All around us, corn fields are being mown down. In years past, I would be in New Jersey at this time of year, back in the world of teaching and the happy, hectic life of Room 202. On the Fall weekends we were able to make it back to the farm. we’d take some note of the shorn fields, but our attention was focused on the glory of upstate New York foliage.
Starting this past Monday, a cold and rainy one at that, and continuing all week no matter the hour, every farmer for miles around has been busy slicing through fields of bronze and gold. More than once this week, I have followed one enormous truck after another, loaded down with silage bound for winter storage. I love watching plumes of green and gold confetti float off the tops of these trucks – the last vestiges of endless days of sunshine and heat.
All summer long I’ve woken and fallen asleep to the rustle of corn, and there is now a weird stillness to get used to. Summer never lasts as long as we wish for it to…
BY SEAMUS HEANEY
for Philip Hobsbaum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
Last Friday was a special day – I traveled to Austerlitz, New York for the purposes of meeting a writer friend whose work I so admire, Jeannine Atkins, at the home of a poet whose work had been the source of inspiration and example in my youth, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
I discovered Millay sometime before high school, and although I’ve lost that original volume of poetry long ago, I can still see its pages with all of my notes and exclamations of adoration in the margins. Millay hit all the right notes for girls like me, and all through high school and college I knew I had found a friend when that person shared my love for her poetry: poetry that was lyrical and yet spoke of powerful feelings and with a bent towards social justice.
Steepletop, Millay’s home from 1920 until her death in 1950, felt very much like a time capsule as we toured through it. There was an intimacy and and immediacy of experience to the house, I felt Millay’s presence in every room, as though she still lived there and had just stepped out. Photographs from her time were often pinned to the doorways of rooms, the rooms as they looked in Millay’s time – books stacked everywhere. I loved that.
We were not allowed to take photographs in the house, although I managed to circumvent those rules by taking these two of her writing hut, which were moving in their sparseness, their focus on the purpose of such a space – the solitary pursuit of writing:
I am not generally interested in the kitchens of writers, but Millay’s came with an interesting story. The Ladies Home Journal had proposed photographing her in this room, and this story (which you can read about, with photographs, here) made me love Millay all the more.
My favorite room was Millay’s library, book lined, with spaces to read and to write. I could have spent hours here, poring over the amazing variety of her reading appetites, and marveling at the fact that each book was still exactly where Millay had placed it. Our guide was watching me very closely, and so I behaved myself and followed the rules for once, but here are some images I found online:
Millay was a passionate advocate for social justice in her time, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti being the most famous, but here in her library I could see the sources for the depth of her knowledge and commitment for these causes.
So, this Poetry Friday, I share the very first of Millay’s poems that I read, the one that formed an abiding love for this particular poet:
Conscientious Objector – Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.
And here is the poem set to music and sung by the peerless Mary Travers:
This has been an odd start to my September. For the last decade or so, the beginning of September was all about the new school year at hand: committing new student names to memory, tweaking the first day of school plans, making minor adjustments to our classroom space, and buying up the hard-to-resist new books and supplies. The focus of Septembers past was Room 202 and the life that would happen there in the year to come.
This September, there is no one, particular focus. I am thinking and planning for many things:
*organizing much needed repairs and improvements to our old farmhouse
*continuing to research the work of shepherding and care taking sheep, and preparing the barn and pastures for the arrival of sheep next summer
*organizing trips to visit my aging parents, in their nineties now, and far away in London. It is tricky to care for people who are fiercely independent and yet clearly in need of assistance – and yet, there I am, and this was the intention behind leaving the classroom and the wrought-in-stone school calendar in the first place
*an upstate New York winter, in a place that is, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.
*writing: about teaching, about this new life, and the stories of my life and of my invention.
It’s a different kind of focus to celebrate…but celebrate I do.
It’s a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to preparing for an upstate New York winter, and every day presents a new something to figure out. Take the issue of fire wood…
In New Jersey, we ordered a cord of wood that was neatly stacked by the side of the house and on an attractive hoop on our porch. That was it. And we could place this order anytime, even in November, for immediate delivery, and stacking was always included for an added convenience. New Jersey is all about added convenience and immediate gratification.
