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On Brassard's Farm
If I were to give a name to what kind of tale mine is, I would have to call it a love story. But it’s not at all the kind of love story we usually think of when hearing those words. The difference is not only what’s meant by “love” and how one goes about it, but whom or what is loved in such a tale.
The only sensible beginning place is the land itself. It really is the foundation of everything that has happened to me: the actual, physical solidity of granite and earth upon which I placed my feet. The inarguable fact of that material presence allowed me to brace myself, as it were, so as to cope with life. It was there I felt the Earth’s gravity for the first time as an embrace that held me not down but steady and safely anchored.
The first time I saw my land, I had driven from the Interstate exit for about thirty miles on the paved road, then another six on dirt roads. This was hardly wilderness, but it was pretty wild for a woman who had lived in the city all her life. I passed through several towns and hamlets along the way; on their outskirts were new houses, a mix of ranches and upscale places. Lots of mobile homes, some badly cut-over woods. But mainly it was trees and more trees, a mist of green among their branches from tiny fledgling leaves. A startled deer crossing the road, farms with mud-smeared, disinterested cows, shambling houses settling to earth deep among flaking apple trees. Snow-broken, sway-backed abandoned barns. Muddy ruts.
My hosts at the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying had told me that in Vermont this is called “Mud Season,” and warned me that the back roads would be soupy. And in fact there were some spots where my car skated sideways and bogged and sloshed and I wasn’t sure I’d make it through.
At the top of a forested ridge, I turned and started down the hill on a narrower road that was little more than a slot between overhanging branches.
Soon pastures opened up on both sides and gave me a better view of the valley in which Brassard’s farm lay. To the left, the land sloped down to a small stream, then up again, the fields yielding to forest that rose to a wooded ridge. Light brown cows – I didn’t yet know a Guernsey from a rhinoceros -- ranged on the near slope, some grazing, some reclining languidly and chewing their cuds. To the right ran a strip of ragged untended field, last year’s milkweeds parched and tufted above dead brown high grass and the emerging new green. Above this field rose a steep, flat-topped, forested hill, an unlikely arm projecting from the main ridge. It thrust up from the sloping valley in the shape of an ironing board or a submarine just emerging from the depths and shedding waterfalls on all sides.
Coming down the hill, I got a good overview of Brassard’s place: barn, sheds, silo, and house clustered close together. Scattered among the buildings were trucks, a tractor, a conveyor to an opening in the barn’s gable end, a few cars.
All in all, a pleasant scene, I thought. Remote enough. Guided by real estate agents, one woebegone and the other over-eager, I had looked at two disappointing parcels of land. But here my pulse picked up: Maybe this was it, maybe I was now looking at my future. It was hardly postcard pretty, but ruggedly comely in its curves and proportions. Close enough for jazz, as my ex-husband might have said, and I liked jazz. When I could fool myself enough I could think of this as an upbeat jazzy urbanite taking an improvisatory turn into new territory.
A galvanized steel mailbox with “Brassard” painted on it reassured me that I’d found the right place. I pulled up between house and barn and turned off the car. My windows were open to the spring air so that a wet smell of manure and mud came to me. The house had white clapboard siding with dark green trim around its doors and on the shutters to each side of the windows. A porch faced the road, cluttered with snow shovels, busted furniture, a washing machine, a porch swing. The barn was a looming ark of graying red paint with a row of small white-trimmed windows along the lowest level. Between house and barn, the driveway faded into a functional dirt yard where a second tractor and various farm implements lay. A man in mud-stained jeans and T-shirt was doing something to the tractor’s motor, but he extricated his arms and set aside his tools as I pulled up.
I got out, suddenly nervous, feeling out of my depth, feeling citified and naïve about country life and farms and machines and men like the one who was looking questioningly at me. He wasn’t tall, probably my height, but he was wide and thick in all his parts, his bare arms muscular. His skin was a deep copper color, his blunt facial features hardly the gaunt, long-faced Yankee I’d unconsciously expected: Uncle Sam in coveralls, the dour pitchfork-wielding farmer in American Gothic. Mexican, I thought, or maybe Native American.
“Are you Mr. Brassard?” I asked.
He turned toward the wide barn door and bellowed “Jim! That Boston gal’s here.” To me: “He’s in there somewhere.”
He went back to the tractor, wedging his arms into a narrow part at the front of the motor. I stood there, feeling the give of the mud beneath my suddenly wildly inappropriate white running shoes, not knowing what was expected of me. I didn’t really want to walk toward the barn and muddy the shoes further. A cow bawled from somewhere down in the pasture and the wide man’s wrench clanked. Otherwise, silence.
After a long minute, an older man emerged from the barn, wiping his hands on a rag. He did wear denim coveralls over a checked shirt, but he was no dried-up Puritan. He was a tall man in his early sixties, big in the chest and belly, a clean-shaven fleshy pink face, thinning hair gone most of the way from blonde to gray. Without the coveralls and flat-fronted billed cap, he’d strike you as more of a car salesman type or conventioneer.
“You’re Miss Tanner?”
“Turner, yes. Thanks for taking the time to see me, Mr. Brassard.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna sell the piece if somebody don’t come look at it. I’d shake your hand but you don’t want to get what I got on your hands. Come all the way from Boston this morning, did you?”
