An unexpected evening rain bends but does not quite break the heat, and when I awake in the morning, right at the cusp of first light, I follow the cats outside to stand for a minute in the heavy air. The day is coming on so fast I swear I can see it happening in real time, almost as if the light were accumulating like snow. The cows are gathered under their favorite apple tree; they’ve worn the ground bare around its base, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this tree from all the others that would have suited the purpose equally well. A place for shade. A rough trunk to scratch against. Maybe, just maybe, where they know to be found for scratches in the spots the tree can’t reach.
Busy. So busy. The days compressed and blurred together. The summer feeling suddenly short and all the possibilities it contains feeling suddenly much less possible. I’m reminded somehow of the bluejay I passed on a bike ride more than a month ago; it had been hit by a car, and was flopping frantically at the road’s shoulder, and I turned back, steeling myself to do what I thought right, but when I held the bird in my hands, it quieted, and I could see that nothing was broken. So I opened my palms and it flew. Perhaps it had merely been stunned, or perhaps it was one last desperate lurch before final collapse. Either way, it wasn’t done yet, there was life yet for it to live, and I rode on, grateful that I had not acted too quickly and knowing I’d long remember the way it settled into my palms.
Which, as it turns out, I have.
July 15. The mid point of summer. A beautiful day. I milk early, then ride my bike through air that’s heavy and cool from recent rain. Up the long climb to Cole’s Pond and back down, passing Louie out tending to his chickens, he’s 70 or so, still keeps a big flock with his wife Annie, still puts up square bales, and far as I know still goes surfing from time-to-time, driving to the coast and back in time for chores. And noticing how I notice the old men more and more, maybe the way a young child observes the new adult, always looking one generation ahead for a clue of how it’ll be for us, how we might end up, and from what I can tell, Louie’s way doesn’t seem too bad. I roll through town, pass a young woman sitting on a picnic table in her front yard, smoking a cigarette over the top of a mask that’s pulled down just far enough for the task. Up Schoolhouse Road, past the clothing optional campground, trying to look like I’m not looking (but I’m not, really!), and then to the very top of the mountain where the God is Love sign has disappeared since last I was here, which is somehow disappointing to me, even if I’m not actually 100% certain that God is Love, though it seems as at least plausible as anything else I can imagine, and a whole lot more comforting, too.
Looking back, I see this is the fourth post in a row I’ve mentioned riding my bike. I’ve been enjoying riding my bike; I rode a lot in my younger days, miles and miles and miles, in sun and rain and even snow, and it’s been nice getting back into the rhythm of it. I like the way it makes me feel, tired and exhilarated at once, and the way it brings me up close to the world. I can’t finish a ride without stopping to chat with at least one person or another, even on these quiet back roads, and I can’t go a mile without passing something that tickles my fancy, though it’s true that my fancy is easily tickled.
In addition to riding my bike, I’ve been reading a bunch, and heartily recommend the following. I’d love other suggestions in the comments! Hope everyone’s doing well as can be.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts (an all time favorite)
In the Fall and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent (two other all time fave’s)
The Adventurer’s Son, by Roman Dial
In the rain, I move fence for the cows. The grass is tall and heavy with seed, bent on its stalk. My jeans are wet through and my socks have slid down deep into my boots, where they are bunched and uncomfortable and I’d stop to pull them up but it’ll only happen again. The rain feels good. It’s been so dry for so long I’d forgotten how good rain can feel.
I finish the fence, let the cows onto the new grass. Their coats are sleek in the wet and because I’m done working and getting cold, I imagine the radiating warmth of them from dozens of feet away.
The rain is slowing. Later, I go for a bike ride and pass an old woman tending her tomatoes, they’re planted in big, ugly, plastic tubs, but the plants themselves are beautiful, tall and newly lush from the rain, and the woman herself is beautiful, the way she’s bent to the plants, grey hair across her face, so focused on her task she doesn’t notice my passing, though I could almost reach to touch her. Maybe she’s hard of hearing. Maybe she doesn’t care.
The road tilts downward. My tires throw flecks of mud high into the air; it plasters my shins, paints a stripe up my back. It’s going to rain some more, I can tell. But maybe, if I pedal fast enough, I’ll beat it home.
In the morning I ride my bicycle past serpentine windrows of drying hay, the smell unlike any other, sweet and strong and reassuring. I ride past the tree farm with the big gold-painted rock (because nothing screams “prosperity” like a big gold-painted rock, don’t you agree?), past a small vegetable farm, past Annie out riding her horse, and almost past the free pile, where I find a very nice pair of boots that’s only one size too big, and an almost-as-nice pair of sneakers that fit quite nicely. So I ride on, my new footwear tucked under one arm, laces flapping in the breeze, soon passing two young women pushing a stroller built for four, though only three seats are occupied, and I can’t help but joke that there’s just enough room left for me.
They’re kind enough to laugh.
I’m at the base of the mountain road on my way home, now, right past the house with the Trump 2020 flag, and here I leave the shoes behind a tree for future retrieval. Another half-mile and I spot an old man working in his garden. He’s just bought the property, which I know because it formally belonged to our friend Michael, who is himself moving onto 160 acres, where, he tells me, he hopes to die. Eventually.
