Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Stormy Weather

The report on Thursday showed rain through Saturday, as the cold front continued to move in from the Midwest, slow but steady.  By Sunday, it was due to be colder, much colder, with crystal clear skies through the week. The leaves would be at peak, and the leaf-peepers would be up from the city, crowding the roads as they headed from craft sale to self-picking apple orchard to pumpkin stand.

On Friday, the Bushes, Wayne and Wayne, Jr., came by to pick up the Komatsu excavator.  Wayne Senior was edgy; he’d been waking up nights impatient for the rains to stop.  I got jobs waiting; not just yours, and I cain’t just sit around watching tv and waiting for something to change.  We got some stumps to pull out on that new house up top the hill—we can do that in the rain. Later that day, as it cleared off a bit, Ed came with the new propane tank that the Bushes were going to bury.  After he hooked it and swung it down from the truck and laid it by the Porta-Potty, we walked around a bit so he could recollect where we’d run the small propane line to the kitchen wall furnace a few years ago.  We didn’t find it, but the line seemed secure and gas was going to the unit, even if it wouldn’t light. The new one was on order and he was planning to come in on Wednesday while the Bushes were burying the tank and cutting the trench for the new line to the little house we were putting up off the back of the old house. He was planning to do the install and the hookup and the inspection all that one day so as not to have to twiddle his thumbs while the Bushes poured the sand and the rough stone.

Charles came over late that afternoon to talk about bringing in the herd to graze off the hayfield. It’s the last circuit of the year; they start here, and then cross the creek to Harry’s clover field, then work counterclockwise from meadow to meadow, as Charles and Francesca move the electric fencing along with them.  Land around here is way too expensive to make a go of a small herd; Charles sharecrops the cattle with seven or eight of us, moving his cattle around the hay-cutting schedules that differ from field to field depending on the fertility of the soil and the rainfall.

Mike and Clint looked at that extended weather report as well.  Mike said on Monday they’d start ripping off the old roof on the main house and get it decked so JC could bring his standing-seam crew in from Connecticut to do the whole roof-and-gutter job on the next dry spell. As of Sunday, there was a 10% chance of precipitation for five days out, pictures of sun with a cloud in front of it on and Accuweather both.

This morning I woke up to a steady rain, not too hard, not drenching, but enough to worry its way under the roofdeck and the tarps and drip down inside the house.  Everyone was off the roof except for Eric, who was looking for the spots where it came in, so as to save the insulation. The electric fence was on, but the cattle weren’t coming today. The Bushes weren’t going to do the propane tank and trench or dig the new graveled ditch to direct the spring floods from the ridge down to the creek.  Ed didn’t even bother to come by or call to say the hookup was off.  Mike came in to the kitchen to check to make sure Eric had caught the leak.

Last night, Harm left a message while I was out in the last light splitting firewood and watching Charles and Francesca lay the fencing.  I expect he was worried about his hay-rights again.  We don’t get anything out of the haying, and each cutting takes another percentage of the fertility of that soil.  He’s right to be worried.  We are looking for a better plan, pricing manure and talking to Paul up the ridge about having him plow the full 18 acres of hayfield under so we can plant a nutrient-restoring rotation for a couple of years.  This isn’t great soil to begin with—it’s clay-based, and it needs the composting of green that withers to brown around this time of the year.

Out in the field where he was surveying to set the electric fence, Charles talked to me about survival when you don’t have tourists or weekenders or contracting or landscaping jobs to sustain the year-round population.  Around here, the builders have split in two.  A few of the small crews have gone upscale—people like Will Wallace do trendy work for the ones who will always be rich no matter what the economy: geothermal heating units, three-acre duckponds surrounded by artfully arranged plantings that include full-size trees trucked in for $5,000 a tree and fed by drip-irrigation from the pond using solar-powered pumps.

The bigger crews are pretty much gone, now, bankrupt or shrunk to subsistence, to a couple of men with older pickup trucks and the woodworking equipment relocated to the basement of the house, the big compound with its hardwood kiln-dryer and cabinet shop and fixture showroom and sales office abandoned, the keys given back to the bank. Mike’s crew here is small. Dan was a children’s book illustrator.  Ethan is a kid, an apprentice who does the pickup and carries for Mike, setting up the scaffolds and working the compressor. Eric shows up in his van at 7 every day.  It’s a few years old, and it still has the signage from when he worked for himself.  Eric Rose Contracting, it says. Roofing Siding Painting Flooring. Like a lot of the guys who were doing ok before the bust, he keeps the company name, though he’s working for Mike now. Mike himself is 64; some days it’s just him on the job, because Clint has another job somewhere and it’s smarter to pull the crew for a few days than lose the work.