“No. Just from Montpelier. I’m staying at a bed and breakfast. It’s --” I realized I felt a need to flatter Vermont or the landscape, but that Jim Brassard probably didn’t need my approval for the place where he’d lived all his life. But I had to finish: “ – lovely here.”
His face remained expressionless. “You want some coffee or something, use the facilities, or you want to just go on up and take a look?”
“I’m fine with just looking at the land. If this is an okay time for you.”
“Good’s any other.”
A black lab mix-dog came up to nose the crotch of my jeans. I roughed him around the ears and he licked my hand.
“Yep, Bob, he’s the friendly one,” Brassard said. There was fondness and humor in his voice, the first time he’d shown any emotion. “Now you’ve got him as your best buddy for life, won’t leave you alone. Throw a stick and he’ll be at you to do it again all day. Won’t you, bud?”
The dog went over to Brassard, who worked his pelt down his spine until his back leg twitched toward his tickle spot. Brassard’s hands were huge, each finger thicker than my thumb. “Now, the other one, Jasper, you don’t want to get near him. Part German shepherd, part devil. Gotta chain him up back, he won’t stay home and he dudn’t like strangers much.”
I was glad Jasper wasn’t loose to make my arrival any more problematic. The Indian or Mexican man at the tractor took his arms out and wiped his hands on his pants and looked on as Bob nosed me again and Brassard fished in his pockets to jangle keys. The wide man smiled. Native American, I decided.
Spring smell: You think you know it, but you can’t until you’re out on a small farm in the woods of New England and it’s all around. Break a stalk of celery and put your nose up to it, that’s a bit of the smell. Add a touch of lime, when you take the wedge and squeeze it into your Corona. A little rosewater and the dry smell of ice. A wet earth smell like the one that rises from the pots when you water your houseplants, here supplemented with the murky sweet of manure. And a million bursting leaf buds wafting chlorophyll perfume. Those things I instinctively recognized, though my experience of them was largely limited to the much-diluted version along the river in Cambridge. It was a distillation of newness and optimism and another start after the snows.
Brassard pointed out the land I’d come to see: that emerging submarine or ironing board above us to the west. It was his opinion that taking the tractor up would be our best bet. Perhaps he was considering the burden of his own heavy body -- he walked with a slight hitch in his stride that betrayed a few sore joints. Or maybe he saw my obvious unreadiness for a steep uphill trek in spongy earth and muck. He went around the barn to get the other tractor, leaving me alone with Bob the dog and the unnamed man wrestling with the tractor engine.
“So,” I hazarded, “you work for Mr. Brassard?”
He grinned back at me. “Looks that way.”
“I’m Liz Turner. What’s your name?”
“Earnest. I’m a friend and I make myself useful when Jim needs a hand. You thinking of buying that land?”
I heard an engine fire up, popping and chattering on the other side of the barn. “Thinking of it, yes.”
“What for?” Earnest didn’t look my way. Whatever he was working on under the compartment of the tractor was giving him trouble.
At the time I was sure I wore my desperation on my face and body, obvious as a billboard, but I hesitated for only a heartbeat. “I just want a place to get away to once in a while. I thought I’d build a cabin, spend some time there in the summers. I’m an elementary school teacher. Just moved to Vermont.”
I could have said more. This explanation, tossed off to others and to myself, was somewhere between a convenience and a lie – but this wasn’t the moment, Earnest was probably not the person. In any case, I didn’t have to elaborate because Jim Brassard was coming around the barn riding a green tractor and it was time for me to go figure things out in more pragmatic and present-tense ways. We were going to ride this contraption up the ridge to the forty-acre parcel he was selling.
“Best you ride the PTO rack,” he called down to me. “Put your feet on the two bars there and hold onto the back of the seat. It gets steep on the way up, you want to hold on good.
A cage of steel bars stuck out behind tractor, offering a pair of flat blades between the big cleated wheels. Apparently he intended me to stand on it.
I put one foot on each, found it reasonably secure footing, and got a good grip on the back of his seat. He checked my position, nodded, asked Earnest if he’d hold Bob until we were over in the other field, and moved a lever on the steering wheel. The tractor’s motor clattered faster and off we went, wheels kicking up slats of mud.
We crossed the road, chugged between two posts holding sagging barbed wire, and then up a dirt track through the overgrown pasture. In the muddy places, the tractor sashayed from side to side and it felt dangerous – those enormous wheels churning close on each side, my Adidas joggers keeping a tenuous grip on the angle-iron rack. I wedged my feet into the welded joint to keep them from slipping.
Brassard had to holler back at me over the engine noise: “Forty acres, never could farm on ‘em, too hard to get a truck or a cow up there. Lots of ledge, no good for pasture. Some good timber, though. Figured I wasn’t usin’ it anyways, maybe somebody’d put up a hunting camp or a vacation cabin. What’d you want with it anyway?”
“Yes, just a little cabin. For summer,” I yelled at him.
I didn’t think a conversation was possible, given the noise. And now I was becoming distracted by the delight of riding the tail end of a tractor grinding through spring mud and by the valley view that opened as we got higher. It was like starting out on a carnival ride. An adventure! The newness of it cut through the layers of caution and doubt and angst and the urban armor of ennui to a quickening down at the center of me. I was already touching something real.
The bristle-cut back of Brassard’s head nodded and half turned. “You okay back there?”
“I’m fine,” I screamed.