I stop to introduce myself to the man in the garden. His name is Larry, and I’m guessing he’s 70 or more. White tee shirt, kneeling in the dirt. Baseball cap. He says he’s planning to get a couple heifers to eat down the surrounding grass, and this, like the smell of the drying hay, is reassuring, because a world in which old men work their gardens and plan for heifers to eat their grass isn’t irretrievably broken. Close, maybe. But not quite.
I say goodbye to Larry and head for home. The sun is high now, and hot, and the mountain stream runs low. I can scarcely hear it as I ride.
June. The cows are on new grass. The apple trees in blossom. Friday’s rain ushered in a cold spell that feels almost fall-like, but still everything is growing, growing, growing, pushing skyward, full of new life, even as the world disintegrates into tiny shards of glass. I ride my bike, passing an old dairy farm, three young men in the barnyard. They’re gathered around an old John Deere tractor, tools scattered in all directions. I soon pass the herd, out grazing a rough piece of pasture. Their big heads swivel as they watch me pass. Jersey’s, mostly. So big and quiet.
Later, having ridden the gravel road miles further, to the point at which it has narrowed to a muddy track and then even a little further, I pass back by the cows and soon, the barnyard. Only one man working on the tractor now. No sign of the others. I descend a long, steep hill, pedalling faster and faster, until my eyes water with the speed and I’m out of gearing and there’s nothing left to do but just hang on.
The weather has shifted, and early mornings carry the softness of the emerging season. It’s still cool when I awake, still dark-ish, and I make coffee on the wood stove, then milk, this morning in just a tee shirt, the new sun almost hot on my back. By 7:00 I can hear a chainsaw in the the woods down the road. Then a second. It doesn’t bother me so much. I don’t mind chainsaws. They’re loud, but I guess they make sense to me.
We don’t go out much (well: no one does), and I miss those inconsequential meetings of circumstance, the ones that used to happen when I ran to Willey’s for a box of screws, a tank of gas, and one of those 50-cent orange creamsicle bars the boys and I are so fond of. I’m not so good at the intentional socializing these times demand, though I’m working on it. And though in many ways I appreciate this new, slowed-down version of my life, I can’t quite comprehend it yet. It’s like the tempo’s all wrong, and I haven’t quite figured out how to play with the band.
Yesterday, I took my first swim in the pond, barely a week after the last snow. The water was cold, but not as cold as I’d expected. I walked barefoot back through the orchard, dripping onto the newly-lush grass, which is getting noticeably taller every day. I’ll let the cows onto it soon, and they’ll eat it down in no time. God. How quickly everything can change. And how quick we are to forget.
Really enjoying this one from Drive-By Truckers. Sounds like summer to me.
In the morning there is a dusting of snow and more falling, albeit so lightly I have to look carefully to see it in the air. I halter Pip to the stem of a young birch and milk in the pasture, my right knee pressed into the soft ground, the small flakes melting into the heat of her flank. I can hear the mountain stream running strong with the melt that’s still flowing out of the high woods. I can hear the steer, Saul, rummaging through the pile of hay I’ve heaped before him. I can hear the twin streams of milk hitting the bottom of the pail, and the change in tone as the milk accumulates. My nose is cold and I press it into Pip’s side for warmth. It’s the simplest of pleasures, the tiniest of comforts. But for now, it’ll do.
Snow falls. Wind blows. Overnight the skies clear and in the morning it is cold and sunny, the trees twitching in the diminishing wind like a cat’s tail: back and forth, back and forth. I walk up the mountain road, intending to turn into the woods, but the sun full on my face feels so good that I keep walking, and before I know it I’m at the top of the mountain and heading down the other side. It occurs to me that I could just keep going, down, down, down into the valley below, and over the river, and not far beyond that a whole other state. New Hampshire they call it. Live Free or Die. It has a nice ring to it.
But of course I turn back (I always turn back). The sun no longer in my face, the wind rushing around me, the road slick where traffic has packed the snow to something like ice. Through the bare trees, I can see westward to the white-capped peaks of the Green Mountains. They don’t look so big. They don’t look so far. I bet I could be there by nightfall.
I enjoyed this interview. You might, too.
In Monday morning’s pelting rain, I’m on an errand run for essentials, this time passing a man gathering cans along the roadside. He is 60, give or take a few circles around the sun, and dragging a large garbage bag in the dirty snow, though he’s leaving the trash where it lies: He’s here for the money, five whole pennies at time. The rain is beating on him. The cans are everywhere, scattered across the rotting snow like shells on a beach. Lots of Twisted Tea and Bud Light. Easy pickings. I pass what I assume is his van parked in a small pullout, a black Ford Econoline with a piece of hand-lettered plywood leaning against the rear bumper. Watch out for the Vermont Land Trust is what it says, and man-oh-man am I curious to know more. So curious, I almost stop. I even have my foot on the brake. But the rain. And, you know, the virus. So I carry on, counting the as yet ungathered cans as I drive, adding in my head, and wondering (because I can’t help myself) what he’ll spend it on. Gas for the van, I think (and yes: It really is 1.50 at Willey’s). Maybe some Hot Pockets for dinner. Perhaps a six pack. Definitely, a six pack. So I add another 30 cents to the tally.
Music: Springsteen doing Ghost of Tom Joad with Tom Morello.