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The Smartest Thing to Do

Rain turns to snow overnight, and by morning there’s three inches or more. The sky is so low it reaches right down to the ground. Standing by the cows’ fence as their water trough fills, I watch the snow fall, and can just discern the plume of smoke rising from Peter’s house down across the pasture, on the other side of the big beaver lodge and then the mountain road. Smoke rising, snow falling, sky low. The cows nosing at the sweet hay I’ve thrown over the fence.

When the trough is full I walk up the hill into the woods just because I haven’t in a while. The ground is soft beneath the snow, though the snow makes it seem softer still. It sticks to the needled limbs of the conifers. The hardwoods are lean and bony and almost black against all that white. I follow my main skid road for a ways, then veer in an easterly direction across the gentle slope of the land. When I stop I can hear the snow falling, but so faintly it requires a certain faith to believe in what I’m hearing. Maybe it’s just a trick of the senses. But I don’t think so.

Later, I drive over the unplowed mountain road. It’s still snowing, and even in four wheel drive, the truck slips and lurches over and across the ruts and potholes and washboards. Last week I’d thought to have the winter tires swapped for summers, and now am pleased with myself for having had the foresight to wait, though in truth there’s been no cunning on my part. Just procrastination leading to inaction, one of those moments – and the older I get, the more frequently they seem to arise – when doing nothing was actually the smartest thing to do.

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The Weight of the Clouds

Out on my bike in the early hours, I’m passed twice by a man on a motorcycle. The motorcycle is fitted with a sidecar, and the first time he passes me, heading in the opposite direction, the sidecar is empty. Twenty minutes later, he passes me again, this time coming from behind, the sidebar now occupied by a golden retriever wearing googles. The dog looks back at me with evident interest, and for a moment I’m afraid he might jump ship, but soon the motorcycle sweeps around a corner with everyone still in place.

Later, on my way home, I pass the parking lot of the old church, where it’s well known that people like to pull over and get high. Back in my day, it was all about wine coolers and weed, but now I find discarded needles and little balls of charred tinfoil, evidence of harder stuff. Maybe the drugs have gotten heavier because the pain has gotten heavier, or maybe it’s just the natural order of things, that inexorable human pull toward more. There’s a padded bra in the church lot, too; I’ve been watching it for months, ever since I first kicked it out of the snow with my skis. One of these days maybe I’ll pick it up, but I’m also thinking that maybe I won’t.

I realize that what I like about riding my bike is precisely the opposite of what I like about skiing: The bike brings me closer to humanity, while the skiing takes me further away. And I guess I need them both, the closeness and the distance, one being the antidote to the other and therefore necessary to even know the other, like the way you can’t truly appreciate how good it feels to have sunlight on your face if you haven’t felt the weight of the clouds.

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If Only

Winter’s End

Spring comes galloping on a week of 60-degree days. And the sun, that old friend. Snow melts, rivers run, the backroads thaw. Sap flows, but the season starts late and looks to finish early, and the talk is that sugarmakers down south have already pulled their taps, having made only a quarter crop. It’s just talk, but still.

I drive rutted roads to pick up loads of sawdust for the cows’ bedding, the same drive I took almost exactly a year ago, the one I wrote about here. How much has changed. How little. The small town I visit frequently is busier than it was a year ago, there’s no lockdown despite surging virus numbers, we all just go about our lives with masks on our faces and bottles of hand sanitizer tucked into the dash cubbies of our cars. Some of us get sick; more of us don’t. Some of us have been vaccinated; more of us haven’t. It’s just the way life is for now.

Yesterday we had rain that turned to snow overnight, and this morning the trees are newly frosted, there’s no sun, and we’re 25 degrees shy of 60. I shovel sawdust into the cows’ paddock, and there’s something about it that excites them; they run fast, short circles and fling sawdust into the air with their wide, wet noses. Later, maybe, I’ll see if I can shore up some electric wire and give them a little more room to roam, but for now I shovel and shovel as they run and fling, their whole world confined by a wood-slat fence they could breach in a heartbeat if only they knew how easy it would be.

