Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Late Summer: Netting

We were supposed to start in the late morning, but I didn't see any activity till just after noon, when Emmett went by in the white pickup with the broken intake manifold. Coming up the hill from the Feather Farm, the truck emits a particular signature, somewhere between the blat of Danny's dirt-track racer with a broken piston and the tinny roar of Dennis's Dodge Caravan without a muffler. The nets were piled up in back, stuffed into big black contractor bags.

I recognized them even before Emmett waved as he went past.  We'd packed those bags last fall, struggling to keep the nets from twisting or knotting up, leaving the bags at the end of their row of vines so Harry could slap duct tape on the side, writing the length of the net and its condition.  That was October. The grapes had been harvested weeks before, and denetting was the last communal work of the season.  The nets cut into your hands, already cold and stiff from the early morning frost just lifting as the sun reached higher.

The vineyard is up on a hill across the creek and past the clover field.  By an accident of acoustics, the rise next to the barn and the rise of the vineyard converse with each other the way you might have spoken to your sister or your friend with the tin cans and wire you used to make telephones as kids.  I could hear Emmett dropping the bags one by one at their rows, and then the truck headed back to the farm.

I'd been reading in one of the old metal lawn chairs the Old Man had refinished years ago, and I'd refinished years later, each of us certain our remedies would halt the inexorable return of rust, and each of us wrong. Now pockets of dry paint had floated up and cracked and the widening circles of dark rust rubbed off on your shorts while you sat there.  But it didn't matter.  These were chairs almost magical. Sitting in them, you were nearly touching the Old Man again, nearly hearing his voice, nearly watching him as he bent to the task at hand, patient, rigorous.

The Old Man had admired Harry for his workingman's ethic and his seeming inexhaustibility and the futility of so many of his programs.  The vineyard was one; the Old Man knew it was never to be a money maker and that troubled and enthralled him.  Why would anyone do something so difficult and so unlikely of success? I once told him that Harry and I made a game of calculating how much we made by the hour from our vocations.  Harry was a little ahead at 13 cents an hour when the Old Man died.

Agriculture of the sort that goes on around here doesn't really resemble farming, at least not as the last century has understood it.  There are machines involved, tractors, sprayers, mowers.  But the land is too discontinuous for mass-production monocrop cash farming except in the flat plains around the rivers where the fields wave with sweet corn destined for the markets and restaurants of New York City, an hour and a half south. The land rises irregularly beyond the floodplain, responding to millennia of wind and water, glaciers descending and receding, tearing the land from one spot, revealing the stony bones of the earth, leaving floods of gravel and broken rock. In the lower middle of our pasture, a granite upthrust emerges, hidden by the grasses of summer and the snows of winter, revealed in the spring floods.

In this broken topography, we adapt our desires. There's the clover field on Harry's side of the creek, where the floods go, and on our side there's the hayfield.  We share a part of the woodlot with its stands of sugar maples and its heritage chestnuts still standing though long dead from the blight.  Some times are for cutting down and dragging out those old trees to be sold to the cabinet makers; some times are for syruping off and some for haying and some for gathering the old planks from outbuildings that washed into the creek in the hurricane or the big spring flood and can be put up in the half-collapsed woodshed to be used when someone comes with a restoration project.

Today it was netting time. The first year the vineyard was mature enough to produce well, Harry had walked the rows with his friend and teacher and they'd agreed it was nearly time.  That was a Saturday, and Harry had called the crew and told them harvest was going to start early Monday morning.  On Sunday afternoon he stopped by the vineyard to drop off some tools and found the vines stripped bare.  It was surreal, the sort of disorientation you might have felt when you came out in the morning to get in your car and found it wasn't where you'd left it, and you wandered up and down the street, unable to believe it had been stolen. Harry, too, had wandered between the rows, stooping occasionally to see where the grapes had once been, until he came to the place that Nick had mowed too close, leaving the center shaved to dirt, and saw, in the dust, the dense interweaving of tracks from a rafter of wild turkeys. It was a bad year, worst of them all, though there'd been other bad years, years when nothing came of the harvest but a gallon of sour grapejuice, when the weather went south-- a late frost or an early hurricane or a sudden violent thunderstorm throwing hail. You couldn't do much about weather, but you could net the vines and keep the birds out.  So we did.

 I was heading down to the house when Emmett pulled into the driveway in the pickup, its bed carrying the rest of the tools,  a cooler populated by old juice jars washed out and now filled with ice-water, and the last few netting bags. It's time, right? I called.  I'm just going up to change: no buttons, long sleeves, long pants, gloves.  He came out of the cab anyway.  I wanted to tell you, he said.  I was up at the vineyard Saturday and I got a  free live music concert. Nice stuff. Made me want to dance up there.

The big band had trouped in on Friday, taking over the studio, turning up the amps and working up the sets to play on Sunday down at the outdoor gig. It had been a noisy weekend, punctuated by feasts and field trips and long stories and tender fingertips and hoarse voices by the end. Now they'd packed up, promising to call when they made it home safely, dawdling in the driveway, the car windows rolled down so as to talk through just one more thing, before backing out and heading up the hill to Mountain Rest Road and then up Main Street in New Paltz and onto the Thruway.

When I got up to the vineyard Harry had brought the tractor round with the netting trailer hooked behind. He and Peter Lundgren had devised the thing; it was a contraption with chain and angled metal and a platform where Emmett would stand to pay out the netting from the bags through the raised guide as two of us, me on one side, Dennis on the other, would walk along behind, laying the netting across the long rows of vines. Dennis wasn't there yet, and while we waited for him we occupied ourselves with the small chores that make it go more smoothly later-- untying the bags and setting them within easy reach; testing the machinery.  Then the three of us went down the rows, picking off the grapes that had already been pecked by the birds. You need to get them out, to interrupt the beautiful cycle that doesn't include human harvest or wine as part of its rhythm:  bird; yellowjacket; moth; mold.

Dennis took the left side; I took the right.  A few of the netting bags had been hand-loaded last year, after the ritual of October, for reasons I don't remember.  But those nets were twisted up, and by chance the first two rows were trouble. When the nets twist, the solution is to spin the bag but it takes some time to get the instinct for which way to go, clockwise or counterclockwise.  Midway through the second row Emmett remembered the routine, untwisting from the farthest spot back, and then continuing that spin down to the bag.  We were ready to settle in.

The day had dawned cool, more like late September than mid-August. Now, though, the sky was cloudless, an intense, almost metallic blue that made the leaves of the sycamore trees at the vineyard's edge seem alternately vivid green and near-silver.  The sweat stained our long shirts and pants and we pulled them away from the skin underneath as we walked back up from the finished rows, kicking the nets underneath the vines so the tractor wouldn't catch on them when Harry took it down the next row.

There was some casual talk--about the troubles with permits that had closed down the Hopped-Up Cafe where the other band played and where Emmett's brother was a regular; about the noisy motorcycle Danny Cross had bought to replace the customized pickup with the glass-pack mufflers he'd had to sell; about the grass-killer Emily had sprayed around her vegetable patch; about the variable amount of chlorine in the Rosendale municipal water we were drinking-- but mostly the talk was focused on the task at hand. Taking up slack! Emmett would call, and he'd hold the netting still while the tractor moved forward. Rip!  meant a segment of the netting was torn open and Dennis and I would have to be careful to lay it right so that later Harry could come by and close up the holes with clips and string.

There were 23 rows, and we didn't take but one water break:  the flow of things seemed to resist the idea of stopping and then starting up again.  Once in a while a car or a pickup would drive past.  Toward the end, the girls who lived in the brick house came out with their babysitter and the little dog and raced around the new-mown clover field, spraying each other with water pistols while the dog dug through the hayrows to find the dead-- voles, field mice, snakes, the occasional rabbit who had leapt the wrong way as the tractor and the haymow came up. Then they went in, and we set on the last row without speaking at all, leaving only the sough of the wind in the evergreens over on the far hillside and the grumble of the little tractor's 20 horsepower engine, still steady though the tractor dated to the '40s.

And then we were done. Two and a half hours, Harry said: half as long as last year, which was better than any year previous.  We stood around the tractor for a little while, talking about the differences in technique this year from last. Then it was time to move on.  Harry took the tractor back to the Feather Farm.  Emmett took the pickup.  Dennis drove off in his ancient Dodge Caravan with the bad muffler, and I walked down the hill to the house and, behind it, to the studio, to pull the cables and the mics from the carry-all bin and reassemble the practice space for tomorrow, when Kim and Sevan and David and Jim would assemble, to work on the next song, and the next.

I no longer practice alone.  It has come to seem alien, even unseemly.  What is the point of working on technique when what matters in the end is finding the time, feeling the music breathe, waiting for someone to suggest, someone else to affirm, then to take it up for a while, and then hand it off or set it down?

