The Good Life

for Molly

garden

If you live long enough you gain an appreciation for those who came before you.

When COVID-19 hit and everyone was advised to practice “social distancing,” I was indifferent. “Social distancing?” I invented it. Been practicing it for years.

Then came “shelter in place” and “work from home.”

Unlike most, I could not have been happier. Stay home? Well “please don’t throw me in the briar patch Br’er Fox.”  I packed my possibles and headed to our farm.

I take liberties with the word “farm.”  Not the image the word conjures. Really just woods and a few open acres. The crops are trees and wildlife, not corn and livestock.

Finally, a chance for the good life. The life of my ancestors. A life for which I was surely born.

Now to be clear, I do not have an upper-class pedigree. I did the research. My kin were Irish immigrants and poor white sharecroppers. No royal sap in the family tree. Mostly poor folks who eked out a living with whatever they had on hand.

But I had more.  The pandemic did not take me by surprise. The farmhouse was fully stocked before the initial panic hit. While many rushed to the stores, I just sat back and watched from a distance. I am, after all, a smart man (just ask the Redhead and she will tell you “oh yes, he certainly thinks he’s a smart man”). I am forward-looking. A visionary even. I was never a Boy Scout, but I lived their motto — “Be prepared.”

I had food. I had medicine. I had gas and diesel. Masks, antibacterial wipes, and toilet paper to spare.

I might have even had a gun or two.

I also had creeks for water, trees for firewood, and wild animals for meat.

But most importantly of all, I had seeds for a garden.

I was dug-in like an Alabama tick. Ready for the long haul.

The first three weeks were blissful. I was finally able to get my work done. Almost no calls, no emails, and no visits from anyone to break my chain of thought.

My plan was executed to perfection. I put in my office hours, then headed outside to take leisurely walks and tend my tomato plants.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning I climbed aboard the big John Deere and plowed and planted my garden. It was the same kind of worn-out rocky ground that my ancestors plowed with mules, but no matter.  I could coax that sorry dirt to yield more than they ever dared to dream.

Then came Sunday morning. The storms hit at sunrise. Hail. High winds. Rain by the bucket-load. The lights flickered, then went out.

No worries. I had candles and flashlights with extra batteries. Who needs television or the internet? I had shelves of good books and plenty of paper and pens with which to write.

Paradise.

That night I laid down in sweet solitude. The bedroom windows were open, and the light breeze and the dripping rain the only sounds. My sleep was deep and filled with contented, peaceful dreams.

Monday morning, I decided to take a stroll to survey my kingdom.

Trees down. Trails blocked.  Garden mostly washed away. Creeks out of the banks. Dead battery on the Deere.

Rugged independence? Gone.

That night I blew out the candles and lay in the darkness again. You know you really cannot appreciate true darkness until you are way back in the woods with no lights on a cloudy night. I struggled to find sleep with my troubled thoughts.

As my mind raced through the stillness of that long night it finally hit me. There was nothing romantic about the way my ancestors lived. They could not run to the grocery store when the crops washed away. No cash to buy more seed or supplies or even pay back their shares. No hiding from a pandemic. If the Spanish flu did not kill their children, then cholera just might.

I understand them now. Why they left the “good life” for jobs in the cotton mill towns. Why they traded idyllic farm living for a hot, dusty job where a man might lose a hand in a second or his lungs to the lint in a matter of a few years.

I have no worries. I can start again. I have the means to replant the garden, and the grocery store is only five miles away. I still have my masks and wipes, so I will probably stay untouched by the virus, at least for a while.

I added something to my supplies. Respect for my ancestors.

The “good life” is all high cotton and buttermilk cornbread when you are playing a role in the theater of your mind.  But when you live off the land to survive it is not all it is cracked-up to be.

The Narrow Gate

The Narrow Gate

I have driven past the church hundreds of times.  Perched on top of a little open spot in the woods, it hardly merits a glance, unless of course you like to look at old wood-framed country churches.

I do.

Today is a Saturday, and I’m in no hurry to get back to a never-ending series of projects at the homestead.  The roof is leaking again.  A rotting facia board needs to be replaced.  Bare ground where holly and yaupon have been ripped out of the front flower bed, awaiting azaleas and camellias that haven’t even left the nursery.  Seems like a fine time to stop and give this church a more thoughtful consideration.

