Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:43

Letters from a Conservative Farmer: The Simple Life, Continued

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer: The Simple Life, Continued

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Part Two

For the next few days the men (there were five of us) took axes and crosscut saws and swede saws to the woods to cut firewood. Men (that is, men not used to the job) love to play at woods work, and not the least enjoyable part was creating at mealtimes what we thought was the atmosphere of an old lumber camp, bragging of our exploits, kidding one another, and putting away heaps of food. Oddly, there was no woodshed, no place to store firewood at all, so we quickly threw up a lean-to outside the back door. Then there was the problem of getting the wood to it. The woods weren't far from the house, but the distance was too great to carry it. We dragged some of the smaller stuff in and stacked the rest beside the logging road. Before long I'd have to find a way to haul it.

Willie offered to sell us one of his horses, Ginger, a sweet-tempered Morgan who had had her molars pulled a couple of years before, so that now she could eat only short grass. Fine on summer pasture, she could make it through winter only on special feed like alfalfa pellets. I knew this, but I did not know it in any real way; I had not yet learned the obduracy of material fact, I was heedless of the specific material limitations of the things that now made up my world. I thought about it for a while, but recognizing that I knew less about horses than I did about cows, I finally turned Willie down. But he understood my need - moving that firewood - better than I did, and he returned at the end of the week with Ginger in a truck.

"Keep her as long as you need her and then I'll sell her to the Minks. The dealer offered me twenty-five dollars, so I've got to get that."

Willie also sold us our last animal acquisition, a pig. Walt, one of our friends, had driven me over to the Woodwrights to see about buying a stove, and on our way out the lane we met Willie, who had a honey of a deal for me: friends of his who had to return to Boston for the winter, asked Willie to sell the two pigs they had rashly bought back in June. He offered me both for twenty-five dollars, a great buy that even I could recognize - but I didn't want two pigs and I didn't want to spend more money. Eventually, he talked me into taking one for ten dollars. He pointed up the road: just take the next right; it's the only house on the road, and the pigs are in a pen behind the barn.

When we walked around the corner of the barn, there was a pig all right, an underfed shoat, fifty or sixty pounds, but he wasn't in the pen, he was standing outside, watching us warily, ears and tail erect, his tight little body tensely poised. If is easy to say that today I would know what to do, I would know the artful ways to trick the pig back into his pen, or failing that, I would know how to capture a loose pig. Lord knows I've done it often enough. Today, however, is not yesterday, so what we did was to approach the pig directly, uttering insincere endearments in enticing tones - "Here piggie piggie, nice little piggie" - and the pig shot away into the bushes. All those years have passed, and I can still see his bottom vanishing into a clump of goldenrod. There follows in my memory a blur of thickets of greenery streaked with the scampering figure of the pig. The blur finally slows, stops, and I see the pig, tensely poised, watching us warily from the far end of a glade. Walt and I, scratched, sweaty, panting, exhausted, stare back for some moments before turning away in disgust.

The pig was captured next day after Willie helped us organize a roundup with all our manpower. The animal roster was now complete: Aster the cow, Ginger the mare, twelve hens and a rooster, and Clay the pig, named after a megalomaniacal former colleague because of the way he ran around the pen, trying to gobble up everything in sight. These were not just things, simple additions to our property, but as with everything else we put our hand to in those two years, in order to use them we had to master them, which meant learning and resolution. For the moment, Ginger and Aster were either in the pasture or staked out on tethers around the barn and yard, eating the lush grass thriving in all the rain we were getting. There was plenty of old hay in the mow for winter, plus some I had cut raggedly with a scythe. Some of that would be chopped for Ginger, I thought. Both the cow and horse required a grain supplement, and the hens and pig would have an all-grain diet, plus the tiny amount of table scraps that escaped from our kitchen. I figured I could just about afford the grain, but Clay would stretch the budget, so it would be wise to find something else to feed him. It was Otis who gave us an idea when he warned us about Mrs. B. She had dropped in a couple of times and shared meals with us, and he had seen her jeep in the yard.

"She does that to everyone, heh heh. If you don't put a stop to it, she'll be here every day, heh heh."

