Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sept 18, 2013

A sunshine day! There are no clouds in the sky. It started cool, then when the sun thoroughly fired up the warmth filled body and soul. Perhaps because of the disappointing summer, the more am I appreciative of days like this. I was sick for most of the summer. I couldn't seem to start feeling right. Kathleen, my wife, was remarking about all the weight I have lost. My nose drained, my garden flopped. The bad weather in July was intense. My garden never quite got started. The plants' roots rotted as the drainage failed to keep up; the puddles carried on forever; and the listless sunshine stunted everything. I thought that the plants would make up for lost time when the weather turned. But apparently that is not how gardens work. I wouldn't know. In forty years of tending a garden, I have never had a failure like this. It was as if the game had changed. Could it be something drastic has happened to the sky, that we will never again see it as once before? As if the plants had frozen, the dead, listless look never went away. It was mid-August before my tomato plants developed their normal ferny look, but even then they did not smile at the sun, just drooped over listless. My, I thought, it couldn't be that bad. I weeded and hoed and drained the best I could, hoping an extra long season would pull them through, and I'd get some production, but no extra long season and no production. The growing is just about at an end after two frosty, though not freezing nights in a row. Maybe it will get warmer, but the sun is falling, collapsing out of the sky, and each day seems shorter by more than you'd expect. I ran the woodstove last night and the night before. The moon was full, and frost drenched the grass and mushed in the moonlight on my pickup's windshield, seeming to turn the color of snow, hoary, pale. My feelings toward this coming fall are as listless as my plants. I still get up early, by now in this season well before dawn. From my window I watch the pale sun painfully slowly fill in the front yard. Is it me or do the banty hens seem grumpy, too? There is an edge to their voices. Even prior to sunrise, still in the dark, obeying some unusual, inexplicable impulse, they castigate the sky. The philosophy of the morning is impugned. Twelve more of our comrades are senselessly killed. Why is there such a deluge in Colorado? I am restless, bitter. The dusky, sharp scent of a skunk warns me not to let out the dogs, who are anxiously waiting by the door. A sharp ray of sunlight drifts onto the barn. Get up! One must remind one's self. Your body must bear the weight of your works. Sometimes this is not easy. The goats come out of the barn; they are staring at the house, my very window. It is plain time to get started. The sun of this brilliant day illuminates my way. My heart warms as I work.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Under Pinnacle Mountain

Sunshine and I went for a long walk today. I had much to think about. I thought about the very weird malcontents in Washington dueling with each other. I thought of being run over by the dump truck of big government and left to die in a snowbank. If I am to die like road kill, let state and local government murder me. The scale has changed; the chaos maker and slayer of the common man used to be the dark colossus, Darth Vader in the assemblage of war and judgment; now he is a snub nosed, harried businessman from unclear where. His eyes are over worked; his suit is crumpled, as if he has slept in it. He appears perpetually in a hurry to get to a power lunch. He disapproves that we are in the road. What can he do?

But on the other hand the sky in Maine’s western foothills is high and bright and the foliage is at peak. There used to be big, beautiful dairy farms in my neighborhood. The farmers and early settlers struggled with the thick woods to turn them back in order to provide grazing for their cows. They were just common men, but very proud, and they worshiped stability. All around are fields that are beautiful to me, traces of an energy and hardihood that is no more. You wonder how hard the men must have worked to clear enough land to farm. Every field has in it an archeology, a web of mans’ works. I expect ancient farmers to rise from their clayey substratum as I walk through. They wear bib overalls, soft round caps. They smile at us as we pass, nod briefly, hello. In one field a family of white tails grazes along the edge. Their tails are pure white, fuzzy white, and when they run, as they do today, disappearing instantly, their tails stand up like little sails over a throbbing sea. In autumn at the time of peak foliage is the time for long walks. I will eventually visit every field and every stone wall and farm pond.

The farmer who cleared this field, his soul is buried here.

