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Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Versed in Country Things, Part 3 — Disturbing Revelations

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Versed in Country Things, Part 3 — Disturbing Revelations

Jigs Gardner

The late Jigs Gardner was an associate editor of The St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner wrote from the Adirondacks. These early essays, some of which were written decades ago, are of timeless quality.

Most of our lives had been spent in the company of people against a background of the ebb and flow of other people. We do not realize how lights, vehicles, sounds of people, attenuate the impact of nature, which in our new life was massive. Now our only neighbor was cranky Otis. Seldom seen, cars on our road were very rare, and days and days went by without the sight of a person except the mail driver. The expected arrival of a guest filled us with anticipation, the visit itself was a time of intense excitement, and when departure time came we were wretched, feeling as if a piece of ourselves were being torn away, leaving us desperately lonely. I remember those feelings very well, and given our circumstances and expectations, I can understand and even sympathize with them, but they tell us how immature we still were. (In the perspective of our much more isolated life in Nova Scotia ten years later, our Vermont experience seems like Broadway). We had guests perhaps once a month, and how strenuously we entertained them! I seemed to be seized by a determined enthusiasm to show off the woods, the fields, the hills, the views. As soon as they arrived we would tramp for miles on the old trails and logging roads, talking, arguing, exchanging news, and telling stories, laughing and joking, returning to the warm room in the welcoming house for tea and cookies and more boisterous conversation.

Guests were not our only visitors; sometimes strangers dropped in. Thus appeared one late fall day Ernie and Martha Moore as I was working a little way down the road, cutting up the dead stub of an old maple that had blown over in a storm the night before. A red-faced, heavyset man called out from a station wagon in a commanding voice, “Hey! That’s one of my trees you’re cutting!”

Before I could think of what to say, he laughed. “That’s O.K. Help yourself. Living at Corbin’s? Your wife at home?” He said something to the woman at the wheel. Stepping out of the car, he said, “Here, I’ll give you a hand,” reaching in back to get an axe.

Ernie introduced himself and showed me the axe while his wife drove up to our place. He kept the axe as I had never seen one kept: The handle was well rubbed with linseed oil and the gleaming poll was enclosed in a leather shield. He examined my axe critically. “Too rounded at the corners, reduces your cutting edge. And there’s too much metal back of the edge; you have to take that down.” Hanging his jacket on a sapling, he went to work, and it was a pleasure to watch him as he handily split out long chunks with a few quick strokes. Ten minutes was enough. “I’m out of shape. Haven’t done this in years.”

Not wanting him to watch me clumsily continue the job, I handed him his jacket and we walked up to the house, where we found his wife drinking coffee and talking to Jo Ann. A small, sharp-eyed woman who spoke decisively, she was describing, with great vehemence, how frightful the winters were on the hillside.

“Oh, they weren’t so bad,” Ernie interrupted, booming out a series of anecdotes about horrific snowstorms, huge drifts, and Siberian temperatures, stories whose point always turned out to be Ernie’s prowess and ingenuity. Martha cut him short by asking us about the Corbins. We told her the little we knew, but this was another opportunity for Ernie, who began telling stories ostensibly about Corbin but really about himself. I stopped him this time, asking how he came to own the land the old maple stood on.

Martha replied, with a wave of her hand toward the window, “We own everything.”

And so it was, or had been. At one time they had owned the entire gorge and hillside down almost to the highway, how many acres I cannot even guess. Even then they had not parted with much of it, just Otis’s twenty acres and Corbin’s one hundred. How they acquired it made a curious story. During the war, Ernie, then in the Navy, wrote to Martha that now was the time to take steps to realize their dream of living on a farm in Vermont. Martha, who had emigrated as a young girl with her family from Germany after World War I, and who was a shrewd, tightfisted woman, a true peasant in her attitude to landed property, traveled to northern Vermont and bought the land from three or four owners who still lived there. Soon after the war they settled into a farmhouse halfway down the hill, a plateau before the land plunged downhill again. How much farming they did I never asked, but from background details in Ernie’s anecdotes, I gathered they did some.

