But wherever they go,
and whatever happens to them on the way,
in that enchanted place . . .
a little boy and his [brother and his dog]
will always be playing.”
Most times when I talk to my neighbors there is some kind of physical barrier between us. Usually it’s a creek, barbed wire, a cattle gate or some combination of the three. They are usually working on one side. I am usually walking with my dog on the other. Fencing is a big deal around here, and the famous line from Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors” often echoes in my mind when I am walking their mishmash, yet meticulously kept, fence lines. Recently I went back and read the whole of that poem, “Mending Wall,” and was struck by these words: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.”
Metaphorical fences have occupied a lot of my inner work this past year. And unlike my neighbors, who have dozens and dozens of four-legged reasons to keep building and maintaining their fences, I have worked hard this year to dismantle some of those boundaries that no longer serve me. I have repeatedly asked myself Frost’s three implicit questions: what was I walling in? what was I walling out? and whom was I offending? The answers to these questions surprised me, as they were the same in practically every situation. Always, always, always, I was walling in myself – well, me and my fear. On the other side was a sense of freedom, usually some sort of creative self-expression. And the kicker – who was I offending? – no one!!! Nobody even knows the stupid fence exists except for me.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have a deep respect and an unabashed love for my neighbors, both the people they are and the work that they do. Back in the spring, I spent what I now refer to as “the lovely day” with two of them. They were cutting oats in the field that borders mine. It was one of those days that seems somehow suspended in time – long, languid and sweet. After they put in a hard day’s work – baling some 8,000 pounds of oats – we spent about an hour or so talking. That day was a touchstone for me – the balance of intense physical labor with easy conversation. The lesson that there is time for what is necessary.
So many times I wanted to capture that day on film – well, on my iPhone. But I was too embarrassed and afraid of what they would think. I surreptitiously took the shot above, but I was standing rather far away. It is one of the few photos I have ever edited for this blog. After that day, I decided I was going to muster my courage and take some proper pictures. I told myself they probably weren’t going to think anything – or anything worse than what they already think! The first time I asked my neighbor to take his picture, my hands were shaking so badly, the shot came out blurry. The second time, I simply said, “Don’t move,” and snapped the shot.
Fast forward a couple of months. I spent a Saturday evening in late summer with these same two neighbors. We were way back in the cow pasture, and I took 70 photographs. Most were of Holstein steers, but many of my neighbors too. That evening led to this post that I absolutely love. I love chronicling this part of my everyday life. My neighbors are an intimate part of this landscape that is so dear to my heart. So I will continue taking pictures of them on their side of the fence – mending barbed wire bare-handed, baling hay, working the land – while I enjoy the freedom I have found on the other side.
And why is that? I think it’s because
we both knew the talk of old people,
old country people, in summer evenings.
Having worked hard all their lives long
and all the long day, they came out
on the gallery down in your country,
out on the porch or doorstep in mine,
where they would sit at ease in the cool
of evening, and they would talk quietly
of what they had known, of what
they knew. In their rest and quiet talk
there was peace that was almost heavenly,
peace never to be forgotten, never
again quite to be imagined, but peace
above all else that we have longed for.
Apparently, not many people today can say they have driven a 1959 601/Ford tractor. I can. My neighbor is giving me tractor driving lessons, and a couple of weeks ago we went for a nice, long drive in the pasture. This is the piece of land I can wax poetic about to anyone who will listen. (I have several times in this space. This post most especially.) In the twelve years I have lived here, I have never been to the top of the ridge line. I honestly didn’t think the view could be much better than the one I have from my back porch, but on this clear Saturday in late July, the panoramic mountain vista brought me to tears.
My neighbor is highly indulgent of me, I guess in the way most 77 year old southern farmers can be. Despite the fact that he once told me I was the strangest woman he’s ever met (which at his age is really saying something), it is a mutually indulgent friendship. He stops by my house a couple of times a week bearing gifts: tootsie rolls for the boys and usually a mess of vegetables he’s just picked that morning for me. Recently he’s started bringing me buckets full of old, rusty nails, because I happened to mention that I save any I find. I have a lot of old, rusty nails now.
