My friend Paul, who once operated a dairy farm here in southern Vermont, told me about days like this. He called them the Days of Grace. They are the stray dog days after the fever dream of foliage is over. That time when the leaves have all but fallen and everyone's holding their breath for the first snow. Paul said this is when the tractors are repaired and set into winter housing, when the feed rations change, when the wood pile is heavier: these are the Days of Grace. These are the days we slow down and let change happen.
The wood pile has become one of my favorite corners of this homestead. It's located right outside the kitchen window, in a small inlet of space created when the original owners of this small camp cabin built an additional bedroom. It's a perfect, roof-covered, nook for my firewood. It's where I stack, chop, swear, laugh and heckle chickens. It's where Chuck Klosterman stalks me and scratches me with his spurs. It's where the occasional hen will hop up onto and look into the kitchen when I'm cooking breakfast.
I can thank my neighbor Lynn for pointing this grotto out to me. He's not only a coworker at the office, but a logger here in Sandgate. He delivered this locally harvested wood with his old truck. Every few days he stops by my desk and we catch up on each other's gardens and what's going on in the Hollow. When he delivered my first cord he asked me where I was going to stack it. I shrugged. I figured I'd stack it near the house, sure, but had no blue prints. He pointed to the natural bend in the wall and said "That's perfect. Stack it there." So I did. Some stories really are that short.
My neighbor Roy watched me split wood the other night and miss, twice, right in a row. He was walking his dog Champ and as he headed back up to his home I heard him yell "Three strikes you're out!" The next day we ran into each other when we were walking our dogs and we got to talking. He explained the proper way to chop. He told me I needed a stump, something to elevate the wood so my wrists weren't dropping too low. He told me stories of accidents from poor form and dull blades and things he learned growing up in the 40's. I listened, nodded, and thanked him. The next day a stump was next to my woodpile—a gift from Roy.
The axe was here when I moved in. It was one of the few things waiting for me, propped up against the porch. I've used it so much it's starting to splinter. It's served me two winters now, and I can't help but feel a sincere loyalty for it. I like seeing the roosters perch on its handle and crow in the mornings. I like knowing it could split birch in half or protect me from a mildly-retarded bear. (A bear with full mental capacity, let's be honest, I don't stand a chance.) I'll buy a new axe and leave it here when I move on. It'll be an unspoken cabin tradition.
So folks, that's my wood pile: a combination of neighbors, favors, friends, and stories. It's where I turn after a stressful day to stack until my back hurts or swing until my arms ache. It's what's causing the crackling fire next to me right now, keeping me warm as the temperature drops below thirty. The snow never did come here last night, but it sure was cold. Thanks to that wood pile I have a little extra insurance.
Which, incidentally, also makes this home a little warmer.
I lost two hens. It seems when the weather really starts to change, when the first truly cold or warm nights hit in late fall or early summer—I lose some birds. Maybe it's too much for them? They can't adapt fast enough and their bodies fail? I don't know. But I do know I found a three-year-old and a three-month-old both belly up in the coop. Another hen is starting to droop just the ones before had. I hope she kicks back into shape.
I got home from work a little later than usual tonight, around six. Because they're calling for snow showers I had a lot of farm prep to do in case the morning met me with a layer of powder. For starters, I had to unload all the feed and bales from the back of the truck. If I left them out overnight the moisture could ruin the grain and make the bedding useless. So I shoved two 65-pound compressed bales of straw off the back of the bed. I took big piles to every corner of the farm and made thick, warm, beds for every hoof, rabbits, and chicken coop. Bags of feed were then hauled to the safety of the porch. Wood was chopped. I am getting to be Hell at chopping.
It was dark when the farm chores were finally done. I had brought two large armloads of wood inside, and was starting to get big ideas about pasta. (So big I could hear and feel my insides wail.) Understandably, thanks to all that business, I was distracted from the last thing on my list. Before I headed in for the night I needed to cut and carry the last pumpkin in from the garden. The behemoth in question was wider than two volleyballs and only half-oranged. I had let it sit out in the sun, hoping it would turn in time for Hallows, but if I let it stay feral the monster would be covered in snow instead of changing into fall. It was time to bring him to the porch.
I walked out in the blue-dark and sliced the vines with my knife. I lugged him up over my shoulder and breathed heavily as I carried him out of the garden. The stew-pot of hunger, chores, and desire to be inside made him seem even larger than he was. As I walked through the garden gate I looked down at the little brown dead hen I had placed there earlier that morning. I sighed. I set down the giant pumpkin and delayed my meal a little longer. I carried her softly over to the compost pile within the garden's fence and set her among the graceful decline. I'd raised that bird, eaten her eggs, and she served this farm well. She deserved a few moments and a proper spot in the quiet of the pile. Now she'll become next year's vegetables. I said a hushed thank you, heaved the pumpkin back over my shoulder, and went inside.
I pulled out of the parking lot fast today. Peeled out, really. I turned up the truck's stereo as loud as it would go and let Radiohead's Ok Computer carry me home. Karma Police came on and I smiled coyly. The song, all their songs, are wonderful but tonight the ending bars of the last chorus were absolutely perfect. I left the office's driveway singing with Mr. Yorke like we were in the same booth of a bar and each owed the other something important but forgot it four drinks ago. The truck had been sitting in the driveway all weekend, and had accumulated a large collection of leaves that were too wet to fly out this morning. As I sped down the highway they burst out from the bed in a fury just as the music hit its peak. You can't construct moments like that. I was a fall machine and I knew the evening would be beautiful.
