Versed in Country Things — Spring and Summer
There is a special quality about spring in northern New England that makes me value it more than springs I have known in both warmer and cooler climes. Farther south, the season lacks impact; the transition from mild winter seems effortless, almost commonplace, while much farther north there is no spring at all, only a dreary, sodden, shivering interval between snow and haying time. But on our hillside spring was a signal event, a deliverance that seemed almost miraculous after the long, dark, cold months of winter, when the frozen silence gave way to sound, movement, light, color, warmth. Spring’s career, from its first signs in mid-April to the end of May, when maple leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, moved and exhilarated us, and not solely because of the contrast with winter. Its essence was a paradoxical fusion of power and fragility, of swelling force and tenuous delicacy. Looking out our front windows at the woods falling away from us steeply down the hillside, we saw, against the bare gray crowns of beech and maple, and deep green almost black spruce, we saw at first a slight green, yellow-green lighter than chartreuse, the beginning of the leafing-out of the poplars, tall and slender, scattered by twos and threes on the lower reaches of the hill. A haze about the branches, then patches of color, then a growing mass, retarded or quickened by the weather, precarious, tender, but with the strength of a flame burning across the hillside. It was all like that, light colors, evanescent, tentative, every advance stealthy, moving so slowly that each moment was savored, but not so slowly (as farther north) as to be imperceptible. Beneath all phenomena, cold days as well as warm, cautious tendrils and subdued hues, there throbbed the current of life, the driving force of spring.
Corbin’s [the former owner of the farmstead] tiny garden, which I easily spaded up while the children extracted the roots of weeds, was just below the old barn site, and having absorbed the stable drainage for decades, the soil was deep and dark. But that was only a small part of the southward-sloping land, protected on the north by the stone wall of the terrace on which the barn was built. The rest, untouched for years, was heavy sod stiff with clumps of orchard grass. It would have to be plowed, along with a potato plot out in the Big Meadow.
In some way that I can no longer recall, I learned that a man named Eldon, who lived a few miles away on a road as remote as ours, might do the plowing. Somehow I also knew that he was a “little simple,” which could mean anything, and could certainly be applied to myself. So, on a cool gray morning in the first week of May I set off with Seth and Jesse, back on their old school bus route, down the steep hill to the highway, a rollicking trip, scattering the gravel as we ran. After the bus came, I walked along the road past Toonerville, a settlement off the road, a few houses in a field, and then I crossed the highway and turned onto the road to Eldon’s, so little traveled that it was spared the muddy ruts of the season. After more than a mile I came to fields, then a barn, and finally a small, unpainted farmhouse, its warped clapboards weathered to shades of gray. When I turned the corner of the house, there was Eldon tinkering with his tractor, one of those small Fords so popular after the war. After the usual wary greetings and formulaic remarks about the weather, we admired the tractor, a model I knew from my first farm job in New Jersey when I was fourteen. I could see that Eldon was proud of it and pleased with my praise. He was in his thirties, tall and gangling with long arms and large hard hands, a chin receding into a prominent Adam’s apple, pale blue eyes behind rimless glasses, and thick brown hair recently trimmed by the bowl and scissors method. His face and hands looked raw, roughened and chapped by weather, but the general effect was softened by his ready, shy smile, the only visible sign, I suppose, of his simplicity. I may say here that Eldon’s limited intelligence was never a problem in any of my dealings with him over the years — he worked for me, I worked for him, and we both worked together for a local farmer — but his speech, ah, that was another story. Perhaps because he lived in a remote area where he saw few people, he had an extremely thick Vermont accent, the strongest I ever heard. Being practically toothless didn’t help his articulation. And he spoke in short, rapid phrases, so if you weren’t on the qui vive and missed the first words, you were lost, just getting up to speed as the last garbled sounds flashed by. I might understand half of what he said. I was always a little uneasy when I said “yes” to anything; to what was I assenting? Usually I said only “Arr” in a noncommittal, sagacious manner and hoped for the best.
He took fright when I told him what I wanted, shying away, rolling his eyes. It wasn’t much, I said, pacing off an area, plus a potato patch. He mulled it over, looking down at his boots. He said something I couldn’t make out, but the way he said it led me to venture “ten dollars.” Now he scratched his jaw. Then he fired off something else in which I made out “potatoes,” so that must be about the patch out in the field, maybe whether it was included in the ten dollars. “Yes,” I said firmly. He smiled and nodded decisively. He’d be by at the end of the week if it didn’t rain.
