Monday, August 5, 2013
The Secret Lives of a Fallow Farm
We don’t have big, long-maned, heritage workhorses to shake their harnesses in the barn. We don’t have horses at all. We don’t have dairy cows in the old milking shed along the back of the tall barn, nor goats in the area behind the workbench and tack stalls, where the pigpen used to be. Chickens are all the rage among urban backyarders and back-to-the-farmers. Sometimes when Harry comes for a drink and dinner, or to consult about something, he brings a dozen eggs. They are lovely; not brown and not white but blue, and pale aquamarine, and a greenish-pastel, and the yokes are a dense, supersaturated yellow. Sometimes they taste, faintly, of coffee grounds or even melon; the chickens have broken into the garbage again, or the peacocks did, or the coyotes, and the chickens finished the job.
We aren’t growing organic kale or arugula or squash or sweet corn. When they come into season we stop at Gill’s on 209 on our way into Kingston to get the oil changed or pick up primer at the Home Depot or make a party run at the discount liquor store. Cindy Gill stands at the counter, a flowered apron over her blouse and shorts, and rings up the pile of eggplants and peppers and squashes and beets and the corn and maybe we’ll be eating a roast ear we took from the Igloo that serves now not as a cooler but as a keep-warm and a steam-finisher for the ears that came out of the roaster. That’s on Fridays and Saturdays and especially Sundays, when the weekenders make it worth their while to fire up the roaster, and the parking lot is full of Audis and Mercedes Benzes and BMWs and Priuses and upscale SUVS, and Cindy looks sympathetically over the heads of those stocking up for a week back in the city, as their children, already restless and viscerally anticipating the long, dreadful traffic jam that is the Thruway down to the Palisades Parkway and the GW Bridge, or to 17 and, eventually, the Holland Tunnel, misbehave in ways that remind you of the travail of parents not quite wealthy enough to have au pairs or nannies from Ireland, but too immersed in their own lives and the life of the City to have yet learned that it is their responsibility to control their children in places where heirloom tomatoes fall easily onto the concrete floor or, if their children commit such indiscretions, that they are responsible for apologizing, for making at least an effort to clean up, for paying for what exploded rich and red or yellow, sweet with juice no one will now revel in, onto the rough stained floor. We look back at Cindy with equal sympathy, and we sometimes break our own rules and get the paper towels from the rack by the onions and mop up the lost treasure and put it in the trash can behind the cash register.
Here’s what we do have. We have a hayfield. In the late spring and early summer, close to a hundred redwing blackbirds will make their nests there, and they will perch, watchfully, prepared to mob the hawk should it try for the nestlings. We have the hawk, a redtail, and his partner, whom we see less often, for she, too, is nesting just into the woodlot that separates our land and Harry’s. We have acres of milkweed dense along the edges of the hayfield, and many more individuals interspersed in the tall grasses at the middle, where the slight rise separates one spring flood-stream from the next. We have a snapping turtle who has laid her eggs in the remnants of the old woodpile, where the branches collected each spring after the winter blizzards, and every fall after the hurricane season, pile each year, providing kindling for the fireplaces and, every few years, the necessity of a burn pile, when the county lifts its moratorium, and the volunteer firemen are sure they won’t be overwhelmed by calls from those who can’t seem to understand that a burn should be far from the house and the garage, without dry hayfield surrounding the pile, waiting to carry the flames to woodlot or chicken coop.
We have seasonal visitors, we have sojourners, we have seasonal guests and fulltime residents. In the early spring, the sky darkens with waves of geese moving north. A pair of mergansers nests in the still pool where the creek has moved after the last big hurricane redirected its flow, carved out the swimming hole, and sent chunks of someone’s toolshed to rest atop the rusted remnants of a Model A Ford pickup truck and the inner drum of an old washing machine, back where the skunk cabbage and the ferns and the wild raspberry and rose hide things till the late fall and the scouring of life that leaves only the hulks and hulls and memories of things that come and go or perch or die here with us.
We have fish in the creek, so Harry assures us, though I’ve never seen one. What I have seen are the crayfish, who explode from their muddy camouflage when your shadow crosses their habitat. Once a man came around the back and I heard the hollow knock and rattle of the unlatched screen from up the barn, as older neighbors say it, and I came down to see what he might want. Georgie was still alive then, though old, and her barking had only a shadow of its old ferocity. He had netted crayfish with his stepfather down there, and it had good memories for him. Something he said, about learning to trust the new man and his slow, near-silent ways. Now he had his daughter just on weekends; would we consider letting him bring her down there some Saturday or Sunday to see the place he and her grandpa had come to know, and to know each other? Of course, I said, and you should bring your net if you’ve got one. We don’t catch them ourselves; you would be welcome. It was more than a couple of months, but one late-August afternoon I saw him skirting the house, following the line where cut grass met hayfield, a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve, striding in his footsteps, down to the creek, a net, the sort you might buy in a Walmart or a Dollar Store, in her hayfield-side hand. That was years ago; sometimes we see his truck parked on the side of the road, on the triangle of property the other side of the bridge, orphan land that should by rights be part of Harry’s clover field, but is ours because the properties were platted back in 1780 and the creek ran straighter, its boundary-banks a hundred yards the other side of where we are now. Once, not long ago, I went out to warn them of the poison ivy pressing up against the shoulder of the road, and I saw a teenage girl, tall and shy, sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck now rusted out below the door panels, her father a passenger, holding the nets across his lap. I walked past without speaking to them; it was a moment close to holy and I wasn’t going to break its spell.
