The early Spring started out with a decent amount of precipitation; cool nights that kept the moisture at ground level, soft rains in the evenings at least three times each week and an occasional soaker that shut down Sundays so that we all stayed inside playing board games or doing puzzles. The grass came up blue in May, saturated, nitrogen soaked. Every time I looked at the cows their heads were down, methodically making their way in a picket line across the pasture, apricot colored lawn mowers busy with life.
Around the middle of the month it was as if an unseen hand turned off the tap and that was that. At first the grass went riotous in response to the ever present sunlight, shooting up an inch or more per day. We cut hay over at The Interval and the bales were so heavy with brix content we could barely load them with the Massey. Thousand pound rounds of fresh cut blue stem, timothy, fescue, clover and brome. We stacked the huge white marshmallows of feed for Winter in double stacks along the back of the barnyard, one on top of another, hay wagons chugging up the curving drive every hour or so, the John Deere struggling to move each one in place. Tipping them into position by hand took two of us, one with a bad back the other with a wrecked arm but we got each one where we wanted it and the air was redolent with the scent of fresh, mowed baleage. In the first week the new spikes of green shot up from the stubble and the hay fields resembled expansive, well-tended lawns. As the temperatures began to rise in the middle of June the color went from Dartmouth green to russet. The stem tips went dry and the roots, eager to hold on to the little moisture left in the soil went deep and spared the expense of sending up new tendrils of leaf. Grass, when stressed, immediately begins to produce seed from a single stalk and everywhere you looked there was a haze of wispy seed heads floating just above the ground. I sublimated my concerns and went about my other chores with an ever constant eye on my hay store near the big red barn. The vernal pool at the base of the sugar orchard began to dry out and the football sized bags of jelly that contained frogs eggs slowly grounded themselves on it’s perimeter. Every morning the cows would head far uphill to the sping house where water still poured from a crack at the base of the granite ledge and provided them with cool water to drink. I’d walk along with them and watch as they bowed their heads and sipped deeply, one after another, waiting their turn at the century old concrete lip. To the south where the boulders spread out like a fan there was a riotous profusion of rubus ursinus, common blackberries rising up from the scorched earth. Berries for some unknown reason go berserk when the season is sere and produce bumper crops of the sweetest variety. We could pick all day long and never keep up with even an acre of them and here we had 15, tangled tightly with prickers and unseen obstacles beneath. You come out of the patches with your arms laced and wickered with red stripes of blood, but your hat full of succulent marble sized fruits of indescribable flavor. The blueberries, raspberries and gooseberries all came in gangbusters so there was that to console us, but as each day passed without rain and none in sight, we began to be concerned.
During this time we continued with the projects we’d been working on around the farm — siding and roofing the new hen house, a re-tooling of the wood shop with better lighting, the rebuild of the Asplundh wood chipper, an ancient chuck and duck held together by more rust than steel, but now featuring a completely re-built Ford F-150 engine, starter, generator and fuel tank. Off farm I was helping a good friend complete a laundry list of fixes for his home that was going on the market and it seemed that every thing we checked off led to another thing we had to add. Spending time with him was very enjoyable because he was always positive and full of stories about his past careers, both as a commercial airline pilot and as a fighter pilot in Viet Nam. He was well traveled, devoted to his family, a hard worker and one of the few people I had ever met who jumped into retirement with an energy and commitment that most people never gave to their greatest passions. He and his wife traveled around the country camping — stopping to visit distilleries and ancient Indian sites, National Parks and Opera Houses. On occasion a grandchild would travel with them for a month or so and then go back home with stories about their adventures and memories that will likely last a lifetime. We spent hours spinning rocks and fitting them one at a time into a length of wall that ran the entire length of their road frontage, fifty feet a day, three foot high and stacked to last a century or more. We got better at it as we went along, like with most tasks and so we’d go back and correct a section that didn’t suit us, pulling the rocks to fit each other and then moving on again. We’d stop to admire the wild plums that proliferated in his back yard, the robins nest built on top of the meter box at the side of the house, the way the shafts of sunlight fell through the magnificent columns of maple, ash and oaks he’d left running up the lane and fell on the walls of split wood, golden in the glow of late afternoon. On Friday he and his wife came by with a bottle of wine and we grilled a couple of chickens and made a big salad of arugula, baby greens and nasturtiums with home made apple cider vinegar dressing. We sat on the terrace as the Sun fell behind the mountain and watched the clouds pass above us, horsetails, alto cirrus that signal a change in the weather and take on the colors of the declining light of day, turning the entire sky into a canvas of gold and red.
I always have a couple of teenagers work on the farm during their Summer vacation and this year they have been helping eradicate the profusion of Canadian thistle, or cirsium arvense, that has popped up over the past few years. An invasive species that livestock avoid like the plague, they do well in dry conditions and send up tall stalks covered in cactus like spines that are very painful when you touched. Their roots go deep and they propagate by root stock as well as seed, so simply pulling them is not an effective option. We use organic methods on the farm so the conventional Roundup approach is off the table. I prefer to take a machete or spade to the outside of the leaf buds and push it deep enough to catch the base of the meristematic zone. Thus removed the plant is tossed onto a rock to bake in the Sun. When we first started farming I don’t recall having come across any, but one afternoon while visiting a local hardware store I saw packages of Canadian thistle seeds for sale as bird feed. Local bird enthusiasts have unwittingly contributed to endless hours of tedious and unpleasant labor because of their poor judgement and lack of foresight. Now an invasive species that was once unknown has become a perennial problem, not only for myself, but for anyone who works the soil of their gardens or fields. Like most things in life, the responsible carry the burden for those who act without thinking through the implications of their good intentions. The teenagers curse me for giving them the task rather than to place the blame where it belongs and so I make a point to explain it to them so that they might one day put two and two together when they encounter similar circumstances in their lives in different environments. Some lessons are best taught at the micro-level and so they go out with panangs and garden forks to eradicate a problem they had no role in causing in order that the livestock can graze without a mouthful of thorns. There’s something biblical in there, I can feel it.