We walked down to see them one day during the week they were there, and Ernie took me into the woods to show off the work he had done there, cutting out dead trees, thinning small evergreens, stacking limbs for rabbit habitat. Back at the house, he opened a cabinet in the cellar and pointed to a few jars of preserves. Taking one out, he read the label. “‘Pumpkin 1952’! Still as good as ever, I bet!” Beaming proudly and a little wistfully on the dusty jar, he was momentarily a touching figure.

From the bitterness in her voice when Martha talked about life there, I could easily imagine how desolate the life must have seemed to her and how determinedly she must have fought with Ernie to escape from it. Over the years I met other older people who had moved to Vermont, like the Moores, to pursue the pastoral dream, but every one had jumped ship. Very few modern people were suited for it, certainly not the Moores. They say (like so many), and think they mean, that they yearn for a life of repose, sharing a vine-covered cottage with their mates far from the madding crowd, but in fact even a hint of such a life frightens them. I cannot reckon up the number of visitors to our farm in Nova Scotia who noted the “peace and quiet,” declared how much they wanted to come and stay in our log cabins, and then fled down the lane as fast as the potholes would let them, never to be seen again. There is a false heartiness about them that cannot conceal an inkling of dread. Most modern people abhor silence, tranquility, solitude.

The gregarious Moores were perfectly suited for the life they had chosen after the Vermont fiasco: Running a tavern on Long Island. Ernie’s blustering hail-fellow manner and Martha’s shrewdness fit very well in that picture. Nevertheless, there was about them just a touch, not of sadness, but of the bafflement of those who, happily enmeshed in the busy toils of some humdrum existence, once had dreams, even if they were the wrong ones.

Then there were Ralph Corbin’s friends who wanted his new address. That accounted for the first two or three, but then oddities began to appear, people who approached the house in an uncertain, wandering way, looking around vaguely. I could never find out what they wanted. Address? They had it. Buy the printing press? Oh, is that for sale? No, they didn’t think they wanted it. How about the farm? They looked around and then shook their heads. Well, what can I do for you? That they could not answer. They were very similar: dull, drippy, indistinct. If I asked them about themselves, no sparks were kindled and they had little to say. If they said anything, it was about the Corbins, and their tone told me that they, especially Ralph, were something special in their lives, and their works and ways were not those of lesser mortals. Where was Barbie’s herb patch? Did I do my laundry in the pond? That’s what they did. Ralph kept a goat (looking askance as Aster). Ralph thought it cruel to work a horse. Ralph never kept pigs; he was very gentle and didn’t believe in killing.

I didn’t take offense, because the remarks weren’t delivered aggressively, but sort of dribbled out as they stood on the porch looking around aimlessly. They had nothing against me, except that I was not Ralph Corbin, who was evidently a mythic personage who meant something to them, probably in connection with “The Simple Life” (they mentioned his booklet). But we were living in the master’s house where all his miracles were wrought, and our daily life there was beginning to cast doubt. How come, if he lived there through the winter, he didn’t have a woodshed? And the cellar had not been set up to store all that wonderful harvest from the garden he bragged about — anything down there, as we belatedly discovered, would freeze. And the garden was tiny. Finally, the laundry in the pond. Sparing Jo Ann and forgoing the poetry, I had tried to scrub a sheet there, but it was too shallow and dirty, and I had to do it all over again in the sink. We weren’t sure Corbin was all he was cracked up to be — and yet, there was the booklet and there were the disciples. Finally, there we were, working like hell just to maintain any life at all, never mind a Simple one, and Corbin’s believers were reproaching us in the name of the master’s principles. It was a puzzle to us. We had no idea that it would be a theme we would live with for many years.

