It was a chamber of commerce day. The kind little league coaches, wedding planners and tourist boards dream about. Blue skies, warm sunshine, low humidity, gentle breezes, and a nagging feeling that there might not be many more like these before the book closed on a glorious summer. But inside the little church a little toddler was making a tempest out of Sunday school class.
He’s normally a delightful boy. But on this day he was thrashing, screaming, and practically punching anyone who dared try to restrain him. After thirty minutes spent dropping a steady battery of conventional weaponry – sippy cups, Matchbox cars, plastic hippos, and iPhones – I finally gave up and went nuclear: I strapped the lad into his carseat.
He was still screaming and kicking and drooling when the 15-passenger battle-wagon made a looping turn out of the parking lot toward the nearest, bumpiest gravel road. Sweat, snot, and tears glazed his ruddied face in a translucent sheen and soaked his wispy-thin tangled mop of baby hair. He looked as colorful and as waxy as a Bazooka Joe comic.
I rolled down my window and let the Chevy Express and its extended wheelbase, commercial-grade suspension, and nearly complete lack of modern automotive soundproofing technologies go to work on the restless toddler.
There isn’t anything spectacular about the country roads out here. No waterfalls, no mountains, no tripped-out rock formations. In fact, most people probably consider this ‘flyover country.’ But my pulse slowed twenty beats a minute as we turned off the main road and headed down a dusty lane hemmed by clumps of brilliant purple chicory and stately white Queen Anne’s. The wildflowers receded as we entered a canopy of towering elms and oaks large enough to shade an entire cluster of ancestral villages.
I slowed as we approached a fieldstone fence. History has never produced an unattractive stone fence. Even those in the worst kind of disrepair are notable if nothing else in appreciation for the poor chap who lugged all those rocks there in the first place only to run out of mortar or expertise.
When we first moved to the farm, under the influence of having probably watched too many episodes of Downton Abbey, I had the romantic obsession of building a stone fence around our vineyard. I dedicated one too many nights reading through the old-timey homesteader resources on the subject, calculated what we’d need, and then placed a call into the stone people. The quote for just the requisite pile of rocks came out to $15,000. Not to mention the sweat-equity, back-equity, and the inevitable dropped-a-50-lb-stone-on-my-foot equity.
So, unless a glacier rolls up tomorrow and deposits a certain tonnage of fieldstone at my back door, I won’t be doing any stone fencing on our property. In the meantime I admire them whenever possible.
All along our route I delighted in the unique style of architecture – the remarkable blends of vinyl siding, brick, plastic sheeting, and half-inch plywood – that the human mind can conceive when freed from the strictures of contemporary suburban zoning statutes.
At an immaculately manicured property a thin older man diligently worked in his vineyard, adjusting his grape trellis, and tightening the brace wires. He worked deliberately, his small chiseled Daniel Craig face a study in concentration. The vines were well-established and as big around as a screaming toddler’s arm, proud and leafy, the fruit hanging in large, promising adolescent clusters. Our grapes don’t look anything like that. Nor does our yard.
I stopped in the shade of a shagbark hickory to admire a particular hayfield. Seventy acres worth by my guess and striking in its soft undulations and checkerboard pockets of mature hardwood. Not enough contour for sledding , but gentle on the eyes, conveying a subtle sense of movement, framed out in rich browns, greens and brilliant baby-pool-blue skies, the lush grass bending slightly to the prevailing breeze and growing rapidly towards a gorgeous second cutting. A trusty wagon, wooden frame bleached almost white by the elements, stood on call by the road, waiting for the next reasonable haying window.
We passed a flock of cranes picking eagerly at the leftovers from a wheat harvest and a trio of towering corn cribs filled with seasoning firewood. We saw a row of meticulously-maintained pasture fenceposts, each driven perfectly square and capped with post caps hand painted red and green. I have scores of those things on our picket fencing, many of which have already fallen off and become victim to the ravenous lawnmower.
But for every one of those fencing masterpieces there were at least three struggling with the daily upkeep. Horses sniffed around the barren ground, old pallets plugged gaping holes, yellowed poly tape sagged along the ground, jimmy rigged structures that might not survive a violent sneeze, much less a hail storm, stood barely erect, and bright strands of baling twine were bravely pressed into duty where sturdy locust and steel once stood.
As we circled back toward the church I idled to admire a languid and unhurried herd of belted cattle mowing a pasture down to putting green length. A big bull with those proud knotty shoulders stood in the middle of all the ladies and a fresh heifer calf tugged at an udder, happily beating her tail as she drank the sweet cream.
Cattle are one of the most potent and reliable forms of over-the-fence antidepressants available today and I inhaled myself five deep doses. Above us the swallows sung their impatient love songs and the breeze rattled the leaves on the big trees, but otherwise the mood had become perfectly still. I turned to check in on the little toddler.
He was fast asleep, victim of a near-perfect lullabye.