He moved the throttle and our speed picked up. “Yep, it’s not for livin on, not for farmin,” he bellowed. “Can’t get a car up there. Cuts its sale value. Maybe you could swing a right of way from the folks at the top of the ridge, but knowin them it’s a slim to none chance and you’d have to put in a hell of a long access road. Power and phone, forget it unless you’re a millionaire. You want to get away, this’d be the spot.”
I didn’t try to respond. The engine noise, coming through the bobbing cap on the exhaust stack, was too loud. We ground up to the first steep rise, where the trees began, then turned left and followed a pair of ruts than ran parallel to the ridge. A rugged, near-vertical face of granite reared on our right. The ground was drier here, better traction, and now the tractor swayed not from the yield of mud but from hard uneven ground muscled with bumps of granite. I held on until my knuckles ached as we took a sharp hairpin and angled up the other way. Soon we were above the cliff, and through the trees the farm was just visible below. When the breeze shifted, the diesel exhaust blew straight back into my face. Between it and the rolling motion I began to feel a little sick.
After another hairpin and a longer curve, the track began to level out and we emerged on top of what was a sort of plateau, mostly forested but clearly once inhabited: patches of open scrub land and a few ancient apple trees showed there’d been some prior settlement. Once we got onto the flat, Brassard ratcheted down a brake pedal and cut the engine. I stepped down, but he stayed in his seat above me, a florid-faced knight on his mechanical steed.
“Well, this’s it. Property line on the far side, west boundary, is about where the hill comes down. Down to the bottom there you’ll see the old stone wall, that’s the start of Hubbard’s land, next farm over. Up to the top, you go until you hit the big rocks, big jumbled boulders, that’s about the end, the Goslants own everything above the rocks.”
I looked where he was pointing. He took off his billed Agri-Mark cap and scratched his head. “You want me to walk it over with you?”
It was clear that he didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have minded a better sense of where the land began and ended, I understood that borders were important in property transactions, but more than anything I wanted to be alone here. I’d hoped that I would know my refuge when I found it, that there’d be a certain pull from the ground or the trees to assure me that this was my place to go to ground. I needed to listen for it without distraction.
“I’m fine walking around by myself. If it’s all right with you. I can explore and I’ll come down on my own, you don’t need to come up for me or anything.”
He was frowning off uphill. “Some water up here,” he said doubtfully. “Seems I saw a spring once, back in the woods. Couldn’t tell you where, you might want to scout it out. Good to have water.”
Then he set his cap firmly on his head, pushed the button on the tractor dash. The exhaust cap bounced and the motor rattled to life. “Yep, fine with me, got enough to do, that’s for sure. You can’t find me when you get down, look for Earnest. Just you walk around, be a nice piece if you don’t mind walkin in. Four-wheeler could do it. Winter, you could get up with a Ski-doo.”
He turned the tractor in a half circle, one wheel motionless as the other pivoted around. He waved once as he headed away. He was gone from sight as soon as he made the first bend. The tractor noise dwindled until it was almost inaudible.
I was alone on an almost-level, forested hilltop where I’d never been before in my life. Through the new-leafed trees I could see distant mountains and other hills, here and there with human things projecting from forested folds. In the far distance, a white column that was either a church spire or silo.
I spun in a slow circle to get a quick view in every direction and felt a tick of fear – I knew there were bears and bobcats out here, and I’d watched Deliverance back whenever.
But I loved it. Not yet so much the land itself, which I’d barely seen and which seemed only ambiguously acceptable; I loved this moment. Just being there, having this adventure. Or just being, awareness of being itself kindled in me.
Bob Dylan wrote a song called “The Patriot’s Game," a haunting lament of war that begins with lyrics that explain how I feel about telling my story:
My name it means nothing
my age it means less.
The country I come from
they call the Midwest.
What I mean is, I know personal stories are supposed to begin with some kind of life history, but I don’t want to tell you a great deal about the person I was before I found the land. Some of it’s awful, I was the Hindenburg going down in flames, or already in a shambles on the ground. And now it strikes me as a distraction from what matters. But of course any present or future has its roots in a past. I could pretend this was a typical back-to-the-land impulse, a normal, ordinary thing to do. But there was more to the tropism. I’d had two very hard years, begetting the further torment of extensive self-inspection, depth-plumbing. I admit it, I was there in retreat from my prior life and aspects of the world and myself that I despaired of coping with.
I was also moved by some better impulses, unrevealed to me despite my ineffectual self-probings. I now know our lives are moved equally by the lash of circumstance and our wise if unrecognized longings, and both can steer us true. Both were required to lead me to Brassard’s farm.
At the time, I had an ordinary neo-Freudian way of looking at myself and why I lived the way I did and what impelled me to make the choices I did. My father was this kind of person, my mother that sort of woman, they were emotionally available in different degrees and different ways. My early social experiences, my later relationships with men, and so on. But now all that seems surficial. I don’t mean irrelevant, just shallow, the outer skin of a more robust and profound onion.
Here’s how the narrative would have gone at the time. My name: Anne Turner. My age: some years before the likely onset of menopause, the end of the choice of having children. The proverbial clock was ticking, but I wasn’t counting the beats because the idea of having kids had never loomed large in my life’s agenda.
So neither means anything – no doubt there are hundreds of thousands of Anne Turners, and there’s certainly no shortage of unmarried ticking clocks.