A countryman walked into the dooryard late one afternoon as I was splitting wood. Nice horse, he said, nodding at Ginger tethered nearby. His light blue eyes were the brightest I’d ever seen, he had a bristly reddish moustache, and his flat denim cap was cocked jauntily over one ear. Would I come with the horse and help pull his truck out of the ditch? I was thrilled that anyone should think I knew enough to go round pulling trucks out of ditches with a horse! As we headed for the barn to get the harness we passed my great pile of firewood, a jumble of long crooked limbs and short logs difficult for a novice like me to estimate, but I knew it was a lot, maybe five or six or seven or even ten cords. I asked the stranger, who glanced appraisingly at the pile. Two cords at the outside, he said, and we passed on. I know we must have gotten the harness and put it on the horse, but I was in such a state of stunned amazement, reeling from the collapse of the happy delusion that the winter’s wood supply was in the bag, that I hardly knew what I was doing until I found myself walking along the road beside Ginger and the stranger. The pickup was in the ditch all right, but the situation wasn’t too bad, and knowing what I do today, I think we could have gotten it out. Then, of course, I knew nothing, and the stranger, who was rather halfhearted about the job, soon gave it up. The sun had just set, and as we walked back all the last leaves in the wood beside the road glowed for a few moments with faded shades of orange that slowly and then suddenly lost all color to dusk. How cozy the house looked with the lamps lit, as we drew near! I felt bad about not pulling the truck out, felt I had let down the stranger, so I invited him in for a bottle of home brew. Well, he said, in a ruminative way, “I don’t mind if I do.”

“Fred Brown,” he said to Jo Ann, raising his cap.

“From Toonerville. Don’t you know Toonerville? The little boys here waiting for the school bus in the morning can see the settlement just down the highway, can’t they?”

. . . he said, smiling at the children playing marbles on the rug. We carried on a curiously tentative conversation as Jo Ann worked on supper, and the children played quietly, because he didn’t seem to be quite present; he was perched on the arm of a chair near the door as if ready to be off in a moment, as if he were not committed to the situation, and he spoke absently, inattentively. Even the mandatory catechism — Where did we come from? What did we do? — lacked the usual edge of insistent curiosity. Never one to be circumspect, I told the truth quite frankly. To most tight-lipped country people, where candor is unknown, our story sounded so absurd that it was immediately suspect, our naive openness regarded narrowly as the deepest duplicitous guile. It was hardly better if I were believed; then we were dismissed as lunatics. What Fred thought I never knew; in all the years of our acquaintance he seemed to take us pretty much as he found us. His account of himself was the usual potpourri of rural jobs: logging, farm work, pulp-cutting, a stint at the Fairbanks Morse mill in St. Johnsbury, selling firewood, and so on. That was fine beer, he said, so I got him another one.

Chore time came and I went out to the stable with milk pail and lantern, leaving Fred perched on the chair arm, staring into his glass. When I returned fifteen minutes later, he was just as I left him. Stay for supper, we said, but at that he roused himself. No, no, he had to get home. Thanks for everything, and he was gone.

Of course, as the reader will have guessed but I didn’t know for a long time, Fred had a skinful. If I had given him another beer, he might have fallen on his face. He, and nearly every other member of his clan in Toonerville, populated exclusively by Browns, was an alcoholic. He and some of his relatives were later to play a large role in our life.

And what of Otis? Aside from the comfort of his light across the gorge in the evenings, we saw very little of him — but we heard him. He had a horse I never saw, although the name was in my ears enough.

“Whoa, Tony, whoa! Tony stop, stop! Oh, Tony, why’d you go and do that?”

These litanies of grief, and the poor man never sounded angry, only sadly put upon, floated across the gorge from the spruce woods below his house where he was trying to skid some logs. It would not have been easy in any case, due to the steep terrain, and perhaps Otis wasn’t a very good horseman, but I know that Tony was real trouble because he had a maddening habit common among work-shy horses: He was forever backing up. As soon as Otis hitched him to a log, Tony would start backward, entangling his legs in the chain and whiffletree, screwing everything up. Once, when Tony managed to skid some logs up to the house, he then backed over them, wrapped the chain around his legs and fell sideways into a double set of spike tooth harrows leaning against a fence, immediately enmeshing harness, whiffletree, and skid chain in the harrows. Otis had to cut the harness off to free the damned horse. Working in the woods, listening to the woeful shouts from across the gorge, I was thankful that Tony didn’t belong to me, because however ignorant or unskilled Otis might be, I was worse — I knew nothing. But Ginger was perfect, doing whatever I asked of her without balking, patient of my ineptitude, never giving me even a reproachful look.

