Sunday, September 14, 2014

Grown Back

Sometimes I cannot accept the changes that in my short life time have happened around me. I miss the dairy farms. There used to be two of them not far from where I live. One of them, which belonged to Brad and Carla Phillips of West Paris, used to be one of the best in all of Maine. Their high fields on a southward facing hillside were the envy of every farmer who ever set his heart on milking cows. Three crops of hay in a summer are anything but unlikely for the ambitious. Though the owners have become old, the buildings have been so well kept up the farm could go back into full production in a good summer. I think it has something to do with the work.

September 5, 2014

A cold front was passing through this afternoon, bringing in showers and a foreboding winter wind, but the rain stopped and Sunshine and I walked on the north, the downhill, side of Kittridge Brook Road, the dirt road my house is on. There used to be big fields in here. Jack Robert's father, a dairy farmer, once worked this land. But now the fields are all grown up to brush.

Sunshine and I got into the woods on a slash cut where there had been logging recently, and we missed the trail but there was a stone wall to follow and the stone wall crossed the trail again. There was a wire fence along the stone wall in the middle of the woods. To have these old fields all grown back is a hard thing to think about. I have some idea what it means to clear land. And now my own land is growing back because there is no crowd of animals to graze them any more.

I thought surely when I became retired my fondness for farm animals would encourage me to carry on. I have enough land to keep a small herd of beefs, maybe Angus, which would be worth something come time to sell. I wanted animals that would be worth something. I looked at Alpacas. Like dairy goats you don't have to take them to the butcher except in rare cases. If fact, I can't off hand think of a rare case that would prompt me to take one to the butcher. They are wonderful for their fiber. It is a fiber you can get into as deeply as you have ambition to, a fascinating study of a lifetime. My eyes are slowly declining, reading is becoming more difficult. I theorized once to a weaver-yarn maker that spinning might be easier on the eyes than reading, but she didn't have anything to say about my theory. I have heard that the expense of a sound animal is in the thousands of dollars; and I have heard that they are difficult to keep. They seem to stay solitary in herds and unlike Llamas they do not appreciate sharing a pasture. Llamas run beautifully among goats, and it is a sight to see. But that is a simple problem of fencing. I have heard that Alpacas are delicate. A sound animal in the prime dying suddenly is not a happy experience. I can tell you that from hard experience. Pigs are clever and stubborn. Get a herd of friendly ones, you will surely run across them in the garden. They are little bulldozers, clearing land. If you can't make money with pigs, so I have heard, get out of farming. Grass is another study. Birds. Farming for the inquisitive is the work of a lifetime. Cows can be dangerous. I think there comes a time when you have got enough of it.

Farming doesn't seem to jive with the times. Who knows where their food comes from? Even if you do because you have done farming, though as a sort of hobby or pastime, what you have just spent a summer raising, may not be what was sold back, once the colored slime is added, on your trips to restaurant or grocery store. Man, am I mad or does label reading seem discouraging, especially if you'd like to live for awhile before dying miserably with the c word. But it is not so much the product—everybody has got to eat—but the work that goes into the product. The work is outside, so you've got to like it; times happen when it is dirty, grim and dark. Pulling a dead calf out of a pile of prolapsed uterus is just farming. Cleaning pens, trimming the feet of an uppity buck, fencing, my personal pet peeve, are arduous work. Hardly any of the kids want to do it anymore, and when you find one who does, it is like running into a breath of fresh air. They are good with the financial vagaries. They know that if they are smart, stay sober and make do, they'll have a dandy herd of Angus calves to sell, and maybe a nice profit to bring home. I don't think most folks like to get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning any more, or spend Sunday afternoon out with the calves, trying to get them halter broke, rather than digging into NFL football and a six-pack. And, this is my personal opinion, hearts have hardened. Who wants to sit up all night working on a calf with a belly ache, and then come dawn watch her die spewing out green slime? I think I'll drop that idea. Sometimes, I confess, my heart stops beating for those two legged things, though a favorite doe who has barely survived a disastrous kidding can still bring me to tears.