His grandparents moved into the house where we live in 1903. His dad was 4 years old. They raised 9 (nine!) children in this two bedroom farmhouse. It is still known locally as “The Bridges’ House” and always will be. From the top of the ridge that day, he showed me the boundaries of the original farmland that belonged to the house – all 800 acres of it, all farmed with mules. The thought just boggles my mind. Just over 2 acres remain with the house (that’s what we own), and I blush to think of all the diesel-powered machinery used to tame that relative postage stamp.
We spent about 2 hours on the tractor that day. His driving directions are a litany of requests delivered in a soothing mountain drawl: “Kindly go to the left here.” “Think you could mash the brake before we reach the gate?” “Cross the branch and go up over that gap.” While he is perched on the fender (see photo above), I am trying to drive, keep my eye out for stray cows, watch out for ruts in the field and ultimately not, not, not drop him over the side. It was a resounding success that day, and I learned a lot while I was behind the wheel:
I can’t wait for my next lesson.
Sometimes I feel like I cannot scratch an itch without it being seen and talked about in this little town of mine. My neighbors keep a close eye on all that goes on around here. Which, truth be told, is not much. Cows graze, rain falls (or doesn’t), gardens grow, fields are tended, people drive up the road and then back down the road. This dearth of activity produces a soothing predictability that has laid claim to my heart. Big news around here can sometimes be sitting in a field one usually walks through. Such an aberration on my part caused a neighbor to get in his truck and come make sure everything was all right. I assured him I was fine. It was a quiet Sunday morning, I had a good friend singing in my ear and I couldn’t think of any better way to spend an hour than to sit in this particular field and watch the grass grow. I was told the story of my deviance from another neighbor of mine who owns the field. He said he had told yet a third neighbor that if he saw me sitting in that field that everything was probably okay. Although as he said this, he did give me a slight tilt of head, as if questioning the sanity of someone just sitting in a field.
Most of the time, I am appreciative of these watchful eyes, as I know their intentions are heartfelt. So you would think when a 50 foot black walnut tree came down in our front yard during a crazy storm one afternoon, my neighbors would be all over it. I expected phone calls, pickup trucks in my driveway, offers of tractors and chain saws, advice on tree removal, stories about cracking the nuts that came from the tree. The silence that followed the storm was deafening. It took a full 24 hours for one neighbor to putt-putt over here on his lawn mower to investigate. He looked at me funny and said, “What happened?” I stated the obvious, and told him the tree fell during the storm we had on Monday. He responded, “Well I didn’t see it.” I didn’t quite know what to say, but I did feel slightly complicit in some sort of vague subterfuge.
Another neighbor (the one who saw me sitting in the field from a good quarter mile away) was standing in my driveway on Wednesday morning, 36 hours after the tree had fallen and not 20 feet from it, failed to notice the wreckage. After we had made small talk for about 5 minutes, I idiotically said, “I have a tree in my front yard.” He looked in the direction of our garden and said, “Well, my grandpaw, he always said those trees would make good shade one day.” I didn’t think this was the proper response, and I began to question his sanity. I then said, “Do you see the tree laying in my front yard.” He turned his head a fraction of an inch and his jaw dropped. “When did that happen?” I told him the same thing I told my other neighbor: “Monday during the storm.” “Well how come I didn’t know about it?” I didn’t have an answer for him either. Yet a third neighbor stopped me on Wednesday afternoon and said, “I think you’ve got somethin’ a-layin’ in your yard.” He probably had driven past my house at least six times since it happened. I told him that we had a tree come down in the storm on Monday. He looked at me incredulously and said, “But I just now noticed it.” Again, what was there to say?
