A Thousand Things

A friend stopped by to borrow my dump trailer yesterday morning and as we were hitching it up, a granular snow began to fall.

May snow. Earlier that morning on the radio I had listened to a clip of Al Gore speaking at some conference on global warming, explaining that his organization had just begun to move “climate refugees” and I thought that they might want to send them up our way, let them get a taste of what it’s like to live with freezing temperatures when the air is filled with chickadees and the scent of lilacs. It didn’t amount to much of anything, no accumulation to speak of and by noon the sky was the color of cornflowers with scattered white clouds hustling across the horizon as if they had to be somewhere up north. I spent the rest of the morning, after chores, cutting rafters for the new hen house, big sixteen footers of 2x10 cut from hemlock each one heavy with sap. When I use the power saw I wear headphones to protect what little hearing remains and at intervals I would take them off and listen for the sound of birds or dogs. Hawks had been circling the barnyard since first light and the chickens were alternating between pecking in the yard or running back to the old coop for cover, depending on what the rooster was insisting, his eye constantly fixed on the sky. Our count was down — one comet was missing and there was a scattering of feathers near the gate that suggested we’d probably lost another red, too. The run under the back deck of the milk house was filled with new layers, all of them feathered out and eating at a furious rate, but they were still 10 weeks at least from producing their first eggs and demand was picking up with the warmer weather, so the loss of even one hen was a hit. On a good day I check the nesting boxes twice and always fill the wire egg baskets each time. If the eggs are clean they go right into the cartons and if they are dirty I stand at the mudroom sink and wash them by hand, one at a time. The feel of the eggs, the loaded responsibility of handling something fragile yet rugged in design is a delight every time The variety of hues, some speckled with darker flecks of brown, others the color of bleached bones is something that never gets old. In the thousands of crossings from the coop to the house I have probably missed the magic of what those eggs represent more often than I have thought of it, but some days it reminds me of why I spend the kind of time that I do working at something that will never be done to the sound of wind chimes tinkling in the breeze.

By noon there was another calf on the ground, this one a bright red heifer with a white stripe down her back and she was already nursing by the time I caught my first glimpse of her. The cow stood silently next to her newborn, the afterbirth in a pile at her hooves, and chewed cud methodically while the calf nudged her bag again and again, insistent, but gently as if it were sending telegraphed messages to her mother. The rest of the herd stood at a respectful distance and gazed at the newest addition with an abstract interest and at intervals the piebald let out a low moo, three short blasts and a pause, three more and another break, the sound echoing off of the hay barn behind them. The grass was up in all the pastures, but not tall enough yet to turn the herd out and whenever I looked at them during the course of the day their faces were inclined in the direction of the emergent vetch and clover, tinged blue by all the rain we’d had this past week, almost making a sound when the wind passed over it again and again in an invisible tide.

For Mother’s Day my daughter picked a basket of violets and for an hour while my wife slept in on Sunday we dipped each one in a froth of whisked egg whites and then into a pan of maple sugar until we’d filled a cookie sheet with small blossoms. We placed it in the warming oven until the sugar crystallized and then she decorated the cake she’d made with a spray of individual flowers spread across the frosting like they’d grown in our yard. I could see how proud she was and it was beautiful and every ten minutes or so my youngest son would sneak upstairs to peak in and see if his mother was awake yet, coming back down each time with a frown. There were cards on the kitchen table and the children couldn’t wait for her to open them, to read their messages, to hug them and tell them how much she loved them while they returned the hugs and loving wishes in return. While we waited I made them breakfast, cracking eggs, one after another, the room filled with the sound of the shells shattering against the rim of the mixing bowl.