I have heard stories about how the men were often in a bad mood when they were clearing land. The women folk knew from experience to stay away. Haying without machinery, logging without skidders…swinging a scythe for a few hours on a hot day was as much as I could do…and these men did it all day. Day after day. No chain saws, no brush cutters. I admit, in the case of the scythe, there is a mildly pleasureable delirium that transpires, as the blood surges through the shoulders to the head. The work must have gone slowly – I don’t know how they did it. As I walk through these fields, I am always vaguely astonished.

Farm Pond in cow field in the middle of nowhere.

I remember clearing my own land. I did not have a 4wd truck. I had an old wheel barrow to drive out the logs I could not carry on my shoulder. I did have a chain saw. I wanted to stay as close as I could to how the original settlers did it. It seemed to me that if I persisted with just an axe, I’d never get anywhere, at least not in my time on earth. The thought of passing the torch to future generations did not seem to me relevant. My admiration at the ever increasing strength in my arms and shoulders was a guy thing.  Took me ten years or so, and the help of a herd of goats but eventually there were three acres cleared. But once all the brush was gone, the goats lost interest and nibbled desultorily. An early century dairy farmer would have laughed.

John Brett, who lived on Tueltown all his life, told me that at one time his father grazed cows on the hillside behind my house. I thought today I might walk up on that hillside first. Sunshine and I began our walk by turning down Kittridge Brook toward the Rocky Hill. At the Rocky Hill the road becomes steep and narrow. Autumn comes early in the hollow at the bottom of the Rocky Hill beside the stream; Spring comes late. When you walk down there the air is decidedly different, especially cooler. Today we will end up down there at the end of our walk. Now just before the hill we turn off here at the logging road. The town one day put up a sign Klondike Hill Road, but it is just a skidder trail. I don’t know where they got the name. Every so often the town has extra money for signs and they then proceed to put a name on everything. The road leads past where we spotted the two bears this summer and ascends Pinnacle Mountain. (Why not Pinnacle Mountain road?) A little farther up, what had been an old 4-wheeler trail goes off to the right and we turn onto it.

When there were kids in the neighborhood, they used to drive their 4-wheelers and trailbikes up through here all day. Eventually one of them got killed. I used to listen to his trail bike scream through the trees. It was obvious to me the young boy was not long for this world. I don’t know what his parents were thinking. This racing is so much a part of the rural Maine culture that they probably thought nothing till he failed to show up for supper any more. There have been other kids riding through here, but they were never in a big hurry. Another young boy slid off the trail going too fast on his snowmobile and crashed into a tree. He was much more careful after that. They have grown up, and are now busy with work and paycheck, and nobody uses this trail any more, so by our passing through and occasional stopping to break off branches, Sunshine and I have kept it open.

A few years ago the hillside was logged over, and the owner, a land developer, built a long driveway and surveyed house lots. It would take a very fancy 4wd to live up here year round. But I love the lots for their isolation and solitude. Each would have a beautiful view of the northern foothills if some of the woods were cleared. In winter you might have to snowshoe in. The 4-wheeler trail meets this driveway and Sunshine and I walk on it awhile.

This pile of rocks snakes through the woods for two hundred yards.

The evidence up here that the hillside was once a big field, as Mr. Brett had told me, is obvious. Look at this stone wall! That free men would collect stones that way without the encouraging lashes of a despot was to me a sign that the future was not all dark. The grade on the hill leading up to this stone wall is very steep. They must have transported the stones up hill. The men had well-trained teams of horses and oxen to help out with the work. But still you have to wonder. There must have been a remarkable spirit of co-operation between the men and their families. They must have cared about their animals and their friends. I imagine teams of horses and oxen tricked out proudly. No wonder the farmers of generations past made such great politicians. Brett said everyone was “neighborly”; it did not make sense to act otherwise. Anyone would wonder how they would take the lack of co-operation, the lack of elemental trust that clouds and befuddles our times.

Then we descend on the steep dirt driveway toward Tueltown Road. Tueltown used to run on this hillside. You can see the old road bed still in the trees like the carcase of an extinct animal. I have always meant to walk on it, and I guess I might soon, if Sunshine is agreeable. She is thirteen and she prefers a good path. Along the driveway there are Blackberry bushes. It was not a good summer for Blackberries, which prefer hot, dry days, but I stop for a minute to gather and nibble. They are smallish and more bitter than sweet. The driveway comes out at the intersection of Kittridge Brook and Tueltown near the mailboxes.

