April Showers

The other morning one of the dogs was waiting for me at the door with a muzzle full of porcupine quills. The look on his face, a mix of pain and humiliation almost broke my heart. He’d done it before and I was certain he’d learned his lesson, but a male that hasn’t been neutered is a wild card. I dressed quickly and grabbed a pair of work gloves then took him into the shop with me and set to work with a pair of hemostats and patience. There is no easy way to remove quills but if you grasp them firmly about a half inch from where they protrude in order to get a good grip on each one and pull in the opposite direction of where it entered, you stand a fair chance of extracting them intact. At the same time you must be careful to avoid the dog’s resistance to the process because it is equally likely that you will catch one yourself, as I have done on more than one occasion and they are painful as all get out. He knew what was coming and was as patient and still as he could manage for the first dozen but then began to pull away so we took a break and sat together in the dim light of the dawn, me stroking his head and speaking quietly about his gaffe and he leaned into me with soft groans his eyes clenched shut from the pain. “I feel for you”, I told him, “I really do, but you have to learn to choose your battles.” He looked up at me with wet eyes trying to discern my meaning, but I knew it was out of my hands. Males do what they do when they sense a threat and his devotion to that core principle of his character wasn’t something my words were likely to change. Sitting there in the cool air of the barn with the sound of the rooster just starting up for the day reminded me that we had a great deal in common.

It’s been an odd Spring, for a lot of reasons. We had no snow coming into the sugaring season so most of the tap lines had to be reset lower adding days of work to an already difficult and time consuming project and they will have to be re-set once more before next Winter. There were the odd swings from balmy to frigid and back again between the time we set them and the time we went back to pull them which led to a curious yield — dark syrup earlier, light syrup later — something none of the old timers around here have ever experienced before. The good news was that we sold everything we made by virtue of this blog in less than a week and I know that our syrup is being enjoyed from one end of this country to the other. Our first bull calf was born the other day, the latest in the year we’ve ever had one drop and he came with such ease it was like watching a soda can come out of a vending machine. Within an hour it was pretending to graze beside its mother its muzzle covered in milky foam. The forsythia has yet to bloom despite a week of temperatures in the fifties, but the birches are already covered in pendulous aglets, the buds swollen and turning to leaves. By now we’d have daffodils and crocus up the length of the driveway, but this year they are barely poking through the grassy sod while the lilacs are less than a week from full bloom. We took the .22 out to pick off a few squirrels that have been keen on molesting the sweet taps in the maple orchard and within an hour we had sixteen fat gray bodies in a neat pile, ready to be skinned and tossed in the stew pot. In times past I’d be lucky to get three before they caught on and made themselves scarce, but this year they couldn’t overcome their desire for sugar and made themselves easy targets and we proceeded to cut down their population one at a time.

Spring in New England is not always cherry blossoms and tulips. Yes, we have both and as beautiful as they are they serve less as a focal point to the lengthening day and more as a backdrop to the erratic weather systems that move in and out with regularity. On Sunday it reached seventy degrees, by Tuesday night it was seven. We experienced a refreshing thunderstorm and all its majesty, the bright flashes of light and thunderous roar of each strike echoing across the Mink Hills and three days later it snowed all day long, from dawn until dusk. By morning next it was gone and the grass was two shades darker and half an inch higher. Poor man’s fertilizer. I can’t say that there is any particular season I love the most, each as unique and beautiful as the one it follows or precedes, but Spring excites something deeper than the others, a curiosity I suppose to see what has been hidden underneath the blankets of white and frozen soil. The manure from the autumn has broken down in the fields and everywhere are signs of turkey having pulled them apart, the scattered spread of fertilizer thrown this way and that by hungry birds looking for worms underneath. The downed branches and trees fallen in wind storms or from the crusted ice imply themselves in the softening turf where they lay all Winter long. As I walk each day I make mental notes of what needs work and what can wait, but underneath my low level plans I sense a higher motive that is already on its game and hard at work without me. Watching this process, Nature’s ceaseless industry, allows you to feel small again, unimportant and insignificant and this is not an unwelcome thought. We really are just specks, fragments of something much larger and all our efforts, as great as they seem in the human sphere are but another fallen limb or decaying drift of Autumn leaves hunched up at the foot of a stone wall. In the modern world we make the human effort seem larger than it is — we state our problems, focus on our desires, propose solutions and initiate programs. Huge sums of money are amassed to solve the concerns that Nature takes care of gratis and without fanfare. We set up super funds to clean the waters we have fouled in the process of doing some other thing we couldn’t live without and all the while the work of filtering and oxygenating, ionization and clarifying is taking place in ten thousand runoffs and cascades, one rivulet at a time, every minute of the day. There are few things humans have in greater abundance than experts. They are everywhere all the time and they have all the answers to every question if only they had more money. People talk about raising the minimum wage, or the unprecedented incomes of CEO’s, but no one mentions the capacity of the unpaid labor of life itself, absent human intervention. Water and bacteria, plant life and livestock, growth and decay, each one linked inextricably to a highly functioning, ceaselessly operating system of balance and harmony. On the human side there are only the problems to be solved, errors to correct, mistakes to be fixed. On the radio the commentators speak to a seemingly endless supply of experts who use terms like ‘unintended consequences’ and ‘systemic failure’ and the answers always seem to rely on increased funding and newer technologies, but these solutions, given the brief window of history we have to look back on, always lead to more of the same. The more we spend on education, the lower the standards are adjusted, the greater the Defense budget, the more enemies we seem to create. The newest campaign to alter the climate of the planet itself is easily achievable, if only we have the will and enough money.

