Certain things can be done best on those days when the sun rises over a heavy frost—like today. This would be a good morning to tug on my high boots and wade into the briars and vines around my garden’s perimeter with a shovel. If I embarked upon the same mission at warmer times of year, I would either have to gear up like a beekeeper or else risk blundering upon a bed of yellow jackets (not vestes jaunes angry about Macron’s gas tax, but the really angry insect whose sting is worse than a flying stone). This wicked undergrowth is dangerous throughout most of the year both for the poisonous snakes it might conceal and for the tenderbox it creates around our house, should a tossed cigarette far down the road start a forest fire. I used to hack at it with a swing-blade. Now I prefer the shovel. Its shaft is twice as long as the serrated blade’s, so I get more acceleration into my strokes. I also don’t have to bend as far into spots where the spines are especially prickly. A shovel’s blade, if you angle it properly, can cut as fine as a saber.
Yet I may not go a-hacking today. Yesterday was the fourth in a row of very drizzly December days (the French word brumeux keeps rattling through my brain). I exploited the opportunity to sally forth—again with my trusty shovel—to level a field in the far back where I hope to plant grass and have a playing surface for young visitors someday. The builders of our new home, in their hit-and-run, time-is-money fashion, took a run at the space with a bulldozer. In my opinion, their efforts were more harm than help. The “leveling” was extremely erratic, and the weight of the dozer compacted broken stone and red clay into a sheet almost as impenetrable as concrete. Only when the surface has been thoroughly soaked can one strip away an inch or two of it with relative ease. Yesterday I transported four wheelbarrows of the stony muck from the high side of my “field” (a sculpture in progress) to the low side. Despite the cold temperature and the drizzle, I grew heated with the work and shucked off my cap. Eventually, even my coat went by the board. Later that evening, I felt a head-cold coming on. Mother Nature always gives me a little slap-in-the-face of this sort when I become presumptuous. Today may therefore simply be a time of rest and repentance. Sorry, Mother!
My cleared space has paid some surprising dividends in terms of my making friends with the neighbors. Last week I was shocked to see “the field” arrayed with what looked like two dozen tree stumps suddenly sprouted from its razed surface. On closer inspection, I found that the “stumps” were turkeys picking through the recently shifted dirt. I managed to get a shot of them—with a camera—just as they were starting to flutter off (see above). My moving the upstairs curtain may have spooked them.
Similarly, I also blundered into a couple of yearling deer last week while hanging a sheet over my orange tree in anticipation of a frost. Both sides were surprised… but I decided to “act normal” and go about my business. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the deer, too, were going about theirs, casually and helpfully grazing my weeds away. Always before, they had bolted away at the least sign of a human. Of course, the bolting is a very healthy strategy around any primate, and I would be distressed to think that I was weakening their defenses by inspiring a false confidence. Maybe they’re capable of distinguishing my wife and me from the rest of the species.
Whatever I get done during the winter months will determine what I get done over the rest of the coming year. Hesiod says I should be mending the plow by a fire… but I have neither. (We decided against a wood-burning fireplace because smoke torments my finicky sinuses.) What I plant and where I plant it, however, will depend upon where I can adequately clear space—and some needs are more pressing than others. My drainage ditches, too, require extension. Those that I built last summer have been a resounding success; but the top of our hill, where the builder decided simply to dump massive amounts of large stone to give traction to his eighteen-wheel haulers, erupts into puddles every time a good rain falls. While the job isn’t urgent, it also won’t grow any easier once the temperature starts rising again.
With all of this on my mind, I found myself explaining to my son in detail why I don’t feel free to take the long, long trip to Denver for Christmas. I hate such trips, anyway: being confined in a tight space for three or four hours gives me a migraine. I also hate large cities. Yet if we were still in our previous home, we would surely hit the road for Parts West. The task of managing the new place has introduced a special complexity into the calculation.
My son, on the other hand, is beginning a “real job” (as opposed to the series of menial gigs that his college degree prepared him for), and December 24 is considered a work day; so his catching a flight to our part of the world is out of the question. It’s the first Christmas he will ever have passed away from his parents, in his 23 years on earth.
