Same Time Next Year
Anyone who has spent time on a farm knows that a year has a rhythm to it, one that is determined by the weather. My mother, Mary Alice, who inherited a love of farming from her father, went so far as to create her own calendar with notes about planting garlic in the fall, when to add fuel stabilizer to chainsaws and mowers, and the best time to order baby chicks. Every day had a purpose and more than one task at hand, so when, for the first time in a year, the wood cookstove had to be fired up before sunrise and the air was so sharp it caught in your throat, it was time to turn the page on the calendar and get busy. There was work to do.
The advantage of this system is that you always know where you are in the grand scheme of things. It's time to tap the trees, site your gun, feed the bees, clean the pig house, call the ferrier, split the kindling, prune the trees, or plant the corn. Life runs on a schedule and you better not fall behind. If you do, the apples get coddling moth, the hay goes to seed, and you miss the good runs of sap. For old-timers, a good calendar was a matter of life and death. To us, it's more a matter of knowing your place.
Harley Smith just passed. His family used to own part of our farm, the part that was only good for summer pasture, up in the mountain hollows. But it has a strong spring, one that was piped down the mountain and under the dirt road to cool the large cans in the milk house. Harley and his wife, Dorothy, were good friends with Tom and Nancy, who lived just down the road. Every Friday night, they used to show up for dessert, and that's how the neighbors knew it was the end of the week: the sight of Harley's pickup in front of Tom's. It was the same routine every week. They would come over punctually at 7 P.M. (that's after dinner for local families), sit down, and then just stare for a bit. When they had something to say, well, it got said, but long silences are a mark of respect. They expect you're smart enough to know when something just doesn't need to be talked about out loud--like when it's time to cut the cake or serve a second cup of coffee.
Our farm has just a few animals. We keep two Herefords, nine hens, two pigs in the summer, six horses, and two or more beehives, depending on how many survive the winter. When we're not around, Mike shows up to do daily chores: checking the run of spring water for the beefers, haying and graining the horses, mucking the stalls, and splitting wood for the sap house. Then there are the seasonal projects: spreading manure on the lower fields, tilling the corn, planting potatoes, pressing cider, making applesauce, fixing fences, haying, spraying the apple trees with dormant oil, weeding the strawberries, preparing the raised vegetable beds for spring planting, cleaning out the root cellar, boiling the sap, making and canning jams and jellies, checking the hives and extracting the honey, freezing bags of creamed corn . . . the list never ends.
If you pay attention, you find that nature has a schedule to keep as well, one that is easily tracked through the lesser observances. In late fall, it's the bare birches on the edge of the top meadows, highlighted in the late afternoon sun, waving back and forth, trying to keep the oaks and poplars from breaking free and running riot down the mountain. In winter, it's the site of our dimly lit farmhouse on a clear night, as Adrienne and I trudge up the hill after stalling the horses, anticipating the warm fire and a cup of tea. In spring, it's the color of the pond--a rippling milky-green--and the sound of partridges up in the pines across the brook, a circular calling that is easily mistaken for someone trying to start an old Farmall. And in summer, it's late shadows and children's games on the lawn at nightfall as stillness quenches notions of wanderlust.
Meanwhile, I still have my mother's calendar, the one that tells me when to clean out the garage and check the carrots in the root cellar. Sure, the seasons offer a good context for a living, a way of marking time and finding one's place in the grand cycle of things. It is no wonder, however, that our calendars are also marked by the lives of those closest to us. It's a familiar day when one of our children is old enough to baby-sit or strong enough to lug the heavy bucket of wet cornmeal to the pig trough before breakfast. And even leavings have a comforting pattern to them: the day a young child is first put on the school bus or a neighbor is returned to the rocky soil in an upper pasture.
On days when I consider breaking free of my appointed rounds, it occurs to me that our ghostly predecessors are probably vigilant, on the lookout to see if each of us is still productive. (I am dead certain that my mother will reappear and give me a good talking to if I ever forget to put the hens in at night, leaving them prey for fox and raccoon.) As for the next generation, we can secretly hope that our lives will be the making of a calendar, a map for living the good life. It is our daily to-do list, then, that truly binds one generation to the next. After all, the horses don't care who is carrying the grain bucket. Neither should we.