When we left the tumult and compression of the city for this place, it seemed we were moving from communality to solitude. But we'd had it backwards.  Now even the dead commune with us, in dreams,  in the wind, in the moon's travel, in fragments of words to be crafted into song, or work, or wine, in the talk of those we work beside or those who listen to us, as we work, while they, too, make the small adjustments, move rhythmically down the rows, lay things out in order, stopping, now and then, to hear the music swell from the old barn, cross the creek, and rise up the hillside to the vineyard.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spring: The Inventory


The Inventory
I am filling out the inventory sheets, listing everything that was damaged or ruined when the storage room flooded in the spring thaw.  There are two sets of spreadsheets;  one will only take entries  keyed in on the computer. It contains locked-out rows that will later serve the appraiser, who will take the information we have gathered and determine what portion of the value of things is to be granted to us. The other, truncated to fit on a standard sheet of paper, is to be printed out; each iteration is 25 pages in length and has space for 198 entries.  Even then the spaces to be entered in pen or pencil are small, and legibility matters, for the appraiser will check each computer entry against these raw sheets, attentive to fraud or padding.  There is little to worry him with us, for we have lost so much that could not possibly be priced out or claimed,  but he will not know that, or if he trusts us, the next one up the chain of response at the insurance company will scrutinize his report all the more suspiciously. 

For the task I have chosen a mechanical pencil normally delegated for the crossword puzzle, a pen that is favored for its fluid release of ink, and a backup ballpoint given us by Ulster Savings Bank when we signed the paperwork for the mortgage on the farm.   I have locked the sheets into a clipboard that was once my father’s:  Bakelite, with a metal spring-loaded blade that still has on it some residues of my father’s left hand as he held it while writing. I remember it from the days when it served him for notetaking at the Saturday autopsies in the cold ceramic rooms at Yale-New Haven Hospital, with their stainless steel walls consisting of outsize cabinet drawers, in each of which lay the body of someone who was not supposed to have died that way.  When the clipboard came home with him, to be balanced on his left knee as he transformed notes into reports, he would often set it on the arm of the big leather chair that was his to work in, weathered  footstools on either side piled with medical textbooks and reference volumes.  He would be in the kitchen, getting a further splash of whiskey or another ice cube, and I would sit temporarily in his place, reading over the cryptic scribbled observations of injury, recapturing the sequence of wounds and affronts, imagining the outrage, disbelief or resignation of the person I had watched him slice open with scalpels and saws as I waited between the trip to the music store and the drive back home in the small car, still faintly conveying formaldehyde and alcohol and bleach from the place of the dead to the retreat of the living.  Then I would hear the slight squeak of his rubber-soled shoes and the creak of the eighteenth-century wideboard floor planks, and I would slide down along the leather to stand beside him as he sat back down, waiting to hand him his tools:   fountain pen, folders,  clipboard.

When he died, in another house and another state, the clipboard lay by that same chair, though the leather was worn through in places and the legal pad inserted in the clipboard had his handwritten list of assets and liabilities, bills to be paid, the location of documents, written with care in his small, crabbed hand. He had left it for me, for I was the executor of his estate, and he wished his death to be as free of inconvenience as possible.  When we, his three children, held our lottery for the things in that house, my sisters were surprised that I put the clipboard on the list, and then used so many of my allotted points to ensure I got it, and the footstools, and the chair.  She was not with me on that day, though we had worked together on the list;  she remembered the small important things, like the clipboard, and the kitchen blackboard on which the notes dating back decades were still faintly visible under the greetings and the drawings of grandchildren. 

She came down later, and we packed what mattered and watched as the movers came and loaded it into the truck and took it off to be stored until we could settle on what to do next. It was two years before we bought the farm and another year to finish the clearing out and building up. We were worried that these belongings had been lost or neglected during all that time, though we’d sent a check each month to the address outside of Morgantown, West Virginia.  When I called down, the woman who answered must have known our unease, for she reassured us without prompting that they’d been taking good care of our things.

The truck was too big to pull into the driveway;  the driver parked by the side of the road, opening the big doors in the middle of the trailer where our small load resided, nestled between the furnishings of other households leaving that gorgeous ravaged place for some more hopeful landscape.  Opening the boxes containing my mother’s good china and the carefully wrapped miscellany of memory, taking the shrink-wrap off the furniture, we realized the house was filling with a barely perceptible trace of the smells of that other place, and the one before it, the old old house so similar to this one, and yet so different.  It was a good homecoming.

 Still, there was much to be done.  She had the leather chair repaired and when the back house was completed, it went in there.  Before the old man moved in with us, we searched online until we found the same risers that had made it easy for my father to get in and out with his canes and then his walker and then the wheelchair, and we situated it so that it gave a view of the crabapple tree with its two bird feeders noisy with tumult, hunger, greed.  The chair’s ownership changed with a shift of vowel and apostrophe:  the old man’s chair became the old men’s chair, and though he pretended to disapprove of the amount I spent on birdseed or the frequency with which it had to be filled—twice a day! Ridiculous, he declared, pronouncing the word as if the short expulsion were separated, to emphasize the necessity to rid oneself of the ridiculous—I could tell it pleased him.

Not everything could be easily fit within this new old place, even with the back house added on, for the old man had his own things that he wanted by him, and we wanted him as comfortable as he could be.  It wasn’t just the things that came in that moving truck.  There was also all the residues of our own lives, with their inevitable confusion as to value and indispensability. 

Moving here meant for me a gentle eviction from the large office with its floor-to-ceiling metal bookshelves, each one marked with a foil decal on which was stamped the inventory number for that particular piece of state-owned property, and no other. Rusting in places, scuffed and bent, held stable only by the weight of 35 years of books, unclaimed papers and exams, piles of Xeroxed articles for seminars or honors sections, they seemed unlikely subjects for theft, but the university was a state university, and regulations were clear.  Every few years, someone arrived to do inventory, combing the office for each small silvery disk with the numbers stamped into it, and matching that number to the list, first carried on a clipboard like ours, and then later called up on the screen of a portable computer that, from year to year, shrank from a cumbersome suitcase set up on a table to a thin lozenge held in one hand and tapped with a pen by the impatient auditor who looked, with something like contempt, at the messiness of an artist’s life, then headed to the next, no doubt more orderly and rational, state-run enterprise.    

Down below my office was a storage closet, narrow and deep, with a single light bulb behind a metal shield at the very front, by the door, where the secretary and the office manager kept the reams of copier paper and the boxes of old files.  Past the makeshift wall of paper and supplies was a cube of empty darkness into which I had brought the boxes of negatives and proof sheets, the work prints, the files and reference notebooks I had taken from the darkroom at the top of the house when the mediator determined that I should not return at will to work in a place occupied by those I had chosen to leave.

That was years ago. Now we had decided, she and I;  there was to be no more waiting, no more half-hearted moving back and forth from one life in a Midwestern landscape we had neither of us planned to occupy for more than a year or two, so many decades before, to a place that was rough, uncomfortable, and right in its light and obscurity, its  brown winter fields stopped by ridges and hills, streams, ponds and stone walls, the smells of hot earth and stone and the rush of wind rattling the old windows the snow raced toward but never quite touched. We had made our announcements and negotiated the accommodations that must come with a sudden abandonment of expected responsibilities: teaching assignments, exhibitions half-planned, the apartment lease and the friends with traditions and obligations.

The packing had a sort of hallucinatory quality to it; the rooms expanded and shrank unexpectedly, requiring more and more trips to the U-Haul store for boxes and tape.  In the end, the movers came without comment at the great stupa taking up most of the office, dismantling it box by box, each one with its contents and destination written in large letters on the top and side. Then they took on the closet, rearranging the orderly array of office supplies to reach the archive of a vocation that had never comfortably fit me and was now set aside for one that did.

People think that photography is a craft, an art of observation, but really, it’s not. It’s a medium of compilation;  properly practiced, it is more like scooping up samples of earth at an archaeological site, leaving the sifting and the classification, the placing in vitrines and then the construction of explanations and narratives, to others. The best photographers were most like the dowsers I’d known as a child in the New England woods, with their strange twisting divining sticks and their uncanny capacity to hit water time and again.  It is an art of the intuitive, declaring the democracy of things.  It was hard and unsatisfying to me, though I did it for thirty years without questioning my motives. 

When we bought the farm there was no question of building a wet darkroom; our water was hard and smelled of sulphur even after the contraption that stood by the pump in the cellar and groaned and shook as it ended its recirculation cycle at 4 am on Thursdays, and the leach field for the septic tank ran perilously close to the creek. There was a vague plan of scanning the best work from the negatives, and finding a used inkjet printer of the sort I’d worked with in the digital lab down the hall from the classroom where I taught.

For the first months after we moved, the boxes of books, the files and legal pads, the lecture notes and annotated lists of pictures, and the crates in which the archive was held, had all been stacked on pallets, in the center of the main barn, covered with plastic and tarps to protect them from bat guano and bird droppings, while we planned the building of the back house.  Though we are just two now, we had thought from the first to extend the old house so that the old man, and the old woman, too, if she would abide it, could live, secure and protected, watched over by us and by those we could find and trust to serve as caretakers.  Later, we knew, we would also need that place, with its wide doorways to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, its special shower and the long big closet to keep what was still needed or too hard to leave behind.  We would not give up this farm, this land; that we were intent on. 