If you have never done it, you can have no idea how difficult it can be to do really fine plowing. I didn’t know myself until I began doing it with a team in the 1970s. Assuming the plow is basically all right, the most crucial aspect is the setting, the adjustment of the depth and angle of the plow so that it always turns the sod over evenly at the correct angle. Nothing in farming can be so heartbreaking as bad plowing, especially if you’ve tried everything to make it right, and nothing can be so satisfying when it goes well. Small as the job was, Eldon took some thorough hours over it, positioning the plow precisely for each furrow, anxiously watching the ribbon of dark sod emerging behind the moldboard, turning the tractor carefully in the confined space. The potato patch went faster because the soil was lighter and there was plenty of turning space. Just as conscientious about discing, he went over the ground again and again until it was a fine tilth. I helped him load the plow on top of the disc when he was done, and then I counted ten one dollar bills into his hand. Folding them meticulously, he tucked them into one of those little snap purses that country people of both sexes used to carry. That was a lot to pay in 1963 for a job like that, but he had to travel eight miles all told and he put in five hours of first-rate work. I was well pleased and told him so. Settling himself in the tractor seat, Eldon smiled at me and repeated that rushing jumble of sounds with “potatoes’ in it that he had uttered when we struck the bargain. I caught more this time but not enough. I cupped my hand to my ear. Again, I said. “And once more?” Which is how I learned that I had agreed to go to his place on the morrow to help him plant potatoes. Concealing my astonishment, I acted as if it were an understood thing. Oh yes, yes, of course, see you tomorrow morning. I felt like an ass.
Willie turned up in the evening and we went out to look at the job. The garden was a fine sight, but the potato patch, lying out in the wide expanse of the Big Meadow, surrounded by last year’s weeds, everything dull and grayish in the twilight, the potato patch was startling, a sudden dark wantonness, inviting, suggestive, rich with promise. We walked around the edges, careful not to trample the fine soil; we kicked gingerly at the dirt, we crumbled it in our hands. Willie was impressed. He asked me what I paid, and when I told him he was sharply annoyed. It was greenhorn idiots from downcountry like me, lavishly throwing money around, who drove up local labor costs and made life difficult for real farmers like Willie who were trying to make a living here. Now Eldon and people like him would expect ten dollar bills to be showered on them every time they lifted a finger, etc., etc. By the time he was done exposing the consequences of my feckless behavior I was sheepish, nearly as disgusted with myself as Willie was. Those with more sense than I about worldly matters, and that’s practically the entire human race, always make me feel like a fool. Thank God I hadn’t told him about the potato planting.
The next day, sunny and warm, I walked down the hill and went along to Eldon’s. We sat on the porch steps, a bag of potatoes between us, two empty bushel baskets at our feet, and cut potatoes into pieces, each one with a couple of eyes. It is hard to believe — or at least it was to me — how large a part potatoes play in the diets of old-fashioned country folk. Fred Brown, telling me once of the calamity when his family home burned down, especially bemoaned the loss of their entire potato supply, which seemed odd to me, until he added that it was a hundred and fifty bushels.
Eldon’s mother (a fine lady with all her wits about her) had tied some doughnuts to strings suspended from the porch eaves, and chickadees came and went, hanging upside-down, pecking energetically. Eldon talked to them in a crooning voice, “Snow bird, snow bird.”
We planted in a field that sloped down to the road across from the house, shadowed by bare-branched apple trees along one edge, working steadily up one row and down another, Eldon dropping the potatoes while I followed, pressing them into the soil with my boot, hoeing dirt over them. It was one of those satisfying tasks completed in one movement — when we were done, we were done. The straight rows, evenly spaced along the rising ground, dimpled with the small hills I had made, came as close as reality ever can to the ideal lines of a Grant Wood pastoral scene, and Eldon and I stood in the dust of the road and looked on our work with great contentment. Walking homeward, I thought I might not be such a fool after all.