Charles has heard me talk about my son.  Taylor is something close to a freegan, a class of people, mostly young, who have rejected the economic system and vowed to live outside its cash-and-credit market.  Freegans live by barter and by exploiting the wastefulness of the dominant economy.  They don’t live on the land like the commune people of the old counterculture.  They’re urban, and usually well-educated. They majored in music, and literature, and philosophy, but also political science and economics and sociology.  Instead of moving into advertising, or video game orchestration or consumer-desire polling, they went to Americorps or Teach For America, where they were thrust into the bowels of American failure—places the comfortable and the conservative—their parents, often—can’t even admit exist.  On the West Side of Chicago where he ran the computer lab for a middle school that had consistently failed the No Child Left Behind criteria, Taylor heard from the kids that he was the first white man they’d ever talked to who wasn’t a cop or a social worker. On standardized testing day in the spring, the teachers at schools like that one look out at a classroom in which perhaps a quarter or a third of the students started the year there.  They’re being judged on the performance of pupils few of whom they’ve taught for more than a month.  The kids have cycled in and out of sometimes three schools in a year, as their families moved, or were evicted from place after place, or as they themselves were passed from relative to relative, foster home to foster home. It’s hard to be immersed in that world for even a few months and keep believing in a brighter, shinier America where freedoms are extolled and the heavy arm of government regulation is loosened so a new crop of bright and shiny entrepreneurs can lift the economy to new heights. 

Working at Americorps, Taylor started rooming with a group of musicians and computer hackers in a drug-dealer’s block at the edge of Humboldt Park, where rent was cheap and the three-flat was surrounded by vacant lots from burnouts dating back to the riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Dave, and Aaron, and Taylor and the others had given the dining room over to rows of humming servers-- Macs and HP and Lenovo machines that ran day and night.  They were tied into a global network of open-source software programmers who were building apps that could run on crank-powered laptops linked to the internet via cellphone networks in places like Malawi and Somalia, Laos and Mongolia. Everybody did overflow-work to get by, living on the froth that cascades down the outside of  the craft-brewery glass poured for a financial analyst whose Audi is parked outside the tastefully rustic or factory-themed restaurant. 

I was thinking about your son, Charles said, as the last light was dying in the hayfield and the fences were set, their neon-blue cabling glowing over the green and brown grasses. You know, before I ran cattle, everyone I knew was a refugee from the city. The locals around here—they’re the ones I spend my time with now.  They’re used to living on the edge.  They’ve been living on the edge around here for generations.  The Schoonmaker’s down 209—you know them.  They’ve been here since 1650, and it’s never been safe. The locals—they worry about the weekenders and the city people; they can see that these are people who don’t know how to get by, don’t know what to do. I know what he means.  I’m returning to skills I grew up learning—woodworking, furniture repair, housepainting, plumbing. We’re looking for crops we can trade off with others, the way Charles trades the organic grass-fed freerange beef—beef whose organic grass freerange is our hayfield, and Harry’s and Paul and Sarah’s. 

We can look for niche-crops to drive down to the locavore slow-food restaurants that are all the trend in Brooklyn and Chelsea and the Lower East Side.  Taylor advises against it, and Charles is on his side.  They share a sense of doom, though from different angles.  Charles sees the fragility of that market and the system of faith that lies behind it. What do you do when all you’re harvesting is thyme and rosemary and heritage tomatoes, but there’s no banker-bonus epicure to support the restaurants that have been supporting you?  For Taylor, it’s more a matter of ethics admixed with radical politics.  He believes it’s wrong to participate in a morally bankrupt system.  No, not exactly.  It’s wrong to contribute to that system.  It’s right to participate by siphoning off its excesses to support the project of building the tools for a different system.

In the now-dark field, I stand by myself as Charles drives the muddy Toyota up Old King’s Highway, done for the night.  The stars are emerging, as the weather reports tell us they will emerge every night for days, after cloudless afternoons loud with the rattles of activity:  the setting of the propane tank, the buzz of the jigsaw, the pop of the pneumatic nailgun.  But I don’t think so. I am looking at the cloudless, starry night and waiting for signs of the storm.

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