As Dylan sang, the country I come from they call the Midwest. Sort of: I was born in Chicago, but we moved east when I was still in diapers. “We” means my mother, father, younger brother, and myself. I was their second child, but their first, Will, had died five years before I was born from a congenital heart problem they’d battled since his birth. My parents were already in their thirties when they’d conceived Will, so when I was a kid they were much older than my friends’ parents. Will’s death accounted for the long interval between births. My mother told me they were simply too afraid of having another go at it until, mustering their courage, they decided to conceive me. My survival must have given them more confidence, because two years later I was joined by Erik, my younger brother.
From Chicago we moved to Baltimore so that my father could be closer to his aging parents, give us kids more exposure to our grandparents, and help them get along. He took a job at another HVAC firm – that’s heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning – as a team supervisor. I was about twelve when his father died and we moved to Boston. My father took basically the same position in the facilities department at a well-known prep school. My mother taught photography at community colleges as a part time adjunct, leaving her at home most of the time to take care of us kids and maintain a reasonably ordered domestic life.
None of this explains how I became a quirky desperate woman prone to bad decisions, one who would, out of the blue, want to buy a piece of wild land. I have no Freudian excuse and no obviously flawed genetic inheritance to blame. My parents were kind, attentive, liberal, open- minded. Erik was always what in my childhood I called a little rat, and he later morphed into what Mom called a rebel without a cause and Pop called a n’er-do-well. But I loved him and we played a typical sibling duet: sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant, sometimes competing for parental attention, sometimes in league against them.
Though Pop worked as supervisor, the job still entailed hands-on work with his team as they installed or repaired systems in industrial buildings or apartment complexes. He never wore a suit to work, just khakis, blue button down shirt and tie, windbreaker. He’d come home smelling faintly of electrical wiring, galvanized sheet, natural gas. When my mother taught her classes, she came home with the scent of developing fluid in her clothes. I loved both smells.
Pop’s friends were men and women in comparable jobs, a few school administrators, a rare professor or two. My mother’s were a more eclectic lot, teachers and adult students from the community college, other photographers ranging from staid commercial professionals to bohemian artists. They had what I think was a good social life: friends over for dinner, a softball league, movies and drinks out with friends while my brother and I terrorized a babysitter. My mother was part of a book group and volunteered at a cooperative art gallery. My friends were the children of their friends.
This description of my parents makes them seem featureless, but they were not; it’s only for brevity’s sake that I don’t paint a rounder portrait of them. They were strong if restrained personalities; they questioned themselves, they had passionate arguments and reconciliations, and they worked hard. They had moral commitments and they strove to be good parents. When I came of an age to pay attention to such things, I was aware that they had an active sex life. We lived a reasonably secure life, not affluent but not poor. With their combined income they helped support my father’s parents, paid off our house; I took dance lessons, we went on yearly vacations to Maine or Vermont or Florida. We had what we needed, if not much more.
Erik left home before I did, finishing high school a year early and then going off to the West Coast and a life we didn’t hear much about except for the occasional problems. I went to college, graduated with a degree in education that didn’t prove particularly useful for the waitressing jobs I took afterward. I shared an apartment with two friends; it was a few years until I got my own place.
Five years later, my mother died of breast cancer. We were good friends, her absence hurt me badly. Erik came back, cried hard at her funeral. Grief pulled the three of us close for a week before Erik left again.
Eventually we got as over her death as anyone gets. My father didn’t languish, but mustered on and remarried after a couple more years, when he was in his early sixties. My new stepmother Elizabeth was ten years younger than he, and though she was hardly the interesting and inquisitive person my mother was, she was perfectly nice. I liked her, but I had a life of my own and no great interest in developing a deeper relationship with her. That was reciprocal, given that she had two adult children from her first marriage who reasonably enough took emotional precedence over her husband’s daughter.
When my father died, at 72, he’d lived a life that had granted him many of the things people seek, including an honest profession making “decent” money, a paid-off mortgage, two good marriages, two healthy kids. He and I grew closer as he aged. After he retired, he acquired by degrees a certain reassuring gravitas, a long face faintly resembling Abe Lincoln’s and a stillness that made him a good listener for his daughter’s occasional rants and confessions. Even Erik started calling more often, seeking counsel on money, women, life’s vicissitudes, from the old man.
I missed Pop terribly. Erik had been so remote for so long that I felt very alone in the world, untethered. My stepmother inherited my father’s house and most of the money he’d put aside, leaving me with no geographical axis for my life and not enough means to establish another. Besides Erik, my only relatives were an aged aunt in Schenectady and some distant cousins whom I’d barely met and had never corresponded with.
I hadn’t realized how spare a landscape of familial trust and security I lived in, how meager my connections. The void scared me. In my sudden awareness of the importance of blood relationships, I began calling Erik a lot. He really was a n’er-do-well: crass-sounding girlfriends or male buddies often answered the phone, loud clashing rock music playing in the background, and he often sounded distracted, in the style of a drinker or druggie. Still, he was always sympathetic in his way – Yeah, things are tough, Liz. I hear what you’re saying. I’m with you there.
After another year, I called to find that his phone had been disconnected. I couldn’t find him, though I did various online people searches. I figured he might be in jail, or had become a scruffy ex-pat in Mexico. Or maybe he was on the lam from the law or women or bill collectors, just making himself scarce for a while. I wasn’t about to call the California Corrections Department and ask if they had an Erik Turner incarcerated somewhere. I could imagine them saying suspiciously, “No we don’t – but why would you think we might?” and then turning a baleful searching eye Erik’s way. I had to accept that I’d either hear from him when he wanted to be heard from, or I wouldn’t.
