Lessons Learned From The Country
I was born and raised in the city, but there came a time when it in no way felt like home. I couldn’t find the rhythm I witnessed people moving to in the city. Crossing the street was an event, and ordering take out always confusing. I didn’t get how people could bounce around, or rather get bounced around by city living and remain with their feet on the ground. It wasn’t something I was capable of.
And so I left for a small, enchanted corner of the world where fields roll in green, forests stand in hard wood, winters are long and white, and all of life moves at a natural pace. The place I went to is the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, 5 counties that make up the most northeast corner of the state. Even its name hints at magic, but I am not writing about that place, those towns; I am writing about the country. No matter where, there are lessons in rural places.
One must be resourceful in the country and while there, I gained many new skills- how to kill and pluck a chicken, how to press cider, how to build cold frames, how to identify a black ash, white birch, red maple, how to fell a tree, and how to store root vegetables. These specifics, although still of importance and tucked away in my brain, do not surface as the core of what I learned. It is the bigger picture that has stuck with me, knowing a place and cultivating life.
During the first autumn I spent up North I returned from spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family. Walking in the woods I was recounting the weekend with a friend and asked her quite casually how the turkey was. “We didn’t eat turkey,” she said.
“Didn’t have one.” I nodded and kept walking. Of course, how logical. Aldo Leopold once wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is that supposing that food comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” I was beginning to emerge from spiritual danger. I was beginning shed the many years I spent unaware of what it meant to use natural resources, accustomed to food and shelter available without question. I was understanding that everything I consume comes from somewhere and that the origin of that somewhere is often nestled in the country in the form of water, wood, plant, and animal.
I have never been as intimate with a place as I was, and still am with the Northeast Kingdom. And it isn’t just me who is so familiar with the surroundings; everyone who lives there seems to have the same intuitive knowledge. In less than a year I felt that my feet traveled the land with a certain amount of confidence. I could always tell which way was North, where water flowed, and the relative composition of the soil. These are not skills, this is knowledge, knowledge I never had before, knowledge that affects every aspect of living. I began to internalize these very elemental matters and soon I understood that not only are our resources precious and to be appreciated, but that with anything there comes a process and that growth happens at a destined pace. There is nowhere this is more evident than on a farm.
For a time I lived in an upstairs apartment attached the home of a family of dairy farmers, Randy Calderwood, his wife Louise, and two boys. Randy, farmer, father, fire chief, and head plowman, was quite possibly the nicest man in town. My bedroom was above his garage and on the coldest and darkest winter mornings I would wake momentarily to the sound of his plow truck rumbling, pulling out of the garage, and heading down the hill to clear the town’s many dirt and few paved roads. At daybreak Randy would be in the barn, chipping frozen ice and feeding his heifers. Louise loved horses and had three, Sailor, Tucker, and Scout. Sailor, an old quiet horse was the leader, and Louise’s favorite. When I moved in the Calderwoods asked me if I’d like to do nightly horse chores to pay half my rent. I considered the commitment I would be making. Every night, back at the farm to bring the horses in for the night. I had to be there or they wouldn’t eat, and the daily chores on Echo Hill Farm would not be complete.
It was fall when I started to take care of the horses and I remember very clearly the sunsets. Often the sky’s transformation into pink against the silhouette of the Lowell Mountains was my signal to slip on barn boots and head down the hill. I would walk to the edge of the pasture where the horses had been all day and call them one by one, Sailor always first. Most often I couldn’t see them but soon enough I would hear the trample of their hoofs heading straight toward me. With carrots I would greet them and slyly slip harnesses over their heads. They too knew the routine. As the nights and weeks passed I began to count on it as much as they counted on me. Out of the fenced pasture and across the road I would lead them, again Sailor always in the lead. The South Albany Road, the dirt road that leads to the next town to the north, lies between the Calderwoods’ barns and field. It is well traveled for these parts, especially at this time of night. With the reigns in my hand I would wait to cross as a truck rolled home. Often the drivers would wave, familiar with seeing me at the side of the road, horses in tow at sunset. In the barn I cleaned the stalls, and filled their buckets with food and grain. The boys happily crunched and I smelt like horseshit and hay. I loved it. Tomorrow would be exactly the same.
Compost does not mature into rich nutrients in one season–it takes many. Perennial blueberry bushes do not fruit in their first year—it may take many. People move at the same pace. Those who live in the country understand that. Important projects take work. Connections are cultivated over time, relationships mature, accomplishments are few but thorough, necessary, and powerful. And each year, each season, become more so.