I got home and almost ran to the front door. I opened it and Annie leapt up into my arms, whining, begging for what was left of the sunlight. I told my fine dogs we were going for a walk and they howled and stomped their paws as we leashed up. We ran off and up the the dirt roads. The dogs love the dead leaves by the the edges and wade through them like creek water. With the dead children of oaks and maples up to their elbows, they'd stride like the grandest brace of horses. Thrush WOOooosh Thrish THRASH was the joyful noise their pace would echo. We walked fast, west, downhill. Into the sunset, racing it to the old cemetery where men who plowed these hills before the Civil War lie dead. We ran up over the grass that covered the brave that came before us, and looked over all of West Sandgate, like kings.
A girl. Her dogs. Her Fall.
We came home and I let the dogs lap water and eat their dinners. Then I went outside to feed the sheep. I was so happy this morning when I walked out in the 28 degree cold and watched all three emerge from their small shed in a pile. I had filled it with heavy clean straw the night before and knew they woke up safe and warm. Joseph, the black lamb, was welcomed in the barn with the others. He was last to come out, groggy, a baby.
I took Finn out too, to play and headbutt and run around the yard following me like the dog he always knew he was. I collected five perfect brown eggs and fed the rabbits. I stacked wood and felt my body get hot as the night grew chill. I felt lucky. I felt alive.
Indoors again—I immediately turned on the record player. Our Endless Numbered Days was on the turntable and I let side one play as I started a loaf of bread in the kitchen. The song On Your Wings came on and played with the hollow distance that only an old record player can really growl. I know nearly every Iron and Wine song by heart and sang along as I kneaded.
"How we rise when we're born like the ravens in the corn...On their wings, on our knees, crawling careless from the seas. God, give us love in the time that we have..."
I sing those words like my mouth isn't a human mouth at all. Like some wild dog with the ability to move its jowls in elegant ways could sing. I sing like the fox I want dead and as I sing I am happy he's not. Because if he could sing, he would sing those words too. This may sound odd but that song is like that—specially as it cracks on the record player—which is older than I am.
Dinner tonight will be a simple, favorite, meal. A small loaf of bread pulled out of the oven and sliced open like a baked potato. I'll sprinkle in a little seasoning and cheddar and eat it with slow and grateful bites washed down with iced apple cider from a mason jar. But that will be hours from now. First I have a couple thousand words to write for a publisher and hopefully I'll award myself every five hundred or so with a guitar break. I want to work on that song I wrote. I'll sway between projects as I stoke the fireplace. I may not be asleep until late.
But that's okay because tonight, darling, is all about Autumn. It's about being happy I'm not dead yet. Pretty simple. Which is what this month is all about to me. It's Thanksgiving in Canada today and Thanksgiving at a cabin at the end of the world. Tucked in a hidden hollow in a mountain in Vermont one girl, two dogs, a flock of sheep, a goat, some chickens, rabbits and music are all humming with October. Which I honestly think was born right here in Bennington County. We are blessed in ways we do not have the ability to understand. Nights like these really are my endless numbered days.
I didn't spend any money tonight. I didn't get drunk, or make love, or do any drugs. I didn't have a party, or plan a vacation, or even get kissed on the forehead. I just spent a day experiencing this holy season the best ways I know how: with sweat and animals and woodsmoke and good food. And because of that I feel like I did all those things in which I did not. Which in a way, just might, be better. At least tonight anyway.
I ended up staying up well past midnight last night. In front of the fire, on a big brown sheepskin I wrote a song for the guitar. I rarely write music with lyrics. Hell, I rarely write music. I like learning songs, but last night I sat with a blank musician's notebook and scribbled down chords and words and played around with finger positions till I figured out a song. It's nothing great, but it's mine. I know the progressions by heart now, and it made the end of the day seem correct and elegant. Some nights it's just easier to sleep when you stayed up as late as you could making calluses on your fingers.
I think I was wound from all the company and activities. After the folks from the workshop left—and some late afternoon guests stopped by for coffee—I found myself puttering around the farm in the new sunlight. It had been a soppy morning (the kind that you have to dodge mushrooms to get to your car) but by late afternoon the sun came out and the farm opened up into this orange and green world. Young hens playing tag around the still-green pumpkins in the dying garden. I let the hooves graze and chopped wood. I still have a cord to stack waiting patiently in a hideous pile. I'll get to some of it today. Maybe. Honestly, all I want to do when my laundry is done in town is come home to a fire and a good meal. I'm a simple woman.
I was going to (read: supposed to) drive north to Westfield for the Fall Foliage Sheepdog Trials, but I discovered it would be about a four hour drive one way. After the cold, the weekend of guests, and the fact I have a pile of laundry...it seems unreasonable, which is a disappointment. But it also seems criminal to drive four hours to watch a trial when if you added another hour I could have dinner with my family in Pennsylvania if I drove south instead. So no fall sheepdog trials this year unless I make the NY sheep and wool Festival in a few weekends. But I'll catch up. I have a lifetime ahead of me of collies, fall trials, and stomping flocks. Or so, she hopes.
Enjoy the story of a young writer living in Washington County with her fancy dogs, sheep, lots of chickens, fiber & meat rabbits, geese, ducks, turkeys, a hive and a garden. Expect to hear a lot about mountain music, the civil war, local food, and my friends along the way. It's a big time folks.
And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated. -gs