweet potatoes and herbs that have passed their use by date. I load the food into the back of the pickup and head to the restaurants and pick up the grey totes filled with preps, potato skins and carrot shavings, celery stalks and pineapple tops. The smell that comes from these cans is never unpleasant, but earthy, rich and sweet. I feed the hogs an ever changing menu of fruits and vegetables, sacks full of cast of lettuce and slightly soft onions, blueberries just past their peak, strawberries and pears, bok choi and asparagus. There is a brewery that produces black totes filled with warm grain redolent of hops and malt that the animals go for as if it were candy and I place these in stacks next to the boxes of old tomatoes and broccoli. When I dump the feed in their troughs I think that they probably eat better than most people and every time they finish up they come to me and place their heads against my legs, as if they were thanking me.

Driving back to the farm with a truck and trailer filled to the brim with the by products and waste of others I listen to the radio, concerned voices trying to sound serious and full of gravitas but coming off like pompous teenagers. Everyone seems to know so much, to be so sure of everything, but nothing they say ever really seems to come to fruition. It’s as if the talk itself is their labor, that if enough words are thrown out into the world in the right sequence and with the proper tone or severity, the problems and needs will come to resolution. They build upon it day by day, their Empire of hot air, always receding before them like the tides. As I drive back along the southern shore of the lake I notice the rose colored mist of maple buds forming on the ridges, each one so small it couldn’t be seen if you looked for it, but in aggregate it appears like a tangible mist upon the treetops, Spring poking at the edges of the dying Winter.

I had a visitor the other day, a man who knew me only from what I write on the blog and he showed up just as I was finishing up some chores. I’d been tapping maples all morning and had run out of steam. Usually I take it easy on Sunday, but during sugaring season it’s not really that easy to put things aside. The sap runs when it runs and then it’s over and you have to get the work done no matter how you feel. It was nice to be able to take some time to just take a walk around the farm and talk with someone new about what we’re working on and what we’ve done. Having another set of eyes to take in the view is refreshing; where I see things undone and in need of attention, someone else sees progress and industry. We found that we were very similar in many ways, especially as it relates to our feelings about raising a family and living a life with a sense of purpose and I enjoyed the company. My wife had gone to pick up my daughter from a sleepover and taken our youngest son with her, so it was just me and the dogs that afternoon and it gave us an opportunity to talk without interruption. We looked at the newer pastures I was bringing into production, the ones we’d finished and the stone walls that bordered them. Off in the distance the cattle heard was strung out along the maple orchard heading out to graze on new forbs and we stopped now and again to visit the hogs or inspect the sugar house, no real plan other than to enjoy an hour without obligation. Every time I began to think that he couldn’t miss the rock piles I hadn’t turned into walls he’d say something about how much we had done and I started to take stock of our accumulated accomplishments instead of focusing on our failures. By the time we came back around to the house I felt like I had been given a boost and I was grateful for the friendly conversation and inspiration he’d given me in exchange for a tour of the farm. I offered him a package of ground beef before he left as a thank you and he promised he’d come back and visit again sometime, maybe buy some beef or pork and we shook hands and said our goodbye. When he left instead of heading into the house to rest in the quiet while my family was gone, I headed back out to tap a few more maples before the light failed.

Things build up, over time. Glacial tills and mounds of wood shavings. A person becomes what they are one act at a time until the accretion of everything we do turns into the character we have built. On the surface things look static, but nothing really is. We are layered, each one of us, like the land and what people see is never what we are for long. What we do is important, yes, but how we do it is far more significant. Maybe it is as simple as a positive attitude and the next time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come by to visit I’ll share that insight with them. I listen to the people on the radio and realize that even though they try and sound like they know what they’re talking about they are probably as clueless as I am, throwing out words the way I shovel wood chips, one stroke at a time until something of substance appears. You keep at it, day by day, one small act after another, done with purpose and before you know it you’ve accomplished whatever it is you were put here to do.

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