The half-mile of road from our house out to the road that ran over the hill to the village was impassable from mid-April into May, so bad that the mail driver couldn’t make it in his jeep and we had to put up our mailbox at the end of the road. Even in May, after traffic was resumed, there remained some danger spots, traps for the unwary, and several cars got stuck. Two were memorable. The children had made themselves a playhouse in the woods where they had tea parties (a place they recalled, with great nostalgia, for years), and one Saturday afternoon they came running to report a car stuck in the road with a man asleep in it! And so it was — but he was dead drunk. I got the car out and left it parked farther on, beyond any mud holes. The driver never stirred, but he revived by the end of the afternoon, because I saw the car go rattling by the house and down the hill. Who he was I had no idea, but it was another one of those seemingly trivial encounters with someone, like Otis and Mrs. B, who would later play a significant part in our life.
I was working in the garden one afternoon a few days after the plowing when an old acquaintance appeared. He was a traveling salesman, and since he was in the area he thought he’d pay us a call — but his car was stuck down the road. I told him to visit with Jo Ann while I dug out the car. Two hours later I gave up and went home to milk Aster. At least he had towing insurance so he could get the garageman in town to pull him out in the morning, and he had planned to spend the night with us anyway. After a delicious spring supper of dandelion salad — dandelion greens wilted in a pan with chopped boiled eggs, bacon, and potatoes — and after we put the children to bed, Jo Ann and Jack and I walked up to the farm at the top of the hill, where Jack made his arrangement with the garageman over the phone and also called his wife. He had been very anxious about the call, insisting that she’d be distraught if she didn’t hear from him. What he actually said, and he said it many times, was that she’d “go ape.” Now, I thought, as we strolled homeward in the deepening dusk, anxieties are soothed and all will be well. The air was cool, but not too cold to silence the tree frogs, the only sound in the stillness that enveloped the hillside. It was a lovely time for a leisurely walk. But Jack was uneasy. The darkness and silence, which he remarked several times, bothered him so much that he made it seem not merely unusual but amazing and unnatural, perhaps even frightening. We stopped beside the car while Jack touched it here and there, caressing it I might say, and I assured him again and again that the road was rarely used. I didn’t tell him (I wouldn’t be so cruel) that virtually its only patrons were drunks on the way to and from Toonerville. We put out safety reflectors and went back to the house. My plan was to sedate Jack with home brew, and I did my best, but he kept rising from his chair to peer out the windows at the darkness, averring that he couldn’t get over it, that his wife wouldn’t believe him, and so on. Next morning he could hardly sit still enough to eat breakfast, and he was out of the house, pacing up and down the road, a full hour before the tow truck came.
Poor Jack, we said to ourselves as we waved goodbye. How his visit revealed the gap between our present life and the middleclass ways of our old friends! For every daffy sentimentalist who went gaga over our Beautiful Simple Country Life there must be many more who, if they could but catch a glimpse of it, would be as appalled as Jack. And how insensibly we had come to accept this life! A year ago, we, too, would have been intimidated by the absence of bustling human activity, and now we were taken aback by Jack’s reaction, and contemptuous, too: his visit made us smug. We weren’t in love with a car; we didn’t need the comfort of the surrounding herd. This sanctimonious theme runs through all Simple Living books, including Walden, and I can only say that despite the insights given us unwittingly by Willie and the Woodwrights, despite our growing skepticism about the Simple Life, we were still dupes of the myth and the attitudes it engenders. Granted Jack’s foolishness — that didn’t make us morally superior.
I don’t suppose it will be a surprise to my readers to learn that my ignorance about Aster was not confined to the technique of milking. I knew she was not a youngster but her age meant nothing to me even when, as I eventually learned, she was at least thirteen. Cows that old are often hard to breed. They come in heat all right, and they can be inseminated, but they don’t settle (i.e., conceive). Bob Woodwright had paid the breeding fee of three dollars, for which I got two more tries. The long-suffering inseminator came out five times, and on the last occasion in April he said firmly that he wouldn’t come again until we had the vet examine her. But she fooled us; that time she settled. We could look forward to a calf next February.
We took down the sap buckets, pulled the taps, scrubbed everything, boiled the taps in soapy water, dried everything in the sun and stored it all in the barn. The fireplace materials I stacked in the woods for next year. In mid-May I finally hooked up the water to the sink in the house. On May 25 two things told me summer was at hand: we saw Otis’s truck parked at his place, and there was enough grass to put Aster out on a tether.
