H suggested yesterday that we go out on "a date". Usually that means going to our favorite bar for dinner and a chat with the bartenders we've gotten to know.
Danny is from South Carolina and is dating a correspondent for the local television news. He was a baseball player when he was younger but gave it up after some injury. He still gets animated when he talks about baseball though. We know something of where he lives, and his landlord who made his money in something deep-pocketed and so provides a better quality of rental housing than most, including a flat screen TV. Danny's mom has never seen snow, so he's looking forward to bringing her here this winter when the drifts are deep enough for her to play in. This past weekend he was planning a drive to check out a Chevy Tahoe he wants to buy, and he was planning a trip to the beer festival up on the ski hill nearby.
Amanda just moved out of the "big" town of Rutland (population: 16,495 as of 2010, down from 17,292 in 2000 ), and to a more rural community to the south. There's more room for her two kids, and her husband who works at the regional paper. He is also part of the leadership of the local repertory company. She lived in Tampa for a while during school, met him in an acting class, but she grew up in Vermont and returned when she got married and was pregnant with her first. She has been taking pictures of the landscape as the leaves fall and the ridgelines turn color. She was surprised to see that among her new neighbors were a few cows and a horse or two, in a pasture behind the house.
But this time, rather than visiting with Danny and Amanda, Herb invited me to go for a drive to look at the leaves ourselves. It has been many years since I really saw "peak color" and I had awakened thinking that I would like to do so this year. H seemed to have read my mind. So we launched off on that American experience of driving to no place in particular, just for the sake of driving...and looking. It rained a bit, but mostly the leaves were set off by layers of clouds -- from dark charcoal to slate grey with layers of white and froth. The red leaves were intense and there were shrubs that carry leaves that are both red and green, like one at the corner of our house. Ours is still more green than red; I don't know its name. There were the trees that I particularly love that have a particular shade of orange that is somewhere between coral and peach. Their leaves seem translucent against the light. In some places the evergreens made islands of dark green or painted the ridges black depending on what clouds hung above them. There was a yellow maple growing out of the inside of a white painted silo beside a red barn.
I realized how hungry I have been for color. I realized how much I would miss it as the winter comes on with its slate and white and early dark. We eat off plates that were salvaged from the beach house after the hurricane. They have names like "terra cotta" and "mint green" and oddly "orange". They please my senses in ways that my mother's fashionable white china never did.
As we drove, Herb pointed to a pasture with cows, set against the foliage of Fall. "That's Vermont", he said, and I argued (as I too often do). "Vermont is spending two weeks getting ready for the winter." We had split wood and stacked wood and collected leaves. Herb carried 135 40-pound bags (2 2\3 tons) of pellets to the basement and stacked them against the wall. We had pulled weeds out of the raised garden beds and along the fence line, so the fungus on the leaves wouldn't impact the garden next year. We sprayed the fruit trees against the hungry deer, using something that smells like rotten eggs and will have the trunks wrapped before the rodents find them a tasty winter treat. We cut down the native fern and yellowing hostas to find the chipmunk holes that probably hid the critter that scratched through the foundation, and climbed into a hollow wall beside the bedroom, keeping us awake much of the night. We have consigned papers to the wood fire and the recycling; we have removed the rust from flood-soaked cast iron pans with vinegar soaks and a dremel tool. We will clean the grill and move it into the garage, wrap the spruce in burlap, and cover the shrubs beside the porch with angled boards to protect them from the snow dropping from the roof.
People fill the hotels this time of year with "leaf peepers". Danny and Amanda are providing directions to the best places for the leaves, and making well earned tip money providing "pumpkin white russians" and "toasted macaroon martinis". Most of those who come for the view of the hills and for the snow and for the artisanal cheeses understand little of what lies behind the pastures and rows of corn stubble against green, gilded marsh grasses and red barns with trees growing through an abandoned silo.
Danny and Amanda make $5 an hour for their work. They depend on tips to make it possible to buy their cars or their houses. That's a lot in a restaurant industry; their waiter and waitress friends make $3.75 an hour. Their boss paid them a day wage recently, so that they could turn over their tips to a girls' soccer team. That wasn't their choice, but they aren't complaining.
Our friend Derrick came by with his puppy and his parents' dog, a Giant Schnauzer with a proclivity for opera. Derrick works at felling trees, and weed whacking, and milling downed trees into boards with his portable saw mill. He does roof raking in the winter and snow plows for new homeowners who haven't mastered the machinery. And in between he plants, maintains, and harvests an acre or more of multiple varieties of carrots, squash, tomatoes, basil, sunflowers, peppers, eggplants, pumpkins, lettuce, corn.... And he and his partner put it all up as salsa or sides or dinner for the frozen months. Today he is making cider with a neighbor. When the weather turns colder and wetter, he will be making charcoal to sell, and trying to keep his own home fires warm. He salvaged an old black locust that had been struck by lightning, and will be letting it season for a few years, 'til it gets dry enough to not wreck his chain saw. And then he will be using it, mixed with an assortment of other wood that doesn't threaten to melt his wood stove, to warm his house.
We don't know much about his background, but I asked him about his parents today. I asked why they acquired (from rescue), this enormous shaggy and mouthy beast of a dog. "My dad had one when he got out of the army," he said. "He served during Vietnam but was in Holland, met my mom at a USO event. He saved everything he had, and came back after the war with a wife, a dog, and a Rolls Royce built in Europe that he had shipped over. Bought 22 acres and raised blueberries."
I thought of H's brother who had tried to do the same thing - saving his money while in the army. Saving every penny while others spent it all on shore leave. I thought of H's brother whose money had been stolen by an officer, and who had "decked" that officer, and who had spent time in the brig for that act. I wondered what he would have done with his life if he had had the money to buy the life he might have chosen. I wondered what life he would have chosen.
I thought of the way Derrick has learned to save everything, to be resilient. I thought of how he had learned that any task could be solved with ingenuity a few good tools that he treats carefully, from his portable saw mill, to the way he wraps the ropes that he uses for pulling stumps or climbing trees. I thought of how that was the lesson that Vermont had taught me...to listen and learn and care for the tools that you need and the people who can teach you to use them.
We are stacking the wood again today. Herb built a new shelving system in the basement using 2x4's from the small town hardware store, and the pallets that he salvaged from under the 3 tons of pellets that will heat us this winter. We'll probably store some onions, and next year, potatoes and carrots for the winter. We'll store the pint, quart and half gallon ball jars that we use to store leftovers, and for applesauce, and chutney. We'll store something else on the bottom shelf, something that we only need to remove once a year or twice, something that will keep us warm, or keep us cool, or feed us.
The leaves are blowing in a 25 to 30 mile an hour wind today, and I am thinking we should go up to the potato fields for a view over the technicolor hills, and to look at the leaves before the landscape turns black and white, to look at the life we have chosen.