One day I fell in the stable, bruising my shin badly, and before I realized what was going on the bruise was infected and I was in bed with a fever and a hugely swollen leg. Jo Ann had to push me in the wheelbarrow to the stable to milk. We got a message to Willie via the mail driver, and he kindly picked me up to take me to his doctor in Barre. I told him as we were driving along how vital my health was because now I was the family’s only resource. Nothing — no person, no institution — stood between us and the vicissitudes of life. I was absolutely independent, with Jo Ann and the children depending wholly on me.

In those days there was a stretch of highway between Marshfield and Plainfield where the road ran along and down the curving face of a long hill. In the center of the view, standing amidst a tangle of brush, was a shell of a derelict brick house, roof, doors, windows gone, so that you looked down inside it while winding down the hill. I stared at it as I listened to Willie, who spoke with the happily interested air of one who has been stimulated to a related thought. He had never been independent, he said cheerfully: his mother had paid for the herd of cows, for the new well, for the Volkswagen for his wife. Of course, she insisted on being fair, spending an equal amount on his sister, which accounted for her Volkswagen, as well as much else. He rattled on about his mother’s money while I stared at the shell of the house, my insides feeling just as hollow.

I had looked upon Willie and the Woodwrights as, in some sort, models. They led lives that seemed ideal to me, combining old-fashioned farm work with tastes and interests I associated with the educated life, and I had stupidly thought those leisurely lives were made possible by the milk check, and that Jo Ann and I could learn to do something similar. But if I had thought about it, if I had remembered the farmers I had worked for, I would have known that they worked long and hard for a small living, and they certainly didn’t lead beautiful lives as my Vermont friends did. I didn’t mind their independent incomes, and in fact would have welcomed one myself; it was the sudden exposure of an illusion that was so shocking, an illusion that I, with some implicit cooperation from Willie, had naively created.

The immediate effect was to deepen our sense of isolation. Just as we had spun away from the academic world, from so many of the ideas and attitudes we had once shared, now we were discovering that we did not belong to the world of those we had considered our new mentors. There had already been signs of that, an accumulation of observations that now, in the light of Willie’s revelation, came together in what we thought of as the Staged Life, or Country Fakery, most obviously in the case of the Woodwrights. People with less sense and taste would have made much of their handsome place, would have spoiled it by thrusting it at visitors, but they behaved as if their surroundings were commonplace, just as they themselves were unpretentious and down to earth. Nevertheless, they were on view, and they subtly (and I suppose unconsciously) made sure the visitors saw all the Exhibits. How could I fault them for liking to be admired? But what was bogus about the scene was that the Woodwrights allowed their visitors to cast them as stars in a morality play called Beautiful Simple Country Life (BSCL), a play that works only if there is tacit cooperation between actors and audience: both have prescribed roles, specific tasks and lines and gestures which mesh in a shallow fictionalization of the lives of the stars. The audience, poised in worshipful wonder, asks BSCL questions:

“And you raise all your food yourselves right here?”

“You use horses for everything?”

“You grind your flour in that little mill by hand?”

