Lizzie is a welcome visitor to the farm, full of life and happiness and excitement and wonder. Boisterous and hyperactive, she charges into the wild of weedy fields, ready and willing to meet and master new adventures. Her youthful enthusiasm triggers the release of some combination of endorphins in my own body, lightening my step on a cool spring morning in the North Country at a time when my tread has become labored and heavy.
Lizzie is pure fun. A four-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, she is joyful, beautiful, strong, and well-built – and she smells nice. She is bold, but she is also eager to please and quick to comprehend and abide by the new rules of proper behavior she is learning. This most pleasant combination of personality traits in a hunting dog is more rare than you might think. Lizzie is aggressive but not stubborn, sensitive but not soft, clever but not cunning, attentive but not fixated, obedient but not submissive, affectionate but not doting. She has the makings of an outstanding bird dog.
She reveals these character traits all though our morning walk as she charges forth, explores, hunts, examines, reacts, seeks affirmation, responds, and remembers. Her steep learning curve afield is partly due to the instruction she is receiving from Abbey, my six-year-old French spaniel who is leading the morning walk and (reluctantly) teaching Lizzie the basic skills of the bird dog trade. But mostly Lizzie’s talents can be attributed to her good breeding and the affection she received in the first few weeks of her life.
The chore was two years overdue, maybe three. One late winter afternoon that was sunny if not warm, I dismounted the right half of the garage double-door, laid it across a pair of sawhorses, measured and marked it with yardstick and stencil and pencil, and attacked it with drill and jigsaw.
My home improvement projects do not always go well, but installing a dog door took less than an hour’s time and the finished product was darn near perfect, if I do say so myself. Maybe because, contrary to my usual procedure, I read the manufacturer’s instructions twice before I started and followed them step-by-step without any “improvements.” Well, I did caulk and weather-strip the dog door frame, which the instructions did not call for, but that weatherizing is de rigueur for a west-facing window or door in the North Country. Doesn’t really count as an alteration.
Beulah Fern hated smearcase.
Hated it worse than fried mush, worse than turnip greens,
hated everything about it:
the way it tastes, smells, looks, feels in her mouth.
Schmeirkase, the Germans call it.
Scotch-Irish Appalachia white trash called it smearcase,
maybe to spite the rich Germans
up in Fairfield County, the thick-skulled boche pig farmers.
Beulah wouldn’t eat it. Not a bite.
She’d seen it made. She’d made it herself too many times,
ninety years past on a hard-scrabble farm
with three cows, four Belgian workhorses, ewes, hens, a dog,
all more important than her.
A rocky field of corn, two big gardens, a kitchen garden
that she had to weed and hoe.
Four-room clapboard shack, roof that leaked by the chimney.
Sagging barn with milking stanchions,
equipment patched with wire and sheet metal, broken tools.
Carrying two milk pails to the house
each Thursday morning before school, cream already turning
and smelling of manure and rotten straw,
for Ma to pour into baking pans on the wood-fired cookstove
to bring to a boil but not scald the whey
clotting and clabbering into soft curds of warm cheesy slush
that had to be cooled in the wellhouse
with a piece of cheesecloth over the pans to keep out the flies.
Worse than head cheese, blood sausage, pickled pigs’ feet,
hush puppies, oatmeal gruel,
pork cracklin’s, mountain oysters, boiled dandelion greens –
all of it salt poured into
her open sore of longing, covered with a bandage of dreams.
The War saved her, she says.
Van Dyne Crotty uniforms in Dayton advertised for women
who could sew and iron
and then DELCO hired her away to make electric motors
at three times the money.
Four girls packed into one room in a widow’s boarding house
with shared cold-water bathroom
who kept in touch for fifty years and even had a reunion once
but the other three are dead now.
Beulah married an Army Air Corps mechanic from Wright Field
and they moved to Cincinnati
after the War where she still lives with her granddaughter Edie
who takes her to seniors’ lunch.
“They call it cottage cheese,” Beulah said, pointing at the bowl.
She doesn’t eat it. They can’t make her go back. That’s all past.
My daughter is much better, and safer, than I when operating motorized equipment.
LATE WINTER of 2018-19 was a terrorist with an atomic weapon. Fifty inches of new snow, six weeks of continuous sub-zero temperatures – some days as low as -40 Fahrenheit, ice-coated driveways, 30-40 mile-per-hour winds that snapped brittle-frozen limbs from trees, and day-after-day-after-day of dark skies clotted with roiling gray storm clouds.
Is it any wonder that we burned the last of our winter supply of firewood before the end of January? Or that the LP gas delivery truck got stuck in the snowbank at the top curve of our driveway?
No, it was not a pioneer-era hardship to survive three days in an old farm house with the thermostat turned down to 55 to stretch the last of the LP gas supply while I hacked and shoveled rock-hard ice walls to widen the path for the LP gas truck, but it wasn’t exactly a day at the beach for an arthritic old body either.
April awakes the Chimera
This will be the year of our redemption, we tell ourselves.
We do not speak that hope aloud, give voice to the fantasy
that we can regain the heat and hunger of younger days.
Pipe dreams do not bear rough handling or close scrutiny.
But alone and in secret we light the taper and peer down into
the depths of the dungeon to see the slumbering Chimera,
that fiery creature chained, held in stasis past living memory,
once strong, bold, daring, fierce, impetuous, too often cruel,
at last defeated and gone sullen, petulant, fractious, furious.
April warms the monster and makes it stir, eases bodily aches
and spiritual doldrums that torment us winterlong with reports
confirming rumors of corporeal incarceration and slow decay.
The scent of April is a catalyst, an aether-borne reagent
that dissolves our stolid elements, releasing energy and light
reflected in the mirrors of our memories of eternal sunshine.
Warmed and coaxed by the promises of April winds we trust
the enticements whispered from the wet, fecund lips of spring.
We stumble from the cavern to seek the river of rejuvenation,
ready to shed tattered clothes, heavy baggage, pains, infirmities,
trembling to know the miraculous rebirth of body, mind, and soul.
Deep within us the Chimera stirs, awakes, slips free of shackles.
She can stand, walk. Can she run? Can she fly? April bids her try.
Two sure signs of spring greeted us on this morning’s walk around the farm:
mud and buzzards.
Some woodland “mud traps” are so gooey they pull the boot off your foot, inspiring what I call the Squck Dance.
The mud is the product of a wettest-ever autumn, much winter snow accumulation, hard-frozen ground, and the torrents of water that flowed across the farm with the sudden melt-off when sub-freezing days turned warm in mid-March.
Many counties in Iowa and Nebraska are being heavily damaged by floods — the worst natural disaster in Nebraska’s history, their governor is saying — so the minor wash-outs on our hilltop farm are small change in this spring of multi-billion dollar damages to communities and farms.
The buzzards, turkey vultures, have migrated back to the North Country with the coming of spring, returning from their winter grounds and soaring across the fields and woodlands in search of winter kill carcasses. Soon, one or two pair will be nesting in the steep draw south of our house.
In celebration of these tokens of spring, I am re-posting two archive essays from Dispatches from a Northern Town:
The Vultures of spring
Wishing you a joyful spring in your part of the world.