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.