I was watering the pullets and the poults on Wednesday morning when the man from NRCS drove up. He’d been working with us on a plan for a manure management area for our winter quarters and whenever he stopped by we’d end up taking a walk to look at something else. I have no idea how old he is, maybe twenty-five, maybe thirty, but he seems young. This was his first job out of college according to what he’d told me but he still seems new to it. A lot of what he does consists of telling me things we should do at some point, but his office is one of the lowest on the USDA totem pole and there is never any funding available so these things never come to pass unless we do it on our own. Still he comes and I enjoy it when he stops by because it gives me a chance to look at the things we’ve done since his last visit and to remind myself that work has been accomplished here and there, one bit at a time and he never fails to notice it. I think he is grateful to be out of his office for the day and he makes sure to tell me about each new shake up and restructuring that has gone on since last we spoke. Several months ago he tried to get me to use the new online portal for client services, a way to check the status of our farm in the USDA database and I had spent several hours filling out online forms in order to get in with no luck. I managed to speak to an IT guy at the Colorado office — the first time a government employee had ever picked up a phone on the first ring in my experience — and after an hour or more of his instruction we discovered that the system wasn’t working properly and both of us gave up. He told me that I was his first farmer to try and set up an account and I told him I hoped I wasn’t the last, but that I had had enough. The user ID, the passwords, each requiring a specific number of characters and numbers, letters in both caps and lower case and no repeats was so complicated I told him, that there was no way for me to ever remember them even if I wanted to. He apologized profusely and explained that the program had been outsourced to a private contractor and that there were a lot of bugs to be worked out and that even they were having trouble with it, but that it was nice to talk to me and he wished me good luck with whatever it was that I was working on back then. My NRCS rep asked about my experience with the online portal on this visit too and I told him that I’d never been able to get in, but that the IT guy in Colorado was very friendly and helpful even if the system was a bust. He laughed nervously and explained that they weren’t able to get it to work for anyone and that they’d had meetings to discuss discontinuing its use. I just nodded in agreement and walked back to the driveway with him and watched as he got back into his brand new government truck, freshly washed and waxed and asked him if the guys in the motor pool had done that or if he did it himself. “No,” he said, “they subcontract that, too.” He drove off with a nebulous plan to come back again with an engineer if they could get a hold of one and I stood at the top of the driveway and watched him leave in his nice, new truck, then went back to the poultry to finish what I’d started.

It’s easy to forget why you decided to do the things that you’ve done in life that lead to where you are. Most of us just go through the motions no matter how intentionally we try and live our lives. Some days you just get up and go about your business without giving it much thought. There is so much repetition in the motions of our day that you can become inured to the beauty of it all if you aren’t careful. I think of all the little details that I suddenly find myself catching for the first time more than halfway through a century of living simply because I didn’t notice them before. The perfection of the eggs I gathered each day, the symmetry and strength of the design and the perfection of flavor and nourishment they contained. The emergent grasses, the smell of fresh turned soil in the kitchen garden, the studious intensity of the hens picking over each dark clod of loam. I stood in the yard with my fresh cut rafters ready to be nailed in place on the new hen house, shoulders sore from the weight of it all and looked up at a crow and hawk going at it above the trees. They were similar in size and shape, but the hawk had a maneuverability that the crow couldn’t match. I couldn’t help but notice as they made each turn how alike and yet different they were all at the same time. The faded grey of the hawk against the sky, followed closely by the intense black of the crow altered the way I saw the clouds and the treetops behind them. They continued their aerial combat in a close dance, never once touching and in the absence of any sound at all but for the breeze until they broke it off and flew in opposite directions as if on cue from a hidden director. The rooster took up his call and the yard flooded with chickens again, absent during the entire duel above. I climbed back up the ladder and spaced the heavy timbers one at a time and swung the hammer over and over in my calloused hand, the same one I cradled eggs in without breaking them, rugged and delicate at the same time.

When my wife finally descended the stairs the children were standing at the bottom repeating HAPPYMOTHER’SDAYHAPPYMOTHER’SDAYHAPPYMOTHER’SDAY! over and over and trying to steer her to the cards and the cake and she looked so happy, so contented in our company that it broke my heart. I hugged her for a long time at the bottom of the stairs while the children implored her to open their cards, to look at the cake they’d made while we just stood there motionless in each other’s arms, the air still around us while the sound of robins and roosters drifted around in the background mixed in with the sound of love. Outside the last of the forsythia blossoms lay scattered on the ground, ragged blotches of yellow already fading into the bright green lawn and then we broke apart slowly and stood in the kitchen while she opened and read her cards one by one, the children interjecting excitedly, words on top of words, like music, a thousand things at once.

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