Live Free or Die

The first couple of snows give you the opportunity to reshape the environment of the farm for months to come. You plow out the roads to each building and barn, push off the snow at the edges of the farmyard and soften prepare for the incoming Winter. The sharp edges and corners are softened by the white cover, each turn of the blade when clearing leaving smooth arcs and blurred curves that flow like water. Every trail becomes a tributary to the larger flow of the working environment, a river laid out where it was only months before it was earth. By now almost all of the equipment has been stored, the accessories for the sugaring season stacked tightly and made accessible for the upcoming season, the animals moved in to their sacrifices and bedding stalls and the rest of whatever was left undone or unfinished remains that way until the melt-off in late March or April. Lumber stacks buried in humps, unfinished projects still unfinished. What wasn’t attended to or completed stays that way and a new set of priorities and jobs begins to emerge from the white cold of the season. I have been dropping some of the standing deadwood that I’d marked last Summer, the big trees that had made it through centuries of growth before reaching the end of their journey and now stood buried in the new growth waiting for time, wind, rot or ice to bring them down a leader or a limb at a time unless they are managed out with a chainsaw and a winch. I like cutting wood when there’s a good cover of snow for a number of reasons. The cold weather allows you to work harder than you can in the heat of Summer, but it forces you to do it slower and with more deliberation. I look up into the canopies of bare branches, thousands of tendrils and blackened fingers like fretwork on the pale sky to tell you just how to let the tree fall, where it will drop without getting hung up on its neighbor as gravity brings it home. When a massive old beech comes down on snow no matter how big it is it does it gracefully. The thud of its impact is muffled and still it seems as if it echoes through the drifts, leaving voids in the snow where a chain can be pulled with ease to choker it off for hauling. It is much easier to drag a twenty foot log three feet in diameter across a snow covered ground than it is one half that size on leaf litter. The roots of the healthy trees are left unscathed, the soil remains intact beneath a blanket of white and the butt is dragged all the way out to the landing where the woodsplitter stands ready to work its magic. I have learned a few tricks over the last eight years and since I work alone they have saved me much more than time and effort. The angle of the notch cut in the direction of the fall should be 60 degrees above the horizontal and 30 below. The tree should always be cut so as to maximize the natural lean of the tree. Most trees throw out the majority of their growth to the south facing side during their lives and so the weight of that mass of branches will help to bring the tree down wherever that growth proliferates. There are other tips that take time to pick up on — never cut a standing birch that is dead because they rot from the top down and will drop large branches on you from the vibration of the cutting alone. Always have an escape route planned and if you cut in snow make sure to stomp your paths flat beforehand to find the voids and crevasses beforehand. Always wear your helmet and chaps, keep your chain sharp, bring what you need with you in bucket and keep it protected behind a nearby tree. Tell someone where you are going before you do. Bring water and a snack. Those kinds of things.

I saw my Grandmother in my dreams the other night. She was sitting with my Aunt in the kitchen of a place they lived in a very long time ago when I was still a little boy. They were at the kitchen table drinking Red Rose tea from these dainty cups that were probably the nicest thing they owned in the house. I heard them before I saw them, coming in from the front hall as a full grown man instead of as a child. Everything was as it was back then, the faded wallpaper and the Christmas decorations tacked above the doors, the smells of the kitchen and sound of their laughter. In the dream my heart raced at the thought of seeing them again, so many years having passed and I was both thrilled and afraid to take the last few steps into the light of that room. They stood when I entered, both together as if they’d been asked to dance and I walked right up to my Grandmother and she took my face into her hands and brought it down to her own, no different than it was almost forty years ago, every wrinkle and spot, her blue eyes alight with love.

“You have your Mother’s nose.” she said to me in a voice I’d recognize for eternity and that was all.

I know the difference between dreams and wakefulness, I have come to understand the difference between the world as we wish it were and the way that it is and it is likely one of the greatest gifts of being human to experience them all, every day and every night. Our reality is crafted by our our experiences, but in a way it also forms us at the same time, the way the trees occupy their space in the earth and the sky, making a space for themselves amidst all the others for as long as they stand and then leaving a tree shaped void when they are gone.