I told him about her attempt on Mrs. Allen's garden, and he questioned me closely about the details. Foiling Mrs. B. was evidently a rare feat, and I had the feeling that we went up in his estimation. Despite all her talk, that was all the "gardening" she actually did, he said, going around after the summer people left to scavenge their gardens.

Walt and I drove out the next day to cruise the back roads, but there weren't many summer places locally, and the jeep tracks and general devastation told us that Mrs. B. had preceded us. At least we got corn stalks. Venturing farther took us beyond her range, and then we filled the trunk, as well as the back seat, with beets, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, beans, huge yellow cucumbers and zucchini, burst cabbages, turnips, even some winter squash and pumpkins. Everything except the root crops was frosted and nibbled on, but chopped and mixed with grain, it was relished by Clay.

Whenever I recall that time, a sunny warmish week at the end of September, this scene arises in my mind: the pale light of autumn slants across the white clapboards of a shuttered, silent house; a flock of starlings flies up, wings whirring as they wheel over the garden; a rank growth of weeds gone to seed stands pale and withered, drily rustling when we push them aside. As we intently gather our harvest into grain bags, the thin chirping of crickets, the most evocative noise of autumn, sounds insistently all around us, unheeded except in memory.

After that, Walt and Mary, the last of the Labor Day crew, went home and I spent my days cutting firewood and hauling it home with Ginger and the wagon. Looking back, I can see that the three main drawbacks were my ignorance, my physical weakness, and my inadequate resolution, by which I mean that I had yet to learn that to succeed in an enterprise, I must dedicate myself to it, heart and soul. I thought I was serious, and I was by my lights - they just weren't good enough then. My tools were swede saws, a four-foot bull saw (or one-man crosscut), several six-foot crosscuts for visitors, a six-pound splitting maul, steel wedges, two single-bitted axes, and a handsome double-bitted axe given me by Stoney, a former student, an axe that had been forged for him at the Spiller foundry in Maine, the finest tool I have ever owned. By what was for me an amazing act of forethought, I had asked a friend, back in the summer, to teach me how to sharpen everything. I had no quarrel with the tools; it was the man behind them who didn't come up to the mark. Felling and cutting up big hardwood trees by hand is tremendously strenuous work requiring strength, knowledge, and skill, none of which I had, although I soon learned the basic knowledge from Kephart's old Camping and Woodcraft. Knowledge, however, is not enough; you must put it into practice. It took a long time, years really, to build up skills like the coordination of eye and arm which makes every blow of the axe tell, or like the ability to judge instantly and unconsciously the amount of strength to put into each act, or like the discipline of muscles which concentrates and economizes strength. Of course I improved. By Christmas I didn't have to rest every few minutes, and I had finally mastered the undercut, the notch that determines where the tree will fall. My notches at first were really only ragged bites at the bark, and I hacked all around the tree like a beaver - and no tree fell on me. There were other miracles. Because of my lousy notches, the trees fell all over the place, often into neighboring trees, with the daunting result that I sometimes had as many as five trees lodged at once in different parts of the woods. Ever the optimist, I hoped that they would fall down during the night. When that didn't happen, I would climb the lodged tree and hack away at the limbs to free it. If that failed, I would fell the tree it was lodged in in my usual felicitous fashion while standing under the leaning tree. There were some exciting moments, but I was nimble and was never caught. The tree down and limbed, I would saw it into lengths, eight feet for small trees that I could lift, shorter and shorter for bigger and bigger ones, splitting the largest blocks on the spot. It takes much experience to know just where to strike a block to split it, especially if it's any length. I could, often did, bury as many as four wedges in a log with no effect, driving them steadily into the bowels of the wood, hoping desperately that the block would suddenly split open and all the wedges would tumble out at my feet.

Today, thinking about what I did in the woods that fall, and knowing all that I have learned about logging in the intervening years, it amazes me not only that I was not killed, not even hurt, but that I got any wood out at all.

