Monday, April 15, 2013

Greene, Wyeth, & Me

I leaned over the aluminum gate and felt the soft curve of the weathered metal tuck into my forearms. I don’t know what it is about eight-foot metal gates but they seem to be ergonomically engineered for leaning against or over. This could be due to their strength and smoothness, or possibly, because most metal gates are looking over pastures and paddocks where beloved critters reside. So I just can’t help it. I see a sturdy (non electrified) place to ponder or converse and I’m drawn to it. I lift my sturdy 5’3” frame into it and rest all my weight down on top of the four foot gates, usually with a boot stepping up on a lower rung. If you happened to drive by and wave you would not doubt for a second I was reckoning something, or about to dive into a good half hour of racing conversation about farm insurance, second cut hay, or the myriad uses of baling twine. I was poised for non action like a pro.

Now, I’m not the best gate leaner in the county, but I am learning fast. And Friday morning, deep into the maw of April, I was learning from one of the best. I was picking up a truckload of hay from Nelson Greene, the finest hay producer in the area (far as I’m concerned). He’s now in his late seventies and usually under the weather from various respiratory problems he earned after a lifetime of living among cattle, hay chaff, dust and silage. Nelson isn’t in the pink of health, but he is far from most folks I meet his age. He is well over six feet tall and easily two hundred and forty pounds of well worn in farm muscle. He has hands the size of basketballs and the ability to easily lift up a sixty-pound bale in each hand and load it onto my truck. One time he was even able to help me get off a hay elevator as I slowly descended it by simply grabbing my belt and lifting me up in the air and onto the ground. I was so shocked at his strength I think I just stared at him after that. I weight substantially more than a sixty-pound bale of hay and he moved me aside as if I was one of his barn cats. I want to be like him when I grow up.

I have been buying hay from Nelson since the first day I ever had a serious need for it. He never lets me forget the story either. This was back when I first moved to Vermont from Idaho and had just acquiring my first three sheep from a homeschooling family in Hebron. The day I picked up my sheep—and was transporting them back to my farmstead in the back seat of my Subaru Forester—I crested a hill and saw a few men piling beautiful green hay bales into a large red wagon being pulled by an ancient looking red tractor. I pulled up to the work crew, rolled down my windows, and leaned over the passenger seat to ask in a loud yell, “Hey! Do you have any hay for sale?!” to which Nelson, looked down at me and took in the scene of vehicular situation and replied, “Hay!? Do you got any sheep!?” and I laughed and pulled over to strike a deal. I didn’t know then but I had picked up my sheep right in the thick of second-cutting season at Nelson’s farm and if there was one thing he had in spades it was good green hay and plenty of it. That very same evening I unloaded the sheep into their brand new pen and before I even got to lean on my own little livestock fence I had just installed I was back into that Subaru wagon and headed to pick up my first load of hay. We fit six bales into that car and I felt as proud as the day I was handed my college diploma. Which sounds like a ridiculous comparison, but I assure you its accurate. It took four years to learn the skills and pass the exams required by the state of Pennsylvania to make me a Bachelor of the Arts. It took 27 years of my life to get up the nerve to buy animals with hooves and then use a station wagon as a pickup truck.

At my farm these gates are what hold back goats, sheep, and horses. Here at Nelson Greene’s Farm they keep in a happy herd of Angus heifers. And it was here at the same barn I have visited countless times in the past five years I found myself feeling like a local farmer for possibly the first time ever.

I was watching the heifers and without trying, without thinking about the questions I was asking dove into a conversation with Nelson about his herd. Now that I am a few years into an agricultural life I could tell their age, their breed, and knew enough about cattle to see they were pregnant and well cared for. Nelson talked about his girls with pride in his voice, and bragged a little about his $5,000 bull he bought to breed the herd with. He had reason to brag, the lot of them were gorgeous and in the late afternoon’s cloud-cover and light rain felt like a scene from an Andrew Wyeth painting. This all happened without trying, without me feeling in any way like an intruder in someone else’s world. Behind us my dented Dodge pickup was strapped down with twenty bales. I didn’t worry about the rain on them, and I knew my horses and sheep would eat them before any rot could even consider seeping in. So we just relaxed into a weekday afternoon without fuss. I had come a long way since frantically loading a station wagon…

We were friends, Nelson and I, talking about our animals in the gentle rain without any flinch or consideration for anything but our interchange. Rain came down, and cow tails flicked mud, and there we were, leaning against the gate and talking about his plans for a new hay barn, fences, and a herd he hopes to reach a hundred head in the next few years. I kept a poker face the whole time, but I wanted to grin as wide as a Cheshire Cat. Not because anything Nelson was saying was particularly funny, but because he meant every single word he said and every conviction to make those plans happen. This is not a common trait. But hearing Nelson talk I knew I wasn’t hearing pipe dreams or prayers, I was hearing exactly what was going to happen. This is powerful stuff.

Nelson is almost eighty years old. He is in the hospital on a regular basis. He has mornings he can’t stand up, or breathe, and he lives alone. But this man is working hard, and loves his life. He is making plans most people in their thirties don’t dare to dream of without any concern or doubt in his own stability or ability. His life is something that keeps happening because of him, not to him. I love this about him. I really, really, want to be like him when I grow up.

When I waved goodbye Nelson proposed marriage for the 56th time and I smiled and headed down the road with my dog riding shotgun and a heavy load of good hay in the rear. My hair was wet under my wool cap and my sweater sleeves were damp as well. My chest was warm to the core under a canvas vest and I blew on my hands a little to warm them up for the half hour ride south to my farm. I turned on the local country station, sang along to a song I knew all the lyrics too, and was home and unloaded before my old corporate job would have even let its employees off for the day.

My life has changed so much in the past five years. My outlook, my possessions, my knowledge and my priorities: I see the world, people, and how they live in it entirely differently. The Jenna from just a few years ago would have been too intimidated or wary to stand next to Nelson, or even take the chance to meet him. She would have only gone out with a friend, and done so in overpriced technological outdoor shells, freezing cold, with an umbrella. I would not be in a pickup truck without heat and ripped up upholstery. I would be in some compact, fuel-efficient vehicle with a dog crate in the back hatch and I would make fun of the people listening to country music or with bow hunting stickers on the back of their rigs. I would not be wearing a kilt. I would be too scared to do anything anyone would consider odd, unsafe, or irresponsible. I was scared of everything. I was enslaved and happy in my peer-approved little cage of mutual acceptance.

That Jenna was not a bad person. She was doing fine. But this Jenna is the version of me I prefer, and cannot contain the quiet thrill of a wet conversation with a local legend on a Friday afternoon. Nelson’s calves are due in May. I have no idea how to use Adobe InDesign anymore.

I like knowing the first thing more.