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The Rural Life
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Every year about now, I feel the need to keep a journal. I recognize in this urge all my worst instincts as a writer. I walk past the blank books gifts of nothingness that pile up in bookstores at this season, and I can almost hear their clean white pages begging to be defaced. They evoke in me the amateur, the high school student, the miserable writerly aspirant I once was a young man who could almost see the ink flowing onto the woven fibers of the blank page like the watering of some eternal garden. It took a long time, a lot of pens, and many blank books before I realized that I write in the simultaneous expectation that every word I write will live forever and be blotted out instantly.
It's hard to keep a journal under those conditions. It's harder still when it becomes clear that the purpose of a journal at least of those journals begun in earnest on the first day of January is not to record, day by day, just a fragment of thought or observation but to herd all one's days, like so many sheep, into a single pasture and prevent them from escaping. What drives the impulse toward New Year's journal keeping is also the shocking realization that the only thing left of the old year is a few tufts of wool caught in the barbed wire. What I want a journal to do could be done just as well by a more aggressive savings program.
A conscientious journal keeper is really the natural historian of his own life. His model is the amateur naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers like Gilbert White or collectors like George Eliot's Camden Farebrother. It often seems as though science in this century has little use anymore for amateur observers of that kind, that science has grown too institutional, too complex, to value the private watcher of a small patch of ground. It seems that way too when it comes to our own lives. They're cross-referenced, indexed, cataloged, and witnessed by the public and private institutions whose job is to tabulate and codify us. Even the task of introspection has been jobbed out to the professionals. A personal journal in our time comes to seem less like a valuable cache of perceptions than a naive recitation of symptoms that the writer lacks the authority to analyze.
But many of the great journals I think especially of Samuel Pepys's seventeenth-century diary and James Boswell's eighteenth-century journalare not marked by self-consciousness. They're marked by a dogged absence of self-consciousness, a willingness to suspend judgment of the journal itself, if not of its author, in order to keep the enterprise going. The value of Pepys's diary and Boswell's journal is the world they depict and only incidentally the depiction of their authors. Their journals weren't read until long after the authors had died. Both men wrote for an audience of one. Judging by my own fragmentary journals, that's one too many. It's not enough that I should be dead before anyone else reads them. I should be dead before I reread them myself.
So at the beginning of this new year, I'll try to hold out against more journal making. There are lots of good reasons to do so. I have enough to write as it is, and I know enough about writing now to distrust the words that seem to flow onto the page. A journal always conceals vastly more than it reveals. It's a poor substitute for memory, and memory is what I would like to nourish.
But if I do give in, this is what I have in mind. I want to count the crows in the field every afternoon. I want to record the temperatures, high and low, every day and measure the rain and snow. If a flock of turkeys walks into the barnyard, I want to mention the fact. If one of the horses throws a shoe, I want to say so, in writing, before I call the farrier; and I'd like to be able to tell from my journal just how many bales of hay I have squirreled away in the barn. It's no longer the writer in me that wants to keep a journal. It's the farmer or rather the son and nephew and grandson of farmers.
All of the days with eves before them are behind us now for another year. The grand themes rebirth and genial carnality have come and gone like a chinook wind, bringing a familiar end-of-year thaw to body and spirit. Now the everyday returns and with it the ordinary kind of week in which Friday doesn't turn into Sunday and Saturday into Sunday as it has for two weeks running. It's time for a week in which each morning throws off a magnetic field all its own, when it's no trick telling Tuesday from Wednesday just by the sound of the alarm clock or the mood of your spouse.
With the everyday, winter comes at last to the new year. In the country it isn't necessarily snowfall or the sudden drop in temperature that marks the return of winter. It's the sound of the plow-guy unless you happen to be the plow-guy clearing the driveway well after dark, when the dogs are already asleep, too tired from an afternoon of running around a snowy field to rise and bark at the scraping and banging outside. In the time it takes to wonder what the racket is, I remember. It was last winter's sound, and now it's this winter's too. It seems surprising that the plow-guy even recalls where I live and that such a flimsy agreement a couple of words and a nod over a rolled- down pickup window could have such presumptive force. But that's the nature of the country, where lifelong service contracts are formed in an instant and attach to the property, not the person, as newcomers discover to their interest. Getting out of those contracts is like getting out of winter. Better just to move.
Winter's own presumptive force made itself plain recently, with rain upon snow followed by snow upon ice late into the darkness. The next morning my footsteps to the barn through the slush the night before had been preserved with remarkable sharpness - each one a life mask of my boot sole, the splash frozen in midair as if it were a Harold Edgerton photo. In the sunshine, snow slid off the metal barn roof with a hiss, and the horses skittered out from the run-in shed, taking pleasure as they always do in a momentary fright. In a single night they've learned how to pick their way over ice again. The roads are suddenly full of the overtentative and the overbold, for at night the cold, clean blacktop looks like hardpacked snow, and sometimes it actually is. Other seasons come abruptly but ask so little when they do. Winter is the only one that has to be relearned.