This all sounds a bit bleak, but that’s not how it was. By the time my mother died, I had a job teaching fifth grade kids at a public school in Brookline. I joined a group of newer teachers, who became both colleagues and friends. Ours was a demographically diverse and economically challenged district, and my comrades in arms and I were idealists who took pride in our uphill battle against ignorance and social inequity. And we did some great things. With the school budget too tight to afford much extra-curricular activity, we often spent our own money to pay for field trips and books and musical instrument rentals. We rewarded good behavior or good grades with free after school sundaes at Nero’s, a favorite ice cream parlor.
The older teachers frowned on our novel approaches, but we earned better attendance and academic performance from the kids, appreciation from parents, and awards from the teachers union. The death of my mother and father occurred within a context of a satisfying social milieu and a consuming professional life.
After about year of teaching, I fell in love with the brother of one of my colleagues. Matt worked in the graphics department at a growing firm that manufactured personal accessories – a very chic line of purses, hats, sandals, socks, scarves, wrist watches. Their products hit the marketing sweet spot among the twenty-something hipnoscenti, as he labeled their customer base.
After my school day, I sometimes visited him at company headquarters, an open-plan office in a reconditioned typesetting workshop with tall ceilings, a rustic chic décor of white-painted brick walls, high-tech lighting, potted exotic trees, and nailhole-pocked wood floors left over from the early 1900s. The setup and a progressive management plan mixed artistic types with computer geeks and money people and sales hucksters.
I liked the ambience, which lent some of its aggressive optimism and professional luster to Matt, framing him in a positive way. We got married only a year after we met.
Looking back, I see that the loss of my parents was probably the first nudge that began my slow, inward-spiraling orbit toward the land, my gravitating toward a home, a solid thing in a life of loss and uncertainty. The first disconnection that eventually made me, for better or worse, untethered and wanting, for better or worse, a significant departure from my life as it had been.
But none of this entered my thoughts as I explored the land that day. I felt only a breathless exhilaration, devoid of thought. There was so much to see.
The day had begun cool, but the air warmed as the morning ripened and the sun rose well above the neighboring hills. I was perfectly comfortable in my fleece jacket. Tendrils of steam rose wherever the light shone directly on bare earth or granite. As I walked I occasionally entered pockets of surprising cool, frigid ghosts of the winter just past. In the occasional open patches, where grasses and scrub held the ground, the snow-flattened thatch was just pierced with green spears of new growth. Low-growing bushes were tipped with swelling beads of green and purple.
I wasn’t even thinking about whether this was the right land or not, whether I felt the intuitive tug I’d expected to feel, whether I’d make Brassard an offer. I was too absorbed in the small facts of the place, an awareness of detail I couldn’t recall ever experiencing. It was as if my eyes had become magnifying glasses, as if local space were occupied by a medium more transparent than air, so that everything visible registered with startling clarity.
All around me fascinating small things demanded my attention. The knobs of rough gray granite that humped through the weave of dead grass or wet leaf detritus wore scaling pelts of lichens and brilliantly green moss that looked exactly like a rain-forest seen from an airplane. Small birds flicked in the trees and among the brush, picking at dried berries left on the branches despite winter’s winds. A couple of shotgun shells lay on a granite shelf, their plastic red and glistening brass startling and incongruous. The sunlight slanting through the young leaves, semi-transparent, pale yellow-green, only faintly mottled the ground. A solitary bottle-green beetle trundled slowly, sluggish from cold, on a rotten log. My running shoes got wet and mucked and I was pleased to punish them for their prior naiveté and hubris. The air was so fresh I wanted to only inhale and never have to exhale.
I walked along the plateau toward the upper end, figuring I’d explore the lower borders last. Here the trees thickened, the slope steepened. It wasn’t an easy stroll, because my way was often barricaded by fallen trunks topped by tangles of treetop branches, whipping saplings, rearing earthen walls made by the upended root masses of blow-downs. Thickets of brambles encircled the little open patches, and after my first attempt I learned not to mess with them. My jacket picked up knots of burrs that left itchy tufts of bristles when I picked them off. My hair gathered twigs. I stepped unexpectedly into ice-water puddles that soaked my shoes and froze my feet. I slipped and stumbled and tangled my way along.
I was sort of surprised by all this. I hadn’t thought of rural land as anything like this. I’d probably soaked up images of idealized pastoral life from old paintings in museums. I’d certainly watched too many romantic movies about 19th century England, where the forests were so spacious that one could gallop sidesaddle on a runaway horse between ancient trees until the scion of some other wealthy family dashed up on his steed and grabbed the reins. Unconsciously, that was what I was expecting, not this raw, muddy, hard-bitten place. Farther along, facing a particularly dense thicket made by two fallen trees, I began to feel discouraged and irritable.
I was sitting on a rock, retying my wretched shoes, when a sudden racket of footfalls and crackling erupted close behind me. I was so startled I swear I felt an artery throb in my brain. Primal paranoia reasserts itself instantly in unfamiliar, deep woods.
