Summer Song

When I came downstairs just before dawn my son was in the kitchen making final preparations for his departure. I helped him carry out the last of his things, tucking a few bottles of syrup behind the driver’s seat next to the bags of potatoes, onions and the cooler filled with meat. The two of us stood together in the cool air and watched as the golden glow of sunlight appeared in the east transforming the barnyard into something magical. Down in the front pasture we could hear one of the calves calling and the herd lowing in response. There was a column of blue vapor rising from the surface of the trout pond and so we agreed without speaking to walk together one last time, down the hill, quietly, side by side long shadows cast behind us.

When we first moved up here I bought four bred cows from a farmer in Springfield and he delivered them to us in a stock trailer. I didn’t know a thing about cattle back then, had never heard of Simmental or Hereford except in some story I may have read but we were excited to finally be farmers and looked forward to raising our own livestock and one day eating thick steaks right off the grill that came from animals we’d raised ourselves. Every herd has a dominant animal, a boss and in matriarchal systems like cow herds, she sets the tone for the behavior of all the others. A flighty boss is a problem and a calm one is a blessing and the only black cow in the herd, a cross between a Black Angus and a White Faced Hereford called a Piebald was our new leader. The kids named her Midnight and I took to her right away. She loved to have her head rubbed and to be talked to in calm tones and every year she threw a healthy calf for us, each one a full White Face Hereford without a hint of her Black Angus coat showing. She was calm with us, but rode herd on the other cows, especially when we’d feed out bales in the Winter and this May she gave us a nice little bull calf that thrived from the get-go. Whenever I had to move the herd, she was the first in line and the easiest cow we have ever owned in every way. You can 20 years out of a good cow but we never knew her real age so we had to guess at it based on her teeth and her general health and we figured her for something close to ten or so when she arrived. Last December she got the scours and though we tested for bacteria and parasites it came up inconclusive and eventually she regained her strength and put the weight back on to where she was able to calve without a hitch in the Spring. A few weeks back I noticed that she wasn’t herself and had resumed her weight loss from the same kind of thing she’d had last Winter. I consulted with our vet by phone and he was his usual taciturn self when he told me that other than to keep her apart from the others — none of them had shown any sign of whatever it was that she was going through — and feed her a dry feed for a couple of days in the hopes that it was something she’d gotten into, like bracken ferns or poke weed and it would work itself out. “They get old, you know.” he told me and I thanked him for his advice. So we isolated her and her calf and kept an eye on them as the Summer wound down and she slowly but surely failed.

Way back when we lived in New Jersey we’d kept a garden, a small one in the same spot where my Grandfather had raised his tomatoes and peppers. We never did a lot, but we tried new things and every once in a while we’d stumble across something that excelled. One year I planted some sweet potato vines along the rock wall that bordered the driveway facing south and when the first frost killed off the leaves I pulled up the tubers from the rich composted loam I’d back filled the wall with and surprised everyone with beautiful and delicious sweet potatoes the size of turkeys. My father has a photograph stuck to the front of his refrigerator of himself cradling one in his arms like a baby, a big grin on his face. Looking back I wonder if it was that kind of thing that gave me the idea of going back to an agrarian lifestyle, the ability to make things grow that could feed my family and bring smiles to the people I loved. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that it was the particular mix of the soil, the placement of the vines in a terraced wall that absorbed the heat of the Sun, the lack of pests that had never had that particular species to predate upon before, and any number of other factors that had nothing to do with me or my limited skill sets at that time that brought about that little miracle. In all the years since I’ve never produced anything like that crop, at least intentionally.

When we first moved to the farm it had been fallow for the past sixty years, the soils depleted, the ground stony and completely lacking fertility. We set about putting in a garden and the first year as ambitious as we were and as much time as we put in we were met with very little in the way of reward. Colorado potato bugs went through my crop of Kennebecs, russets and Kerr pinks like an army. I tried picking them off and when I fed a coffee can full of the insects to the tank full of tilapia we were raising I killed off half of them, poisoned by the solanine that had accumulated in the bugs from eating the leaves of the nightshade. For four more years I tried potatoes in different parts of the garden, in raised beds and in standing compost piles with little luck as each years the potato bugs came back to destroy the crop before it set. I finally gave up and took to bartering with a friend down the road who had figured it out and until this year we planted other crops. The interns asked me about planting potatoes and I told them the story of how I’d seen a guy a long time ago raise them in stacks of old tires filling them with soil until the leaves emerged and then stacking on another and filling it, repeating the move until the column was six or seven tires tall. he called them radial potatoes and at the end of the season he’d knock it over and reap a bumper crop, no digging necessary. They asked if they could do it and I agreed to let them give it a shot, but we were at least a month behind the typical planting start and by the time they headed back to college the stack was only one tire tall and they considered the experiment a failure. A couple of weeks after they departed for Ohio I noticed that the leaves were as healthy as any I’d ever seen and I carefully added a second tire to each plot and back filled the inner area with composted manure only to have the new sprouts poke through within a matter of days. And still, not one sign of beetles. In our failure to plant in a timely fashion as dictated by the gardening guides we’d skipped past the life cycles of the pests that had plagued us for years and finally gotten our first good crop, thanks to the interns.