Now for a quarter mile or so we have to walk on the road. I dislike walking on any road. I must be spoiled. But hardly any cars pass by. Finally we turn off Tueltown and walk up a private driveway. They are summer people, and I know they are not around now. I used to see them more often. They love Maine, but they were used to making money, and the adjustment is hard, so they moved back to Rhode Island. She was a nurse who found Maine hospitals to be turn of the century and he was a skilled machinist who got sick of running generations old machines. Getting up here is a lot longer than an easy drive. But so far they have not put the house up for sale. It is open and big and foreign looking, a definite down country looking house. They have a caretaker who is more likely to be around than they are. Sunshine and I cut in front of the house and cross into the field beside the house.

There are here beginning a string of fields with between them short rough trails for the tractors to pass through. On this day the fields are bright with somber slanting light and, though we have not had a frost yet, the leaves are near peak, a startling multitude of colors. In fact lately for several weeks the temperatures have been in the seventies. But the frost must come soon – I insist that the sky has changed, but it cannot have changed that much, I hope!, that frosty nights are no more –, then autumn preceeding winter will spur me on to quit my walking excursions and get ready for the coming cold.

For the old time farmers, Brett said, this was the time for clearing land. The hay was in, the crops were harvested. Maybe the families took in a fair or two to show off their farms, for as one farmer told me, “You must have some fun.” The clearing and logging would go on till December. The fields must be free of stones so the grass will grow abundantly. A field littered with boulders taints the milk, if it is used for grazing, and of course it can’t be worked. These fields Sunshine and I are walking through today have been in some distant past laboriously and thoroughly cleared. The grass is lush and thick. They used to belong to a large dairy farm, back in the days when a man could make some money farming milk. But the fields are downward sloping to the north, a much inferior arrangement to downward sloping to the south. In the foothills spring comes earlier to southward facing fields, and autumn comes later. Sometimes every day counts when you want an abundant corn crop, for instance, which can make the difference between a poor farmer and a well to do farmer. On the other hand, think how tasty apples picked early after a few chill nights tend to be. The true taste of fresh squeezed apple juice is forgotten. I wonder if Jack Roberts, whose family used to farm these fields, still has his apple press? His father’s dairy barn is prominent on Tueltown Road, but Jack of course like everyone must has turned his hand to other trades than farming.

Then after the clearing the land, come winter, in this life under Pinnacle Mountain, the men would head for the logging camps. The long hours in the extreme cold, the snow, the dangerous conditions were a test, but the extra income was useful, as it kept the rather flat income of the farm under control and provided working capital for the spring plantings and any building, because there was always someone building. Brett said the food in the camps, you get a good camp, was always more than any man could eat, but no matter how they fed, you were always hungry, the work in the cold made you hungry, and you slept never waking on long benches side-by-side with the other men so close sometimes during the height of the season that when one turned over the whole line up turned over. Then you were up before dawn to gobble breakfast, and get the horses and sleds going around sun-up, and you worked pretty much straight through till the last light. Brett said at end of day the heat in the bunkhouse hitting your face knocked you out and you slept where you fell. “It wasn’t much of a life,” Brett admitted. “The women and children were at home during winter on the farm…” But Brett did think that some of the men liked that life, and they worked with a smile. Living and working that way brings up complicated feelings. The idea of sleeping dead to the world, wandering in a dreamless darkness, without worry, without reflection until awakened by the prescience of daylight appeals to most people, especially who don’t usually spend their nights that way. On the other hand, a life without leisure is hard, especially if you do not consider sleep to be leisure.

A farm pond under Pinnacle Mountain.

