Cutting Wood

The trees are turning in earnest, and the shoulders of the gravel roads I frequent are thick with fallen leaves. In my spare hours, I cut firewood, amassing a pile for the winter that lies on the other side of the one that’s soon to come. I’ve always wanted to be a year ahead. This might be the year I actually make it.

A week or so ago, I took my younger son with me into the woods, and we found the perfect tree, a gently leaning ash, nice size and not in good health, practically begging to be cut. I showed him how take measure of the situation, to identify his path of escape, to make his notch, where to place the back cut. Then I stepped away and watched as he took the big tree down, his first felling job. It landed precisely where it needed to land, with an enormous whump I could feel through the soles of my boots. The boy looked pleased, and was right to be. I remembered cutting wood with my father, or rather him cutting wood, and me loading the rounds into the open hatch of the little Honda Civic he drove at the time. I was young, then, younger than my boy is now, too young to run a saw, I suspect, though I think my father wouldn’t have wanted to teach me, anyhow: I’m pretty sure he ran his on a wing and a prayer. It was a red Jonsereds, back before they took the “s” off the name, when they were made in Sweden. My dad still has that saw, though it hasn’t been started in probably two decades or more.

My son bucked the ash, while I pretended not to watch too closely. He did fine. We loaded the rounds into the bucket of the tractor, the air suffused with the smell of fresh cut wood and chainsaw exhaust. Once the bucket was full, we rode slowly down the hill, back toward home, the late afternoon sun slanting through the trees to land in bright patches on the forest floor.



Summer’s End

The sense of summer slipping away is palpable, almost physical, and I feel the impending loss of the season, as if there was something as solid and distinct and tangible as summer to lose, as if its edges did not emerge and dissolve by degree. Calendar be damned.

Still, even as I write this, I hear the sound of my younger son doing as I asked, which was to fill two 5-gallon buckets with apple drops for the pigs. He’s down in the orchard but the sound of the apples against the bucket bottom carries well, and for a moment I wonder if there is any other sound just like it. Deciding that maybe there is, but if so, I do not know it. Deciding that if ever there were a harbinger of summer’s end – whenever, however it might come – the sound of apple drops against a bucket bottom would be it. Slow-changing colors of the green hills be damned.

Yesterday, driving a dirt road far from here, but as like the ones close to here that I might have been only minutes from home, I met an oncoming tractor towing a hay wagon, a young man at its helm, the empty wagon weaving gently side-to-side. I pulled far over and he waved, looking tired. It was near the end of day.

Our older son is gone for four months. There’ll likely be snow on the ground by the time he returns. A sizable dent in the woodpile. The house feels quiet, neat, and bigger than it needs to be. I hugged him goodbye, wishing I’d thought of something small to give him, something to mark the occasion. But I hadn’t. Maybe I’ll think of something for his return.



He Always Has Before


Coming home from the woods

In the morning, after chores but before breakfast, I walk up into the woods. The rain has been a steady companion over the past few days, and my boots are soon soaked through, along with my jeans nearly as high as the pockets, the exact height of the undergrowth, so thick in spots that I cannot see the ground.

I find a patch of chanterelles, then another, and another, and still another, orange as, well, oranges against the forest floor, an entire shirt full and so many more left for another day. I wander for a while, then head for home, where the last cord of firewood awaits, needing splitting. I cook the mushrooms in butter and new garlic and eat them from the pan, sitting on the front stoop, letting the early sun warm me. The cats stop by, roll on the ground a bit, rub my ankles. I finish my breakfast. It is 7:30 and the clouds are closing again. Down in the little stretch of orchard pasture I can hear Pip lowing for her calf. He must have slipped under the fence. He’ll find his way back again. He always has before.




In the field across the mountain road the farmer is making hay; this morning I walked up on the knoll behind the barn and looked across to that field, past the church steeple, over the road and the low-running stream, and I could see the long, serpentine windrows of raked hay, could hear the distant clatter of machinery, could imagine the smell of drying grasses so perfectly it hardly mattered that I couldn’t smell them at all.

God but it’s been a summer. Weather so perfect I don’t even know what to say. Though already I notice the diminishing daylight; it’s dark when I awake, and it’s dark again before I’m ready for bed, and this morning I felt chilled while doing chores for the first time in I don’t know how long. I split and stacked firewood after chores; my family is away, and I’ve promised myself I’ll have the firewood finished by their return, though I also promised myself I’d have it finished by the first of June, and we can see how well that worked out.