So in the pasture behind the hay barn, which I slowly cleared myself over the years, a good big space, the brush have taken over. Used to be the bucks would clear brush but now we have only Johnny, a Nubian. It doesn't take long for brush to take over, three or four years. I should hire a bulldozer to level it off and clear the big boulders to make something of it; then fix the fencing and buy a little crowd of sheep to raise and sell. Sheep are too dumb to get personal about, not like pigs. You name your pigs and when, after a short summer, you send them to the butcher it can get personal.

I'll probably knock down more firewood this winter. I am getting older and my legs are not so good but I want to burn firewood. Pretty soon that's all there will be for me to do, cut firewood and take care of a vegetable garden. It would be nice to get a couple of years firewood ahead, maybe ten, fourteen cord cut, split and stacked. Then I'd burn like I used to, which is all the time. That would keep my open spaces—I almost said fields—clear. But it is much easier on my wife, who is getting old too, to run the furnace.

In Jack Roberts' backyard the pines and spruce have taken over, which must be the first cover toward a normal Maine woods before the leafy trees come in. Possibly the fact that the land slopes north reduces the number of leafy trees in this first growth because, of course, northward sloping land tends to get less sun. But once the leafy trees take hold in most situations where the ground is not too uneven, they crowd out the piny trees; the leafy trees, even the poplar, tend to be taller and their upper branches are more needful of light. I have observed that numerous times in old growth that has not been recently logged, at least here in the foothills, deciduous trees tend to dominate.

Now in this young growth there are few trees worth cutting down. Where we walked today Jack Roberts had laid out some large trees to work into firewood. But the trees had been cut from a place along the edge of the new growth. The logs looked like sick and broken down elms. Cows like to hang on the edge of the field on hot summer days for the shade under the big trees that have been left. Along the edge of the cleared land the farmers used to leave substantial trees. I myself have left a sturdy beech, for instance, which happened to be nice to look at, inside the fenced in area for that very reason—it would be useful as a shelter to the animals. But the animals interfere with the roots and sooner than you can imagine the branches were naked and the tree having ceased to flourish became dangerous enough so that you naturally cut it down. Hopefully the tree is not very close to house or barn. Twice in my life I have come uncomfortably close to felling a big tree on a house.

My opinion is that sun windows in winter are more valuable than shade is in summer. But creating sun windows for winter often leads to an adventure. I feel as we cross out of the new growth and brush into the fields that someone has kept open that same feeling of adventure. When the farmers cleared the land, it must have been something like a battle in war. These fields are like small battlefields. Woodsmen tell me about cutting on blustery Autumn days. You couldn't know which way the tree would fall. There were injuries, unforeseen accidents, even deaths. As I walk I feel the souls of these men so close, so close. They are very dear to me. How has it happened that so much has changed? I can think of hardly a person man or boy strong enough to cut down a big tree with an axe and dig up and pull the stump. What has happened to the dairy farms? I do not think this change or these fields grown up to brush could presage anything good. As I walk through I struggle in damp combat with contrary images of an American future I can't understand.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

On Lying Your Ass Off

The thought behind the written word is one way or other to explain reality. There are all sorts of fancy words for it. I personally like to use the word document. The thought is, which may sound stubborn or presumptuous, that a certain time or period that the writer is familiar with may be preserved with words. But if you are lying your ass off or avoiding the prominent features of your times, how can that have a quality one might call documentary? If art is a lie, or too vague to attach any specific importance to, then why bother to pay any attention to it?