Harry designed the back house, modeling it after the plain structures that often attached to the sides of farmhouses like ours, to shelter the most vulnerable and essential animals.  Then, as farm families extended, the outbuildings were shored up, and floors laid, so that they might serve as living spaces for the old or the very young, or for the farmhand or the oddjob worker. Once it weathered a bit, once the grass grew back and the forsythia and the mountain laurel spread from small plantings to unruly explosions of yellow and green, this version would look, from without and within, as if it had been there for two centuries or more.

Underneath, we’d had the engineers design a storage room, plain, low, low enough to require that you move around it on hands and knees; deliberately useless for any purpose other than the one for which it was built.  It was meant to be impregnable.  It sat on two feet of crushed stone, through which ran a criss-cross of perforated drain pipes that fed into the long pipe that ran underground, at a laser-sighted pitch, to take all water down to the creek. The walls and floor had been sealed along their outsides not once but twice, in proprietary envelopes with names like Rub’rSeal and WickAway.   The air was filtered.  The door locked.

Into that space we moved the ruins of that other life, organized this time, inventoried, and set in systematic proximity:  negatives in their archival envelopes in their archival boxes set beside their equivalents in the proof sheets and the work prints, so that, should I ever return to it, I could work with a clinical efficiency that might mimic my father’s when, in his white lab coat, in his Saturday sessions, he catalogued the dead in the tiled rooms of the morgue.  The archive sat in the center of the room, for easiest access. Along the walls I arrayed the boxes from the office proper, each one with its outer side demarcated by the fat letters of the permanent marker. 

And then we shut and locked the door, and walked away.  The barn soon filled again, with other remnants, other tools. A wooden sleigh the old woman couldn’t bear to see rotting away in a neighbor’s field. Cans of paint. Tool chests. Bicycle frames and spare pedals, water bottles, handlebars and shifters. Air conditioners in the cold months. Gardening tools.  Bins of fertilizer and seed. And just inside the big double doors, the old man’s tractor.

It was the last in a long string of tractors he had bought to manage the oversize yard of the house they’d moved to when the last child left.  He used to sit upon that tractor as if it were a moving throne, straw hat on his head, and you could see him from the front window of the small house on the big grass yard, appearing and disappearing as he made the orderly rows of cut grass aggregate until, after hours stretching into days, the lawn was mowed, and he had been moved to patience, after respite inside the armor of the motor’s noise,  in a silence of his own making, antidote to the agitation and tumult crowded inside that house.  When he came up by us, as they say around here, he left the tractor for others to use down there.  When he died here, in his room above the archive, they sold the little house.  One day we borrowed Harry’s truck and drove down to get the tractor, but the tires were flat and the battery dead and it was too heavy to wrestle up the makeshift plywood ramp into the pickup bed.  We called G&G’s Lawn and Garden Equipment up on 209, to pick it up and get it running.  Two weeks later it came back to us, driven down the hill from the shop to the farm by a boy perhaps old enough to drive a car, or perhaps not. I had to teach her how to work the combination clutch and brake, how to find the sweet spot in the throttle, how to raise and lower the mower blades, how to engage and disengage them. That evening, she rode it past the creek and the woodlot, back and forth, the mower disengaged, and it was nearly full-dark before she called me to maneuver it up the concrete ramp and into the near-empty barn.

When the helpers arrived to evacuate the storage room it was already night: Clint and his brother David, Mike their father, and Clint’s  three children, with contractor’s pole-lights,  a shop-vac, a dehumidifier, and five heavy-duty plastic bins with wheels on one end.  That afternoon, Tom from Mr. Rooter had torn his fingernail off and nearly broken his wrist when the router cable twisted in a sudden tangle before he could get his foot off the remote switch for the motor clutch.  Something in there, all right, he said, and after wrapping up his finger with gaffer’s tape he untwisted the cable and ran it back up the pipe.  It was close to an hour and I was hauling wet cardboard into piles when he called me back down to the far edge of the lawn where the pipe ended.  He held up a plug of sycamore roots dense as packed clay in places, trailing nearly eight feet long.  Behind him, water shot from the pipe’s end a clear ten feet before landing in the middle of the creek; it ran like that for close to an hour before it tapered to a gush and then, over the next few hours, reduced to a steady stream.  Under such pressure, nothing is impervious.

Even with seven of us, getting everything up to the barn took many hours.  Clint’s youngest was cheerful to the end, glad to be at his father’s side, and his uncle’s, and his grandfather’s.  The girls were worn down, their voices rarely heard and monotonous when they did speak, to direct us where to drop our loads. Because the boxes had all split, and the storage systems inside as well, Clint and the boy stayed down in the crawlspace, filling and refilling the big bins, while we carried them up to the barn where the girls waited to empty them, wherever there was space.  When they left it was near midnight.

At the first, I had thought to hook the tractor’s battery back up, fill the tank with gas, and back it out, leaving a staging ground for the unloading.  Now even that was filled with bins in which the negatives lay inert, the information they had assembled strangled by the swollen wet gelatin emulsion. On its first trip between the back house and the barn, the tractor had bogged down in the muddy approach, the trailer behind too heavy for the big back wheels to hold traction no matter how low the gear. The moon was rising as I unhooked the trailer and drove the tractor under the lee of the barn roof and went in to bed.

We had finished the back house in January of last year, and the old man moved in a couple of weeks later.  He had warned us we had built too extravagantly for his purposes, but most days he would migrate from the breakfast table to the couch to the old men’s chair, to catch the sun through each successive window as it moved across the arc of the day. At night sometimes the moonlight would awaken him and he would hike up in the bed to look at the greening hayfield and the stars above it.

He died there in May, and it seemed our rage and grief would stay trapped within us forever, throttled and poisonous. That summer and fall seemed like winter; chill, distant, hard ground and even the birds silent. We spoke of things observed—the red-tail hawk behind the haymow watching for the field mice and the voles, the single brilliant dwarf red maple at the edge of the woodlot as the trees around it passed through their color cycles and then shook off their leaves and stiffened—but it was rote, spoken as if from another room or over an old long-distance line once the formalities had been dispensed with and it was time to break the news that was bound to be bad.

It was a tough winter. Snow came early, before Thanksgiving, and with none of the excitement of a place transformed to brilliance, none of the anticipation of visitors and celebrations. The special china stayed in the hutch; the ancient damask tablecloths didn’t come down from the attic. The snow slid off the metal roof of the back house and by the end of February it was piled halfway up the windows and more. For weeks the bird feeders needed no refilling; there were no flashes of red or black at the edge of attention when we walked past the windows through which he used to watch the cardinals and the redwing blackbirds and the blue jays and doves. When it did warm the change was sudden; 15 degrees one day, 60 the next, and the snowmelt rushed down the swale we’d cut to keep the runoff from the upper fields deflected from the house.

As I opened the Bilco door down to the storage room on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed a different odor, more like the packed clay of the crawlspace under the old house, or the Puritan dirt of the cellar back as a child. When I opened the inner door at the base of the stairs the lights didn’t go on; with a flashlight, I could see small pools of standing water here and there. I canvassed the pipes with the flashlight looking for breaks but the only evidence of something wrong was a trail of seepage at the base where the wall met the floor, here and there. It was after five when I called the contractor and my voice was shaking; I had seen that the bottom layers of the archive had taken water.  The boxes were dark at their bases, and bulged.  Clint asked if there was water coming in and I said no:  just seepage now.  He said they’d be out first thing in the morning.

It was Mike whose truck was in the driveway at 8 am;  I went to put on my waterproof boots and my gloves to meet him at the Bilco doors.  When I got outside, he was already coming around. Clint told me you didn’t have water down there now, he said. I opened the Bilco doors and there’s 4, maybe 6 inches of standing water.  I gotta go back and get my rainboots. I told him I’d go down since I had my boots on, and he stood at the top of the stair as I pushed at the inner door, feeling a new resistance as I did.  When I got it partway open, water gushed out into the small space at the base of the stairs—6, then 8, then ten inches of water.  I got down on my knees and the water poured into my boots as I crawled one-handed into the storage room, holding the flashlight high.  Then I went back out to get the camera and the flash.

The morning after we emptied the storage room into the barn, the wind shifted to the northwest and the temperature began to drop.  By three in the afternoon, it was 26 degrees and when we went to bed the thermometer outside the kitchen window over the sink read 16. Up in the barn, the sodden piles froze into place. The pile of cardboard left outside the Bilco doors glued itself to the hard earth and it was a week before we could begin to clear it out. Twice the insurance adjuster called, asking for the inventory sheets;  he was, no doubt located in Atlanta or Phoenix or San Diego; beneath his cheery script there was an undertone of skepticism, or perhaps incredulity, at our slowness.  The furnace man came out and inspected, pulling himself out of the crawlspace to tell us that the motor had been flooded and so had its regulating circuit board. It was running now, he said, but it would need to be replaced. 

She came home on Thursday night, and we had three days of warmer weather predicted.  By then I had gone in to survey, but the piles themselves, even when they weren’t frozen solid, were so cold that they chilled and stiffened my hands after just a few minutes of tugging at the tops of things, trying to clear paths so that we could evacuate everything to assess what we had lost.