After awhile Sunshine and I came to the pond. Though I have lived in this neighborhood for twenty years now, I came out to see this pond for the first time only last year. My step daughter lived with us for awhile and her kids used to come out here quite often with numerous of the other neighborhood kids to do whatever kids do. I heard rumors of swimming. I heard lots of rumors, and I felt that I should respect their privacy. I know kids get in trouble but I felt inhibited. Somewhere in the northern shadow of Pinnacle Mountain the kids should have a place to carry out their rituals. There is nothing about this situation that anybody needed to worry about. Nobody taller than three feet could drown in it. No doubt the kids found snapping turtles, and tested each others daring with them. Animals mostly deer were attracted to the water. The generations of kids, and maybe an adult or two, though not me, had cleared a section of the shore of boulders, and the bottom had settled to make a beach. In the woods on the opposite bank of the pond there was a ramshackle hut. Sometimes, as we stood on the bank overlooking the pond, I could hear from the shadowy winds the echo of children’s voices. True experience did nothing to diminish my hopes for them.

But time now to move on as we had dawdled away almost two hours. Time now to head home for supper. We walked through the fields to the trail that comes out at the bottom of the Rocky Hill. The woods to the left alongside the trail had not been logged for at least fifty years. Mixed in with the tall spruce are numerous red and sugar maples, many broad beeches, ash and oak which shaded out the smaller alders. The rotted still standing hulks of poplar trees had been edged out of the sunlight. Poplar will grow huge and very tall if by some accident it runs into sun, but as the years pass, the larger and more prolific limbed trees edge it out, and it dies and rots standing, eventually toppling over a hulk on the forest floor. On the other side of the field is Patty Verril’s big commercial garden. I may stop to admire the fertile rows of plants, still green though now growing is over, and the transparent plastic covered hothouses, where some crops, especially tomatoes, are still producing. Maybe something of the old time strength has been passed on to her, for I have seen her hard at work in her gardens on 90 degree days. Even the old farmers went fishing for the day when the morning edged on 90.

After the downhill walk we return onto Kittridge Brook Road at the bottom of the Rocky Hill. This is where my friend Sunshine suffers through a delirium of smelling because a fat, boisterous little rat terrier lives down here and gets let out and walked every day alongside the road, where the dog does her thing, all of which is a great delight to Sunshine, who does her thing in return. Then we walk up the Rocky Hill, a steep climb, and when I reach the top I am always a little bit winded.

Now it is only a few steps to my driveway, and I can see the house trailer set back against the woods, and I always feel a minute of peace and gladness walking toward it. The foibles of the present and the greater tragedies of history fall away. I am always worried that I have come to understand nothing in my life, but suddenly I think perhaps I may understand something after all. This late afternoon is very still. By now the house is in the shadows as the sun has fallen into the trees under Pinnacle Mountain.

The trail up Pinnacle Mountain.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bears Real, Not Real

                         Some bears are real, and there is no doubt; but you can’t have real bears all the time. Other times you need your bears to be not real. Oh, they work in the imagination, which is not such a bad sin, not like a lie, and then you can have them every day.


