Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Letter From Today

I woke up to sunlight streaming into the farmhouse's upstairs windows. Friday was sprawled over the guest pillow to my left, her head against mine as she sighed. She was the only guest in the bed tonight and was making as much use of the joint as possible, stretched out like a yogi, smacking her lips. Gibson was already off the bed and looking out the window at the chickens milling below. The light in the room was telling. It glowed the way daylight does right before it gets tired at the end of summer and even on hot days you know that Autumn is close. But this morning the saturation was still turned up and I felt the pull to be in the river.

I let the dogs out and they burst onto the day with border-collie levels of enthusiasm, cranked to 11. Chickens scattered, the goats bleated, and Merlin whinnied from the far pasture. I fed hay to all hoofs and made sure all pasture and paddock gates lead to fresh water. I checked Aya in her mews and promised her we would fly later in the day. After all the stations were hydrated, coop doors open, and animals content - I brought the dogs inside to their breakfast and grabbed my fly rod.

I was in the knee-deep clear water by 8AM. I watched schools of baby brown trout circle my flies and consider them. I didn’t care if I caught a fish or not, fly fishing is a reason to stand in the middle of a grand summer river and not look insane. I saw trout rise around me, little orcas with their vertical tails slapping as they returned to the cold water.  I cast to them. A bite here, a bite there. I didn’t catch a fish in the river but I spent a lot of time scrambling barefoot over rocks and watching crayfish scuttle around my feet. I felt a swelling of goodness and luck.

I took stock in the day so far: I woke up safe alongside kind dogs. I had coffee that energized and comforted me. I chomped into a protein bar and saved the last third of it to bury in the sand by the water’s edge as an offering to the land and water wights. If I was going to walk into a place I wasn’t caretaker of and expect to take something from it, it was only polite to leave an offering - for safe passage if nothing else. I drew the rune Algiz into the sand and asked that my ancestors keep an eye on me today. I planned on doing some dangerous things later in the day. Things that included fast horses, sharp talons, and editor deadlines.

I spent two hours on the river. I didn’t bring a camera. I cast and saw my strong arms, brown and scarred, and felt lucky they were mine. My rolling cast needs work but was good enough to get a nice small dry fly dancing in a tight space. I know a lot of people enjoy bait fishing but to me it is like waiting for a varmint to step into a trap. I prefer hunting, always, to trapping. I cast to a rising trout. I laughed as big fish swam right past my flies and reeled in to try again. I had a little black box of flies with me, mailed to the farm from a friend on Twitter. I wasn’t about to avoid such a fine gift. I lost track of time.

I drove home without a trout, but happy. I felt revived. On a lark I decided to pull over on my own mountain road and cast into the stream that cascades down the mountain from my farm. I did and caught a brown trout first cast! With my truck growling her pretty growl I held the jewel of a fish. I love the redish spots on a brown trout. I removed the hook and returned her to the mountain after my bit of reverie.

I came home at 9AM to the work of the farm. I grabbed a five-gallon bucket and a shepherd’s crook and headed up the hillside to the apple trees. Friday and Gibson raced around me. I used the crook’s hook to grab tall branches in the trees and shake down apples. They hit the ground and the thump perked the horses ears and they walked over to eat what they could as I filled the bucket. I watched the dogs roll in the dust and pant, laying beside a thousand pound animal with sharp canines 5 times the size of their own without worry. I had raised these dogs to be farmers. Herbivores don’t worry them, regardless of wolf teeth.

I brought the bucket to the pigs. I have eleven pigs now to feed, Holy Crow. I am trying to sell the nine piglets but so far no buyers. The dog days of summer are not when people are thinking about piglets. I dump 30+ pounds of apples in green and red into their wood lot paddock and they chomp greedily at them. I see their mouths drip with cider and watch the little runt steal the biggest apple and run into a bush to eat without competition. While they are busy I check the electric netting and attach a fence tester to it. All levels seem fine. I refill their water and let their breakfast be fruit. They’ll get corn, grain, and kitchen scraps when the sun is father away.

I milk the goats next. I am trying to make cheese every day and freeze it. In a few weeks their milking will start to taper off and then stop all together. I’ll dry them off for breeding season in November. I will need a supply of frozen milk and cheese for winter so I am stocking up. It's work I know by heart and I like it.

I bring the milk inside the house to strain into a 2-liter milk canister. It is steel and shiny. I filter the milk and then add culture to it so over the net 12 hours it will turn into curds and whey. The curds will be salted and herbed. The whey will be poured over corn, apples, and kale stalks for the pigs.

With the morning chores now all done I realize I still feel the pull of summer. Fueled by 2/3rds a protein bar and coffee, I get Merlin from the pasture and tack him up. Last night I rode Mabel at a full gallop up the mountain. It was exciting as hell, since she’s so large and a new horse. It was the first time I rode her above a trot and it was like going up a roller coaster, but instead of the thrill being the fast descent it was the thundering, panting, ascent on the back of a half-ton on sentient power. I whooped. I couldn’t help it.