We did the first paper inventory like this:  I laid a long row of plastic sheeting out in the dry stubble at the edge of the hayfield, nearest the barn doors, and we weighted it down with the rusted iron counterweights we had taken from the old windows we’d rebuilt or replaced when we moved into this place and began to strip it back to its origins—plaster under the wainscoting, wide chestnut floorboards under the narrowboard pine and cracked linoleum, rough adze-hewn beams obscured by decorative molding.  With the sheeting in place, we took what we could carry, in loads, and laid things out on the plastic.  Then I photographed each array, walking the length so that later, in the studio, I could stitch the individual frames into one panorama of loss. Then we took turns writing on the inventory sheets, removing what was described back into bins we’d bought at the hardware store. It took all three days before we finished: forty pages of inventory sheets, ten items to a sheet. At the end of that, she returned to work, and I set myself to the task still half-done.

There is a certain rhythm to this part of it.  Each item on the handwritten sheets must be transferred and then attached to certain facts:  brand or manufacturer, model number, item description, quantity lost, item age in years and months, estimated cost to replace per each, replacement cost source, original cost, source of original purchase, and purchase method. 

Some of these can only be estimated.  Entire rows of required information are blank and will remain so.  I cannot remember how or when that copy of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others came to us, or why.  Perhaps it was a gift, though I doubt such astringent witnessing as Sontag’s would strike anyone as proper to be unwrapped at Christmas or on a birthday morning. I don’t know the price paid, in 1970, for my copy of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, nor can I consider the dense spidery handwriting that tattooes the margins or the half-started lines of poetry written into the endpapers to degrade the condition of the book in ways an insurance adjuster could understand, though I feel the hot flush of shame on my neck when I read what is still legible of what I put down when I was 20 and thought myself a writer.

But that is the purpose of inventories.  They are a toting-up of things, after a close examination of their worth.  And while the value of some things leaks out over time, others become denser and more precious, while others yet stay sodden with trapped sentiment.  Postcards from a woman I once thought I loved.  The fingerpaint birthday portraits Molly and Taylor made for me when I was still strong enough to hold at bay the madness of that other house and protect them from what was wrong and could not be righted. Nights I would put them to bed and wait until they were deep asleep, and then I would ascend to the darkroom above them to work until two or three in the morning, watching as the blank paper, red-orange under the sodium-vapor safelight, would darken and then something discernible would appear, some fragment of what had gone before me as I stood or walked, the small camera to my eye, protected from assault or knowledge.

Tearing the sheets of work prints one by one off the piles, now, I am struck with a sense of witness to a person I don’t want to know again, traveling through spaces and times unpleasant and alien.

But in the midst of this desolate activity, this inventory, small solaces, perhaps more painful to come upon than the growing realization of so much life wasted: pictures of those I loved, and those who have loved me.  Molly, her head turned away from me to display the feathered ornaments she has woven into her hair in Mr. Daniel’s kindergarten class, the shallow focus of the 8x10 view camera’s long lens rendering almost indistinct the back yard in which she stands, dry and sterile in memory  but, the negative reports, lush, overgrown. Taylor, at two still tow-headed, hiding behind a turned-up wagon. My love, before, even, I knew that I would love her, standing in the middle of the intersection of two dirt streets in Silverton, Colorado, looking, impatiently, past me and toward the mountains that, I remember, rose abruptly behind me.

 Molly and Taylor are grown, now.  They come here from far places and new lives, with lovers and wives, now with the child they are fostering, and he crawls across the chestnut wideboards, chasing the cat, while the dog follows, to protect him. They bring gifts and music and instructions as to what we are to do next:  goats, chickens, solar panels on the roof of the barn, a retention pond for the livestock, bat houses for the slowly repopulating colony that once raced from the barn each evening at dusk, before disease ravaged and destroyed it. They plan to come here, when the time is right.

When we moved here we knew what we were getting into, and we didn’t.  Snow tires and tilted floors, hurricanes forcing water through the window frames, sump pumps and poison ivy, the knowledge that we will always be newcomers even as we lie dying in the back house decades hence. It was our folly to imagine we could engineer an impervious space, so that we might keep intact, immaculate, an archive of a past we had occupied uneasily or not at all. The ash tree stands like a petrified sentinel where the lawn meets the hayfield, even as the deadly emerald ash borer migrates southward, mile by mile, year by year. Already we are planning the tree to plant in its place.  Every windy day brings a rain of branches from the sycamores, and we pick them up and pile them by the house until they’re dry enough to go down in the old woodbin in the cellar to serve as kindling for the winter. 

We could have laid a different style of pipe;  Schedule 40, it’s called.  It’s thicker and more rigid, and instead of inserting the 20-foot lengths one into the next, you seal each joint with an epoxy that renders one continuous span from house to creek’s edge.

But there’s a reason we didn’t do that. Pipe that long and that rigid is prone to crack when it’s pushed and shoved by frost heave and the compaction of soil in drought summers. To lay it right, you must lay it deep, and then it must exit deeper, angled to allow for constant runoff so ice plugs don’t form.  The creek comes too high; the house, its first stone wall laid in 1784, was built too low.

In the end, it came down to the dumb, thoughtless will of the sycamores that stand ten feet or so from the lay of the drainage pipe. They send their roots not just to gather water, but to grip the tenuous shifting earth, hold it firm and brace themselves, shedding branches as they do, as if tossing aside what they no longer need in order to shift their strength, drawn from water and sun and broken rock and their own leaves decomposed and melding with the rest of what is here, the better to rise and rise, and to withstand the next great wind or hard, hard winter.

Just now I rose from the inventory sheets to let the dog out and to look again at the sycamores, with their piebald bark and their crooked limbs, only now showing the first small bulbs at their ends, bulbs that will, in a couple of weeks, open up to show that they are actually leaves, clenched tight to stay safe against the chance of another hard freeze or violent spring storm. 

The wind was up.  When I opened the back door, the sound of a hundred redwing blackbirds settling into the stubble, the resident flock, weeks late arriving because of the cold, rose and fell as the wind soughed through the pine grove. Back in the woodlot that is partly ours and mostly Harry’s, the big pileated woodpecker was drumming his territory on the hollow trunk of a dead tree, his brilliant red tuft barely visible through the welter of branches.

On Friday we will assemble to practice in the barn, and the music will leak out of the cracks to compete with the throaty roar of the dump truck as the Bushes come back from the job site up past Kripplebush,  and then we will troupe noisily down the muddy pathway to the house to drink and eat and drink some more.  David’s big bass sits in the pantry of the back house, where the old man kept his oatmeal next to his microwave and his minifridge on the table we brought with him when we brought him here. Surely someone will begin to play it, late, too late, when we are so tired but not yet willing to give it up, and we will think of something that the guitars can weave to clothe its call, and then it will be time to go, and to let go.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Traffic vs. Weather

Traffic vs. Weather

When we first encountered the fifteen-minute-long weather reports that aired four times a day here, we found them charming, but exasperating.  Meteorologist Paul Caiano's discussion of regional weather broken into six separate reports seemed quixotic, affording variations so small as to be invisible.  How much could things vary between the Mid-Hudson Valley and the Litchfield Hills a half-hour away?  By contrast, his discussion of major weather events in the past 24 hours, with their attention to the last waterspout reported in the South Pacific and the global and continental low and high temperature records for the day, seemed a bit like showing off.  Ciaano's high, nasal voice rose and fell but his emphases seemed wrong, as if he was reading something handed him just moments before airtime.

We were used to Chicago's radio, where the weather reports were quick, informative, personable.  It's gonna be a bad one out there tonight:  you bundle up or, better yet, just stay at home and snuggle with a good book or a loved one. The weather reports were appended not to news but to traffic;  in fact it was traffic that mattered, and the segment titles agreed:  whether on the 8s or on the tens or on the half-hour, it was always Traffic and Weather, not the other way around. The tone of the announcer didn't change between the two;  in fact, most of the time weather was there to explain traffic, or to prepare you for workarounds-- take the train, not the bus; make sure your windshield wipers are working well; stay off the I-90 corridor where there's bound to be semis jack-knifed or stalled where bridge freezes before road surface

We bought the farm just after the Great Crash of 2007.  For a few years we had looked at real estate in Chicago, more than a little skeptically.  Various agents would solicit our interest, and some of the places were interesting;  they promised the possibility of changing lives by changed geographies. In Chicago, a shift of neighborhood is also a shift of transportation, which brings new faces in the train cars or the buses, and new vistas out the windows.  After the awkward first months, things would settle down;  you'd recognize people whose schedules matched yours, and you could imagine their lives, filling in the stories as new details emerged.  Similarly, there'd be places you'd look for;  a tree that, so vivid so early in the fall, might not make it through till spring, or an explosion of yellow forsythia in a yard that grew dense and green over the spring and summer. Just the repainting of a carwash sign would, for a time, be a cause for comment.