It is well-kept.  Not a blemish to be found.  Not even any peeling paint.  I have stopped to look at a lot of these old structures in my travels across Alabama, and this one may be the best-maintained I have ever seen.

A sign out front tells a story.  Back in 1905, a group of nine Presbyterian pilgrims left a brush arbor to build a sturdier place of worship and a cemetery on this site.

I have driven by here on Sunday before.  Nine members look about right.  Maybe three cars and a couple of old pickup trucks in the parking lot.  If Preacher Calvin was correct, it would seem the Good Lord hasn’t done a whole lot of “choosing” in this spot over the last 113 years or so.

I walk around back to the cemetery.  Like the building, it is neat as a pin.

I am captivated by the two columns at the entrance, which the sign indicates were added in 1930.  Tallapoosa field-stone, probably gathered from a congregant’s field not too far down the road.  Angels carved from Sylacauga marble, the quarry a day’s wagon trip if the mules had a pleasant disposition and momma didn’t dawdle among the sundries at the dry goods store.

I step for a closer examination.  I am transfixed.

angel

The finger is pointed at me, left hand beckoning through the gate to the markers beyond.

“Come on in traveler.  There’s a quiet spot right over there.  Enter and join the community of the dead, those who lie in wait of ‘The Shout and the voice of the archangel.'”*

I consider the proposition for a moment, then I’m back in my truck, boot heavy on the accelerator.

All of a sudden those chores at the homestead aren’t looking too bad.

 

*From The Holy Bible, 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

The Time in Between

sunrise 2

Sunrise at the homestead.  The best time of day.

I walk out on the back porch, as I do every day.  I am a daybreak riser.  My two bulldogs are not.  I get no acknowledgment.  Nary a lifted head.

I reckon some are just not morning people — or morning dogs, as it were.

I like to pause for a minute, even if it is just a minute.  A lot of years went by since I could appreciate this.  No man-made noise.  A turkey gobbles on the next ridge.  On a really good day, I can hear two more respond to his challenge.

I can’t stay long.  Miles to travel.  Things to get done.  Bills to be paid.

sunset

Sunset at the homestead.  The best time of day.

I walk to the back porch.  The bulldogs show their better nature.  The oldest moans like a broken-hearted man.  The other just smiles.  They know intuitively that they are going to get a jaunt down to the creek or get fed.  It is a win-win, either way.

This has been a long time coming.  Dark soon.  No man-made noise.  A coyote howls on the next ridge.  On a really good night, I can hear two more respond to the challenge.

As I write this, it occurs to me that it is the space in between these two times that kill a man.  They call it “stress” today.  In the olden times they just called it “livin’.”

A friend recently asked me if I had a “bucket list.”  I said I didn’t.  She looked at me as if I had shot her horse right out from under her.

Well why not for goodness sake?

Just don’t.  Never given it that much thought.

I think, though, that I may change my mind.

I think I would like to see the best time of day as many times as I can.

 

Of Barns and Men

barn

Just a barn at sunset.

A barn that once had a purpose.  Four stalls for horse or mule.  Small tack room for saddles, bridles and leads.  Loft up above for square bales.

A poet or an artist might describe it as “weathered” or “rustic.”

I am neither.  I like solid words.  Words with a certain heft that you can hold in your hand or put in your pocket and bring out twenty years from now, meaning intact.

I call it “old.”

The tin roof has stood the test of time.  Poplar sideboards still sound.  But the loft door sags, as does the gate.  Time passes.  “Things fall apart.  The centre cannot hold.”

Someone with skills I cannot fathom built this barn for its purpose.  Probably out of the ether with no written plan.  Visualized and then constructed with hand tools.  Style and method learned from father, who learned it from his father.  Hammer, handsaw, sweat and muscle.

I would like to think he paused after the last nail had been driven.  Admired his work like the Master in His holy book.  But likely as not he had a dipper of water from the well across the road.  Wiped his brow, spit, then headed on down the road to the next little patch of land where a barn was a needful thing.  Rest reserved only on the appointed day.

This day draws to its own close.  Perhaps these lines only the scribbled imaginings of a lonesome pilgrim who walked the land at the close of day.  But one thing holds true.  They don’t make them like they used to.

Barns or men.