The longer you work at something, the more you begin to develop a shorthand form of accomplishing your work. Your movements slow down but your progress accelerates. It takes fewer actions to complete each task because your ability to understand the underlying function taking place becomes habit, second nature. There may be a conscious operation to this efficiency, but there is a greater and more powerful drive that lies beneath. In the same way that water seeks its own level, organisms seek the simplest means of achieving their ends. The cows wear paths along the edges of the field that do not always correspond with trails laid out and ruts are slowly worn down through the soil until it becomes clear that the ground that they have trod traces the spine of granite ledge hidden beneath. Were they aware of this when they took their first steps out onto the pasture all those years ago and why did I miss it myself? The hogs when let out of Winter pens head inexorably to the stands of oak to root at their massive butts for last years mast drops, mixing the detritus of fallen debris into airy fluffs before heading off to the next clump half a mile distant. How sharp can their sense of smell be to pick up the scent of a buried acorn from that distance and yet unerringly they move in their circuitous route from one clump to another. The cattle hunched over their bales hold up small contingents of goldfinches pulling at their winter coats, tugging out strands for their nests every year near the middle of April regardless of the weather. The budding of the poplars, followed closely by the soft maple is a progression that never varies regardless of the location of the copse.

In a single month it seemed as if a hundred things went wrong. A fuel line on the tractor ruptured as I was taking a bale to the cattle and so three hundred yards from the lowing animals I turned off the engine and began the process of removing the hose and set about finding a new one while the cows looked at their feed with impatience. I started a discussion online at a blog I frequent which led to some comments that dragged up the buried past and it weighed on me for days. I questioned whether I should continue to write this blog and one night I discussed the matter with my wife for hours. She had advised against me publishing anything again after my first run in with the thought police back in 2003, but I had convinced her that if I remained fixed on the topic of how we had turned back to a simpler life, what fault could anyone find in that? Reluctantly she agreed and I tried to remain positive, upbeat and hopeful that I could describe a life worth living and maybe fix the things I’d screwed up before. She was right as she usually is and for a multitude of reasons. I didn’t want to go back and rehash something I had no way of changing, but I didn’t want to continue doing something if it meant I had to re-live the past, over and over, like Groundhog Day. There was work on the farm that seemed to overwhelm me now that my oldest son was no longer around to pitch in and there were never enough hours in the day to catch up or finish the things I’d already started. One night when the temperatures were warm enough to leave the windows open the dogs went at it as if we were under attack, so I went outdoors in my boxer shorts and T-shirt only to find that the cattle were spread all over the woods below, calling back and forth to each other in the pitch dark. I put on boots and grabbed a small bucket of grain and spent the next two hours luring them back into the enclosure in twos and threes until the sky began to lighten in the east. Someone had left the gate latch unfastened — maybe it was the kids coming down to see the new calves, maybe it was me, distracted as I had been for weeks — but the night’s rest was gone now and bone tired I returned to the house with the dogs and made a quiet breakfast while the rest of the family slept. Our expenses lately have been crushing — my daughter needs braces and a new prescription for glasses, but chose instead to go with contacts. The last of the hay ran out and the grass is still only two or three inches at best in the better pastures so I have to buy in more bales to take me another month. I have to complete the cleanup from the sugaring season, pull thousands of taps, wash hundreds of buckets, scour the evaporator and pans, finish bottling and keep up with the orders as they come in. My energy flagged and my inner peace was failing but my responsibilities seemed to burgeon with each passing day.

Out of the blue I received two emails from my closest friends my old unit, more than three decades after our last contact. I had searched them out in the past over the passing years but had always failed to locate them. Their names were familiar to my wife and children from the stories I had told over the years, but there was never a face to put to the words and now I had something to show them. They sent old snapshots of us soaking wet and burdened down with rucksacks and LBE, clutching rifles in the jungle, looking like boys more than men, and there was my own face looking back at me over a span of a lifetime. It was almost a relief to know that they were living in different places doing things they loved and the exchanges went on for several days while we caught up on each other’s lives and we made plans for a reunion on the farm in the Fall. The thought of seeing these men after so many years and in light of all the things we had been through together so many years ago buoyed my spirits and gave me something to look forward to. I took this as a sign, of sorts and it changed my frame immediately.