Now that the news is out there, the offers of help and equipment, much advice and many stories have poured in just as I expected. I have lived in this house for a dozen years and have only now just discovered this little parcel of privacy. If I ever do get an itch or want to just sit and watch the grass grow, you can rest assured I’ll be doing it in the middle of my front yard.
PS. Amazingly we suffered no damage to our house. The tree fell just to the right of our power lines and just shy of the front porch. It clipped the gutter, but only dented it slightly. I love it when something nutty happens and the only thing to come out of it is a good story.
PPS. In deference to my neighbors, you really couldn’t see the tree unless you were standing on our front porch. Between the chest-high hay fields and the way our house sits, it was perfectly hidden from view.
We completed our state-mandated testing a couple of weeks ago. North Carolina is a very easy state in which to homeschool. Basically, you need to keep attendance records and administer a standardized test every year (all rules and regs for NC can be found here). The results are not reported to any state or local office, and merely need to be kept on file at home.
Vincent loves taking the test and he tests very well. That choleric fire comes out and he rises to the challenge. Me? I will admit to a twinge of nervousness. After opening the envelope and thumbing through the test booklet, the chatter in my head goes something like this: “Oh, we haven’t done that.” “We’re not doing that until next year.” “That’s a fourth grade concept?” I let myself have about five minutes of this useless, ridiculous, unfounded anxiety. The scores don’t even go anywhere!
I will save my verbose rant about “teaching to the test”, and merely say I think when we reduce education to a correct answer on a generic test, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Education is bigger than punctuation, isolated vocabulary, and poorly written word problems. Are the mechanics of grammar, the love of words and the concepts of mathematics important? Absolutely. However the measurement of them in isolation is flawed at best. At least this is what I tell myself after my five-minute panic.
We have made the choice to homeschool our children. Our decision is not reactionary in any way. It is not a rejection of something, but rather an embrace of something else. Even though the number of families choosing to homeschool is growing, we are clearly in the minority of those with school-aged children. As Waldorf-inspired homeschoolers, we are a minority within a minority. This is where we have chosen to be, and I would not change our decision for anything.
On our second and final day of testing, Jude chose a book of poetry for me to read during storytime, which included the following stanza from “Rose Pogonias” by Robert Frost:
We raised a simple prayer
Before we left the spot,
That in the general mowing
That place might be forgot;
Or if not all so favored,
Obtain such grace of hours,
That none should mow the grass there
While so confused with flowers.
After storytime, both boys went out to play. Vincent was trying to catch butterflies in a field of clover. Not an hour later, my neighbor came to mow that field. We waved to him and watched him from the back porch. The English major in me couldn’t resist getting the book and reading that stanza again. No explications or explanations. Just the words. The perfect words to name that sweet sadness. Natasha Trethewey, our new poet laureate here in the US, says that poetry finds a way to “speak the unspeakable.” I couldn’t agree more.
On our final day of testing, I was taught a lesson that I seem to have to learn and relearn – again and again. What we do and how we spend our days matters. This is the education we have chosen and that we want for our boys: something that fosters thought, encourages connection and speaks truth. Ultimately what we teach and what we learn should reflect, engender and celebrate all that is. On that day, education looked like a tractor in a field. It smelled like freshly cut clover. It sounded like poetry written before I was born. Above all, it felt like home.
I am one of those mothers who thinks that chicken soup can cure almost anything. And with both boys sick, lots of soup has been made at our house lately. In my mind, the curative power comes from a really good stock. I like to make my stock by putting whatever is leftover from Friday’s roasted whole chicken, onions, garlic, any wilted or less than desirable veggies from the crisper, celery and carrots. Add a splash of vinegar, fill the stock pot with water and let it simmer for several hours. Strain out the solids and freeze or refrigerate the resulting golden elixir.