I whipped around but couldn’t see anything through the snarled brush. A bear, a wolf – were there wolves in New England? Maybe one of the mountain lions said to hide out in the mountains! A moose? I’d heard the bulls were aggressive and terribly dangerous when they’re in rut. Did moose rut in spring, or was it fall?
The noise moved farther away, and though I waited expectantly, nothing devoured me.
Now I know the difference between the drum of a deer’s hooves, a bear’s heavier, twig-breaking tread, the measured thump of a moose, the footless rustle of a porcupine or skunk. Also of the sound of a man moving in the woods. I didn’t then. I stood for another minute in heart-pounding, hand-tingling paralysis before I was able to resume my uphill trek.
The scariest part – the saddest – was that in that startle and long moment of trembling, part of me welcomed catastrophe, invited it. I felt a savage, cruel yearning for injury or death, punishment or atonement. Some kind of finality.
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It’s been a while since I’ve kept up with my journal, mainly because there’s no way my scribblings can adequately describe what I’ve been doing or feeling. Why am I bothering with this, and who am I writing to?, I ask as I sit here and flail at the black flies who torture me.
To myself, of course. Basic principle: Leave tracks so you can find your way back. What idiocies led you here? Remember and avoid them next time. Assuming you bother to read your own diary, which I avoid – lousy handwriting, too much whining. Thus am condemned to repeat history.
I am camping on my land, alternating three or four days out here with a partial day and a night at a cheap motel near the Interstate where I can shower and watch TV, enjoy indoor plumbing and the absence of dirt, escape the pressure of insects who want to drink my blood until I’m dry as a mummy. Little pestilent shits! I kill every one I can slap, determined to reduce their available DNA in proportion to the nutrition they extract from me which would otherwise go to breeding new ones.
It’s been very hard. Goodie, I felt at first, with each new difficulty or discomfort. But I failed to anticipate the effect of prolonged sub-fatal, insufficiently dramatic discomfort. It erodes even masochistic impulses. And I hadn’t taken fear into consideration – not the luxurious, self-imposed urbanite’s existential fear but a primal, irresistible terror springing from the deep caverns of instinct. Fear has been hard.
Writing about the last few weeks is an exercise in answering the question “What’s the hardest part?” Answer: All of it. If somebody besides me asked me about being in this situation, I’d say “It’s a total bastard. A fuck up.”
There have been some ecstatic moments, but nothing has even once been easy. I realize now that the camping trips we so enjoyed were nothing more than luxurious fantasies of rugged living. We drove in and set up our tent on a perfectly flat piece of mowed grass with our car fifteen feet away. We were surrounded by other families, never all alone in the deep woods. A park rangers’ office nearby. Running water, toilets, sinks and showers, firewood for sale in bundles, a laundry room. Clothes and food kept safe and dry in the back of the station wagon. Not a wild animal within a mile. Hardly any bugs. We thought we were roughing it, but we were just playing house. But I fell for the fantasy and now I’m stuck with the results of my own foolishness.
My tent has turned out better than I expected. I had no idea tent technology had advanced so far. It’s tall enough to stand up in, big enough to tuck my sleeping stuff out of the way and to keep my old sea chest here, full of clothes and other necessities. I keep food in a strongly-built wooden cabinet covered with galvanized sheet steel to keep mice and porcupines from chewing their way in – Earnest taught me that trick -- nailed to a tree near my campfire circle. But the tent had its “hardest part” moments.
At first, the night of my first heavy rain, two weeks ago, was one of the greatest delights I’ve ever experienced – lying in the dark, listening to the varying patter and thrum of the rain on the tent’s fly, hearing it hiss and roar in the trees in every direction, hundreds of layers of distance and intensity. Rain comes and goes in irregular waves, and you can hear a heavier fall moving through the trees toward you. I was ecstatic and less afraid than usual -– surely no bears or mountain lions or deranged hillbillies would be out in this. The sound was symphonic in its complexity, sometimes a serene susurrus, then swelling to a thunder, a waterfall sound, grand and pompous and sometimes martial, threatening. And the air was exquisite. It was as if the rain carried down cool, pure, rarified air from high altitudes, tinged with ozone.
Drifted off in a heavenly state. Woke up well before dawn to find that my sleeping bag and pillow were sopped and cold, the floor was slimy. The seams or zippers had leaked and the humidity had condensed on the ceiling and fallen on everything inside, a baby rainfall birthed by its big mother and left on my doorstep.
I spent a miserable day wearing a plastic trash bag over my last dry clothes as the rain came and went. I couldn’t retreat: I was ashamed to go down the hill and risk having anyone at the farm see me in my bedraggled condition. So I spent a second horrible night shivering in my ever-wetter sleeping bag, getting up now and then to mop the hanging droplets off the ceiling with paper towels. When I finally came down, Earnest was there – he’s often not, off working as a tree surgeon up in Chittenden county. He’s started to call me “Pilgrim,” either an allusion to the old John Wayne movie or a subtler comment on my purpose for being here. “You look like shit, Pilgrim! Don’t know enough to come out of the rain?” He laughed at me and explained that if you’re tent camping for any extended period you’ve got to make sure you’ve sealed your seams. And you have to build a wooden floor, even just a few inches off the ground, and set your tent on top of that. That way the air circulates beneath, the ground moisture never touches your tent, everything ventilates better, no condensation, no splash-back from the ground onto your nylon walls. He and I went to the lumber yard that morning and brought the lumber back in his pickup. We strapped it to the faithful tractor and carried it up to my eyrie. He lent me a hammer, carpenter’s square, tape measure, and handsaw, then left me to figure out how to build it.
