One day a couple of years ago, I was haying a ﬁeld on the hillside across the valley from the hillside I live on. An old geezer, whose house was similar to a shack, owned the field. But the shack stood in the middle of a beautiful, well tended garden. There was a curious blend of vegetables and ﬂowers, as if he could not ﬁgure out which he wanted to grow, and decided to throw in some of both. Perhaps he did not want to decide, that being part of his simple life, not to debate this or that when either would be to the good. He kept the grass around the house and garden nicely mowed, if not pristine. Certainly he was in no hurry to give the house and grounds a manicure. Wouldn’t that be too complicated? The house stood in front of the trees on the western edge of the ﬁeld, a good place in Maine for both summer and winter. In summer the house was in the shade all afternoon, while the large garden in front of the house, would remain in the sun all day. The other smaller gardens were a bit closer and to the south of the house so that they would enjoy shade in the afternoon, nice for those beans and a good number of fern and ﬂower plants. And, of course, in the winter the thick woods to the north and the west were a protection against the blunt, frozen westerlies that afﬂict the mountains and foothills for day after day in late winter. An ample chimney stuck out of the steel peaked roof, but the house was not much for size and a bit discomforted at the windows and doors. Still overlapped pine boards sided the house, and the eves and edges were straight and plumb. Already, and this early in haying, there looked to be ﬁve cords of bone dry hardwood, most of it ash, stacked nicely but left uncovered for sun and wind to dry as the old folks used to do in the summer in days past. On the whole the house appeared such that it might put up with a Maine winter. As I worked, I took repeated side ward glances to refresh my mind for thinking about it. Oh yes, it occurred to me to look for an electric line. There it was. But on the whole hard to imagine a simpler arrangement. Took me two days in marvelous early summer weather to bale that ﬁeld. I saw the old fellow. Don’t disappoint me by wondering if he owned a Victorian Mansion in the ﬂatlands and used this as a summer get away. Apparently not. I never did ask. He seemed happy to get his ﬁeld mowed and didn’t say much. He wore green working man’s khaki, like they do up here, a wide brimmed tan hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, the garb of a monk of the woods. He was a pale faced old codger. By god, he must lead a simple life, I thought. No funny business, no popup toaster. My personal fantasy was that he had a place in the corner of the house to kneel and pray. Or maybe he did his sacraments kneeling beside a blossoming Cauliﬂower. From the looks, the old man was hard on weeds as saints on sinning. He seemed surely a bachelor. Never a woman or a visitor popped in, at least that I noticed.
Later on my friend Bob showed up to help me load the trailer. Bob wondered if he did not winter in Florida. We debated the possibilities of a winter in that house. Bob doubted the house would have stood up. Bob also craved a simpler life. But in the middle of his craving, after a divorce, Bob married again. He and I are about the same age, but I don’t know about divorce. I think of loss, giant sums of money gone to the wind in exchange for a new woman, maybe, not that much different than the old one.
“Why does he need a house?” Said Bob. “An RV will do. Get sick of one place, drive to another. You sit too long, things are bound to get fouled up.”
“What do you do with the garden?”
Bob’s opinion was that when you got married, because you couldn’t help it—getting married seemed like the natural thing to do—the simple life went out the window. He thought that even that house, or whatever it was, was too big, too complicated. One thing though, no visitors. Having visitors was the sure sign of a woman instructing the premises.
“Yes, a good RV would be the way to go,” Bob said.
Though Bob dreams of a simple life, like me he has never managed to get there. He seems to prefer sleeping with somebody. But you look at it objectively and suddenly it seems scuzzy, I mean not the married life but the life of a monk in the trees. The monk’s life may be nice for a man and God, but I am blowing in the wind about it. What does it all mean? Does God reward such things? Maybe the fellow has done his best in the real world, and decided to retire after his time, before he will become ill and make a damned fool of himself. How can that be wrong? But why should a retirement end up THERE? Old folks still should have a thing or two to say and do. But on the other hand if you want to go deep, somehow you have to limit the distractions. Best wear down the distractions—and the abstractions!—before you make the philosophy. When you live in the west reaching shadow of Mount Tom, and you go into the garden in the morning, after a few hours, maybe you will come back to the house proffering more than an armload of vegetables, rather a thought, something to write down and put away to document a life that must before long end in dust. An idle hour sitting under a shade tree beside the garden; the full moon in the summertime heat gleaming over the fresh mowed grass; snow whirling in the blue norther’s gale; a long walk through the damp spring woods to gather Fiddleheads for dinner; an entire evening solitary awaiting the shrill whistle of a thought in the silence of dusk. A simple, complete thought ever come?
After finishing loading I went up to the house. I asked him if everything was all right, and I wondered about coming back next year, or later on for second crop.
“Sure,” he says.
“Thanks,” I said.
There being between us an unspoken agreement not to talk too much, I left, thinking he might one day become more friendly. But we never did speak. The next year no trespassing signs up everywhere. Private property. Bob said the old man had died. Never did get a chance to ask him if he had decided anything living that simple way he did. Wonder if it might have been that he had to.