We get our whole chickens from a neighbor of a neighbor. He runs a “real” farm: lots of different animals, lots of different vegetables, and two farm stores in town. His house is very similar to ours, except with more land and several outbuildings surrounding it. The first time I met him, he was sitting at his kitchen table, smoking and having a beer. After formal introductions were made, my eyes were drawn to the massive piece of white enamel behind him. I asked in slight disbelief, “Is that a wood cookstove?” “Yes, m’am.” “Do you cook on it?” “Yes, m’am. Everyday.” “Can I look inside?” “Yes, m’am.”
When I recounted this story to my husband later that night, he was slightly outraged. “Normal people do not ask to look in other people’s ovens within the first minute of meeting them!” I asked him (the paragon of propriety) what Emily Post would deem the proper length of time before asking to see inside someone else’s oven. He thought for a moment and said, “Here is the rule: you don’t ask to look in anyone’s oven unless you are planning on buying the whole damn house.” Since I don’t plan on moving, I am choosing to ignore this advice. And although I have never done this before or since, consider yourself forewarned if you ever invite me over.
But back to the soup. I make chicken soup a hundred different ways, but here is the recipe we are currently using. It’s simple, and as we all are starting to feel better, I am adding diced chicken and cooked pasta. But really, the broth and veggies are enough. Hope you’re not feeling bad at your house, but if you are, this is a good one.
Feel Better Chicken Soup
2 quarts chicken stock
1 quart water
4 ribs celery
1 large onion
1 head of garlic
1 tablespoon dried thyme (or 3 T fresh if you have it)
1 tablespoon dried oregano (or 3 T fresh if you have it)
Dice veggies. Cut garlic into slivers. Add all ingredients to liquids and simmer for about an hour. This soup gets better the next day.
Today is primary day in North Carolina. Between the constant political phone calls and the boys’ non-stop coughing yesterday, I was pretty cranky. I still didn’t know who I wanted to vote for for Commissioner of Agriculture this morning, so I called one of my neighbors. He was pretty cranky too, and I couldn’t resist sharing his advice.
“Let me tell ya. I got me a list of everybody who is now in office and I am not votin’ for a one of ‘um. If you are stupid enough not to be able to steal everything you’re gonna steal the first time around, I’m not givin’ you a second chance.”
I still don’t know who I’m voting for, but after a good laugh, I’m much less cranky.
The sun is shining and the chickens are laying. At least that’s what I’ve been told. We don’t have chickens, but we do have a great egg trade. I bake 2 loaves of bread, my husband brings them to town and returns with 2 dozen eggs. It’s almost like a magic trick. What’s funny is, I don’t even know our “egg lady”. Never laid eyes on her. I know her name, that she is expecting a baby soon, and that she has a tattoo of a chicken on her wrist. Oh, and that her eggs are so yummy – the deepest orange yolks ever.
We found our egg trade through the neighbor we get our milk from. That is usually how things happen around here. My father-in-law calls it our local face-to-facebook. If you want to know something, you need to ask someone. And you can’t just call on the phone – email, texting and twitter are out of the question. You need to talk in person. After a little chit chat where you inquire about their truck, their tractor, their dog, and any farm animals they might have, the subject of the weather needs to be discussed, as everything centers around rain – too much or too little. You might get a little personal after the weather and ask about their health, their wife. Then and only then do you ask your question.
When I finally did get around to asking my neighbor if he knew anyone who had eggs, he said he did and that they were the prettiest eggs he had ever seen – high praise from a farmer in his 70s. They are pretty and I could have one for breakfast every day. We got an extra dozen in our trade this week, so we had eggs for dinner one night too. Pasta alla Carbonara is a great way to use up half a dozen eggs at a clip – especially if the sun is shining and the chickens are laying where you are. It is great for those nights when you haven’t planned anything for dinner or when the kids just want pasta, but you think they need a little protein too. Add a salad and some bread and you’ve got yourself a meal.
Pasta alla Carbonara
For one pound of pasta you will need:
1/2 cup grated cheese
crumbled bacon, diced pancetta or minced country ham
Cook pasta. Scramble eggs, cheese, a little salt and a little pepper in a bowl. Drain the pasta. Add the egg mixture to the hot pot and top with hot pasta. Combine, cover pot and let sit for about 5 minutes. Eggs will not be cooked through*, and should be silky smooth. Garnish with fresh parsley and bits of your preferred salty meat product. Yum!