No one is more distressed about that than I… but I’m convinced that my son understands my objectives for the property I’m trying to develop. If we have a field of peanuts (protein), several thriving nut trees (more protein), pomegranates and gojis and prickly pear (antioxidants—and, yes, I have prickly pear cactus), apples and apricots (vitamins), and kiwi vines (latest addition—really strong in Vitamin C), then we will have created what I think of as a “survival farm”. Water doesn’t seem to be a problem here. Heat: I could convert my fireplace to burn wood in a crisis. Electricity: do without… but may look into solar batteries next year.
If my son eventually has a family, he may one day very much need a place like this. Nobody likes to talk about the several imminent catastrophes with which we are on a collision course—and, no, “climate change” isn’t one of them. Just to give you an idea… our national power grid remains about 90% unsecured, making us unique in that regard among major industrialized nations; an Electro-Magnetic Pulse would cause most of us to perish within a year; such an EMP could occur at any time, not necessarily due to terrorism but simply because of solar flare activity; a solar event of this kind is overdue, as well as astronomers can tell; and our national conversation is consumed by… whether or not President Trump paid off a hooker to stay quiet.
I have relatives—no, I have a certain close relative who has reviled me for putting my property before my son. She’s quite the typical over-educated, secularized, pampered, career-bureaucrat progressive, and she has decided that my sense of urgency about the future is all balderdash—though, of course, erecting windmills everywhere and impeaching Trump are among her top priorities. I think of her now when I look at the lid of a tin of Planter’s Nuts that I bought off the discount rack at Walmart. Across the festively decorated top are scrawled the words and phrases, “Family Traditions”, “Joy”, “Warm Wishes”, “Winter Happiness”, “Sweet Memories”, “Winter Wonders”, and—remarkable for both for its particular inanity and for its inconcinnity with the string of nouns—“Enjoy Love”. There you have it. Planter’s has captured in about a dozen words the new meaning of the “holidays” (and why “Happy Holidays” didn’t make the cut, I have no idea). My relative is obviously of the persuasion that this secular caricature is the real deal. I should therefore, cost what it may, be arranging those “winter wonders” and “sweet memories” out of respect for “family traditions”. The only reason she wouldn’t say that I have a holy obligation to do so is that the word “holy” veers, for her, away from reality and into nothingness.
Ironically, I suppose, the love for my son that transcends Facebook-ready photos is precisely what keeps me preoccupied with my spring preparations. My “winter happiness” includes busting my ass on a bed of rock and clay because I don’t want my child and his children to face certain agonizing starvation in the world being created by people like my oh-so-wise relative. The irony would lurk in my being excessively immersed in the here-and-now, if one wished to deconstruct my practice; because if I claim a belief in higher realities, why not simply let this life’s chips fall where they may?
If you require a full answer to that question, then I won’t be able to supply it in the space I have left. Try this thumbnail version: a person who lives for here and now does not sacrifice our very finite opening for self-gratification to the service of others. A person who lives for an eternity where his fusion with God’s will may grow complete becomes very busy during his few terrestrial moments with giving others a little “extra time” to figure out the path. I know that I may one day have to shoot those turkeys with something other than a camera. In the meantime, I want them to settle in and peck my spaces to their avian heart’s content. That’s why I don’t rent another bulldozer and raise hell pounding and crashing all over my premises: that’s why everything I do is with a shovel, a hoe, an axe, a rake, or a pick. I want to raise as few seams as possible between “now” and “later”. In my view, the here-and-now should not be at war with the durable: it should unlock the enduring, if not the eternal. As for those who scoff at undying truth and higher reality, I think they often abuse what we have now and may just carry us to the brink of existential calamity with their obsession over “warm moments”.
I’ve sent my son the photo of those turkeys as a Christmas card. He gets it. We’re not about huddling over “warm winter memories”, he and I. We’re about adjusting our egocentric impulses to the requirements of a future that accommodates someone more than ourselves.