When I first met him, my friend Wes continually inspired me with the simplicity of his interactions. He is quiet man, sticks to himself, his tools, and his apple cider. Years ago I would run into Wes at the library checking out books on building a cider press. Eventually he built that press. At parties he would announce that he would be happy to take home any empty growler jugs, the half gallon glass bottles that a few local breweries sold their beer in. You could also catch him slinking around the edges of fields filling his pick-up with fallen apples. He would go grouse hunting sometimes, but more in an effort to find apple trees than birds. Everyone was behind Wes and his cider pressing pursuits. We believed in him. One year he had a gallon to share, the next a few more. When he married Liz they stood under apple trees on their land and exchanged the simplest and most meaningful vows I have yet to hear. Late night around a fire Wes and Liz rolled out gallons of hard cider to share with their friends. The last time I saw them they invited me to what has become an annual cider pressing party. Their friends join them on their land and for an afternoon and all hands pressed apples and drink last year’s cider. It is a working celebration. In my mind I celebrate Wes’s process, the many years it has taken him to step by step build the life he wants. “I put a new motor on the press,” Wes said. “Can press double what we did last year.” Liz, now pregnant smiled as she sipped on a glass of sweet cider.
The gifts of this life poured in for a time and I absorbed them like sun and water. In a few years I had farmed hillsides and flood plains, identified a hundred new plant species, and found friends, now like family, who helped each other sustain a life of simplicity. I was filled up to almost full. But I guess I eventually reached some sort of capacity because soon I realized that I couldn’t move as freely as I once had in the country. The beauty was still there but I felt the weather was cold, the work was hard, and some the minds were closed. I would find myself in the Country Store playing cards with a logger, a chainsaw on the floor between us, watching figuring skating on TV while the winter wind whipped the side of the building. I would realize this was a good as it got. There was nothing else to do. I was missing the landscape I was raised in, the city, and for the first time acknowledged that urban living was part of who I was. And so, eventually I returned because that part of me had been all but depleted.
I can no longer pay my rent in horse chores, or have nothing more important to do with a Saturday than split firewood for the winter. My everyday is drastically different than that. It’s more complicated down here in the city. There are a thousand things that require my attention everyday, most of which have little to do with life’s barest necessities. My survival as it seems today is determined by parking, cell phone service, and my bar tab. I need to pay attention to these things because they are part of my reality, and without them my routine would crumble. But I know on another level there are elements that support me, this life, and this city. In the country this became clear; it’s slow and simple there.
For now I make a point to visit and at the close of my most recent trip to the Northeast Kingdom a friend told me to pick some tomatoes from her garden. “It’s gonna frost soon, so take whatever you want.” Her tomato plants had browned and wilted from the cold and enduring the long dry season. Haggard, they no longer looked pretty but fruit hung solidly from their boughs in yellow, red and green. With a plastic Grand Union bag I stood at the top the garden and slipped myself down the isle between two rows of tomatoes. Scanning each plant quickly with my eyes I searched for any fruit that was beginning to turn from green. As I passed my hand quickly over each plant, plucking the chosen, I fell into a rhythm with which I had been so familiar. My body moved without thought as I swayed back and forth between the rows of tomato plants on both sides of me. My mind refound a place it had known well–that place it goes when I am out in a field weeding or harvesting, surrounded by food and the elements that support it. It is here that my mind has all the space it needs and is comforted by the fundamental pulse of the earth.
With the recognition of this pulse I was capable of returning to city living and not only feel that I could be a part of it, but learn to love it. Having understood the country, the processes that exist in the simplest forms, and having cultivated a relationship with natural things; I understand too how the city moves. It pulses just the same, faster yes, more complex and confused perhaps, but the city is fed by the same life force that is reared in the country.
Standing on a rooftop on a warm summer night, I gazed at the landscape of the city. The lights in the distance flickered above the harbor and the crawling streets in various luminous shades. Rumbles and voices bounced between buildings and the subway slid across the river carrying people to places they desired to go. The sky was dotted with flashing red lights set upon towers that rose towards the sky. As everything else in my view blended together into a cushion of color and noise, the red lights flashed quietly for me. Mesmerized I watched. Out of sink with each other they beat steadily in bright red across the city creating an erratic pattern of regular beats. Silently beating, keeping time, keeping watch, they became to me the red pulse of the city. That night I found the pulse in satellites and soon I learned to recognize it in my everyday. I felt it in the flow of traffic, the transition of trends, the emergence of neighborhoods. And I was part of it.
Now rooted, I can interact with life. Quite likely there are more lesson to be learned from the country and I will go back there when I need them, but for now I feel at home where I am. There are lessons here too.