My other friend, the one who always calls me to help him with impossible tasks of great magnitude came by for our barbecue and to say goodbye to my neighbor, should they successfully sell the house and never return from New Mexico. The conversation after we ate was lively and in the failing light as the three-quarters Moon ascended from the Eastern sky under a blanket of twinkling stars and gauzy clouds, he asked me if I would help him with a small job.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Build a swing set” he replied, “no problem.”
The following day I showed up at the address he had given me and saw the stacks and pallets of shipping crates piled on the edge of the driveway. The client and his young son stood talking with my friend and when I drove up they waved and smiled. The swing set had been ordered online from China and arrived by commercial freight, although calling it a swing set is akin to calling the Biltmore a house. It took us two hours to open all the boxes and break down the various components into something we could work with. There were two towers, a main house with a draw bridge and a rock climbing wall, a tire swing and three flat swings, a clatter bridge, a slide, a teeter-totter and at least for other recreational devices I had never encountered before. So with our screw guns and 130 pages of instructions we set to work and began the assembly while the homeowner went back inside to order additional components. The truth is, I had a great time working on it with my friend. The house, perched on the southeastern edge of one of the local lakes gave us a strong westerly breeze all day, despite temperatures in the low nineties. The smell of the water, negative ions being churned up on the choppy waves was refreshing and you could hear a constant buzz of laughter and chatter that echoed off the surface of the lake all day long. The structure began to take shape and as the number of pieces dwindled, it became easier to locate the pieces we needed for each step. Near evening as we came to the end of the job the homeowner reappeared and expressed both his gratitude and appreciation and brought us a six pack of cold beers and some sandwiches. He told us that he wouldn’t have known where to begin and after we shared a beer and swallowed the last of our meal he shook our hands and said thanks. I remembered how when I was working in an office and my oldest Son was only five, we’d ordered a similar, if not smaller version of the swing set we’d just built and a crew of people had come to assemble it while I was at work. It had bothered me, back then, to have people I didn’t know enjoying my backyard building something I should have done myself for my Son while I was sitting in front of a computer, getting fat around the middle. My wife had made me feel better about it, that much I recall, telling me it was my hard work that made it possible, but deep inside I wished it had been me doing it myself. So now here I was, getting another chance, courtesy of my friend and his client. Just before I packed up my tools I sat down in one of the swings and kicked my legs out, then back again, over and over as I rose higher and higher in the dimming light of the evening and prayed for rain.
There were still several chores to do when I got home and I stopped to pick up the slops from the local resort before I headed back to the farm. The air cooled and the breeze, gentle all day, picked up and began to shake the leafy heads of the hardwoods along the lake shore as I drove. When I pulled up the drive the dogs and the litter of puppies, headed to new homes in the next few days, surrounded the truck as I parked, a chorus of happy sounds from the trampoline in the back yard. I finished the things I had left to do and came in just as it was getting full dark and the Moon, luminous and nearly full, slid behind a front of heavy clouds and slammed the lid on another day. I ate with relish, kissed my wife and children goodnight and went up for a shower and then to bed, deep sleep that went uninterrupted until the early morning hours when the rumble of distant thunder came in from the West.
We finally got the rain we so badly needed, a deep and refreshing drench that backed off to a constant drizzle that lasted almost three days. Every once in a while you’d hear the thunder pick up again and the wind would mount and the heavy rain would fall until you couldn’t see much further than the back of the orchard and then the mist would envelope the little piece of the world that was our own, sinking deep, refreshing the soil, the only sound the slow drip of water from the eaves.
There is a constant ebb and flow, a cyclic movement from one thing to another in the world in which we all live. Sometimes the pendulum seems to stick at its apogee, the cold never seems to abate, the rain will never fall, the world cannot possibly become less hospitable more dangerous or factious. Schisms become movements, weather becomes climate, all things small become large and then fade once again back into obscurity. It’s hard not to grow angry at the things we cannot change, but it’s equally pointless. Our livelihood is dependent upon the weather, our success tied to its regularity and seasons. It can be hard to face a drought when all you need is water, but even harder still to face disillusion when the most important thing you have is faith and so little is in evidence. The thistle is a problem, but if we keep at it, one plant at a time, the right way, it won’t matter how many well intended bird-lovers or short sighted hardware store owners there are working against us because the soils will be better than they were and inhospitable to the invasion. Our cattle can graze across green pastures as they have for tens of thousands of years, helping us build the soils on which they depend while we see to their safety and protect them from harm. The young men who spent their Summers on our farm doing the mindless chores that annoy them today will one day integrate those lessons into their own lives and make the world better in their own way even as my friends and I pass on like every generation before us. The Sun is back out today after the big soaking we got and the grass is almost blue with nitrogen. From up here on the top of the hill looking down at the cows and calves grazing somnolently on clover and fescue you can’t see anything out of place. Things are as they should be and the world, for all I can see of it there is peace and order. Later, I suppose, I will go out with a blade in hand and hunt out the last of the errant thistles and wonder when it will rain again, but for now I am grateful for every gift and for being able to see past the moment if only today.