On the side table behind the desk where I write is a small framed photograph of my oldest son when he was four years old walking beside me. My wife took the photograph from behind and in that snapshot she captured the two of us strolling together in sync, our arms and legs in matching cadence as we marched across the parking lot towards the entrance of Story Book Land. His head is inclined in my direction and you can tell we are talking about something although I can’t remember what, but I am listening to him, head tilted towards his, long shadows trailing behind us. It’s been there so long that I almost never notice it, but when I do it stops me flat every single time and I am carried back to that moment as if it just happened, the way it felt to be a father of someone so young with everything still ahead of him. I will be forever grateful to my wife for catching that moment in time so that I will never forget it. I’m not sure why I placed it where I did, maybe another of those instinctual tics that we all have, putting the past behind us as we move forward.

They say that the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color in the spectrum. There are varying theories on why this is — to help pick out patterns where predators lurk, because our diet is made up of so much plant matter, and because green is in the center of the visual spectrum and diurnal animals are exposed to more sunlight allowing for this. Whatever the reason the truth remains, as in all things, if we pay close attention. There was an animated discussion recently regarding the tendency of people to see patterns where none exist and while the majority of people might believe this, the longer I have lived and the more I have experienced the more certain I become that the primary reason for our obsession with these various patterns is that they do exist; numeric, artistic, spiritual, cultural. Waves crash onto the shore in threes, the Fibonacci sequence is built into everything from the embryo to the shape of the galaxies, seasons repeat endlessly, generations are born, grow and fade away, one after another, each one a variation of the one before it. When my son and I got to the bottom of the big pasture we sat for a while on the rock wall and looked back up at the farm, the buildings barn red and trimmed in white, the cattle grazing contentedly in the tall grass, the dogs chasing each other without a sound along the treeline. I pointed out to him a singular sugar maple that we’d both seen a thousand times and asked him what he thought of it, its perfect symmetry forming a wineglass shape against the sky, emerging from a massive granite boulder. “It looks healthy but you can tell it’s about to turn.” he said, indicating the reddish cast of the leaves. I told him to look at it again and see if he could make out what I’d only noticed a few months ago myself. We both looked for a while and it finally became apparent that it wasn’t a lone maple, but a perfectly matched pair, one on either side of the boulder and that the two of them had grown in such complete harmony and unity that they had become two perfect halves of a whole mimicking the shape of a textbook specimen. There was only the slightest differentiation between the color of the leaves and where the boulder emerged you could clearly make out the dual trunks, one on either side in the dark shadows beneath the canopy. They were clearly the same approximate age and had rooted in the perfect spot, just above a natural spring on the hillside, firmly anchored on the rocky ledge and grown together over a century or more until they had imperceptibly become one. We finally stood back up and retraced our path up the hill and before he climbed into his car we stood there and hugged each other good-bye, his body larger and stronger than my own, but feeling to me like that little boy in the photograph behind my desk. We did the hand shake/drive safe/call when you get in doxology we always do and both of us smiled broadly at each other as he drove down the lane, his hand extended in a wave the entire way, my gnarled fingers splayed wide, waving back.

After my wife and the children had gone off to do the things they had to do that morning I retrieved my rifle and pocketed a few rounds from the ammo box and headed out to the pole barn. The Piebald was laying down, her head laid out in front of her in a way cows never do and I sat down next to her for a little while and stroked her head and told her what a good girl she was. The last of the flies were landing on her flank and she sighed a few times and opened her eyes to look at me, then closed them again while I sat there and sighed a little myself. After a bit I dug deep and did what I had been hoping that I wouldn’t have to do for so many days now. I was glad that my son had gotten off before it came to this, and maybe that’s the reason I’d waited and I hoped that it hadn’t caused her any more discomfort than it had and when I was certain that she was gone I went back to the barn to the rifle up on its pegs and to start up the tractor to move her, one last time.

There are patterns, cycles, comings and goings that continue whether we want to see them or not and some of them are profound and others not so much, but they are always there beneath everything we see and everything we do, holding the world up for us without thanks, without need because that is its purpose and has always been. Sometimes, if we are lucky, if we look back or look up we occasionally catch a glimpse of it, that perfect world in all its ineffable and heartbreaking splendor.

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