Here at the Country Fair
Late every August, our family drives over to the Washington County Fair, where the kids flock to the bumper cars, the flying school bus, the spinning tea cups, and the haunted double-wide trailer. They spend their carefully hoarded change on games one never wins, trying to throw ping-pong balls into the narrow mouths of goldfish bowls, softballs into old milk cans, or land a dime in the middle of a small painted galloping horse, its body drawn in such a manner that it looks a bit bigger than it is.
But for me, the fair has always been a tale of two eras-- a melancholy mix of low-key agricultural exhibits and the harsh commerce of the midway. I walk through the quiet farm exhibits and see booths tended by the Farm Credit Bureau, Boujmatic Dairy Equipment, and farm machinery from New Holland, Kubota, and John Deere. The sheds of show cows include Guernsey, Ayshire, Jersey, and Holstein, with names like Becca, Winnie, Orea, Brittany, Moxy, Athena, Prudence, 7-Up, Petula, and Spot. Teenage girls tend to them carefully in the night, forking away the fresh manure and straw, using electric razors to trim unsightly whiskers that might lose them points during the judging. Next door in the old farm machinery museum, one can find scrapers for butchering hogs, all manner of metal fence tighteners, sheep pokes, egg candlers, old containers of Smith's Compound for Horses and Smith's Laxative Colic Drops, saw setters, steel neck gates for horses, bush cutters, corn shellers, hay pulleys, manual cow de-horners, flox breakers, double hole corn shellers, a Babcock Milk Tester, and milk aerators.
As the sun starts to ebb and twilight seeps over the fairgrounds, the lights of the midway grow brighter and the clang of the bells and incessant repetition of the barkers takes over. My two-year-old son rides the small green train and my oldest daughter begs to go one more time on the ride that snaps her thin body around, contorts her face with centrifugal force and breathless fright, transported like Vermont farmers at a rodeo to another world. Her dreams are of lights, and noise, and blinding speed, of exhilaration at the end of a painted metal arm that slings her back and forth, up and down. My dreams are quieter these days; they're of the clicking of a horse-drawn mower, the clacking back and forth of the scythe bar, the hollow echoes of a workhorse's huge shod feet on the thick wooden floorboards of the stable. She is still looking for change, for a way out of childhood into a world she glimpses dimly at best; her mother and father stopping for a kiss by the kitchen sink, or perhaps the scent and pace of a friend's home, offer a different view of the universe.
As the country fair changes every year, I wonder what will become of the silence, the stillness of life in the country, of making our own fun without paying someone else to provide it for us. I will miss those gallon jars of silage more than I can say, when they are no longer put on display at the fair but stored in a museum with the rope stretchers and milk testers.
But for our family in a small valley in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the past is still the present. I listen to the piercing, thin wailing of the coyotes late at night, as they come down out of the hollow toward the chicken coop just across the road. It is a wild cry, bearing as much resemblance to the bark of a dog as the real Wild West does to the rodeo at the fair. For now, the wild things still come out in the dark of night, two bears hoot at each other across the ridges behind our house, the red-tailed hawks circle in the late August afternoon, their keening a constant companion and reminder that there are things beyond the range of human understanding. As I walk with my nine-year-old daughter toward home one evening, through a field littered with fallen birch and poplar, she looks up at the circling hawk and senses the connection saying, "I wish it would drop us a feather." Although still a child, she wants to reach out and touch the wildness, to carry the feather with her through life so when the hawk is gone, and the silage jars are on museum shelves, and the wilderness has retreated to just a memory, she can remember those days at the close of the twentieth century when she walked with her dad through the darkening hollow, when she looked up and saw a ghost in the sky and wanted to reach out and touch it. When my turn comes and I, too, am a ghost in the twilight, I hope to leave her a feather, memories of sudden storms, tall corn, and quiet moments, of walking hand-in-hand back home after a long summer day. It is our solemn responsibility to do this for our children, for those who will live in a world after the last old-time Vermont farmer is dead and gone, committed back to the soil that will no longer raise crops or graze cows. I think it is the earth itself we will miss most, the gravelly hardscrabble or the rich loam of the river valleys. I often dream of those old farmers at rest through the long winters and dry summers, whispering to us from their stony graves, their wordless song carried by the murmur of a brook or the rustle of leaves before a storm. I dream of their calling us until we are reborn with the call of the wild, and the pastures once again feel the roots of young buckwheat, pushing down into the earth, seeking moisture and inspiration.