The stars maintain the play by telling the audience what it wants to hear: To tell the truth — We haven’t ground flour in that thing for years; we buy it at the supermarket — rings down the curtain and sends the audience home disgruntled. A successful production rewards everyone: The stars get admiration, and the audience is also gratified because, by showing their appreciation of the BSCL they show their sensitivity and intelligence, their superiority to the putative materialism of the majority culture. I was aware of this because we had been exposed to it on a small scale, by a few visitors. How well I knew that moment when a question was asked and I looked at the expectant face radiant with the faith, and knew that by a small lie I could make everyone a little happier. Everyone but ourselves. The phoniness was too palpable, and we resented being reduced to absurd clichés, so it was relatively easy for us to refuse the gambit. Our gradual comprehension of the phenomenon, in itself an education, helped to develop our thinking in other ways and directions. Very early in our new life we were offered the choice of honesty or falsity, and of maturity or self-indulgence. What we would have chosen in our former life I cannot say, but I know that our slowly growing sense of what life required of us on the hill determined our decision.

Another, more immediate, fact that drove us apart from Willie and his friends was our sudden poverty, and it wasn’t the “voluntary poverty” Corbin smugly prattled on about. We had really fallen out of our class, and we were an embarrassment. One evening Willie stopped in and presented us with some meat he had bought at the store. The chief thing I recall — the lamps were lit, and I can see him coming through the doorway, smiling nervously, and holding out the package — was our unease, Willie’s and mine. I was as inept at receiving charity as he was at giving it. Some people are instinctively graceful about it, making charity seem quite natural, but for most of us it must be a learned skill. Neither Willie nor I had it then, and the moment’s awkwardness was deepened because not long ago we had been colleagues, equals, good friends.

Then there was the garden incident. A visitor was up, and we drove over to Willie’s. We were standing near his garden, and as I glanced at it my heart leapt with acquisitiveness. I remarked that he had left a lot of vegetables.

“We got what we wanted. You know how in the spring you’re all fired up to plant a lot, but come harvest time you don’t really want all that stuff.”

I could see beets, carrots, a couple of pumpkins, old lettuce, corn stalks, a burst cabbage. For a long moment I felt wolfish, not metaphorically but actually, like a lean hungry creature that would brush Willie aside to fall on the garden with a fierce rapacity, scooping up the tattered spoils to throw them in the car and speed off. I had to turn my back to continue the conversation undistracted. I could not have asked Willie for what he wasted, it would have been too much, too raw. I was still able to preserve the decencies between us, but I knew we were different now, our situations had changed, and henceforth we would see each other in new, ambiguous ways.

Unsettling revelations, startling shifts in perspective, these were the headline events in our life, but our ordinary existence, the unspectacular but deeply satisfying routine of our daily work went on, the ground base as it were, while the year deepened into late fall: Taking care of the children, felling trees, splitting wood, making meals, milking the cow, feeding the animals.

In the beginning of November, Otis broke his arm working in the woods and, impatient with the healing, decided to spend the rest of the winter at the Veteran’s hospital in White River Junction. So, Tony was sold, the old green pickup disappeared from the roads, the only light on the dark hillside went out, and after all Otis’s bluster about whether we could take it, we were left to endure the gathering winter alone.

The days were always cold now, and the wind drove before it rain mixed with sleet, no weather for a failing horse like Ginger to be out in, even if there were any nourishment in the dead frosted grass. Shivering in her stable, she grew thinner day by day. I chopped hay and mixed it with grain and apple pomace, but it wasn’t enough. Willie was expecting word from me to send her to slaughter, but we put it off, not because I was working her, but because we hated to give up on the patient, gentle horse. At last, when we saw that she was only wasting away, I sent a note to Willie and two men came with an open trailer hauled behind a pickup. Now she balked for the first time, now she had to be blindfolded and pushed and pulled onto the trailer. When the driver paid me, he said, shaking his head, that it was as if she knew where she was going. But as I watched Ginger huddled in the wind, flurries of snow catching in her mane, I knew she was only regretting the meager protection of her stable; she could know no more.

But I did. As I write, I am looking at a shapshot taken in September: the grass is lush, the maple in front of the house spreads its thickly leaved crown against the sky, and in the middle-distance Jo Ann is standing beside Ginger, holding Nell and Curdie on the horse’s back, while Jesse is patting her nose and Seth stands aside, watching and smiling.

So ended the autumn, the end of the beginning of our new life.

Next Time: The Test of Winter.     *

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Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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