I hope I have made the physical exigencies of the task and its achievement clear, but there was something more important involved, a mental change that governed not only the work in the woods, but all aspects of this new life. At the beginning of this section I said my resolution was inadequate, but gradually, even then, it was changing. I was becoming responsible, conscientious, and dependable. I had been a good teacher, but in some ways I had been slack and irresponsible, almost adolescent. Evidently my temperament needed physical testing, and that in a dire situation, to bring out whatever good qualities were in me. With only shadowy hints of what was happening, I was discovering myself. What Jo Ann was doing is another story.

I do not know how other writers approach the task of writing about their wives; not many do, I suppose. The only one who comes readily to mind is Hemingway, and he lied about them all. It is very difficult for me. As I write this, we have been married for nearly fifty-seven years, and I think I know her better than I have ever known anyone, but it is love that creates the difficulty. For instance, I can write about my parents and I think the portraits would be honest. But they are long dead and I never loved them as I love Jo Ann. What holds me back is the fear that I might miss some of the truth, that unwittingly I will do her an injustice, that the reader will get the wrong impression. Well, I shall tell the story as it happened and trust that her character will appear in her actions.

I was raised in a city, Jo Ann grew up in the up-and-coming suburbs of Brookline and Newton, but we also had significant experiences in the countryside, Jo Ann in an old-fashioned camp in Maine (simple wooden cabins with orange crates for storing clothes, swimming in a cold lake before breakfast, hiking to pick raspberries along dusty roads, playing Indians around a campfire on Sunday nights), while my teenage summers were spent working on a farm. Those experiences made lasting impressions. In graduate school (we were married while still in college) we had our first vegetable garden, and I began making jam from wild fruits. I could lay it to parsimony because we had very little money and the babies were arriving thick and fast (we had our first three in just as many years), but I doubt if we saved much by our early efforts at self-reliance. I think we just liked doing it, searching for wild fruits and learning how to use them, and of course we ate better, which was always a consideration. Right after our marriage Jo Ann had learned to bake bread, and by the time we moved to Vermont I was growing and preserving vegetables, keeping hens, making lots of jams and jellies, learning about wild mushrooms, and making soap and wine and beer. Jo Ann was busy with the children, but she had to deal with what I produced, and, with the aid of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, she raised herself from a state of blank ignorance to a point where she rivaled my mother - a statement not many men will make. She would be grievously tested here during our first experience in self-reliance.

At this time in our life - circumstances would change - she was not directly concerned with the animals (although she was always better at handling them than I, because she has a calmer personality) but sometimes she had to take a hand. There was the spectacular afternoon when Aster escaped from the pasture, Ginger broke her tether, and Clay managed to climb out of his pen. I was off somewhere (she says that's when these affairs always happen), and when I returned, Jo Ann had quietly caught the wanderers and returned them to their proper places. She wasn't required to help me outdoors much, but when she did she was indispensable.

As I was writing this, I asked her what she thought of the experience when we began it, and she said she "liked the challenge." I think that could stand as a central motif in both our lives.

She, too, was discovering herself, learning that she had deep inner resources she never knew she had, discovering a basic toughness that brought her through many hard times. It wasn't the life she would have chosen for herself. But she followed it because that's where the love of her life led. She never could have endured, however, if she, too, had not been attracted to becoming self-reliant. As she said, she "liked the challenge."

As the fall days grew shorter, the practicalities of our situation pressed upon us. Would I be able to cut enough firewood? Would we have enough food? How long would our money last? Would we be able to learn the myriad skills we were beginning to see were necessary for this life? Would we make it through the winter? What would we do if we couldn't? These constant worries, never spoken, affected our behavior in ways we did not at first recognize. I remember coming down from the woods one afternoon to find Jo Ann sweeping up broken glass: she had dropped another lamp chimney, the third in a week. Such chimneys, especially for the odd lamps Corbin had, were hard to find, so some annoyance on my part would be understandable, but I was enraged, and I accused her of trying to undermine all my efforts. At the end of my tirade she said, trying to explain her recent uncharacteristic clumsiness, that she had been made nervous by my dense gloom: I hardly spoke to her or the children. My rage collapsed; I had not realized any of this, what I felt or how I was acting. The understanding was a great relief - but the worries remained.

In the next issue: "Disturbing Revelations." *

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