But today I wanted to ride the pony I knew so well. I changed out of cut off shorts and a tee shirt into bike shorts and a kilt. I love riding in skirts. I got him tacked up and sprayed for flies and hoped it was enough protection. It was so humid at this point we were shiny with sweat before taking a step off the property. I mounted him and we headed down the road. As we made our way to the gates of my neighbor’s property (he let’s me hunt with my hawk and ride my horse on his 200+ acres) I saw my neighbors coming up the road on their bikes. We made small talk. They had traveled into Cambridge (3 miles one way) for breakfast and rode home. From the saddle I told them I had eggs if they needed any and we agreed to barter for a loaf of sourdough bread next time she baked. They rode up their driveway and I gave Merlin some heel and he arched his back and took off up the mountain. I can make a hell of an exit when I am horse-adjacent.

Merlin ran at a full gallop up the mountain, just like Mabel did last night. They can’t help it. It must feel glorious to stretch and grab the earth with their dinner-plate hooves. We road those trails until the bugs were so large and bad we gave up and trotted home. I untacked him and set the gear on the back of my truck, laughing at the sight of my two favorite forms of transportation sharing space.

That was my morning. It was a farm, fishing, milking, piglets, horses and bugs. The next few hours were entirely the computer's. I updated designs for clients, inked illustrations, and checked emails from my agent about my new book proposal and writing revisions. I took notes and worked out deadlines. I made changes to logos and did the quiet work that pays for mornings in rivers and mid-day gallops.

I have 2 weeks to earn the money for the Augus mortgage, which does not come out of the Kiva loan used to upgrade the farm and repair the truck’s transmission this past week. I haven’t made a sale in a week and was feeling nervous. I made a note to follow up with some old emails with people having interest and advertise more on social media. Two weeks isn’t a lot of time, but I’d figure it out. Honestly, I am grateful I am working to pay the current month and not three month’s earlier. It’s enough to buoy my spirits.

I write and submit a monthly column to a Heathen blog. I work on revisions to the proposal. Most of my day is in front of machines. What people see online is horses and animals. They see pictures of chickens and dogs and sheep and fields, but the bulk of my day is sitting on my living room floor in front of an old iMac Jon Katz (neighbor and writer) gave me because it was old to him five years ago. The desktop sits on top of a wooden box. I work through my to-do lists. I download podcasts for afternoon work.

I eat a meal a day around 2-3PM. I use zucchini, kale, and onions from the garden and fry them up in a skillet with some Sweet Italian sausage. It is served over rice with some salt, pepper, olive oil and soy sauce. It is delicious! Everything fresh and local. I make enough to have leftovers for tomorrow, stored in mason jars in the fridge. The milk is starting to separate on the stove top for the cheese. I feel rich. I don’t know how I’ll earn the August Mortgage, but feel rich. I made it 7 years as a homeowner here, five being self employed. It will be paid. It always is.

Afternoon comes fast and hard. I have a full belly and feel like a nap. Instead I call Othniel at Common Sense Farm about firewood delivery. I want 2 cords stacked by Sept 1. I need 4 for winter. I also need to get chimneys swept, and inspected. I email the woodstove company about a warped part of my stove. I scan social media.

With a full belly and the sigh of contentment from the meal I am ready to digest with a thwack. I string up my horse bow and head set up some hay bales for a target. It’ll be just a couple dozen arrows, shot to keep me sharp. I have been listening to World Made By Hand, by J. Kunstler on audiobook and am feeling haunted by it. The book is about my town, right here in Washington County, NY - 20 years after the collapse of America. The characters start the novel fishing in the same river I started my morning fishing it. It’s weird and lovely. The first two books in that series are summer and fall, and I am listening as I realize I live a life not very different at all from the characters in the books.

I shoot arrows. I do another set of rounds on the livestock. A friend with sheep calls me. I hear the phone in the kitchen, a 1970’s rotary phone with actual bells inside. I cringe every time I hear a cell phone mimic that sound for a ringtone. Phones that do not have dial tones should not be allowed to mock their elders. My friend tells she lost her ram to flystrike. I worry for her, asking “Did you remove him from the rest of the flock? Are the ewes okay?!” and we talk and catch up. Flystrike keeps me up at night. She assures me the rest of the flock is okay but they need a ram this fall. I think of all the people I know and make some notes on a pad to call.