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Cold and white and quiet

Skiing high on the mountain in the early morning, I deviate from my planned route to follow the tracks of a moose, probably from the evening before. Snow falls in waves of varying intensity. The tracks zig and zag, plotting a course that’s steadily uphill, through a hardwood forest that opens as I climb, until I reach the narrow shelf of a ridge that ends in an abrupt plunge down the eastward-facing side. The trees are mostly maple. The tracks of the moose I followed merge with the tracks of more moose, or at least one other moose; it’s hard to tell for certain, the way they come together and apart, together and apart. The animals – or one of them, anyway – must be close, because these tracks are fresher, still sharp around their edges despite the falling snow. I watch for them as I ski, it’s always so startling to see a moose, the horse-like mass of them, the legs almost comically long and too thin for what they support, but all I see is snow and tree and sky. All I hear is wind and my own steady breath, and even as I turn to retrace my tracks, the day and its long list calling me back to where I left my truck at a wide spot in the road, I know I’ll return.

Far back down the trail, I stop and listen again. Now I can hear, faintly, the distant thrum of an engine as a driver revs to make the grade of the Mountain Road. The snow has stopped except for the occasional lazy flake. The wind is gentler, too, but it no longer feels like we’re on the cusp of anything. It just feels like winter, cold and white and quiet, the sky that same stubborn grey it’s been for weeks.

I think about the remnants of coffee in the cracked mug I left in the cupholder of the truck. It won’t be hot anymore, that’s for sure. It won’t even be warm. But I’m going to drink it anyway.

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Spring Ahead

February morning on Dead Moose Pond

Late February. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something; the only question is, what? Spring could be just around the corner, or still eight weeks distant. The cold has been steady for months, never severe, but also never quite relenting, and though we’ve had few storms of significance, the snow lies feet-deep on the ground. The woodshed is lean. The hay, too. Enough of both, I think, but only by the thinnest of margins, the sort of margins I’d like to think were relegated to my younger, less experienced days, but alas. Some lessons are harder learned than others.

In three weeks, we change the clocks. I don’t relish it, honestly. I prefer the early morning light, prefer the early mornings in general, ample time to orient myself to the day, only the cats and the cows demanding my attention (and both so readily ignored). “It’s just the government’s way of reminding us who’s in control,” is what my father used to say twice each year, whenever the time change rolled around. I don’t know if he actually thought this true, or if he just enjoyed fancying himself as the sort of person who thought it true. Knowing my own predilections, and alarmingly aware of the old adage about apples not falling far from the tree, I’m guessing the latter.

Snow fell this morning. I watched it through the window for a while, and then, perhaps not quite as enthusiastically (but not yet begrudgingly!) as only a week or two prior, I rose to put on my boots and head outside.

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When it Comes

The repeating sameness of the midwinter days gives the impression that nothing’s really happening, that time has suspended itself, that nothing changes except for maybe the monochromatic greyness of the sky, one day a bit lighter, the next a bit darker, the next sprinkling snow as if from a shaker. I wake, build a fire, make coffee, feed the cows, feed the fire, ski, work, more coffee, more chores, more fire, read, sleep, and wake to do it all over again.

But throughout it all everything is changing: Our elder son is hired to lead river expeditions from a base on northern California, and prepares to leave. Our younger son is hired to help build a sugarhouse and install 35,000 taps in time for the first sap run, and is out the door every morning long before light. Our old washing machine dies a clunking death. A neighbor’s house burns to the ground.

I try to place my attention where my attention is worthy of being placed, while simultaneously trying to remember that I get to decide what is worthy and what is not. I try to decide wisely. It’s a lot of trying. And still, every day: Build fire, make coffee, do chores, go to woods. Visit with my sons in the moments they’re home and in the mood for visiting, a confluence of circumstances that seems to arise with decreasing frequency, like a clock winding down.

