Witness the Day

At the peak of the leaf season there are so many competing shows of color that it is hard to see any single one for all its beauty. The trees have their own unique display that is triggered by a variety of factors; species, elevation, exposure, maturity, vigor and location within the landscape. Still, after so many years of watching this annual spectacle certain patterns have emerged for me that lead to a deeper appreciation of this phenomenon. At first there is the gradual evidence of the coming change that catches you by surprise — a single leaf on a prominent sugar maple standing out in blazing scarlet while the rest of the leafy mass remains fixed in a catatonic green. There is a single massive, well shaped maple on the southern side of the lane out front that can be seen clearly with your head on the pillow in our bedroom. It begins its alteration from the top facing the Sun and gradually shifts its color as if you were shining a golden light on it and passing it from peak to base. By the time the lowest leaves have gone over to a brassy sheen, the top leaves have detached themselves and covered the ground beneath in a seamless carpet of gold, a shadow of light.

The early afternoon was spent loading up the gardens and the perennial beds with a heavy cover of composted manure for Winter. One black hump of steaming loam after another dumped in an overlapping zig-zag, giving the empty raised beds and planting areas a fresh look. Most of it will flatten out under the weight of the snows that are coming and the nutrient rich particles will settle in the soil beneath so that by the time we are ready to till in the Spring there will be a fresh start waiting. About an hour before it got dark I began to assemble the weaning pen for the piglets. I dumped a load of fresh pine shavings and set the hutch on top of it with the door facing south. I dumped several piles of shredded leaves, bank run sand and wood chips for them to play in and convert to soil at the same time. As I built the corners from old palettes the piglets came around to explore and investigate the goings on while the dogs watched them from a distance. We keep the sows in an enclosure after they’ve farrowed so that the boar doesn’t bother them and so the piglets get to learn the layout of the farm. They can easily pass under the lower rail of the fence and after a week or so spend a large part of their day expanding their range in groups of three or four, moving away from their mothers yet keeping them sight. The dogs give frequent chase, occasionally nipping at them until they begin to understand the roles that they play. Eventually they come to a truce that is only interrupted when I command the dogs to pen the piglets for any infractions like going into the raised beds or too close to the house. In this way we train the pigs to the place where they will live until they are sold or bred or turned into bacon and hams. They are inquisitive and engaging animals and their frequent turnings of sod, though visually jarring, rid the turf of grubs keeping beetle numbers in check come Spring. After they’ve flipped the clumps of grass I sprinkle some compost on the area and flip the tufts back into place, green side up. In this way we not only rid the soil of pests and nourish the piglets, we aerate the soil and help build a springier, looser ground so that the roots of the grasses can reach deeper and grow stronger. By the time the piglets have reached six weeks or so they eat so much that no matter how much we feed the sows they begin to look emaciated, their teats raw from the greedy feedings of their litters. So in the failing light I complete the assembly of the new fence, close enough that the piglets can keep an eye on their mothers in the adjacent corral, but on their own for the first time. As I complete the enclosure the piglets have already settled in around me, some of them resting in the soft pile of sweet shavings, others digging furiously into the shredded leaves, looking for an acorn or two. I top off the water tubs and step over the rails and just like that the weaning has begun. You can see them sigh and blink their eyes, the realization that they are now confined, comfortably and safely, but securely. I dump a pail full of broken pumpkins into their trough and they rush to get to it first, jostling each other for a better position.

The rains returned at long last to grateful hearts up and down the Upper Valley. For the first time in six months the streams actually ran hard, white caps frothing the granite ledges as it spilled towards the sea. The work doesn’t stop because its raining so much of what I have to do is done wearing a poncho or a rain suit. I had planned on taking my youngest son to town with me on Friday, promising him a pack of cards that he has become fanatical about if he helped me all week after school and he went about the chores wearing a smile all week long. The front was due to pass before nightfall and I tried to get as much done as possible before then, as always and when my son came out to the tractor, beaming.

“Are you ready to go?” He asked.

I explained to him that unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to take him for the cards like I’d promised. We’d had a tight week and even a purchase of something that small just wasn’t possible. His face wrenched up and he delivered a line that stung.

“You lied.” He said.