We'd been in the same place long enough that those pleasures had dulled.  The Red Line, our train line, was rebuilding half its roadbed; everything would be slower, more awkward, frustrating. And we'd read the reports on the importance of home ownership, of real estate investment, of wealth building. We weren't the sort to watch investment infomercials on television, but there was a vague sense of opportunity left behind. So we started, haphazardly at first. Then, as the calls began to come, and the notices appeared in the inbox daily, then hourly, we found ourselves part of a new class of people, new to us, at least:  house-hunters.

There were places that looked out at vast sweeps of cemetery, places tucked in what seemed improbably like cul-de-sacs-- improbably, because Chicago's grid forbids the frivolity of small closed areas or hidden clusters of people and houses.  There were run-down two-flats and converted manufacturing lofts and bungalows in neighborhoods where police and fire families had lived for generations.  There were places we felt we might be welcome, and places where we knew we would always be outsiders.

What all had in common was the price:  too high for us.  And when we pointed this out to the broker, he or she (always better dressed than we were, always with a nicer car and a more perfect sheen to the skin) would look at us blankly.  Then would begin the homily on remedies:  second mortgages secured by a note-of-hand to bridge the down payment, specialty mortgages with escalation tiers and cascading principal payments and guaranteed rate-links and refi codas.  It was religion, and we knew it.

So we stayed in the rambling rundown top-floor walkup that looked out onto a small beach where the drummers assembled for their drum circles, and the boys with their baseball hats with the tags still on them cocked crazily on their modified afros as they perched on the backs of the park benches, warily eyeing each other while the lifeguard watched them from the top of the tall white chair. We were immunized from danger by Georgie the dog, whom the gangbangers had adopted a few years before, because she was so very old and so careful as she walked, and because she was direct in her relations with all people, and received directness in return.  In the winter, they would stop us to ask how she was doing; was the salt still hurting her paws; did she mind it when it was this cold? In the summer, when we would bring her out to the beach, they wouldn't look at us from their stations on the benches, but their hands might stray down, casually, almost as if by accident, so that Georgie could put her nose in the warm palm and nudge it gently before going on.  

Back East, at the edge of the Hudson Valley, the old man and the old woman were often sick, or in need, and we found ourselves driving over the Skyway, into Indiana, then Ohio, Pennsylvania, crossing into New York at Port Jervis, then reversing the drive a few days later. As the market faltered, we began to think of buying something there, something that could draw us when the time came. We had not planned to live long in Chicago;  we were Easterners, both of us, and the sublimity of the Midwest and the spectacles of a vertical city you could observe from a distance, approach, enter, and then exit, smoothly, with a steady continuum of rise and fall: these were treasures we spoke of to others, to visitors and outsiders, but with less and less enthusiasm and more and more duty in our voices and gestures. As the apartment crumbled around us, we looked eastward.

The farm had been a real estate disaster.  You wouldn't have guessed it from the gorgeous webvideo Mary Collins Real Estate had produced back when the market was smokin'; Pachelbel's Canon played in the background and the vaseline-smeared lens idealized the soggy wet stretches where the hayfield approached the creek.  There weren't any interior views of the house or the barn;  instead, there were carefully crafted approaches to the buildings that accentuated their rural and colonial heritage. You'd never guess that the old wideboards had been covered with pine and the plaster walls with wainscoting and the only trace of a kitchen was a stove stuck improbably in the main room, with a bathroom vanity for a sink and a refrigerator always and only filled with pizza boxes from Benny's and gigantic bottles of Pepsi and Sprite.

Before Mary Collins stepped in, the couple who'd owned it had attempted to exploit the letter of the zoning dating back to the 1950s, parceling out the acreage into fifteen one-acre lots, proposing paved lanes that they must have imagined would be magically impervious to the relentless drainage from the ridge to the creek, magically immune from the state's wetland regulations.  When the proposal died on the desk of the town planner, they were disgusted;  for weeks afterward, they raced their all-terrain-vehicles in great loops around the property, the halogen headlights illuminating the stubble and warning them away from the deep rivulets, sometimes dry and hard, sometimes brimful with snowmelt or the runoff from a sudden storm.  They relented and redrafted:  four five-acre luxury-living sites with the wetlands redesignated as common parkland and playground.  This time they made it to committee, where they sat, we're told, stiff and silent as the planning board asked them questions they could not answer.

And so they turned it over to Mary Collins, and to the soft-focus videographer and to Pacelbel's Canon. By then, though, they were a year behind the market, and their new place on Long Island, so attractive, so affordable when they'd bought it in giddy anticipation of their real-estate speculations, now had entered the second tier of its multi-story stairway of rate increases, and refinancing, once the equivalent of a brisk walk from one department at the bank to another, now became something closer to one of those dreams in which it is impossible to run, and then to walk, until you feel yourself falling forward in slow motion toward the quicksand in front of you.

Shortly after the third tier payment increase kicked in on that place on Long Island, and long after Mary Collins had graciously bowed out of the picture, they sold us the farm.  For a year after that, I continued the drive back and forth whenever the university schedule gave me seven days or more.  The furniture back then consisted of an inflatable bed, a card table, and six extruded plastic lawn chairs, one of which stayed at the table with the laptop.  Oh, and a dog bed.

We thought we'd continue that way for a while, but the tug was too great.  Even now, with the hayfield nearly obscured by the steady fall of snow, and the heat in the house and the studios only barely able to keep up with the steelhard cold that locks the pools down at the wetlands into grey lessons in the geography of small dangers, and the creek longer audible under the waves of ice it has made of itself.  Even now, when, I am sure, back in Chicago the buses run in the tracks made by the city snowplows and the most intrepid of hipsters are still riding their single-speed bikes down Milwaukee Avenue toward the School of the Art Institute or the design studio in the South Loop.  Even now, I know what it means to recognize a place as home.

Traffic and Weather on the 8s was more than a comforting murmur to us.  To those who drove, it was the most important part of the radio morning or evening.  If you lived in the suburbs, or the exurbs, or reverse commuted to one of those office parks out in edge city, you knew that the Jane Addams was actually a fragment of Interstate 90 heading northwest past O'Hare Airport and Schaumburg;  that the Ike was the Eisenhower and the Eisenhower was I-290; that the Bishop Ford was I-94 and you didn't want to take it if there was any way around it. Repair crew incidents or rollover accidents were Greek tragedies into which you found yourself, perhaps merely as a member of the chorus, but perhaps as Lear or Macbeth or Oedipus. When traffic came on, you stopped what you were doing in mid-gesture;  your eyes turned inward as you visualized the elaborate network of roadways, felt the ebb and flow of them, probing for the places where the ripple effect would be least.  Perhaps your lips moved in a silent litany as you added up the different times, discarding one, holding another in your pocket, just in case, the way an old woman counted score at cribbage or rummy.

These days, we treat Paul Caiano and his weather reports with a similar intensity of attention.  What was once charming or eccentric is now urgent;  what seemed rambling or deliberately overstuffed is now taut, even compressed. There's a reason for every part of it, even the most obscure or distant in geography.  That waterspout over the Sea of Japan:  it will never reach us here, but it does remind us that our dangers and catastrophes have their counterparts or trump cards far from us.

 It's not just that they close the schools when the snow forecast looks bad. The superintendent is up at 6, waiting for the first of Caiano's reports, his computer open to the email address of the school closing hotline. This is a stretch of country with many hills, some mountains, and very little in the way of surplus tax revenue.  A plow with a sander on the back has to cover most of three or four hamlets, and the driver is paid by the hour, not by the day, week or year.  We may get out today.  Or we may not. Or worse:  we may not get home.

That's the winter's tale.  In the summer, when the thunderstorms race down the mountains toward us, a hailstorm can flatten Harry's vineyard in a half-hour and end the year's harvest. In the fall and spring, there's the threat of clashes between cold fronts coming in from the north and warm air heading from the south, picking up moisture as it meanders out over the Atlantic and then back in again. Wild bursts of water, inches in an hour, can overwhelm the drain tile in the fields and leave the corn or the pumpkins, the beans or the peppers, mired in, where they can rot in days, ruining the season and dimming the hope for the down payment on a new haymow or corn harvester.

Or there may be nothing here at all, nothing but blue skies, puffy white clouds, a pleasant breeze, everything a weekender up at the b&b at the top of the hill imagined when they made the online reservation months ago.  But up past Ashokan Reservoir and Phoenicia, in the dense cover of the Catskills Park, such a storm will sweep in and then disappear, invisible to the valley.  An hour later, you can hear the creek begin to rumble as you stand in the kitchen listening to Paul Caiano on the radio:  rumble, then develop sibilants, the percussive cracks as the water throws tree limbs and pieces of storage sheds or old mobile homes up over the banks before it, too, rises over the edge and then spreads quick and, by comparison with the main channel, silent, unobtrusive, up past the outhouse, toward the main house, and the sump pumps go on in the cellar and the crawl space, and they don't stop, even as the sun shines as cruelly as ever, the clouds waft past, reflected in the spreading pool that threatens the second haying.