Somehow it seems appropriate that the year should have ended with a winter storm worth remembering, a walloping northeaster drawing snow down in heaps from a solid ceiling of clouds. This was the kind of storm preceded most richly by anticipation, by the heraldry of radar and rumor, bringing in advance a seasonal glibness to almost everyone in its probable path everyone, that is, who doesn't have to travel. On Saturday morning the weather drew people to their windows again and again to see how fast the snow was falling, then to see if the fire hydrant had disappeared, then to worry whether the plows were coming. And as always when a storm of this dimension crosses the Northeast, what it brings in greatest abundance is a muffled hush, the sound of nothing doing.
A winter storm is episodic by nature, whether it marches on an arctic track out of the west or rides upward along the coast from the south, as this one did, congealing as it comes. It's been a long time since the last episode of this magnitude, and it was strangely reassuring, if only as a reminder of what true winter really means, since winter is now a pale, warm shadow of its ancestral self. Many seeds require a period of cold, called stratification, before they'll germinate. Thanks to this storm, residents of the Northeast can consider themselves properly stratified.
In the country the storm meant a chance, when the gusts were strongest, to pretend that we'd been shifted northward in latitude to the shores of Baffin Bay, or backward in time to the middle of the last glaciation, when ice sheets rumbled southward across Canada. The snow skidded around the compass with the wind, and though the storm never reached the blizzard conditions forecasters predicted, it was strong enough at times to blot out the dark edge of the forest, to erase stone walls, to weigh down the hemlocks, giving them a more pendulous motion than they usually have. The falling and blowing snow stole color right out of the air, turning a cardinal in a mockorange bush into an indistinct rose-gray blob. By nightfall the snow in the fields was fox-deep.
Every evening just at dusk I carry two hay bales into the middle pasture. One goes into the high feed bunk, the other into the feeder just below it. Each bale is bound by two strings of sisal baling twine. I cut the strings near their knots, which were tied by a mechanical baler sometime late last summer in a Massachusetts hay field. The bale springs apart, and the hay falls into flakes. I coil the strings into a neat loop and put them in my pocket. There's at least one coil of twine in every jacket I own and another in the hip pocket of every pair of jeans. On this place, baling twine is the thread of life.
Not that it gets used for much. It ties down tarps and ties up tomato vines and rose canes. It piles up day by day in an empty grain sack or a cardboard box in the barn. The horses are easier to catch with a double length of twine-string, as my farming cousins called it, than with a proper halter, and the horses are also gentle enough to be led that way. I know ranch hands in Wyoming who never ride out without a loop of the stuff usually the orange plastic kindknotted to a saddle-string or a D-ring. It's hard to describe the emergency that a length of baling twine would fix, but you'd know it if you ever rode into one.
And yet this is the common stuff that gives rural life its substance, a token of what divides this way of living from any other, a reminder of what comes next, what comes every day. Coiling those sisal strands is one of the rewards of doing chores, as is standing among the horses while they crowd together and begin pulling hay from the feeders. The brown horses are moledark in their winter coats now, and the dapple-gray mare called Adeline looks ghostly white. Their long hair makes their ears seem especially small, and that makes them all look attentive, though they spend most of the day dozing broadside to the sun's low rays.
If you live with horses, you soon get used to the feel of a line lying across your palm and fingers a rein, a lead rope, a lariat. It becomes second nature, what hands are for. You begin to feel for the life, the responsiveness in any piece of rope you handle, even a coil of baling twine, because when you work with horses, that line, no matter how stout or supple, is what connects you to them. It transmits the dexterity of your fingers, the guilelessness of your intentions. It becomes a subtle tool. It allows horse and human to moor each other.
Recently the neighbors' horses got out through a broken gate in the middle of the night. They trotted up the yellow line on the highway for a couple of miles, backtracked down a gravel road, and disappeared into the woods. We searched until three A.M., driving the back roads, walking the dirt margins, looking for hoofprints or fresh manure. The night was foggy and there had been no snow. In the end, the horses found us.
They walked out of the trees and onto the road we had traced them to. They were wraiths until we haltered them. Then they turned into their old solid selves, a pony, a small mule, and three aging, swaybacked horses, all footsore. And who's to say what we turned into, standing there in the mist, clinging with relief to the lead ropes in our hands? The moon barely glimmered upon us, a knot of creatures on the edge of the winter woods, exhaling together, happy to be connected again.
Snow has been falling all day long. The skylights are drifted over, and by noon dusk seems to be in the offing, the day so gray, so white, that the winter color of the goldfinches pale as olive oil feels like an overdraft on the eyes. Some days chores are barely that, just a visit to the barn and then back for coffee. But this morning the gates were deep in snow and the Dutch doors on the barn needed shoveling out, as did the deck and the path to the woodpile. The horses dropped sweetfeed from their mouths, staining the snow molasses. Three crows in the barnyard stood watch over their shadows, except that there are no shadows on a day like this. One horse had rolled in a drift, leaving what looked like the wingprint of a giant owl descending on its prey.