Harm hays the field once a summer, sometimes twice if the later season has good rain and sun. He could do the first haying early, and be assured of two cuts, but we and he have decided it’s better to let the nestlings have full term to leave, and to allow the other nests and secrets to be undisturbed. The milkweeds in midfield, too, can shelter early Monarchs, leaving greater area for the brilliant yellow and black to flash in the evening light.
Dragonflies and dumb wasps who come into the studio and pound their lives out against the screens until I give up, leave the keyboard or set the guitar back in its case, and go out back to loosen the screen and free the desperate grotesque to fly, dazed and disoriented, out into the hayfield or over to the milkweed patch that crowds the edge of the milkpail room where her studio stands orderly and still. Barn swallows who swoop, dive and disappear into the eaves. Snakes under the barn, under the kitchen, under the library, writhing quickly back into the field from the cut grass where they’ve been sunning themselves on the flat edge of the glacial bedrock that emerges, here and there, across the property. A blue heron who comes and goes. A bald eagle whose nest is down at Harry’s other farm, above the place where our creek emerges from Pompey’s cave, meanders down the other side of Lucas Turnpike, and loses itself in the Rondout; he comes when Harm is haying, leaving the redtails wary and then if nothing large enough to interest him has emerged from behind the haymow, tenders the field back to the hawks and, a day or so later, the turkey vultures in for the dead snakes and the voles and fieldmice cut, bled and dead at the hands of farm machinery. Their doubly hostile names notwithstanding, they are beautiful in the air, their descents languid and geometric, though once they land their ugliness is quickly apparent to the weekenders who stop along the road above to photograph the rustic scene, Harm’s ancient tractors and the baler still boasting the name of a company long bankrupt, its brand not even valuable enough to merit purchase by some Chinese manufacturer who has taken over the business of making things that are used to make things.
Groundhogs, lumbering, insulted, into the dense growth on this side of the creek down past the Purple Martin house and the new river birches just now establishing themselves. A mink, last year; we thought he was an otter but he was too small, too quick, too inquisitive. That blue heron who takes up for a time, awakening me of mornings with his fatalistic, disgruntled cries as he arises from the nesting area to head for the Rondout where the better fish are found. Gnats, swarms of them, vibrating in the hot air below the eaves of the barn. White butterflies that float and flit above the mulch when she has been watering, or in the well beneath the newly planted river birch that replaces the willow downed in the great storm. Viceroys, miniature versions of the Monarchs.
Ours is not a farm, though we call it that. We have no fantasies of a hardy, self-reliant life, in which we might reclaim some romance-novel picture of a homesteader or pioneer, tanning the hides of the cows too old to offer milk, cutting patches for the old shoes or panels to be sewn into capes and pantaloons. Our lives are devoted to the opposite of self-reliance, to mutual dependency, to trading and buying, to diversity and a healthy respect for the specialties and vocations of others. Cindy Gill and her family, and the Davenports closer in to town, and the Sheehans, and little Amy with her organic stand selling just three or four things: these are the people who provide us the greens and the squashes and the corn too sweet to be tender, requiring that we find the toothpicks after the last ear is done and the cobs are in the bag to be tossed with the other cuttings and leavings, down in the growth by the little willow, at the creek’s edge. Young Bush, Wayne Junior, hunts our property in the season, and sometime in late fall he brings us venison cut and wrapped in butcher paper, the contents scripted in wide magic marker: Stew Meat. Steak. Burger. Charles Noble has 70 head of cattle who migrate across the open meadows of the wealthy weekenders, people from the city, in financial, who are charmed by the lowing and the sight of the small herd seen on a Saturday morning from the back porch. To get from one pasturage to another, he has arranged to cross our hayfield, and the herd stays overnight down in the lower reaches, where Harm doesn’t hay. In the spring, after the slaughter, he or Francesca stop by with the charmingly packaged cuts, vacuum-packed and frozen, their brand, Moveable Beast, perfect for sale in the Manhattan farmers’ markets where they make their money, and the locavore restaurants down in Red Hook and Brooklyn and up in Harlem, where the population’s hip enough, and rich enough, for their particular culinary braggadocio.