I spent several days boxing up the syrup orders and making up the invoices. We don’t have the means to process credit cards, so I used the honor system, sending the bottles without payment in advance. I recognized some of the folks who had placed their order via email, but for the most part I was dealing with strangers, people who knew me only by the blog posts. I figured that if they had read about what it took to produce the syrup, there was no way that they would take advantage and if they did they must really need the syrup more than I needed the money and except for a brief conversation with my wife about why I was spending so much on postage out of pocket, I didn’t give it another thought. Within days of the last shipment going out the cards and letters began to come back in, most of them with personal notes about the syrup and how much they enjoyed it. Several of the customers sent back gifts as well; a beautifully crafted knife with a keen edge and a unique haft, an exceptional bottle of wine from the Simi Valley, homemade preserves, a hand knit blue wool watch cap, a jar of tupelo honey, a large bag of pine nuts, an extra $50 dollar bill “for your writing” and a small water color landscape of the Pacific Northwest coastline as a gift for my son. I kept all the letters and cards in a stack and on our Saturday date night my wife and I shared both the wine — delicious and intoxicating — and the uplifting messages of gratitude and support. In the end only three people failed to send payment for the syrup I’d sent. I tracked the deliveries through the USPS website and saw that they’d arrived, and I followed up each with an email to make sure that it was satisfactory, but I never got a reply. I imagine bigger, more important things must have happened to them that kept them from responding and counted myself lucky it was only a few people instead of most, but that’s been my experience with people in general. You can’t trust everyone to hold up their end, but most people will and if you plan accordingly you always come out ahead.

Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who promoted such diverse forms of study as bio-dynamic agriculture and epistemology posited that human beings experience cycles of development that clustered in seven year phases and that in each of these we experience profound and life altering changes that make us who we are if successfully negotiated. From one to the next there is a yaw and drift, from the individual needs to the collective influences, self and family, individuality and the larger society into which we either belong or are cast out of — and it is our ability to integrate each passing phase into the next that determines the course of our future and the way we make something of our lives or find ourselves mired in the past, unable to escape a prison of our own making. This is something I have intuited for some time now before having found the philosophy that articulates these thoughts and it is clear to me that it is as true as the passing of the seasons. It matters nothing that each man or woman is viewed as an asset or a failure by others if in their own soul they cannot find stability and contentment with their own life. We may be influenced by the opinions of the outside world, but we find our ultimate satisfaction and inner peace by how we perceive our own life. It is one thing to doubt what others think of us, it is another one entirely to doubt what we think of ourselves. Steiner was heavily criticized for his beliefs from both ends of the political and social spectrum of his time and was both persecuted and lauded for his philosophical positions, but he realized that like the sense of sight or sound we have the ability to think and to ponder on the inner workings of life and Nature itself. It was this sense, he said, was likely the most powerful one we possessed.

There is a widespread belief in the present world that there are no black and white issues, that everything is a diffuse gray. I have come to see that in life there is a polarity, a constant swing from darkness to light, right and wrong, up or down and that the only middle ground is found in such a brief moment as the pendulum swings back towards the apogee as to be imperceptible. Winter and decay, Summer and growth are the constants and the moment between them — Spring and Autumn — are but lines of demarcation, points on a graph that are theoretical rather than substantive. In this season as we germinate the seeds that will make up our crop and watch over the deliveries of calves and piglets, lambs and kids we are in reality moving from one extreme to another, from life to death and in that brief moment all things are possible. Change occurs, everything old becomes new again and there is a never ending sense of wonder concerning the mysteries that surround that central fact; that we are here and then we are gone and the only possibility for meaning lay in what we choose to do in that interim. I am in the first year of my eighth seven year cycle and my frame has changed like the weather while proceeding like the seasons. Having stood at the plateau of life I am now making my way back down into the valley that lies beyond and there is peace and joy in that path that has made all the difficulties and trials of the past well worth it. The world is still overwhelmingly filled with goodness and generosity to counterbalance the opposite.

Two weeks ago it was seventy degrees and yesterday began with a frost, followed by a crusty snow that fell in pellets and rattled on the tin roof of the barn. By afternoon the accumulated crusts of white had all but vanished and the thermometer read fifty-five in the shade and a warm front with strong winds from the south built up in the distance just over the edge of the Mink Hills. I’d finished feeding the chicks in their brooder and watering the cattle bunched up together looking out with baleful gazes at the greening pastures beyond their enclosure. I stood up on the edge of the drumlin, the tree frogs keeping up their chirpy chorus in the low spots as the sky darkened though the sound was strangely muffled, haunting. The dogs went loping off ahead of me when the first drops of rain began to fall and escalated rapidly until it fell in a drenching downpour, sheets of it obscuring the house, a pearly apparition in the distance. I listened to the thunder coming in and the older shepherd, ears folded back with each rumble, let loose with a series of yaps to the other dogs that it was time to get back to the barn and they started ahead without me. I picked up my pace at first, but the temperature was not uncomfortable and after a solid five months of freezing cold it was welcome, the rush of rain water, the peal of thunder rolling and I decided to slow down and walk through it, face upwards to the sky.

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