   Every day my friend Sunshine the dog and I go for a walk. Sometimes it is more like a hike. We wander in the woods all directions. Most often we turn up the logging road, which goes up Pinnacle Mountain, and walk along the hillside behind my house on a path we have worn in the woods. Whichever where we go there are never any houses to pass, or hardly ever do we run into anyone. The woods are thick all around, especially the swath directly behind my land that was logged over five years ago. Sunshine and I have kept the path open simply through years of passing through. But brush has gripped the woods, though I am beginning to observe above the brush fine, straight saplings with leafy boughs trembling in the wind and soaking up the sun. Especially on this piece of woods, as we start up the hillside, we have heard sudden thumps, with the crashing aside of the brush. Often ground dwelling birds explode from the cover with a sudden startling rush that makes you hitch a step. And at this time in late September the brush is the best yard for deer. They are hard to see in their leafy darkness, easier to hear, as they also depart in a rustling rush that disquiets the heart. But lately we have heard a mysterious padding and a throaty grumble before the swift explosion of turned aside brush. Sunshine appears almost calm at the throaty grumble. I shudder; did I really hear that? Wouldn’t Sunshine be disturbed? Must be another bird, or an illusion. We proceed on our way.
  One day we had walked along the logging road about a half mile. To the left on the hillside down to the stream is less dense woods. This woods had been logged just last summer, and no time yet for brush to fill in. My neighbor had got permission to clean up in there for firewood. In the clear spaces where the cutting was, black shapes were wandering up the hillside toward me. I stopped dead, breathless. They were about a hundred feet ahead when they sashayed onto the logging road. A bear’s walk is a loose amble that covers space surprisingly swiftly. One of them lifted onto his rear legs, raising himself, the black shadow of a nightmare. Sunshine glanced at me; a short, thin whine, a sharp turning of the head as if to suggest maybe we should depart. The one bear examined us leisurely, the other headed for the hills in a rush. Eventually, the both of them cleared out. Sunshine and I turned around and went home.
  Next day I called my neighbor, Andy. He lives on the corner of the logging road and Kittridge Brook Road before the Rocky Hill, and behind his house is a yard about an acre he keeps mowed short like a lawn. During the summer the whole family takes a turn on the riding mower. I wondered if anyone had seen bears passing through at any time behind his house. It seemed to me likely. Besides, at the very least, since he has young children, he might find the information serviceable.
  “Can’t you keep your animals to yourself?” I said.
  “Humph,” he said, testily. “What animals? None I know of but two teenage girls.”
  “Those two black bears.”
  “What two bears?”
  “The two I saw up on the logging road maybe a hundred yards past your house.”
  Andy is a hunter, a snowmobiler, a four-wheeler, a motorcyclist and all those other assorted equipment outdoorsmen Mainers like to be. They are most fond of the outdoors in the presence of an internal combustion engine, and they will sit in a tree all hunting season waiting for a deer to pass by. Possibly he was already planning a 4-wheeler trip to a certain tree to stand in. It had been dry lately and the bears probably went down to the stream every day to drink. Deer season was yet two months, bear season started in a couple of days.
  “One of them,” I explained, “took a good look, seemed quite interested, raised up, but the other one headed across the road and went into the trees.”
  “Do you like that? I should look into it, I guess.”
  “I’m surprised you haven’t seen them.”
  “Not yet.”
  Then we discussed family matters. His girls are high schoolers, the oldest just about to graduate.
  When Patty, a professional gardener nearby, brought over some string bean vines for the goats, I warned her about the bears. But her garden is guarded by a chain-link fence. She hadn’t seen them either. She knows I take my walks with Sunshine, she said, “Bet she barked.” She was teasing. Sunshine is thirteen and dead to any notion of aggressiveness to a real bear. But I thought I might add, “I don’t know what sex they are. I’ll get under there and find out next chance I get.” A farmer won’t laugh out loud unless she is in the middle of other farmers who are laughing out loud. I am fond of those kinds of remarks, even when they don’t get a rise out of anybody. But my grandson thought it was funny, he burst out laughing. He’s always telling me, “Grandpa, you have the funniest stories!”
  Of all the neighbors, the one most interested was Kathleen, the wife.
  “I think you had better think about walking on the road,” she said.
  As if a bear will care whether or not I am on a road.
  But next time I walked, I walked a different way, a way that passes nearby a few houses, which are barely visible through the trees. I like to walk that way too, though one of the houses has dogs that make a racket. There is a field nestled in the woods. It slopes off to a pond and I have seen it on a snowy evening early in the winter when the pond was not yet iced over. It is bordered on all sides by majestic tall trees. In there the light is always right, a living light. That day the big flakes caught in the sweeping branches while what landed on the ground instantly vanished. Any bear would be happy to drink from that black pond at the end of the field in front of the trees. But I have yet to see a bear in that field. Maybe I will one day. Where I saw the bears, the real bears, was on the logging road. The light is not so good in there, and the woods have been recently logged over leaving them a shambles. Andy picks at the smallish downed logs useless to the loggers to increase his pile of firewood for the winter. In a few days we were walking that way again because I prefer not to meet up with anybody. Not much to it, but that’s where I had seen the real bears. And I haven’t seen them again since. Though I have heard a solid thump and crashing a couple of times.
  But the unreal bears are interesting too. I see them in my thoughts every day. They cross the field fast in the lazy snow. The dogs are trailing close; it is Wednesday evening, the dogs have not been hunting since Saturday; they are barking eagerly, chasing close. One of the bears stops to battle, a black figure against the living light; the dogs instantly surround him. The other crashes into the tree line and is gone into darkness.