September 7, 2014

Another beautiful day, but hotter and more humid than recently. This summer has had better growing weather than average. June especially came with day after day of stubborn sunshine, moderate night temps and gentle rains to promote delicate seedlings. Later, just when the ground was getting dry, a good day of rain swept in. September has held onto a clump of summer, lengthening the season. Tomato plants are thriving. No hint yet of an early frost. It is the first summer for fifty years that I have not gone to work. I am retired. I still work but it is work at home, which is for some reason different than real work. Today I stacked firewood, a simple kind of job. I like to stack the sticks with space enough between so a rat can get in but not get through. Lately, I have come into a giant cache of apple sticks. The owners of the orchard died, and the orchard became run down and dead trees stood dead for five years before they were pulled into a jumble in a corner of the back forty where they have lain for five years or so since. Apple limbs are so dense that they tend not to rot. The limbs, shorn of their bark, stick palely out of the tall grass as if tangled in a battle. Each stick is a different size and shape. This wood will burn like the dickens, too hot I fear, so I have mixed in beech, red maple or whatever else handy. Though perhaps simple, the job deals in the concrete. I'm always touching something, naming something, for beech burns short, but the coals glow long, pople will start fast, cook your morning hot cakes in twenty minutes, then die fast, gray birch is almost as good as dry ash, it burns long and coals longer. How will this thick chunk of apple trunk burn? It is dead dry. I have never burned apple before. All this thinking is about a cold winter night maybe below zero, it is about the concrete. There is pleasure in this kind of thinking. Remember when Sam Spade pulled out the Smith-and-Wesson to do the dirty deed? It wasn't a gun, it was a Smith-and-Wesson.

Sam Spade's Smith-and-Wesson has bothered me for a long time. In the Hollywood Maltese Falcon it was a Webley, an interesting crock—that's Hollywood!—but don't get too hung up on the names, though less likely you can lie your ass off with specific names. Sometimes I prefer the clarity of the Smith-and-Wesson; otherwise, maybe the dark gun in the shadow. Which spews out fire and metal projectiles more effectively? Which of my firewood logs will burn best, and when? One day it is the dark gun; the next the shiny Smith-and-Wesson. What about spruce so dry the bark has fallen off; the next day it is that mysterious apple wood, said to burn "pretty".

Funny how you may run into another fellow who likes to think. Damned, you may run into them anywhere. It doesn't always have to be in a book. And it may not be a person who likes to write on his computer the way I do. The strongest general advice I have ever gotten was "Decide, decide!" You can apply it to anything. When confusion rules, "Decide, decide!" Applied to writing it means: you can't write short sentences and long sentences at the same time; you can't subordinate when you have already decided to co-ordinate; you can't depend on character to provide surprises when the plot has already moved from Duluth to Paris, France. So what about the Smith-and-Wesson? I'd better not say I don't know after all these years of struggling with the written word. I think it is easier to lie your ass off with the dark gun than it is with the shiny Smith-and-Wesson. The same as it is easier to get the house hot with a good dry ash log than a pople log twice the size, though both will warm the house eventually.

I think after all I do know. I have always thought good writing comes from the real and the specific. You'd have to argue with me for a long time to talk me out of it. After fifty some years of carrying on I guess I'd have to put the Smith-and-Wesson under the category of set in my ways. If I put a Westinghouse Pop-up Toaster in one of my stories it is because I hope to meet one day a like minded person who will say: yeah, I remember that one. It is black and silver. I always thought it worked pretty well. Everybody makes jokes about can openers and pop-up toasters. In writing finding an object with a specific name on it is a little like finding a sliver of gold in a rock slide. Perhaps the story might be about the toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I made with the Westinghouse Toaster—think about it, it even sounds nice, Westinghouse—, how the toast delighted my tongue and settled my hunger so I could go back to work writing on my computer. That's all it is about, isn't it?