I guess I don’t write here much anymore, though in my head I’m always writing. The world is so full of stories, but I’ve felt a little greedy with them lately. Recently I heard someone define a writer as a person who is willing to let the dream of writing die, which I took to mean that to actually write, to wrest the words out of our heads and onto paper, means accepting the truth of the process, which of course is never as wondrous as the dream. Which I guess makes it like pretty much everything else.

I thought I’d be able to say this better. See what I mean?

The breeze is picking up. It might rain tonight. We could use it. I’ll sleep with the window open above my head, hoping to be woken in the night by rain on my face.



Still Cold Enough

For five whole days, sun. And with the sun, heat. Along dirt roads I drive past newly mown hayfields, taking that sweet smell deep to the bottom of my lungs. Standing in line at Willey’s, I listen as customers lament the heat and humidity. I wait my turn, buy my ice cream sandwich, eat it in the truck on the drive home, slowing for two chickens to cross the road, then speeding up again. Gary Clark Jr on the stereo.

Soon home, I am alone, my family scattered like dandelion seed. I’m alone so much more now; my sons teetering on the cusp of adulthood, both with jobs, both with lives steadily expanding like filling balloons, like my lungs breathing hay smell, my wife immersed in myriad projects and collaborations beyond this small holding.

I feed the chickens, fill the cows’ water, and dip into the pond where, if one dives deep enough, it’s still cold enough to take your breath away.





Heavier Than I Know it is

I pick up a boy hitchhiking. Or more to the point, he picks up me, approaching my truck as I idle at the blinking yellow light that brings a semblance of order to the main intersection of the small town we frequent. “I need a ride to East Hardwick,” he says, and because I am going right through East Hardwick, and because even if I weren’t I’d probably give him a ride anyway, just to better understand the nature of a boy who approaches a man in a truck to ask for a ride.

He climbs into the cab and settles in. We wait our turn at the blinking light, then accelerate through the intersection. He tells me he’s 19, though surely it can’t be true; he looks younger than my 14-year-old son. He tells me he spent the night outside, and this I believe, because he smells badly, and his bare arms are covered in dirt. He asks if I have a couple dollars, and although of course I do, I reflexively tell him I do not; there is something in the request that feels inauthentic to me, though in hindsight I’m pressed to say why. He tells me his name is Kenneth, and ask for money again. He complements my 15-year-old truck, asks what kind of motor is has, says it’s smooth. He calls me “sir” and between requests for money, thanks me for the ride. I drop him in the parking lot of the mechanic I’m visiting to pay for recent repairs to our car, and he stands in the open door of the truck, not backing away, asking for money yet again. But I don’t give him any. Maybe I should, but I don’t.

I pay my bill, and drive home, detouring past the long-neglected private campground that is reemerging under new ownership as an adults-only, clothing optional venue. This is big news in our little town of 200 (give or take a few), and predictably, the venture has become the butt (see what I did there?) of innumerable jokes. I drive slowly, and look carefully, but there’s no one around, naked or otherwise. I don’t think they’re open yet, anyway, and even if they were, it’s still black fly season. You’d have to be plumb crazy to let it all hang out right now.

I wish I’d given Kenneth some money, even though I’m still not convinced he really needed it. But I can feel it in my pocket, even now, that small wad of crumpled bills. It feels heavier than I know it is.


The Cows, the Mushrooms, the Turtle

Often in the mornings I drive our younger son to work. Or rather he drives me; he’s 14, and learning the row the gears in the little stick shift, and we practice on the lesser-traveled gravel roads. I make him stop in the middle of an incline, then start again, and I chide him for riding the clutch. But the truth is, he’s a good driver, probably better than I was at 14. Certainly more responsible.

The writing I don’t do here is stuck in my head, like the image of a herd of cows the other morning, early, just after dawn, this time me driving through the verdant land, the lushness almost overwhelming to the senses, past the grazing cows, and two of them off to the side, one licking the others’ neck, the lickee tilting her head just so, all the better to have her itches properly scratched. And wondering how they communicate this need, or if it’s just happenstance.

Or gathering morels with my son, the same one I take driving, so many mushrooms we eat them for three days straight until suddenly they don’t seem so special anymore and we decide not to go back for more. Though there were so many. Never seen morels like that.

On the highway, I see a snapping turtle trying to cross. I stop and hurry it along, and an hour later, returning home, I see it again (or is it really? Could it be a different one? It looks like the same one to me), now heading in the opposite direction. This does not seem possible, but there it is, so I stop again, and hurry it along again, skootching the indignant beast with my boot until it’s out of harm’s way. Thinking all the while that one of these days the turtle’s going to get hit. I got shit to do. I can’t just hang out kicking it across the road.