*Use your own judgement here. I am not squeamish about eating undercooked eggs, as I trust the eggs I am using.
I bought a cow from my neighbor this weekend. He farms the hill next to our house. He keeps about 40 head of cattle on 100 acres. I love to watch them – it’s better than TV any day of the week. In case you didn’t know, the price of beef is high right now. This spike in price has to do with a lot of things: the drought in Texas, a new trade agreement with China, consumer demand. If my neighbor took this cow to the local stockyard, he could get about 1/3 more money than he is by selling it to me. Bringing it to the stockyard involves loading it in his trailer, driving about 30 minutes, dropping it off and getting paid. For me, he loads it in the trailer, brings it to his holding barn about 30 minutes away, feeds and waters it over the weekend, goes back to the barn in the dark of the morning to load it again and drive it 60 minutes to the butcher. At the butcher he will relay all my instructions regarding the cuts and the aging. All this on top of talking to me for about 2 hours about this cow, his other cows and answering all my questions about both. On my end, I’ll end up with about 200 pounds of beef that will come in at a slightly higher price than what I could pay at the store. To anyone with any business acumen at all, this doesn’t make one bit of sense. He could make more money. I could pay less. And yet we happily continue to do business.
We get a lot of our food from our neighbors. In addition to all that beef, we get eggs, milk, chicken, strawberries, blackberries, tomatoes and whatever surplus vegetables my neighbors bring by the bagful early on a summer morning. This all happens within about a mile of my house. The choice currency of most of this commerce is conversation, although sometimes money is exchanged or baked goods are traded. These people are dear to me. They feed me and sustain me on a level beyond simple nutrition. When I first moved to this area, I used to carry a certain romance about farming: the land, the sunshine, the bounty. Knowing my neighbors the way I do now, I know that was foolishness. I have heard too many stories of heartache, injury, worry and general frustration to harbor any rose-colored notions.
There is one bit of folly I refuse to let go: that somehow all of this matters. Somedays in the rush of it all, I just want to buy milk while I am at the store. Not call my neighbor, talk a little on the phone, arrange a time to come by, go to his house, talk a little more, find out what is happening on that side of town, get the milk, talk a little about another neighbor’s new venture into raising ducks, pay more than I would at the store, hope I don’t break the glass jars on the way home and finally put the milk in my refrigerator. And yet, when I put milk in my coffee in the morning, or make my boys burgers for lunch, or can 40 pints of blackberry jam to make room in my freezer for all that beef, there is nothing more in the world that matters than the way we do business around here.
“Sure as the world”, he says. It rolls off his tongue in that mountain way that is becoming rarer and rarer around here. My neighbor was telling me a story of when he used to ride bulls in high school. He had snuck out to ride while his mother was at the grocery store. As it goes with bull riding, disobeying mothers, and a teenaged boy’s mind, things didn’t go as planned. He was thrown from the bull and lay on the ground unable to move. All he could think about was getting home before his mother returned. A friend of his was there with him, looked him in the eye and said, “Sure as the world.” My neighbor stopped the story there, looked me in the eye, and repeated the phrase, “Sure as the world.” For some reason, those words have stayed with me like a talisman. To me they convey a promise, something solid, a place to stand.
I spend my days homeshooling and homemaking, two solid and promising places I have found to stand. Both have allowed me to become more of who I already was and more of who I want to be. I hope to bring some quiet recollection and honest reflection to this space on a regular basis. I hope to bring my voice to the ongoing story of raising a family and keeping a sense of self. This is not easy, however you choose to do it. Right now I’m choosing to do it by slowing down, listening more and talking less. It has taken me a while to get to this quieter, slower place – but I am glad I am here now.
Sure as the world.