Although there were still frosts in early June, the garden was planted and thriving in rich soil sheltered by the barn terrace wall. The loamy soil warmed up rapidly, encouraging quick growth from the start, important in the ninety-day season of northern Vermont. I’ve never seen a better garden spot, with handy small conveniences: a shed beside the garden for tools, a cold frame, and attached to the print shop, a tiny greenhouse about five feet square. Kneeling by the door in the shop wall, I could reach in to cultivate my flats of seedlings, started in the house. Heated only by the sun, sufficient in such a small structure, it was covered by a blanket at night, and there I produced healthy, stocky plants that transplanted with no setbacks.
Thinking it would be a treat for the children, I built bunks along one wall in the hayloft, lined them with grain bags stuffed with hay, and there they slept all summer.
After the Christmas jam sale, my next pathetic money-making scheme was to advertise on a bulletin board at Tweedy my services as a tutor for the summer, but the only taker was a former student of mine, Paul Farrar, a frequent weekend visitor during the year. When he drove up in his station wagon in late June, he had with him another student, Morris, known as Momo, a scholarship boy who had ingratiated himself with his rich classmates at Tweedy by playing a variety of knowing roles novel in that preppy milieu — the cool, streetwise guy from New York, the inside dopester, the sardonic comedian. There was an initial pretense that he would be a student on the same footing as Paul, but it soon became clear that he had no money and was only looking for a place to sponge for awhile. We were a little taken aback, but after all he could work for his room and board as Paul was doing and forego the tutoring.
Unfortunately, the Simple Life was only one of my stupidities, and not the worst, either. I discovered in Corbin’s study a miscellaneous collection of the writings of Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, and a hodgepodge of Lefty periodical literature of the 1930s. It would be nice now to claim that I was corrupted by books, but it was not so — I was already a Lefty of sorts, very unfocussed. What Corbin’s library did was to accelerate and concentrate my development. At that time the very faintest hints of radicalism were just being whispered at Tweedy, and Paul, along with a few others, was infected. We thought of ourselves as anti-Communists, Marxists of the pre-1917 variety, and we read the then scanty Lefty press with what we imagined to be a knowledgeable eye, eagerly following news of the just emerging New Left.
The morning after the boys arrived I took Momo on a tour of the farm, winding up at the top of the Big Meadow, where we stood for a moment, surveying the panorama. Knowing what I’ve just told you, you will understand why I was not flabbergasted, not so flabbergasted as you might have been in June 1963, when Momo announced out of the corner of his mouth that it would be a good place for guerilla training. I have to admit, though, that I was a little startled.
“Yeah. I know some of the top cats in Progressive Labor who’d really dig this joint for maneuvers.”
Only of course he didn’t say “Progressive Labor,” he said “PL,” and of course I understood him. That he knew some of the top cats was a revelation. I might have accepted that and even the possibility of digging fox holes in the garden (If I could swallow Marx, why balk at that?), but Momo’s demeanor during this small scene was too palpably phony: peering warily over the topography, piggy eyes narrowed, jaw set grimly, General Patton surveying the Siegfried Line. He had been flexing his poses for an undiscerning audience of college boys, hence a tendency to over-act. So, instead of resting content with his performance on the hilltop, he staged another, even stagier routine as we were walking back through the woods. Frowning, biting his lip, and staring down at the ground, he told me about his “dilemma”: should he, or should he not, come the imminent revolution, shoot his parents, who were, as he finely phrased it, “petty bourgeois to their fingertips”? I tried to dodge the subject by saying that it was a delicate personal matter, but he was having none of that.
“It’s not personal,’” he pointed out sternly, “It’s a matter of revolutionary justice!”
This haunted Momo for several days, or rather, it haunted us as Momo thoughtfully placed himself in our line of vision, scratching his head, chewing his fingernails, furrowing his brow, staring out the window. The Yiddish theater, reborn in northern Vermont. Finally Jo Ann sensibly told him to go ahead and shoot the old folks and stop agonizing about it. That produced massive sulks, a regular reaction whenever he suspected we weren’t taking his ridiculous routines seriously. Thus we learned, for the sake of peace, to keep our smart aleck remarks to ourselves. *