As Matt would say, it wasn’t rocket surgery, but I still found it hard to decide on the “architecture” of this little platform. I needed to see some kind of schematic; it was looking for paper to draw pictures of the how the boards would lie that caused me to open my journal and consider writing in it again. I think of myself as fit, but putting together the platform taught me how weak my wrists and forearms are. Jogging and biking don’t use them much. It was almost impossible to cut the wood by hand and to drive 20 D (that means twenty penny, a big nail) nails through 2 by 4s. But when it was done, I was satisfied with it. Not a cabin, but at least a first step toward an education in carpentry.
I set up the tent up on the platform and it was great. Flat floor, dry, more civilized. I felt clever and capable for two days. Then a big wind came up – no rain, just one of those robust ebullient spring winds that come in to make sure winter is thoroughly swept away. It bent the trees frighteningly and flapped my tent fly with a sound like machine gun fire that stopped suddenly when the thing ripped loose and flew away in the darkness. Without a waterproof covering, the tent was fully exposed to any rain that might come, and I spent a night of high anxiety wondering if a thunderstorm would drown me out completely. At times the arched aluminum poles swayed and the nylon wall ballooned so much I was sure that the whole thing would lift up like a box kite, with me still inside, a woman blown away into the night sky.
Didn’t blow me away, didn’t rain. In the morning – beautifully fresh and clear, ringing blue sky, winter absolutely combed out of the woods – I spent half an hour looking for the fly. Found it snarled thirty feet up in a tree about a hundred yards from camp, inaccessible and badly torn. I had to buy another fly for almost as much as a whole new tent would have cost. When I mentioned it to Earnest, he told me you really had to use every one of the loops for a guy wire that would hold the fly tight. He also had a little secret, a way to use a marble-size pebble to make extra tie-down grommets on the nylon, with short ropes that could tie to the platform and pull the fly closer to the inner shell. Less room for the wind to get under.
The tent has been much nicer and since then has handled rains and winds in fine shape.
Earnest – I’ve enjoyed our times together. Turns out he’s an Oneida, born on the tribe’s lands near Green Bay, Wisconsin. They were originally a New York tribe, he says, but they were kicked out by the governor in 18 hundred-something and marched to their new “nature preserve” (his term) – but not before Gov. Schuyler fathered 27 kids by Indian women. When I asked him how he ended up in Vermont, he told me that he and Brassard served together in Vietnam in the early 70s and when they got back to the states Earnest had no big plans or prospects so Brassard hired him to work on the farm.
“I didn’t like working for Jim. He’s a lousy boss. After a couple of years I gave up on it and he started my own business.” He set up as a tree surgeon, and now comes down to help just as a friend. He grins: “Now he and Diz can’t tell me what to do.”
Earnest is the main equipment fixer. It’s a marginal farm, no extra money, the twenty-year-old kid Brassard hires is no Einstein, the equipment is getting old and cranky, so his skills are badly needed. He’s also strong as an ox and doesn’t have any physical problems. He’s in his late fifties – Brassard is a little older and has painful joints, so he can use the help. I get the sense that there’s some bond between the men, some exceptional basis for their loyalty to each other. Maybe some act of heroism, I fantasize, one saving the other’s life or something. Though neither has even remotely suggested such a thing.
Another bastard hardest thing: For the first two weeks I brought my water up the hill in plastic gallon jugs. It was agonizing, but I can only prevail upon the Brassards’ help so many times. Two jugs, one in each hand, leaving my arms and shoulders and hands aching by the time I got to the top. Relished the discomfort the first few times, proof I was living hard, then got fucking sick of it. Finally I set out and literally did a grid search for the water source Brassard said might be up here.
And I found it. It’s about two hundred yds. uphill from camp, a little channel about a foot deep and two wide, clear water running off toward Brassard’s valley. The bottom is made up of clean rocks in the swifter flowing areas. I tracked it back up the hill almost to the boulder wall to a point where it bubbles up out of the earth. It’s crystal clear and colder than ice, tooth-aching cold, the best water I’ve ever tasted. It’s never been in a pipe, never languished in a plastic bottle absorbing carcinogens. Brassard says the fact that it’s a real spring and not a run-off stream is a very good thing. Comes from deep underground, no germs or cow poop in it. I look forward to washing in it every morning, even though the cold burns my skin. I’m sure it’s good for your complexion.
Hardest bastard parts: On the physical side, bugs rank near the top. Black flies are the worst. Each is about one-third the size of a grain of rice. They bite every exposed part, particularly blood-rich areas like behind my ears, where the bites itch intolerably. They create a harassing, dive-bombing cloud around your face and drive you to madness. You get virtually hysterical, and the state is not optional, it’s your body not your brain. Slathering my face and arms with insect repellent reduces their biting, but doesn’t diminish their frenzied activity all around me. And some still get through. Eventually they drive me screaming to the shelter of the tent. Another way to diminish their parasitic ardor is to light a fire. I have come to smell like woodsmoke from cooking, warming myself in the chilly evenings, and hovering in the smoke of the dying fire to escape them. They’re bad in the morning, absent during the middle of the day, and intolerable in the late afternoon and evening. Earnest says they’ll be mostly gone by mid-July.