About two weeks ago I noticed that the Simmental was carrying. She was one of the oldest cows in the herd and she’d thrown a lot of nice healthy calves for us but last Spring she miscarried and I had been debating on whether to keep her another year or slaughter her, but the freezer still held plenty of beef and she was such a good animal, so familiar and easy that I never made up my mind either way. And now here she was, going into the coldest part of the year and ready to calve without my having noticed. One thing I’ve come to count on since we’ve been at this is that most cows will wait until the weather goes south or the moon is full to give birth. It’s not 100%, but it’s close enough to bet on and sure enough on the night that the thermometer dropped down into the below zero end of its glass, out came a huge bull calf bigger than any we’d ever had. The other cows gave her room and stood around as a protective wall against the cold, steam rising from their hides, a plume of blue-white vapor expelled with every breath. I stood in the dark with them for over an hour as she licked him clean, a face bewildered with the cold and the moonlit evening, a million pinpoints of light spiraling above us in the solstice sky. It stood within the hour and she let out her soft sounds to him, enough to let me know that she had her instincts about her and I finally went in, numb, worn out, bone tired from the days work and the relief too, leaving something so new and filled with potential in that straw filled shed so close to Christmas day.

When the tree has been limbed and the trunk bucked into pieces the splitter fires up and for hours at a time, at least between filling the tank with fuel, I stand in place hefting each block into position, one after another and cleave them into clean quarters and eighths, the pile rising on the ground in front of me, a pyramid of cordwood. There is something hypnotic and prayerful about this work and through the muffled sound of my headphones I hear a thousand different thoughts, fragments of things I have read or heard, small scraps of lyrics, combinations of words or memories of dreams. My hands grab and place, work the controls and toss the firewood, I bend and straighten a thousand times, over and over, like a penitent under a declining Sun. I think about my Grandmother and what she said to me in my dream and how true it is, I do have my Mother’s nose, but I wonder what that’s supposed to mean as I stand here in the space that was once occupied by the overshadowing presence of the people I loved, still love long gone.

Each day after its birth I saw the calf on its feet and it gave me a little hope, but I knew that it wasn’t going to make it. Part of me is still unsure about what I’m doing, whether or not I was cut out for this or if I made a mistake to try and live outside of our time by doing something everyone else assures me is part of the past. There is, however, another voice that is every bit as clear as the sound of my Grandmother’s intonation in that dream, authentic and reliable and one I have heard every day of my life whenever I have paused to listen for it that tells me everything I need to know. Life finds its way and then it moves on, regardless of what we wish for. I can see in the calf’s halting movements and despite its valiant efforts that it is not going to be with us for long. You prepare for death even as you live and that may be the best thing we’ve gotten out of this life. Every day, each act, every motion and thought is a gift and a blessing. In their absence there is only the sound of silence.

Our son came home for Christmas on Thursday night, a fourteen hour drive from where he lives now and when he came in the family enveloped him in embraces and joyful sounds. I couldn’t help but notice my wife take his face into her own hands and just look at him with love. After a while the two of us went out to button up the chickens and check on the rest of the animals and I showed him the calf and told him what I thought. It was lying down now on the shavings in the corner of the run in and it was clear that whatever ran through it was running out. We brought some feed in for the cows and when its mother walked over to eat we carried the calf out and put him in the sugarhouse and covered him with an old blanket. It was warm and out of the air and the calf closed its eyes and laid its head on my lap. My Son sat next to me and we talked a little bit but mostly we sat there in the quiet, the ancient brick walls and the smell of hay surrounding us. It didn’t take long for the calf to expire and when it did I covered it back up in hay until later, too deflated to do anything else that night. The Simmental was calling out as we walked back to the house in the dark, snow squeaking under our boots. It was haunting and plaintive, short bawls that sounded to my ears like ‘my baby, my baby’. It kept it up for hours and even though you couldn’t hear her in the house, it felt like I could.

Christmas is here again — almost without fanfare this year. We went out and cut our tree like we always do, we’ve done a little decorating, but nothing big because we have simply been too busy to do anything more and yet it feels more like it than in those years past where we went all out and celebrated like it was the most important thing we could do in the world. We’re all together and we are healthy. Our friends and our family have the things they need and seem content in that and later today I will take my children out to do our Christmas shopping as we have always done, on Christmas Eve when everyone else has emptied out of the stores and left them to us. We only get little things, stocking stuffers and wool socks, but we have a nice meal at the sushi joint in Concord and talk incessantly about all the things we’ve done and will do, retelling stories about every Christmas we’ve ever shared and wring every last drop of joy and goodwill out of every person we meet before we head home to hunker down for the night and watch “A Christmas Carol” the 1938 version with Reginald Owen and in the morning…

A fresh start. The days will begin to get just a little bit longer, the light will creep back into our lives in the same way it went out, incrementally, imperceptibly until we face another solstice half way round another orbit.

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