The hard part of winter is over. Or it is for me, anyway. The days are getting longer, and despite that unrelenting monochromatic sky, the sun soon to return (I even saw it once last week!). It’s all downhill from here, a soft glide into the early days of spring, the first bare patches of ground on the south-facing slopes, the muddy, tire-sucking backroads, the rutted driveway, the sap running hard, tufts of shed cow hair stuck to my jacket, the near-empty woodshed, the skis propped optimistically by the front door for another outing or two if the conditions are right. The house often empty, or nearly so. The wet, fecund smell of the thaw. I remember that smell. I like that smell. I’ll try to give it my full attention when it comes.

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Crashing Down

It snows all weekend, a warm snow that accumulates slowly but eventually piles to eight inches or more. For only the second time this winter, I plow the driveway, the wet snow rolling into huge balls as I push it with the tractor. I like plowing snow, though I liked it more when we had a plow truck and I could drink coffee and listen to music as I plowed, continually rubbing away the condensation that formed on the inside of the windshield no matter how high I ran the defroster. And I liked it even better back when the boys were small and would ride along, laughing at the sudden stops and starts, already attuned to the thrill of wielding powerful machinery. Plowing with the tractor is slower, less comfortable, and lonelier – no coffee, no music, no heat, no windshield, no sons – but it beats a shovel by a country mile.

By Monday morning, the temperature has dropped. The cold, aided by a steady breeze, has dried out the snow. It always amazes me how that happens. Again I ski along the mountain ridge, but this time I go further, time and again passing the point I’ve identified as my turn around. The snow is so good. It whispers under my skis. The trees emit cracks and pops in the cold. It’s almost a conversation.

I pass a large paper birch, half-chewed through by beaver and still standing, but otherwise see no signs of wildlife, hear no birdsong. Everyone hunkered down, I guess. Funny to think of them in their snowbound worlds, uninterrupted by the virus, unconcerned with events that I can’t seem stop reading about, even when I know what good it does me. Which is not too bloody much. Again and again I pledge to not look at the news upon waking; again and again I look at the news upon waking. Coffee on the woodstove, the splintering world caught in the computer on my lap. If only it would stay there, though sometimes it seems that if I simply refused to lend it my attention, it would. I know it’s wishful thinking.

Finally I turn back. The snow still whispering. The trees still cracking and popping. The half-chewed birch still standing, though the closer I look, the more tenuous it seems. So I hurry on, not at all wanting to be crushed when it comes crashing down.

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Begun in Earnest

Early on the morning after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, I ski into the forest along the spine of small mountains that form the ridge just uphill of our home. I ski to a pond, which is little known and lesser visited, and where I’ve decided the ice is thick enough to bear my weight, though I’ll have no proof of this until after I haven’t fallen through. In the photo above, you can see my view from the edge of the pond. That’s looking due east, or maybe just a bit south of that.

It would perhaps better serve my narrative to suggest that I skied into the woods seeking solace from the chaos of the preceding day, but the truth is, I’d done the same two days before, and the day before that, and even the day before that. And so on. I grew up skiing in the woods behind my childhood home, and now I ski in the woods behind my adult home, and it’s no more a means of coping with our nation’s woes than it is the simple force of habit cultivated over more mornings than I can count. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. Often it’s not. Mostly I don’t think about it; I just go.

There are no other tracks in the snow atop the ice. I ski a long loop around the pond’s perimeter and then head deeper into the woods, climbing a steep hill I’ve climbed often enough. I like the trees up here, especially the big yellow birch and old sugar maples, which have rough trunks and crooked limbs that look like arthritic fingers stretching for something just out of reach. At the crest of the hill I stop to consider my options; it’s so quiet that I can hear my own heart, not only in my ears, as usual, but actually through the wall of my chest. That’s what it seems like, anyway.