The descriptions of fronts and troughs, of warm air massing off the Outer Banks or a Manitoba Clipper gaining strength isn't exotic color any more.  It's a compilation of possibilities, and you listen with your gaze turned inward, working out the calculus that could mean hailstorm or blizzard, or a line of small tornadoes dropping improbably onto the bucolic stretches of hayfields and dairy cattle up and down our valley, tornadoes like the one that ripped the front off our barn three years before we bought the place, when Pachelbel's Canon was still the ode to the place.

They cancelled school early this morning.  As a consequence, the town didn't call the plow drivers to the garage.  Better to wait; three inches on the roads slows things down, but most everyone has an all-wheel-drive car or a pickup, or big tough snow tires with aggressive tread, tires that spew mud up the sides of the car when the thaw lasts more than a day or so.  The plow came by at 10, doing a quick pass so the van that takes the group-home patients to dialysis and physical therapy and to medical appointments could make its morning run from the place up in the woods at the top of the hill, behind the Bushes.  About an hour ago, as the sky was visibly darkening, I heard it come again, just ahead of the return trip; when I looked up from shoveling the walk, I saw the van go by, slow, stately, the guys strapped into their wheelchairs high up inside the windows, looking out indifferently at the line of evergreens striped with white and the man in the old parka with a shovel, and a dog racing around him, reveling in the snow.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Early Morning Sirens

They went off just after 6 am, undulating wails continuing for three minutes or so, then stopping for a minute or two before recommencing.  It was still dark, and we lifted our heads off the bed to see if we could tell which fire station it came from.  Then we waited to see if the big pickups from up the hill would blast past the house, their flashing blue volunteer lights on the dashboard.  That would have meant Stone Ridge, or Kripplebush.  When that happens you can’t help it; you start to worry that it’s the house of someone you know.

Of course it’s unlikely.  We don’t know people who smoke in bed, or fall asleep on the couch with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and those are the most common causes of fire around here, especially at that hour.  The coal smolders in the mattress or cushion, until the acrid smoke awakens someone, or the alarm clock sounds and someone rolls over to turn it off and sees the tendrils of flame around the bedroom door.

It’s the late-day sirens that should concern us.  Then it’s brush fires that catch the edge of a woodlot, or move through the dried cornstalks of the neighboring field.  Or it’s an electrical fire, a snapping arc unheard in the noise of the floor sander or the table saw that overloaded the antiquated knob-and-tube wiring in the ceiling or walls, the insulation long rotted off the wires set too close together back some eighty years or so ago.  Most everyone with an old house has some knob-and-tube somewhere, even if the electrical has been upgraded.  The weekenders, probably not:  they had everything ripped out before they moved in, at the recommendation of a local contractor, maybe Brian, or Clint, or Kurt, or Will, who knew these clients could pay whatever it took for absolute peace of mind, and pitched the job accordingly.

The rest of us live in houses where the electrical has been upgraded haphazardly.  In the ‘50s and ‘60s, BX cable came in;  it was great for snaking through and around old plaster-and-lathe walls, with its flexible metal outer shield, also rodent-proof.  Later materials were safer, but not so resilient or adaptable to the complexities of old houses built in stages by country people without much money but long stretches of time available for home handiwork.

Still, there are places where it’s just about impossible to replace the wiring.  In the lofts that were once attics, long ago converted to bedrooms with bunk beds for children too many for the house, who grew up and left, moving to the cities or the suburbs, where there was work and possibility.  In the crawl spaces under the kitchens that were built ramshackle atop the clay soil and, after they’d done their initial settling, hunkered down and grasped the main house firmly, holding on more tightly with every coat of new paint on the outside, the work done by the owner or by a neighbor free to do chore-work between seasons, painters who would stop and get a hammer and nails to tidy up where things had separated, or who might add a length of 1x2 furring to close up the draft coming from the crack between parts of the house.

Even a skinny electrician, well-paid with weekender dollars, isn't eager to take on a crawl-space job.  First you have to check for mice, but also for possums and groundhogs and skunks who have taken up housing down there where it’s warmer and close to the compost heap or the apple barrels. Then there are the spiders;  grown men who wouldn’t think twice about brushing a hornet off their arm will pause before confronting the pale-white spiders who live in that eternal darkness beneath the hum and clatter of domestic life. Then there’s the standing water that accumulates, particular after a rainy fall or spring.  It’s not much—not enough to justify a sump pump or some complicated drainage plan, but when you are inching along on your back, with your toolbelt turned around and a spool of electrical wire between your knees, it’s not pleasant to feel the water seeping into your hair.

It’s not that regular electricians charge too much for this work. We’re talking about the ones who know you and have been out before to fix the strange little blackout that hit a ceiling fixture in the living room, an outlet in the hall, and the front door lamp, the crazy breaks that happen when the replacement wiring was done by expediency and not logic, wiring probably done by their father or uncle when they owned the business some decades ago.  No, they won’t even give you a price.  It’d be too much to do that stretch, they tell you.  It’s not worth it to you; as importantly, it’s not worth it to them. I refuse to charge you what it would cost to do it, they tell you.

So that little stretch of knob-and-tube stays there.  More than likely, they disconnect it, and they run channel along the walls, low and close to the baseboard, or down where the baseboard meets the floor, to power the outlets and the lights that once depended on that wiring down there. Most of us have that sort of wiring interspersed throughout the house—along the ceiling of the dining room, down from the upstairs hall light to the bottom of the stairs, or leading to the outside light that goes on when guests from out of town are coming in after dark and might run into the propane tank or just keep driving down into the drainage swale, thinking they’re still in the driveway when they’re definitely not.

But of course you don’t know who did the work for the previous owner, even if you’ve had the house for fifty years.  Maybe that owner himself, Mr. Pratt, or Mr. DeGraw, did the work, and he left the wiring hot while he was laying in the new channel, so as to have power continuously, especially as he was doing that work between chores and jobs that called him away, and that wire went to the toaster or the floor furnace or some other indispensable part of everyday life.  There are back rooms of houses around here, rumpus rooms and tool rooms and tack rooms and junk rooms, where the wiring’s still left, half-done, from 1953, the conduit and the outlet boxes piled in the corner, awaiting the attentions of a man dead for decades or living, barely living, in the county nursing home up in Kingston, the oxygen tank strapped to the wheelchair and the television eternally blaring, a premonition of purgatory, or hell. 

Even if it’s finished, there’s always the chance that he forgot to cut off power to the old line, or simply undid the connections at the electrical box, where some later owner, or some electrician called in for another problem, reconnected it to see if that was the quick fix to what might otherwise be a long and tedious search for the real cause.

Hornets build nests.  Groundhogs dig past the weak spot in the foundation and, if they’re confronted by a rotted piece of wire dangling across their next venture, they might gnaw it, or maybe just push it aside—push it enough so that, when the next rains come, and the crawl space takes on a little water, the puddle reconnects hot and ground, and the wiring sparks, again and again, against the three-hundred-year-old beam, softened by dry rot or carpenter ants, ripe as tinder for the flicker and the wisp of smoke.

Now’s the season when these things happen. Now, when the first frost is hinted in the silver sheen of the topcoating on the haygrass back toward the creek.  Now, when the dry leaves rustle as the bear comes in from the woodlot to steal the windfall apples beneath the tree furthest from the house. Now, when you look up from the firewood splitter to watch the phalanx of geese in their call-and-response arc across the grey sky. Now, when the groundhog moves from his summer home in the cool darkness beneath the unheated barn, and seeks a place where the heat of human comfort leaks down through the wideboards of the kitchen floor. Now, when the mice begin to look for every possible scavenge to insulate their winter nests.  Now, when the sirens wail at 6:08, as the sky’s just showing light, and we raise our heads and try to be sure just which station it’s coming from, secretly saying: it’s not us, I know that. I hope it’s not Harry, with the band saw set up in the dining room of the old farm.  I hope it’s not Patrick and Cindy in that new house they’ve rented, plugging things into unfamiliar sockets. I hope it’s not Jake. I hope it’s not Ike. I hope. I hope.

Those whispered secrets travel along the circuits of community.  They, too, are fragile.  Some are old, and frayed.  Some are new and untested.  Most of them are so ingrained in the everyday life around here that you don’t even know they’re there until the siren sounds and you bring them to mind, and heart, and prayer.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Some Necessary Lies

Down past the end of the hayfield and into the woodlot where in late fall you can see the surveyor’s stakes that delineate where our property ends and Harry’s begins, the creek makes a pair of quick turns.  In between, there’s a deep pool with the stump of a great tree sitting improbably upright where deep becomes shallow again.  That tree when it fell was the cause of that deep place;  during one hurricane and another, and through the fall and spring floods, rushing water, diverted under the massive trunk fallen across the stream, dug and dug until some equilibrium was reached or perhaps just until Peter Lundgren came and cut up the obstruction. 

It was a three-day job, far longer and more complex than he had expected.  The tree was oak, and oak-hard, and the water too deep to stand where a few judicious cuts with the chainsaw might have freed the great logs to fumble their way downstream, likely grounding at the next wide curve, down toward the gristmill where, in a couple of years, they could be assailed again, to be cut up for firewood. 