The dogs join me every trip outside. I refill water and check fences. I make sure the meat birds have clean bedding and water. Soon ducks and chickens will be in the freezer for winter roasts. I ignore the weeds in the garden. In August all I care about are the squash, a large crop of butternut that go into the larder for storage. In a few weeks I’ll have squash chowder by a roaring fire as the first snowflakes fall, probably around Samhain. How is that just 12 weeks from today? Will I be ready? I wonder if the potatoes I planted will be okay or ruined by the shallow soil at the edge of the old sheep pasture. I make a note to buy in 100lbs of potatoes, 50lbs of flour, and 10 pounds of sugar/salt/olive oil for winter. This house always has 6 months of food on hand. It’s not some weird survivalist thing. It’s knowing that good food is stored and not an expense in the coldest, hardest months. As a self-employed woman I want to know my meals are set well in advance if sales drop as the snow falls. I want a freezer of meat I raised. I want veggies in my larder. I want frozen cheese and milk. I want guests to come to a warm home any day of the long winter with enough food to feed a pile of dwarves and Gandalf himself. If I am lucky I'll take a buck this winter for venison. I know the hawk will get plenty of rabbits, too. Hunger isn't a concern here, even if the world stopped turning. It makes me feel safe and strong.

Thinking of hunting, I take Aya out for some short practice flights. She is getting ready for hunting season in a few weeks, fall is really just an exhalation away. She needs stronger wings, a broader chest, lower weight, and the regained desire to work with me but right now she just wants to stick talons in my face. It’s a little daunting. My goal is five flights to my fist for her evening feeding. They can be just ten yards or less. I want her to remember after a summer of eating, molting, and relaxing that hunger and hunting are back in her world again. If she decides she would rather not fly with me I’ll know soon and release her back into the wild. I’ll trap a new bird and start over. That’s how it goes. But I want to keep her. I want to build on what we started last year as strangers.

Her red tail is almost all grown in. It is a point of pride that I have trapped this scrappy thin bird on a telephone pole last September and here she is now; strong and dangerous in her adult plumage. I set her on a perch outside on the lawn. She looks around the world of the farm with awe. She hasn’t been free to fly in an open space in a few weeks. It takes a few moments but I get a few hard-winged flights out of her. They are sprints to her food, not the glides of an expert flyer. But she only cares about the meat and lands all her marks without a single scratch. It is encouraging.My face remains talonlles, today.

It's late in the afternoon now. I have farmed, fished, hiked, rock-scrambled, designed, illustrated, wrote, emailed, shot arrows, trained a hawk and rode a horse. I wanted nothing else from the hot day but the sweet routine of evening chores. I went about the work of them early. I fed the pigs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens and dogs. Then I came inside and set the 1940’s Westinghouse fan on the ground for the dogs to lay in front of, panting from their running around as I saw to the animals. I was ready to end this day where it started. I would drive back the four miles to the river.

You can park your truck at the river and get into the water where the kayaks and canoes get in. From there you can float and swim down river till you hit the next "beach". It is about 200 yards, not very far. But to jump in and float that distance is heavenly and weightless. I don’t feel like a 184lb woman. I feel like an otter. Under the surface I twirl and swirl among the fish. I can see the sunbeams hit the surface and the lazy carp below. The depth changes from walking to floating deep, but I still see the river bottom. The river is calm, as the storm just passed us last night. I have checked the weather 4 times today and try to think of a life where the weather doesn’t matter? I can’t. My day, my work, my life is tied to it. Thunderstorms are listed for tonight, maybe. I am excited for them as a first date.

Floating in the river on my back I look up. Above me in the sky a pair of redtails soar together. I wonder if Aya is their cousin? What would they think if they knew a relative was hunting varsity with a primate? I watched them until they caught a rise and soared so high they were out of sight.

I swam to a distant shore and walked out, soaked. I didn’t bring a towel. I set up a saddle pad on the bench seat of the truck and drove the four miles home wet. I’m in running shorts, a sports bra and tank top. I’ll be dry in about twenty minutes. The heat of the day is still there but I am air conditioned by the river and feel so tired and happy.

When I get home I strip naked and hang my swimwear out to dry in the sun and put just the worn kilt I went riding in earlier and a clean cotton tank top. That’s it. Those two clothing items and I head to the hammock with a glass of bourbon to feel the sunset on my skin and air dry.

It’s 6Pm on a Thursday night. I will be asleep by 10pm. The next few hours will be spent either at home with a movie or at a friend's farm to soak in their hot tub. I'll probably just stay in and relax. Rain is in the forecast this weekend and I know mornings of fly-fishing and afternoon rides won’t be an option. The only way I’ll get on a horse is with my character in Elder Scrolls Online. Khajits gotta ride, too.

So I am retiring early this summer day. I did the summer things I love, as was my intention. Yesterday I spent so much time worrying about money, winter, love, death - all the things that keeps Game of Thrones interesting but today I wanted to enjoy this weirdo life I carved out of force and hope. I'm sharing it because what's the point of doing all this alone? So thank you if you read all of this. I hope your day was good to you as well. And if it wasn't - there is still time to get pizza and beer and raise a glass to tomorrow.

-j

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