I miss faces, hugs, handshakes. Loud, live music. Anyplace crowded. I finally got myself a real mask, with ear loops and everything, and I’m almost accustomed to it, I almost don’t think about putting it on when I go into Willey’s for a two-inch schedule 40 elbow, wire nuts, and, even though it’s winter, one of those 50-cent creamsicle pops I’ve developed a weakness for. I eat it in the truck on the way home, listening to the radio. Sedition. Coup. Incursion. Inciting. A whole new vocabulary for a whole new way of life.

Back down the hill I fly, past the big trees and their outstretched fingers, then past the pond with the ice I can now prove is thick enough to bear my weight, the wind and the noise of my skis against the snow loud in my ears. The heart sound covered up. The sky still grey but full of light. The day begun in earnest.

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For All I Know

At first light I return to the same spot in the woods I’d left at last light the day before, where I’d been cutting firewood for the past few days and where the ground is covered by a carpet of sawdust. In the low morning light I can see the new tracks of a small deer who’d come during the night, perhaps drawn to the scent of newly cut wood, or having wandered here by happenstance.

It’s good firewood: Ash, beech, sugar maple. The big trees come crashing down with the whump of heavy wood against snow-covered soil. Then that certain, fleeting stillness, the forest pausing to note the passing of one of its own.

I cut and haul and split for four days straight, not particularly long days, but long enough to earn my suppers, and almost long enough to convince myself that I’ve given in relatively equal measure to what I’ve gained, though it’s probably true that I’ve become so accustomed to giving so little that my sense of what’s equal is all out-of-whack. Nonetheless, it feels good.

The calendar ticks over into the New Year. A storm comes and there is snow. I’m done cutting wood for a while. I hang my chaps back in the barn, instead of by the wood stove to dry for the next day, and I miss the wood-and-oil smell of them. I plow the driveway, and when I’m finished plowing, I ski past the spot I’d been cutting wood. The sawdust is covered, but the deer has been back. I can see where it scuffed in the snow, and where it’s tracks disappear over the top of a treed knoll, and for a moment I allow myself the possibility that it’s right there, just on the other side of that small rise, smelling and listening and judging the danger. And for all I know, it is.

For your listening pleasure (and not entirely unrelated to the above), Franklin Burroughs reading his essay Compression Wood.

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Always Gambling

A surprise squall in the aftermath of the great Christmas thaw of 2020, and again the ground is covered. Four, maybe even five-inches, that magical cold snow, what I call snow globe snow because it looks exactly like what you’d image snow would look like if you’d only ever seen it in picture books. Fluffy. Big flakes. In the aftermath of the squall, I walk in the woods, scouting firewood. It’s almost impossibly pretty.

I dream I’m on an airplane that’s about to take off, and I realize suddenly that I’m the only person not wearing a mask. I don’t have one with me, and it’s too late to find one; the seat belt sign has been illuminated for my safety, the flight attendants have completed their final cabin check, and are settling into their seats. I start to panic, and then something shifts, and I’m able to relax and actually begin looking forward to that moment when the plane begins to accelerate for take off. I remember loving that moment as a child whenever we’d fly to visit my grandparents. Truth be told, it still gives me a little thrill.

When I drive, I look at people’s faces. This is what I miss most, just seeing people’s faces. The creases in their cheeks, the smile lines, the crooked teeth. I haven’t seen a good mustache in months. We’re fortunate, I know, for where we live, how we live. I don’t have to wear a mask but a handful of times each week, and even then, only for as long as necessary to do my business. It wasn’t until about two weeks ago that I finally worked through my stash of old construction masks, the ones I’ve had since back when you wore a mask for reasons other than the virus.

People say our lives will never be the same, but I’m not convinced. I imagine the virus will eventually pass, or we’ll learn to live with it, add it to the list of necessary risks we’ve learned to accept or simply ignore. We’re always gambling. We just don’t always realize it.

For those of you who keep coming back to this space – many of you for many years now – thank you. I often think I’m going to get back to posting more often, but that doesn’t seem to happen. Maybe this year it will, maybe not. Either way, thank you all for reading and Happy New Year.