There are mosquitoes, too – not many, but another maddening irritation at night. They’re attracted to the light of my candles and the smell of me. Several always get into the tent, whining around invisible in the dim light and biting me when my guard is down. I splat them when they land and thwack their little flat corpses off my skin with one finger. Dozens more press frantically at the tent’s window screens with a high urgent hungry screamy whine. The sound creates an uneasiness at a primal level, activates an instinctive aversion to biting insects that’s built into the human genome. Impossible to ignore. Makes me feel under siege, eases off when I blow out the candles.
There are bugs I’d never heard of and didn’t believe existed until they bit me: no see’ums. No see’ums are semi-transparent flies about the size of a comma -- , – and they bite painfully. You’re going about your business and are startled by a sharp pain, like getting a splinter. When you look for the source of the pain, you can’t find it at first. Then you spot the tiny bastard and smear him into nothing. How can such a minute thing cause such pain in a creature as big as, relatively, a mountain? Fortunately the bite doesn’t itch afterward. And they can’t get at me inside the tent. I was lucky I bought fine-mesh tent screens, or they’d drive me out of here.
Then there’s fear. Sometimes, when the weather is just right and the bugs are momentarily absent and the woods do look like serene glades in the sun and the birds are singing all around, there’s no nag of fear at all, it’s sweet and good. But at times, even during the day, I get spooked when I head up to the spring and into the deeper woods. I always feel I am being covertly watched, and I probably am – animals live here. I realize I am a stranger here, the feeling you get when you’re walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood and some disreputable-looking local gives you more attention than you’d like. The woods are a community, and I don’t know its residents.
At night, I am always afraid. The dark is mysterious, I am blind, my little outpost of candle-light seems very isolated. Earnest swears that Vermont’s black bears are harmless, but I am deathly afraid of them at night. I watched “Grizzly Man” last year and nearly threw up afterward. I strain my ears to hear the night noises beyond the mosquitoes’ shrilling. And there are always things moving out there. A crackle in this direction, a leafy scraping there. The stealthy progress of some creature moving over last year’s leaf detritus. Shiftings. A stick breaking. Once, a series of hellish shrieks in the distance that literally brought the hair on my arms up.
A couple of times I swear I’ve been stalked by a human. Regular, two-legged-sounding quiet footfalls from uphill coming closer, a zipping sound like fabric scraping past a twig. Then silence charged with horrible imminence, expectancy. Maybe one of the Goslant “trash” up the hill, who heard about this woman camping out where no one could hear her scream. I haven’t seen one of the Goslants yet, but picture them as a tribe of leering,gap-toothed, tufted-haired, twitchy-eyed sinewy men with evil intentions about everything. I may have a death wish, but if I’m going to shuffle off this mortal coil I’m going to do it my way, not subject myself to some other creature’s or person’s preferences. So I go to sleep with a set of defensive weapons carefully arranged where my hand can find them in the dark: flashlight, pepper spray, my sheaf-knife out of its sheath, my shovel. Anything and anyone could come through the thin nylon with ease, from any direction. Wake up in the night but am too afraid to go out to the outhouse hole I dug, about a hundred feet away among the trees, so I wait until my bladder’s about to explode, and then I scuttle out and pee right next to the tent.
Like so much else I feel up here, this fear transcends conscious or rational control. My body must remember being a timid little hominid in a big predatory world. It knows the harsh laws that govern night-time in the deep woods. Sometimes I lie with suspended breath so I can hear noises better.
And, I hate to write this down, an admission I’ll feel stupid about later, when I’ve escaped this situation: I fear supernatural dangers. It’s as if I sense movements in mental space, unnamed creatures of the air or earth, sentient but inhuman beings that all outdoor-living peoples acknowledge and fear. If I could say where they came from, it would be the boulder tumble uphill, out of the crevasses. I don’t even know that they’re malevolent, only that being around them could destroy me, or that our kinds have always been enemies. Each dawn I chide myself for these imaginings. I rationalize them as stemming from the same species proclivities that led people to invent gods, demons, ghosts, monsters. I almost laugh at myself. And as night falls I become aware of the gargantuan stupidity, the hubris, of such skepticism. Of such profound ignorance of the world’s real ways. The old gods are still with us. The old gods still rule us. Your body knows this with certainty in the night woods.
This process is the woods prying me open, can-opening me, to expose fears and senses and awarenesses and feelings and instincts that have always been in there. That’s good, isn’t it? Isn’t that what I wanted in coming here? No – not these feelings. I was supposed to come to a hard-won understanding of myself, a tough-love relationship with my life. True, in the background I had carefully suppressed, more optimistic, aspirations. To the extent I hoped for any deeper self-awareness, I was supposed to serenely discover insightful but conventional perspectives on my past, my family, my relationships, all the usual. It was also about my self-image, remaking myself as bolder, more capable, sturdier, independent, different. Maybe, my most idealistic inner voices piped, I’d even get healed, mended, by unexpectedly touching a nurturing Gaia, learning earthy wisdom, accepting nature’s gentle embrace. Hasn’t worked that way.
I have almost decided to leave, call the experiment a bust. Maybe Brassard will understand, let me off the hook and give me some of my money back. Maybe move back to Boston, try for a job at Shabazz again or some other school. Get real again, like real people Try to do something, anything, one fucking thing like a real grown-up person.
End of Chapter 5