On the way back to the house, I stopped to clean out the winter entrance to the beehive with my pocketknife. The beehive stands beside a white steppe that will be a vegetable garden one of these days, when April comes and the soil is black and fragrant once more. Yet there's no better day to plan a garden than this one. The landscape has a purity it will lose when the snow melts. The geometry of each bed is perfect at this moment, if hidden.
One mail-order plant catalog is folded open to its pulmonarias. I've dog-eared another where the hostas begin, and in another, from North Carolina, I've marked every plant that could grow in this zone, while lamenting the crinums and kniphofias that won't. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs lies open on the desk beside The National Arboretum Book of Outstanding Garden Plants, sources of inspiration and depression. Latin names skim across my thoughts like water boatmen on a summer pond Tradescantia, Helleborus, Cryptomeria, Epimedium. But by afternoon, designs have begun to tangle, and the list of plants is far too long. The only sensible plan I can think of is this one: I'll walk outside with a stick and draw my gardens in the whiteness, echinops here, ligularia over there, a Japanese pieris by this corner. Then I'll sit by the fire while the snow falls, watch them all disappear, and start over again in the morning.
Last year it rained all summer. Most of the garden languished, but not the potatoes, which love water. I hilled them twice with compost, and by late August each of the potato beds was a tangle of vegetative sprawl, a mass of deeply dissected leaves and contorted stems. No harvest is quite as satisfying as a good potato harvest. The tubers always come as a surprise, patroonlike and globular in their tight jackets. The vines make a substantial heap, and when harvest is over the ground is suddenly bare and freshly dug, open to almost anything next spring except tomatoes or more potatoes, which might pick up diseases from last year's crop. When I carried the baskets to the house I tried to guess their weight, but the only measure that came to mind was a ton.
I took a potato out of the storage closet this past week and noticed that many of the spuds on the rack had begun to sprout in the cool darkness. On the purple fingerlings there were only small buds, barely noticeable, but on some of the russets and plain white boiling potatoes whose exact variety I can no longer recall, the sprouts had truly begun to rise about an inch long, pale as potato flesh, already weakly chitted, to use that strange old word.
If the ground had been soft, I could have cut them into sections, an eye apiece, and planted them. And if I had been counting on those potatoes to see me through the winter, the sprouts would have been a dismal sight, a sign that the potatoes would wilt before long and that hunger wasn't far away. It seems like such an insistent gesture, to throw up sprouts in the darkness of a ventilated closet that once held a small oil furnace, with thawed ground so far off in the calendar. Most gardeners are trying to temper just that insistence in themselves right about now, to honor the heart of winter for not being the shank of spring. I know I'm ready to sprout in the cool midwinter darkness. Snow is still falling on the garden, blanching the uppermost leaves of the leeks still in the ground. I look at the cherry tree I planted last spring in a corner of the garden and the memory seems very distant.
The ruins of the garden are still just visible above the snow the tomato cages I forgot to pick up, a single stake from the pea trellis, the bare rose spines, the denuded Japanese maple, and, under the hemlocks, a surprisingly stout spire of Cimicifuga. I wake up in the middle of the night and begin to take inventory of the things I plan to do once the snow melts away and the ground begins to soften. Then I remember it's January, a month when only the potatoes are optimistic about warmer weather.
If deep cold made a sound, it would be the scissoring and gnashing of a skater's blades against hard gray ice, or the screeching the snow sets up when you walk across it in the blue light of afternoon. The sound might be the stamping of feet at bus stops and train stations, or the way the almost perfect clarity of the audible world on an icy day is muted by scarves and mufflers pulled up over the face and around the ears.
But the true sound of deep cold is the sound of the wind. Monday morning, on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the windchill approached fifty below zero. A stiff northwest wind rocked in the trees and snatched at cars as they idled at the curb. A rough rime had settled over that old-brick city the day before, and now the wind was sanding it smooth. It was cold of Siberian or Antarctic intensity, and I could feel a kind of claustrophobia settling in all over Boston. People went about their errands, only to cut them short instantly, turning backs to the gust and fleeing for cover.
It has been just slightly milder in New York. Furnace repairmen and oil-truck drivers are working on the memory of two hours' sleep. Swans in the smaller reservoirs brood on the ice, and in the swamps that line the railroad tracks in Dutchess County, you can see how the current was moving when the cold snap brought it to a halt. The soil in windblown fields looks and is iron hard. It's all a paradox, a cold that feels absolutely rigid but which nonetheless seeps through ill-fitting windows, between clapboards, and along uninsulated pipe chases. People listen superstitiously to the sounds in their heating ducts, to the banging of their radiators, afraid of silence. They turn the keys in their cars with trepidation. It's an old world this cold week.