But don't think I'd put a Westinghouse Pop-up Toaster or a Black-and-Decker Can Opener just anywhere. I wouldn't put the toaster in Sam Spade's office, maybe the Can Opener or a Mr Coffee. I wouldn't waste my time trying to tell Sam Spade how to make a good, hot, smokeless wood-stove fire either. Why? Because it would not be accurate; it would be a lie. Putting a computer in Sam Spade's office would be a lie; unless he was a modern Sam Spade, a spiffy guy whose office was in a high rise, Rolex packing, maybe he carries a Smith-and-Wesson still, AK47 in the trunk of his Carrera Porsche—there's a wonder, does a Porsche have a trunk, better check it, get it right. On the other hand, maybe Sam Spade was a hincty guy who let himself out of his high rise only on rainy nights with the fog crawling across the streets from the bay. I wonder how much detective work he'd get done if he had to wait on the weather? Course, if you want to lie your ass off the weather could be like that every night. And better still a hincty blond bomb unnamed in miniskirt and shiny black raincoat bling spangled ring hooked to a nostril in a hushed hurry to meet Sam on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in the fog. See how the skirts of her raincoat turn up, reveal shapely raw shanks and ankles. Man, I love lies! I could lie my ass off all day! Sometimes you'd even swear it wasn't a lie, but of course it is, and who wants to hear told the same lie twice? I don't. Is it a good enough excuse that the first time might be a delight? The vagueness is clung to stubbornly. You have to be in the mood. Mood must be depended on.

After all, there is a vagueness that carries itself forward bravely, and that tries to be meaningful by creating a mood. Creating a specific mood or atmosphere, as it is sometimes called, such as the Bronte sisters, for example, were so great at, is rarely done successfully, and when it is done, it always, always produces classic artifacts. You can put it in your pipe and smoke it: a pure atmosphere is rare. Baudelaire was rare: an atmospheric poet who somehow developed an interesting way of thinking. I don't know how he did that. I have theories like the theories I have about how apple wood will burn, having never burned it before, though dreamed and wondered about it plenty. I personally operate under the illusion that what is rare is important.

Now, there are many other illusions than my own. It has always pleased me to know that there are illusions other than my own. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much variety in books or anything else. That would suck, wouldn't it? Considering we come to books as kids for the variety because we are lonely and bored. And since we write late at night on our computers for the same reason, wouldn't it suck if there were not numerous illusions around to pick from? Fact is, a lot of our words won't get read even by our wives. Lots of books aren't read, some of them good books, too. Their authors have different illusions; they may claim that in a hundred years, when they will be read, these details—the matter of the Smith-and-Wesson—won't matter because nobody will know what a Smith-and-Wesson is. What does that mean? I could sit here and think about that all day with pleasure, but not get anywhere. At least, if you were a nice person, wouldn't you let the scholars of the future have their day? Sometimes an illusion is like a stone wall you come up against. I wonder if anyone knows what the not very complimentary dictionary meaning of vague is?

When I think of the word vague, I sometimes think of the term unclear in the sense of distorted. I think I dislike distortion. When I engage in it to produce some cheap effect, I feel like I have sinned. Maybe that is unreasonable. If you go by my theory of the "itness", the direct sensory experience, as being prepared for art by a generalization, vagueness does seem to fit in. I wonder if vagueness was part of the theory behind impressionism. It can't be a virtue. I think even the impressionists painted a specific scene from the actual. There is something important in the actual. One must pay close attention to the actual in order to get it right before plunging onward with it. Without accuracy in the raw perception, there is no forging art, there is only a misleading into embarrassment, a distortion.

The "itness" is not necessarily a symbol. (To find out more about this concept go here.) A symbol has already entered the stream. The fact of the itness is its novelty. Remember, the itness has to be prepared before it can be used to communicate with. The itness is, therefore, a pre-symbol. It can communicate, one can give practical directions with it, but as such it is not ready to be used. The edges have to be drawn in such a way that there seems to appear a unity with other edges the same as a Smith-and-Wesson is unified by a pale hand in the fog.

I think about edges all the time, how literature sews them together, creating a unity. A communication happens when the inside and the outside create a unity. It is the kind of thing that happens only in art, nowhere else in the real world, and it pleases people. Truth is a unity, and this unity may as well be the Smith-and-Wesson in Sam Spade's pale hand in the darkness of a foggy night. At least I can be sure of it.

Now all of my numerous disparate sticks of firewood have been stacked into a line 16x2x4 in such a way that a rat can get in but never go through. Sam Spade's Smith-and-Wesson and his pale hand are in there somewhere.