There was also the very real danger that comes with a powerful chainsaw wielded under unstable conditions—ground underfoot that was part slippery rocks and part shifting sand and mud; hardwood sodden and in places still living, making for unexpected changes in the way the saw might move; and, toward the end, the weight of the pieces clamping on the cut. 

Normally, Peter told me, you cut from above and below in two opposed V formations, but this was impossible, for the trunk was still half under water. The days were hot and sticky, and the flies and mosquitoes were heavy and difficult to ignore. When he was done, he’d sliced the tree into four parts, with only the middle two headed downstream.  The still-leafy upper branches stayed on our peninsula, to be propelled by the next great storm, the one that washed great swaths of the Catskill Mountains down the slopes, swept most of two villages away, and brought portions of houses, house trailers and woodsheds to us. The next spring, Harry complained, only half-joking, that we’d sent that awkward, debris-clad monstrosity down to the gristmill’s waterfall just to ensure that he’d have to pay Peter twice for the same project.

On the other side, Harry’s side, the stump, five feet high, its remaining big roots forming an irregular ball more than eight feet across, tilted near-horizontal through the end of summer and the winds of fall, until the great storm of mid-October.  We didn’t live here all the time back then. It was sheer chance that we’d been back for a long weekend of closing-up when the storm came in from the Atlantic, flooding much of New York City and leaving sudden lanes of knocked-down trees and yawing power lines sweeping diagonally across the hillsides up here.

So we didn’t see the stump again till Christmas time, when we went back down with the old dog in the first snow of the season.  There it was, perfectly upright, on an island of its own making in the middle of the deep spot where the creek turns.  It seemed impossible.  At first we imagined it was some other stump, washed down from far upmountain, but the next day, when the sun had melted the snow off its top, we could see the complex trajectories of Peter’s experiments with geometry, physics, and biology, with the angle of the chain, the power of the saw, the stubborn resistance of the waterlogged tree. 

It sits there still, some years gone.  Today we walked with the new young dog, and when we got to the stony places before the deep pool, he threw himself enthusiastically into the water, wallowing, drinking, and then turning his three tight turns before laying himself down in the shallows for a few moments, cooling himself from his wild running in the hot  late-August sun. Downstream from him, in the places where the water had fallen enough to bring the bottom stones up to bask in the dappled sunlight, leaves, some of them already orange and brilliant red and yellow, clung and nestled, as if placed there.  Up and down the creek from that vantage point, only a single leaf actually floated, delicately, atop the slow water. Back up to the hayfield, we stopped for a moment to watch a chevron of geese heading south-southeast above us, braying their itinerary to each other, calling out the corrections and then settling in to the long trip.

How do the geese, the trees, the haymown grasses staying brown despite the rains and the warm sun, know what we do not, that it is still summer, but it is also fall, disguised by hot spells and sudden thunderstorms, by barbecues and mornings reading the papers in the lawn chairs beside the stonework patio Dan has built for us? I know what it is. I am a studious observer and I have spent most of my life in places like this, where hot summers always mute to fall and then to bitter winters with the irregular iron-hard ground unsteadying your feet as you walk from the house to the barn or studio or the car in the morning darkness. The angle of the sun grows longer and the time it is high overhead diminishes.  The darkness comes sooner day by day, so I look up surprised from my work to see that the clock in the window and the light beyond it contradict one another—it is seven, still an hour from time to print out the day’s work and carry it in to go over while sitting in the chair on the grass, and yet it is already too dark to read the words were I ready to end the sentence here and summon the printer to click and hum.

The verb is wrong:  the trees don’t know, nor the geese, nor the haygrass.  They are organisms responding to loss of what they need for their exultant lives. And, as yet, we don’t know either; it is August still, for a few more days, and we express a mild sort of outrage that the living things around us are so wrong in their judgment.

Soon, though.  Soon it will be time to call Nick and contract with him for a new load of firewood.  Time to relight the pilot on the propane furnace, and take the air conditioner out of the studio window so the storm windows can go on and the screens be lugged up to their winter home in the hayloft. Time to look for the bin of sweaters up in the attic crawl-space, and bring out the bags of winter coats, hats, gloves, thick socks and sturdy boots.

Between this moment, still summer, only measurably late by the evidence we view with disbelief, and that one, when hard darkness seeps through the bare scuttling branches, there will be days of a plangent beauty unimaginable now, while the rumble of thunder cuts through the wet, exhausted air, days we don’t believe yet, despite the evidence we amassed last fall, when we trapped the best leaves between sheets of waxed paper and ironed them, just as we had when we were children, and then again when our children were young and the ritual was new to them.

All the rest of what is around us knows.  It is we who do not know.  It is past time to buy a generator so the sump pumps will not fail us when the next hurricane knocks the power out for hours or days.  It is past time to have talked to Nick about that firewood; he is back in school now and may not have time for weeks or longer to take Harry’s tractor out to the fallen trees in the far woodlot and drag them to a clearing, set up the mechanical splitter, cut the logs, and leave them open to the sun and air long enough that they will burn hot and clean come November. And so I will be out behind the barn myself, in a month or so, cutting up the old rail fencing, splitting the slices of oak from what Peter salvaged of the fallen tree, now, finally, purged of the deep-soaked remainders of the high creek that brought someone’s shed, almost intact, tumbling end-over-end to smash, disintegrating, into the stubborn tree that had stood for a century or more before finally falling across the imaginary line that separates one piece of property from another, one season from the next.  Cut and split and stack; my hands will be blistered in new places, different from the blisters of the rake and the hoe in the spring or the wheelbarrow and the paint scraper in the summer. Then bring the first loads in to the woodbins by the two fireplaces, the old one small and narrow accommodating only a single day’s fuel, or maybe two; the new one, the one that Harry designed, knowing what we had forgotten, how long is the trek up the hill and past the stand of evergreens, flashlight in one hand, carrier in the other, to replenish  what should have been enough for this cold spell, this blizzard, but was not: this new one big enough that it can take two loads from the trailer we inherited from the old man along with the tractor that he loved so immoderately. He is gone now, and that, too, is something we do not believe, yet. 

It is good that we are not so honest as the geese, the trees, the haygrass.  We will stand as we do now, soaked by the sudden rain, and count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the snap of close thunder.  We will sit and read the papers in the morning, watching the edge of the woods, persuading ourselves that the dense green is not already tinged with just a hint of yellow, that the red leaves and brown and orange that we see trapped in the creek, glistening and supersaturated by the gloss of the water, are just evidence of the stress of hot weather and the sudden unexpected violence of the stormy winds. Despite ourselves, we will not prepare but will instead revel in what is, in what will soon be memory, and regret and, flickering, anticipation of each next moment. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Waiting for Rain at the Farm

I’ve been rebuilding a big powered speaker we used to use for Siobhan’s old standup bass, a band and a half back, when I was living in Chicago. I’ve been waiting for the rain, but it hasn’t come yet.  Now for a moment the sun has come out, though the clouds are black in every direction.

 The parts came in two installments. First the brown UPS truck stopped where the driveway used to turn in—it’s backwards to the road, but safer than trying to pull over when there’s no shoulder and a sudden drop into the ditch that races with floodwater when it rains hard. That was the big JBL high-frequency driver for the horn; we’d blown that at a charity gig for a group home for the developmentally disabled. It didn’t matter that much when you’re using it as a low-frequency bass amp.  Then we managed to break the input and that pretty much sidelined the thing.  The UPS guy knows me pretty well by now; he commented that the package was too heavy to be a book, and it wasn’t from Amazon, which is the usual reason for him to stop by. I told him what it was for and he sympathized.

The second was from Brian Hendrix down in Florida; it was the input component console.  He’d sent it Priority Mail, which made sense from his end—he’s in a nondescript quasi-industrial park south of Orlando, and it’s not far from the post office on Michigan Avenue, right on the way to the entrance to the Florida Turnpike. Priority has the advantage these days of including automatic package-tracking, too, which can matter when you’re sending a lot of packages of sensitive electronic components to people who are depending on you to have things ready for the next bar or lounge gig.

But Sharon doesn’t get out of her little white truck, so if something doesn’t fit in the mailbox, she doesn’t deliver. In fact, she sorts the mail, along with Kathy and Dennis, so she doesn’t have to bother putting most packages on the truck—she just fills out the yellow-green delivery attempted card and puts the package in the pickup shelves. If I get the mail in the afternoon, I can go straight in and pick up the package rather than waiting for her to return to the post office and let someone file it. 

Yesterday I was going over the copyedits of the Dylan chapter, and it was complicated—I was having to listen to every song I’d quoted to make sure I had the words exactly right, and Harry and I were supposed to go out riding at 4. I called him at 3:30, knowing he was fabricating the kitchen cabinets for the farmhouse, and was probably going to get himself wrapped up in the sequence and the details and lose track of time. 