Here in upstate New York, firewood is something to be calculated and planned for in June, delivered in July, and, as for stacking, you are on your own. Since we moved here in July and I had other things on my mind in August (how to fit the contents of the old house in the farm house), I fell woefully behind in terms of wood prep. Everyone I met said so: You haven’t ordered your wood yet? Oh, that’s not good. You’d better get on it right away, although it might be too late, already.
Then, of course, there was the issue of how much wood. On this, my wood consultants were pretty much in agreement – six cords, at the very least. I Googled six cords of wood just to get a visual, which just about freaked me out. That was a LOT of wood! But, who am I but a know nothing suburban New Jersey transplant? So the order for wood was placed.
Where are you going put the wood? Asked the very nice man who arrived with his first (of six) truck load. This, at it turns out, is a problem I have been trying to address, to no avail. There is nowhere to put a woodshed where it would be most convenient – behind the farmhouse, by the back door, where I could get at it still dressed in winter pajamas and slippers. Everyone asked had one opinion – storing most of the wood in one of the big barns at the bottom of driveway and carting the wood up as needed. I’ve seen photographs of this driveway in winter, and no way no how could I see myself trekking up and down this incline to fetch wood, even in this fancy Kubota rtv which everyone also insists I must have:
Well, the time for some decision making is at hand, because half the wood has been delivered and the rest is on the way. One half sits by the roadside, and neighbors are taking note every passing day. They slow down, glance at the wood, then glance at me as I garden or sweep the porch or do anything but stack wood. Then they smile and drive away. I take note this smile which I, being overly conscious of my very visible NJ license plates, perceive as full of derision.
First things first: before I stack wood, I must attend to changing those license plates. Then, to show I mean business, I will park that Kubota right by that pile of wood.
Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers
All photographs courtesy the Washington County Fair
I went to the Washington County Fair for selfish reasons. For the first time in almost two decades, I will not be returning to a classroom in September, and I already miss not being with kids. So, when a friend asked me to help out at an arts and crafts table at the fair, I said “yes”… for me.
Of course, it was a magical day; I loved the chatter, the quirky observations, and the energy that flows from working with children. I had expected that.
What I hadn’t counted on was how moved I would be by the experience of watching kids tend to and “show” the livestock they had brought to the fair. Even the littlest of this army of caretakers showed such poise, sense of responsibility, and, most important, empathy, towards the various beasts in their charge. The fair lasts a week, and families were camped out by their pens, sharing in the labor of love that is raising and tending to livestock.
Shepherd in training that I am, I had questions for these young people, who were so much more knowledgeable than I am, and they answered with such confidence and affection for the beasts in their care. Again, I was moved by their empathy, and the way that they paid attention to these animals and tried to intuit their needs.
The whole county was there, it seemed, in this celebration of the work of farming that sustains the county as a whole. The wool I helped children weave into little tapestries was harvested and milled locally, the maple ice cream I enjoyed came from cows I pass by every day and maple trees which give shade to the hills around us. Living here, as I do now, the fair felt personal.
Farming is hard work, and these days the family farm (which is the kind of farming that takes place in our county) is under unbelievable stress. For this one week, then, it was a wonderful experience to be a part of celebrating a way of life, to pay just homage to it.
In my past life as a teacher, figuring out the classroom space was the most important first step into settling into what would become my professional home for many long and happy years: Room 202 in my middle school. I remember walking into that room for the first time and taking in the bare and bereft looking space with consternation: how to make this a practical and inviting space in which all the learning I was envisioning to take place? But, my kids helped me find my way, and by the end of that first year our room became the place we all loved – the place my students wanted to return to long after they’d left sixth grade behind.
In my new life as a shepherd (to be, because sheep won’t be arriving here until next summer), I am again trying to figure out my space. Our farm has not housed sheep for many years, and although the barns and fences and gates are in place already, they have sat unused for a long time. Our lovely rolling pastures, perfect for sheep, are now wild with weeds and thistle. The big barn, a beautiful and imposing structure, is an utterly intimidating place.