I tried to explain that I had done no such thing, my intentions were never insincere, it was simply not an option that day but that I would make good on it as soon as I was able, that I had been looking forward to it as well, had in fact been thinking about it all week, but he refused to listen and turned his back on me and walked away in the gray drizzle. I started the tractor back up and continued with my work, although with a heavy heart. After a while I could see him, following me around at a distance, not wearing any rain gear, barefoot on the trail that ran around the sugarhouse and the orchard. He was watching me, expecting I’d stop and change my mind, I thought, but I kept at the work I was doing and after a while forgot about our quarrel. He disappeared for a while into the house and once when I was making a lap across the front of the barn I could see him gesturing emphatically to his mother through the big glass windows and I imagined he was recounting my betrayal to her. The agreement to go and get the cards was between the two of us and I knew that my wife would not choose sides but do her best to mollify him, but after a bit he was back outside again, this time laying on his back face up to the cold rain on the yard in front of the barn. I knew that part of this was for show — to make me feel bad and perhaps change my mind — but it was clear to me now that another part of it was his own personal struggle with his darker side. He is one of the most earnest people I have ever known and there is no guile in him, but he has an angry streak that he struggles with at times and it is this anger that vexes him more than anyone else. Eventually the rain let up and the back end of the clouds and the entire front blew off to the east, a razor’s edge of steel colored clouds and behind it the blinding blue of heaven. The falling Sun threw its full light on the foliage with such brilliant light that it was almost too much to take in. My son had gotten up and was walking towards the tractor and this time I shut it down for good and climbed off and walked towards him. Neither of us said anything, but I bent over and picked him up, something I probably won’t be doing much longer as he is getting too big not only for my old muscles and bones, but his sense of maturity. We walked in silence down the lane in front of the milk house, steam rising from the ground under the bright sunlight and he leaned his head against mine. When we got to the end of the lane we looked off across the pasture below, the florescent glow of maples and ash against the receding clouds more brilliant than you can imagine. I asked him if he thought it was beautiful and he nodded and then I explained to him that I was very sorry for not keeping my word, that I would have given anything to have been able to take him for his cards and he listened to me and said that he understood. I tried to explain to him that when we focus on things that seem important, things you have to buy instead of things we are given every moment for free, we lose our ability to tell the difference between what matters and what can wait. The gift of the rain, the beautiful display of color that seem almost hallucinatory every year for weeks on end, the light and the warmth of the Sun, each other were the things that held real value. He finally spoke and said that he was sorry and I told him that all was forgiven and that I admired his ability to make a point. We were both soaked through but there was warmth emanating from both of us as we stood there and just drank it all in, happy to witness the day.

Lately it seems that I have run out of things to say. Every once in a while I will think to myself that I should write about the things that vex me and remind myself of my promise to my wife to stay off that ground and ruminate instead on the better angels of my nature, so I wait for something worthwhile to pop into my mind instead. You can only talk about the soil or the cows so many times before people think you’re being provincial on purpose, all shucks and A-yup’s like the old Yankee farmers do in the movies, but that’s what I love so that’s what I’ll do. There are plenty of things to be despondent about if that’s what you choose to focus on and in the last few months it’s become clear that for most people that is the only message there is, this slow drip-drip-drip of demoralizing rot that seeps into our lives from every angle. What we are witness to on a historical level isn’t all that different from what Nature is up to all the time, the death and dissolution of institutions and systems are not all that different from the Autumn of the year, necessary in fact for anything fresh and new to emerge again after the long Winter we all must live through. It cannot be stopped, or fixed, there is no way to legislate our way out of it, to mend what is broken or mediate the divisions. This is not about ideologies or political parties but of destinies and fates and we are all in this thing together regardless of which side we choose, and where we’d like to go. I am more certain now than I have ever been that there exists a great driver beneath the surface of all things that takes us where it will, that we can only decide to enjoy the ride or get off but no amount of spent energy will alter the route. And so in everything we do the best we can offer is our apologies when we should and our thanks for being hoisted up to take in the view at every opportunity. The ground that’s been roughed up by the pigs will soon be covered in snow and when it melts off in April it will be healthier and more vigorous for the disturbance. And that’s something worth being thankful for.

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