Other things, too. In and out of my mind, they all seem noteworthy in the moment, but so many of them just fade away, and I return to the cows, the mushrooms, the turtle. And the sound, yet again, of rain on the roof.


Isn’t That All?


Early morning. I ride my bike five miles home from dropping the car at our mechanic, across a dreary landscape, the trees still bare, the fields not yet green, or at least not fully so, the roadside bearing winter’s detritus: Empty cans of Bud Light and Twisted Tea, random bits of plastic and paper. Two miles of pavement, then the turn onto the graveled mountain road, the big mud holes mostly healed by the town grader. The stream rushing by on my right as I begin the climb, still flush with snowmelt running off the mountain. Past Michael’s house, set back high from the road, surrounded by prayer flags. He lives there alone, mid-50’s I’m guessing, very many tattoos, always a smile, always a wave. For a long time, he had no car, then he did, and now it seems that again he does not, and I pass him on the road often, walking with his granddaughter or his dogs (or his granddaughter and his dogs), and sometimes we chat. Sometimes we don’t.

I like riding along this stream, the sound of it, the weight of the air, heavy with moisture. I like climbing the road, it’s just the right pitch, and climbs for just long enough before I pull into our drive, past the birches, past the wide-eyed cows and their water trough, past the truck and my son’s first car: A 1990 Volvo station wagon.

When he brought it home I remembered suddenly the time my friends Josh and Trevor and I were driving from Cape Cod to Vermont in Josh’s old VW Bug, and how we broke down only a few dozen miles into our trip. I was 16, maybe 17, at the time, the same age my son is now. Josh and Trevor and I limped the car to the parking lot of a furniture super store, where we abandoned it and started hitching. It was late at night and no one would stop, and anyway we were arguing over whether or not to keep trying, or to curl up in the woods and sleep ’til daybreak, so we split up, and soon I got a ride that took me most of the way home. At some point the next day we reconvened, none the worse for wear, each with tales to tell. I cannot remember what happened to Josh’s car.

“I want to do stuff like that,” is what my son said when I told him about that night, now 30 years behind me. “Maybe,” I said, though I was thinking maybe not. But I could understand the yearning, the desire to have the experiences that make the stories, even if it means sleeping in a ditch. Even if it means hitchhiking through the night.

Because really, isn’t that all any of us want?


All of This is Very Good


Driving over the mountain road at night, the fog is so thick I’m forced to slow to second gear, 20 mph or even less, though I know this route with back-of-hand familiarity. But the suspended water vapor plays all manner of tricks on my mind, and for a moment, I’m no longer convinced I’m even on the right road: Have I taken a wrong turn? Was this really the way I meant to go? But I carry on, and eventually descend to the lower flanks of the mountain, where there is no snow left to melt and thus no fog, and now can see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, behind the wheel of our little car, churning through the mud, on my way to pick up yet more used building materials (always, always with the used building materials), the night close around me.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been working on a book with our dear friend, Luke Boushee, a wilderness educator, amazing illustrator, and all-around wonderful person. It’s called The Young Adventurer’s Guide to (Almost) Everything, and it was published last week. It’s a total departure for me; not at all the narrative non-fiction I’m accustomed to, but I’m happy with how it came out. I love Luke’s illustrations, they’re the perfect combination of instruction and whimsy, and they’re really fun to look at, even if you’re not particularly young. Or adventurous, for that matter. Penny wrote the bulk of the instructional text, and I handled the less-technical stuff, mostly because I’m a less-technical sort of person. It was a true team effort, and it’s gratifying to see it come to life.

If you happen to have read the book, and if you are so inclined, I would be very grateful if you would drop by Amazon and write a review. Naturally, I’d prefer folks purchased from their local, independent book seller (don’t have one? Maybe you’d consider supporting one of my favorites, here and here), but the Amazon reviews are still important, both from people who are purchasing there, and for those who are just browsing. Thank you for considering this.

That’s all for now, except to say that the season has finally turned in full. The snow is nearly gone, even from the stubborn, northern facing hollows, and the cows are restless, eyeing the early shoots of young grass beyond their paddock gate. The windows thrown open, laundry on the line. And early this morning, still half dark, I pulled my bike from the basement and pedaled down the road. First ride of the season.

It was a very long winter, and all of this is very good.