As it turned out, he couldn’t extricate himself from the glue and the clamps till just after 5, so I didn’t check the mail till 7:30 when we got back. It was close to dark by then;  the clouds had been moving in since 4, and Harry said we’d have rain after midnight.  The big corporate weather site had said not till this morning, but Harry has lived here all his life, so I tend to believe him, and not to fault him when he’s wrong.  We are in what’s loosely called the Hudson Valley—the gentle swale that great river has cut over epochs, as it has wandered between the Litchfield Hills over in Connecticut, and the Catskills over here in New York. In fact, ours is the Rondout Valley, carved by that river between the obdurate conglomerate stone of the Shawangunks, the easternmost vestige of the old Appalachian range, and the Catskills.  Because it’s a valley in a valley,  weather is quixotic, and our own valley, formed by the Kripplebush Creek, is even more isolate and unpredictable.  Often you can sit on the old metal lawn chair that’s on the uphill side of the barn, sunlight on cool mornings, shade on hot afternoons, and watch the thunderstorms rage in a line five miles north, marching west to east, for hours.

I checked the mail and brought it in, putting the delivery notice on the dining room table before sorting the mail into its four piles—hers, mine, catalogues, junk for the recycling.  I put the water on to boil, took a shower, and listened to the radio while I was making dinner.  It hadn’t started to rain, but when I let the dog out before going to bed there weren’t any stars visible.

This morning it was still dark and threatening, and a few sprinkles hit the windshield of the old man’s Ford on my way in to the post office.  Dennis went over to the shelves as soon as he saw me:  book or manuscript? he asked from the corner, trying to determine the size of the box. I buy a lot of very used books, and they come by Media Mail, which is extremely cheap though the time frame of delivery is pretty flexible. I told him what it was, and we were both a little surprised at the size of the box which, as it turned out, was mostly full of Styrofoam peanuts. 

Brian Hendrix is pretty much the only guy to go to for tech help if you’re a musician in central Florida, and that includes the ones who work the tourist hotel lounges and the kid-themed restaurants that have grown up around Disney World. In the grownup bars you’d better know every Eagles tune, and every Jimmy Buffett hit; in the kiddie palaces you’ve probably got a worked-out script that treads perilously close to the real guys—Raffi, or David Gonzalez—who have made it big enough to have agents and tour schedules. You’ll know songs about dolphins and monkeys and also more than a few of the tunes off the latest three or four Disney animation movies. You're putting on a happy face every night of the season, putting it on so hard it hurts at night to let yourself go. Off season, you've got repair projects piled up-- mixers with bad channels, processors missing their power sources, iffy cables-- and you'll be calling Brian to see what he's got and what he can order for you. Better do it now, while you've still got folding money left from the tip jar or the basket on the stage lip or the after-concert CD sales off the folding chair your girlfriend manned back when she still believed in you.

  If it weren’t for Disney World,the part of Florida  where Brian has his shop would be a wasteland, pockmarked here and there with sinking subdivisions and faded trailer parks populated by the old,  too poor or too gullible to head for the parts of the state that have something resembling topography, or scenery, or views.  There are shallow lakes where the ground has sunk a bit over a few million years, and there’s bass fishing; the Seminole tribe found excellent foraging before the speculative fevers of the 19th and 20th centuries in Florida pushed them out.

It doesn’t get much different, there from here, though there’s a similar economy.  There are the tourists, here and there, and there are the locals, who try to eke out a living as symbiotes or parasites. The musicians, there and here, nurse old or cheap equipment, and Brian sends a fair quantity of tubes and transistors, toroidal transformers and the like up this way.

So I have the big case split in two, and I’m using a flashlight to illuminate the places where the press-on connectors go into the circuit board.  It’s dim, but since I rarely work out here at night, there aren’t any good lights to turn on. Throughout the year, I let the daylight determine my working life. In July I’ll be writing or practicing or thinking, staring at the screen and then out the window at the hayfield, till well after 8. There’s the break to ride, sometimes early, when it’s hot; sometimes late when Harry wants to push up Mohonk before it gets too close to the time when the landscapers race their trucks over the summit, pulling trailers with their zero-clearance mowers tied down provisionally rocking back and forth as they head too fast for the light and the blind curves.

In the winter, I start late and finish in the dark, sometimes the light of the monitor the only source. I have that flashlight I’m supposed to remember to bring back and forth, but often I forget it, and stumble down in the snow, negotiating the icy patches by moonlight. Like the animals, like most other people who are here year-round, winter is a time of longer sleep; the days are often marked by necessary bouts of hard labor in the cold. Sometimes I fall asleep on the couch out here, reading till the pages blur, and awaken, disoriented and disconcerted, very very late.

It’s supposed to be raining right now;  it was supposed to be raining this morning, and last night; and it’s supposed to rain tonight, and tomorrow, too. So I have set aside all the outdoor chores—painting the window wells of the old house, picking the riper blackberries before they fall to the ground from the sheer weight of the fruit on the slender boughs, thinning and moving, cutting the new storm door for the back house dutch door and fitting it. Harm has his hay-trailers out in the section he cut last week before the last bout of rain.  He complained to Harry that we’ve got too much standing water over in the next section, and he wants to wait another week or so to see if it will drain.

He’s not going to be happy if it rains hard and long, like it should. But it hasn’t yet. The clouds are black sprays beneath a veil of lighter grey torn here and there to show the blue.  Over on Mohonk Mountain, the lower layer moves swiftly, obscuring Skytop and the Bonticou Crag while, further along the ridge, the sunlit areas seem sharply greener by contrast.

We’ve got some time.  The rains are coming in from the west.  It’s a Canadian cold front, slow-moving, stalling sometimes and then picking up momentum again. We’ll probably know when to close the windows on the old house; the creek will start to rumble and rush as it fills from its headwaters just down from the Catskills, in the Vly. The front will hit the mountains, pushing over them, then fly down the other side and, where the cool air meets the warmer uplift from the valley it will drop its moisture in blinding sheets, and the smaller, narrower cuts will fill with rushing water.

The USGS map shows our creek in its drier, more permanent version, beginning where springs draw to the surface and even in the droughts the rocks are slick and shiny with moisture. But if you work your way above it, you can see that there’s another five or ten miles of dry wash, waiting for those sheets of water coming down the mountains in a roar that can overwhelm the county culverts and rip the blacktop off County Routes 213, 3, 4, even the wider and more barricaded 2, which runs into Catskill Park.

When the fronts come down like this, the creek unfurls up there, taking in waters that in slower times would go to the Esopus Creek further down. Stones roll, then the unstable rocks move, as the detritus from earlier storms rises and frees itself from the once-dry bed and tree limbs, rusted gas cans, parts of a fallen barn, and all the rest that was scraped from the mountain hollows in the hurricanes of last October start down toward us.

You can hear it coming.  First there’s the rush and burble of water rising rapidly up the banks.  If you’re outside, at the right angle to the amplifying wall of the barn, you’ll hear it, and head in to put the windows back in the old milking room that’s now full of guitars and computers and boxes of books and stacks of papers and photographs and old magazines. Or you’ll head down to the old house to close the windows up on the second floor, in the bedroom.

If you miss that first wave, you’ll more likely hear the second, a sort of muted, distant rumble under the sound of water.  Small stones are racing along the creek bottom, bouncing off the rocks that are already there, slapping against the  miniature pebble beach made in the big storm year before last. The wind will pick up, and pieces of the sycamore trees will break off and crash down onto still-hard, dry ground.

Then the susurration of the rain itself, bouncing off the leaves, changing to a higher-pitched hiss as it hits the roadway, and dropping an octave when it crosses the front yard and hits the metal roof J.C. and his crew put on last year.  If you’re upstairs, you’ll hear the individual punctures of drops growing more and more frenetic until they merge into a full roar.

I hope you remembered to put the windows up in the studio. I hope you closed the workshop door when you were putting the still-unpainted screens back in, before you got distracted by some thought, some phrase, some rhyme that might be teased into something if you moved obliquely toward it. I hope you put the vodka in the freezer and turned the big tube-amp off so it won’t burn hot and unattended, impatient with disuse, till the morning. Did I leave that book on the metal chair?  If so, I hope I can unstuck the pages when it dries out. Will I hear from her? Are the cats in? What will I cook, listening to the radio turned up louder than usual to overwhelm the steady wash of noise from the rain and the hollow drumming where the roofline extends past the gutter and the water hits the half-empty galvanized pail set by the door to make filling the bird feeders easy on the bad winter mornings when the cardinals flashed red against the snow.

Each season carries over into the next, and the next, leaving things behind: the snow shovel still in the storm-entrance to the cellar, the half-empty 50-pound bag of pasture seed shoved onto the workbench next to the spare racing pedals for the good bike. Leaves,  red and yellow, still brilliant, still stuck between the sheets of waxed paper, in the book you open. A note from her, next to the bed, left under the pillow as a gift, small consolation, the last time she and you rose in the dark and you made coffee while she prepared to leave again. The picture of a dog who died last year, or was it the year before, stuck into a  frame holding that photograph of the two of you in the doorway, both of you shielding your eyes from the brilliant summer light, the light that will come tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, when the front has pushed through and the last trailing remnants of raincloud and grey dawn are somewhere else, somewhere east of here. Now it is silent, almost still, only the tall grasses moving just a little, waiting for rain.