Fall has come on in full, the depressions in the land rich with color, the scarlets and canary yellows of maple and birch setting fire to the landscape. There is a vibrancy in the air that belies the process of decay and calls out to the hope that lies in every heart. As all things wind down, so too does the coil tension itself. Every aspect of the farm looks like an N C Wyeth painting and each morning as I sit and either read or write before chores it emerges from the darkness in a pale mist, the first traces of silvery light illuminate the pillars of water vapor that rise from the surface of the trout pond and then drift off into the trees along the brook. There is the last solemn yip of a single coyote, a lowing of the cows to their calves, muted by the distance now and the ever brightening glow that suffuses the air itself, ethereal, dream-like. For the past couple of days I have been playing catch-up with the jobs that must be done before weather overtakes my progress. The days end in darkness as they usually do, but they sneak up on me when I still have a coil of barbed wire in my grip and a thousand feet to go, the light so dim that each staple appears like a ghost in the gray palings driven into the bramble thickened edge of the field. Starting and ending each day in the numinous light of creation, solitary yet surrounded by life, gives one the expectation of something even bigger moving along at its own pace beneath the visible surface. There is a presence that works beside me, above me and all around me, stringing fences of its own design and perhaps regarding my pitiful contribution as nothing more than an animal sound in the symphony of life.
One of the more enduring scraps of human experience from a long time ago is the concept of sacrifice. The root of the word — “sacer” — itself means hallowed or consecrated and “facer” means to be made. The idea that human beings would deliberately kill one of their own, often young, healthy, virile or virginal in order to appease an unseen deity must seem awfully quaint by the standards of the I-Phone set. People living on an endless diet of foods that come from brightly lit store fronts a hundred miles from the nearest farmer’s field have never made the connection between life and death and could only wonder at what must have driven Abraham to lead Isaac to the altar on the mountaintop. Movies like Apocalypto — both grotesque and cartoonish at the same time — fail to expound on the inextricable link between what is and what will be and the innate understanding agrarian people have of those systems, so much so that talk of things rooted in the soil have come to hold their own neo-sacred meanings, without understanding. Sustainable, locally grown, fresh and natural are almost superstitious mantras to the very people who have removed themselves from that world. The truth is that we all must make a sacrifice if life is to have any meaning at all. These days so much of what we have and enjoy is the product of someone else’s labor, so much of what we revere and hold up as valuable and desirous is expected rather than earned. And so whomever promises these gifts is seen as the producer, rather than the charlatan that they are. Nothing comes without sacrifice in this world, but we have become a people, like those at the base of Mel Gibson’s Hollywood pyramid, with hands extended, cheering the gifts from above while ignoring the true costs that make them possible. We no longer live in the real world where things are tied to each other in a web of life, but broken into units and atomized cells of consumers always hungering, always eager to be fed the next tidbit of junk food or news, processed sugars or gossip, empty calories for the body and the mind leaving us to slowly die from that corruption, bodies bloated to corpulence, minds filled with useless infortainment.
When I speak of my oldest son it is usually with confidence and pride but it has a tinge of anxiety below the surface. 19 is the hardest year and I have told him this more than once. He has managed to navigate through the difficult parts of entering his young adult life with very few missteps, but I understand how difficult it is far away from home. His journey out into the world away from us gives us an equal share of both sadness and joy and when he calls the day stops for the length of that connection. A couple of weeks ago my wife came home with the news that one of our son’s friends, someone he played football and rugby with, a boy who had the tenacity of someone twice his size and an engaging personality, had taken his own life. I recalled immediately one particular game I had watched this young man grab on to a much larger player from the opposing team and hold on to him for twenty yards of abuse. Any other player would have been shaken off but this kid would not let go and ten yards short of the goal the big guy went down, the smaller kid wrapped around his legs. I remember cheering for him, laughing at the pure joy and tenacity of youth expressed in a simple tackle. My wife made the call to our son and gave him the news while I watched. I could hear his reply from across the room and see it in my wife’s face and there I stood, my hands five hundred miles from my Son’s shoulders, unable to offer him a thing for his grief. He called back the next day to talk and I tried to explain as best I could that life is never what you think it’s going to be and some people who seem to be made of strong stuff just can’t stand up to it. Empty words, I suppose, but it was all that I could offer. A week later he called again, this time to tell me about being called in by his boss. My heart hung for a few seconds in anticipation of what he’d say next, his voice grave. Already I was coming up with consolation and assurance that he could always come home and throw in with us whenever he wanted but even as the words were forming in my mind he finished his story. He’d been given his first raise, offered more responsibilities, shown appreciation by men he respected who were not his own family. My youngest Son was watching me as we spoke and I had to turn my head away, to look out the window so he wouldn’t see the tears that were forming. Tears of joy, rare as hen’s teeth in this world, but precious beyond words. I congratulated him, told him how proud we were and then passed the phone to his brother. It isn’t my life, but even from my remote vantage point I could see that this was a defining moment in his life and that the loss of his friend was somehow part of his movement forward. That all tragedies are not necessarily losses and that not all victories are gains. What seems so personal in many ways is beyond our control and that the best we can ever hope to do is make our efforts worthwhile in the service of life no matter what the rest of the world may be up to.
Yesterday I spent the better part of my labor clearing out the deep bedding left by the stock at the far end of the eskar. It takes several hours using the loader to scrape the composted manure mixed with wood ash and shavings and then spread them across the fields, a repetitious job that brings up the trapped odors of decomposition and life with each pass. The material looks like potting soil and each load is dumped out in a fan across the weaker spots in the pastures, dark black streaks like brush marks on canvas. There should be rain coming in with the front end of whatever is left of Hurricane Matthew and before then I’d like to have the job complete and the area packed up with fresh sand before we bring in the cattle for feeding the season. The area you concentrate your livestock overwinter is called a sacrifice. The manure and urea is concentrated in a small area and at regular intervals we dump loads of carbon to trap the valuable nutrients; wood chips, leaves, shavings and waste feed is ground under their hooves, mixed in with their wastes in a way that makes it both manageable as well as useful. In larger operations these effluents and tailings are a waste product that has to be mitigated, but on a small homestead they are simply another feed for other species, the invisible mouths of a billion bacteria and paramecia that convert the dead back to life. The value of the loams they produce from the wastes that accrete exceeds any input that comes from a lab or a chemical plant, not only for our forage, but for the tilth of the soil itself. This cycle, forgotten by most people long ago, is the only true thing I have ever come to understand. It’s been difficult for me, coming from the kind of world I lived in before, the surface and the shallow depth of it built on man-made concepts and ideations like finance and politics. I am still drawn into those kinds of concerns and worries, especially at this time of the year and the political cycle, but I understand better than I have before that it is not my concern. I suppose that like the Celtic monks who scribbled and hid their secrets from the Viking raiders, there must be a few people committed to keeping something going at all costs if we are ever going to emerge on the brighter end of this someday. I’m getting older each day, the old wounds and scars feeding on themselves, my body shrinking back towards that helpless stage again, but worth every moment. I know I can’t change the course of history with the combined efforts of my whole being, but I can fix a field for next year and feed our animals this Winter and be there when my Son calls to talk, all small contributions of my time and efforts in the bigger picture of our life. And so, like that piece of soil at the far end of the farm yard I offer up myself as a kind of sacrifice to another season and that is enough.