What do we offer in return? Buffer, recompense, reparation, even penance. Across the Rondout, on the Schoonmaker’s farm, the cropduster whines and roars; to make its runs, it must return across the edge of our woodlot, where, each first time of the season, we are sure it is too low and will clip the tall oak and crash. That sweet corn is better than the ears we get, or at least more tender, if a bit less sweet. Like Charles’s tenderloin and Amy’s organic arugula and the Davenport’s tiny, misshapen eggplants of brilliant and unexpected hues and patterns like snake-skin or butterfly wing, like the Gills’ heirloom tomatoes and Peter Lundgren’s honey, these crops will make their way down to the city to feed the fashionable and the fickle. The big farms have sequestered areas for organic growing, and they are far more careful with what they spray, and where, and when, on the rest. But this is still farm country, where ploughing edge-to-edge, where draining a wetland, where growing to the demands of market and not the ideals of diversity can be the difference between an economy-class winter cruise to the Caribbean and a bankruptcy sale in the equipment shed by the highway.
Five years ago, the barn was filled with bats. In the twilight, they would emerge, black clouds against the deep azure of the near-dark sky, racing along the grass and above the meadow and down by the creek, erasing the air of mosquitos. They are all gone, now. Three years ago at this time, the milkweed patches were thick with Monarchs; yesterday I saw my second of the season, or perhaps the third. Each year we look, a bit fearfully, for the ungainly first landing of the heron, listen pointedly each morning for the drumroll made by the pileated woodpecker on the hollow of the dead tree where our woodlot meets Harry’s.
The bees are back; Peter Lundgren is secretive and a bit smug about his cure for Colony Collapse Disorder; he should be, since in this scarcity economy he can charge goldbug prices for his wild honey. Our clover, our wildflowers, cacophonies of color down at the edge of the wetlands, are noisy with his bees on the right afternoon, in the right month or week. He brings us a tub of honey when he comes by to argue Puritan theology with me after the harvest season has begun to wind down and before the deer hunting season has begun. There’s a few weeks in the late fall when he comes by not often, but more often, the old pickup packed with beekeeper’s equipage piled disorderly from bounding around in the fields between hives and colonies, pulled into the driveway, while he waits to see if I will emerge from the house or studio, having time to talk of theological precisions few others could tolerate. I was at one time a scholar of the Mathers and the Winthrops and the others who defined a steely intrepid way of conceiving human life, in New England. A boy of ten, I received my own Bible from Reverend North in the nave of the First Congregational Church in Guilford, Connecticut, the prize for memorizing all the books of the Bible, plus two long passages, one from the Old, one from the New Testament, and reciting to the Sunday School class four separate Psalms, one each Sunday for a month, assigned to me by the assistant minister, a theology student at Yale who came out to train and who, while kind, remained unmemorable. His name is lost to me, but Reverend North’s is not, for he preached the old Puritan way: uncompromising, with no effort at rhetoric, building his sermons on a logic so clear and so unyielding that all of my writing since has been made to construct its opposites. I write not like the iron law of the Heavens but like the unruly vines that keep the dog from marching unimpeded through the undergrowth down to the fast and dangerous part of the creek.
Peter’s bent is different; he came here from Minot, North Dakota to train as a poet at the college, and somewhere the language of the Bible possessed him fully; now he is the rebbe of a tiny congregation replicating the church of the first years after Christ’s death. He accuses me of Antinomianism or, worse, pantheism; I suggest certain fallacies in his doctrine; we talk of our grown or near-grown children and the perils they will face. Then he starts the old black Dakota, and all the tools, the hoods, the gloves, the boots, and the spare screens and the roll of wirenet and the pruning shears rattle and shake in the back till the carburetor steps back from the precipice of vapor-lock and the engine steadies, and he lets in the clutch and heads for home.
The bees are back, but the bats are not, and each year the Monarchs have shown fewer and fewer. We are, I said, recompense and reparation; not just us, but many others up here, for whom the land is not a picturesque escape or a romantic folly-in-the-making or simply scenery to be photographed from the side of our road, Harm’s old tractor on one side of the frame, balanced on the other by the loom of our tall, asymmetrical barn and, beyond it, the low outlines of the old house with its red metal roof an appropriate contrast to the deep blue of the summer sky. Paul and Sarah at the top of the ridge, his hammer echoing across the valley as he repairs the ancient barn, her screen door slamming as she goes out to dump the garbage in the composter; Harry with his vineyards and his clover fields, great swaths of his property left to scrub or meadow, slow-emerging woodlot and untouched riverbanks unvisited by the dangerous unpredictability of human tourism. The bald eagle is back, after forty years. The mink is perhaps a harbinger.
I don’t know what it is I do here. I have little to show, if wild honey or the venison or the eggplant are the particularities against which I must measure what I make. Perhaps it is enough to witness; perhaps it is enough to listen hard and stare relentlessly and seek faithfully to do honor to the waves of wind across the hayfield, the bowl of the night sky and the torn curtain of the stars. It’s all I have, and so I offer it.