Halfway through a winter where I’ve been woodsman and cowherd, dad, cook, and basketball coach. Nothing remotely lucrative in any of that, and it can’t go on forever. But I’m strangely contented. I think.
I’ve dropped much of the electric fencing and my little herd, 34 head with two calves yet to come, is free to wander off my 20-some acres to graze the much larger expanse my wife’s family leases to corn and bean planters in the warmer months. My truck is in the shop and it’s too muddy to drive anyway, so this week I’ve been locating the herd by driving around the perimeter in my Subaru, and then walking from where I park to where they are. It’s an awful lot of walking.
I’m a little anxious about the big red cow with horns, who has chronic issues with her hooves and has trouble keeping up with the others. I’ve been expecting her to calve any day now for the past month. I should have sold her long ago, but she’s something of a pet to me and I’m (still) not hardheaded enough for this business.
There is not much I can do for the cattle besides count them and check for lameness and hope to stumble across a cow when she’s ready to calve. I curse having to trudge over this stubble (some days for miles), especially when it’s bitterly cold, but even then, after 15 minutes of brisk perambulation, my body warms and the mood edges gradually into a sort of low-key euphoria. At first I think the landscape is hideous, corn stalks and ruts and bean hulls, but then again, after a while I recognize the variegation, I become familiar with the genera in the treelines–walnut, cherry, oak, hackberry. I make a note of downed trees to cut up later, as well as any standing and easy to access hedge, or osage orange, trees. Their distinctive yellow wood burns well–hot and sparky–and seasons quickly.
Like the desert, I imagine, you just have to stare at this landscape of crop residue a while, and it comes to life. Rabbits dart in front as I walk through the wash areas, where the cows still find plenty of green grass to graze, a complement to their hay and the corn and soybeans they scavenge. The starlings are of course ubiquitous, and this time of year there are flocks of geese flying over and landing near the ponds, and just yesterday I noticed, for the first time this year, a gathering of exotic, weird and beautiful sandhill cranes.
I may be repeating myself with this lament but here goes. I grew up in Minnesota, and we had real winters, son. From November to late March, we had snow and ice and inside our galoshes we wore two pairs of socks with a bread bag between them. There was rarely a thought of staying inside before supper. Fifteen below, we played hockey.
Of course winters up north haven’t been quite the same in recent years, and it’s also possible that my memories are not what they should be. But no matter. I can say without any doubt that in Kentucky, in the 20-teens, we don’t have winter as such. We have mud season. I don’t know if saison de la boue is a thing in French, but it should be. I can’t get my kids to go outside, even when the weather’s fine.
My attention span is not what it might be, and I have read maybe parts of three books this winter. I spend a great deal of time in the evenings with one eye on a college basketball game, and the other on my twitter feed. I want to break myself from my addiction to myriad bits of data and opinions on issues over which I have no control. Some mornings I wake up and have to check my bookmarks to remember what article I was reading from 11 to midnight. How many words have I gobbled up on the Charlie Hebdo killings, and to what end? Women and minorities are underrepresented in the Academy Award nominations. And…? American Sniper is a massively popular movie this year, apparently.
Just reading what I’ve written I can see that what I called contentment is at best an intermittent thing. There are truly idyllic aspects to the way we live, but worries, regrets and concerns storm to the forefront of my consciousness when I think about the world outside of our agrarian idyll. My dreams are about separation and scission (excellent word, also a great book of stories) with the occasional aviation disaster thrown in. Are those the dreams of a contented man?
I might venture that it’s contentment, with an awareness of its unsustainable nature. Waiting for the health problems of middle age to raise their heads. Raising three children with the knowledge that their future prospects range from murky to outright scary. Wondering what our beautiful part of Kentucky, officially the outer Bluegrass region, will look like when and if world temperatures rise another couple of degrees, which is not unlikely.
Let’s just call it a kind of serenity, walking a tightrope on a windy day over an abyss. I’m fine with it.