Saturday, September 8, 2012

(Rural Coda)

Two old friends, Green River Vermont
(the day after Hurricane Irene, 2011)

"You have kingfisher, fox, maple, and a thousand poets on your side: no
contest!" — Malcolm Ritchie

Dear Malcolm,

I've wrung this subject out to dry for most people — the few neighbors and the some troubles — never using their names, of course, to respect their privacy, but I do wish to gain a portrait at what I believe has happened to the new rural lifestyle. So let me say a bit more since I've had some friends write me back today after reading my second essay and asking, "Hey, Bob, what the heck is going on up there?"

Here's what's going on: for an urban wise guy reading these essays and in the city, I'm sure I'd be one myself, I can imagine someone saying: "So you got a few naughty words said to you both. Your wife was picked on by someone bigger. A bunch of fools trespass, make a mess for awhile, swear at you and leave. One woman steals a pail of rocks. Some knuckleheads do some cutting. Some out-of-towners shoot a stack of fireworks off from their relatives' land with no idea really where the fireworks are going but it happens to be into your woodlot. Yeah, that's dangerous, but not the end of the world. Maybe a chicken got killed by a city slicker's dog when he came up to your woods region to play Paul Bunyan, and another woman who runs-with-the-wolves (dogs) had her pack get out of control and pester your farmyard ducks. Big deal. Stop being crybabies."

Right-o. And here's the difference — in the city you want a pack of cigarettes: a minute walk. A beer? Right around the corner. How about a slice of pizza? No problem — almost any corner. Need more milk? Got it! Want to go to any store? Hundreds of stores? Thousands? Right at your fingertips. Out in the countryside it's a long walk or drive to anywhere so we have ourselves, the essential community, or what you can make sense of existence. Some can do with a circle of squirrels. But to be healthy, wealthy and wise, without money, you want one another. And you should have one another. Otherwise, speaking for this place on earth: it's big woods (find my place by Google map, it's in the trees), and the slim, beautiful river. Steep eastern hillside and bundles of low hills to the west. When I came here forty years ago I hiked in on my own two feet, a knapsack on my back, no vehicle, a borrowed hut in the woods, and no one lived on this road but one other person and he's now long gone. Maybe dead. When he was here we built two houses together. Put up fencing, cut logs, sugared. My community. We hayed fields together. I hiked a mile up river to his place at 5 in the morning to catch a ride with him to town and shared cold pancakes with cold syrup on white paper plates. When we were done eating he 'did the dishes' — by tossing the paper plates to his pack of dogs out in the mudroom and they licked off the sweets. Two weeks later I'd find these same plates and others blown far away from his crummy shack contraption. The plates blew and sailed across a wide dismal field of rock, grass tuft, weeds and now and then potatoes. Yes, we worked that field together, too. He and I were community. Essential.

Times changed. My old buddy, born here, moved off. His son took over, but they were like night and day. I got married to a girl I would never be apart one day or night the next forty years. The valley grew people, not quickly, gradually, and a new community got sprung. Many of us did things together, even communal cookouts, families grew. Some of us protected the outer reaches by saving our covered bridge, river preservation, and of course shooting down the co-generated power plant that would have ruined the solace of this place on earth. It took togetherness.

More changes happened the more people arrived, tucked away into pockets they settled. By now I was happiest with my family, working at the manual trades of stone work, carpentry and treework, and I had plenty of work. A good deal of it right where I could walk or hike to a job from my back door. I had people who hired me for twenty years at a stretch. They could have hired anyone, the work wasn't that specialized, and they went out of their way to hire me. Not that I was special; I took it that they were special, and in my eyes they were. I could talk to you all night around a fire about the people and couples that saved my life, enriched my life, gave me more life, and it's still happening. I'm in the home I'm in today, and for almost forty years, because of the good man who fell for me and my wife. He could have made triple what we paid him for it all. He liked our work skills, he liked us. Even married us. Because we restored the house on more grit than money, and tamed the wild yard and prettied up the joint and seemed to be home all the time because of our work and lifestyle, it was said, by some, we must have money. Inherited money. Maybe one of those to be envied "trust-funders." This was even said by people who thought they knew us. Rumors ripple and slip under doors, sweep past cracks in the windows. Fly up trees. Here's what we have: my wife's family who disowned her when she moved to the woods and married this life, and $1000 gifted to us from my family when we were married in our young twenties. Period. Like good soldiers we put that $1000 in the bank where it is today. You see, what we were rich with was each other and some guardian angels.

We started our bookshop when one lovely person and then another donated whole sections of their private libraries to us. And I had already donated part of mine. There was no talk of money. We supplemented our incomes while gaining a bookshop by every job almost there was out in the countryside — from farm work to landscape work to house building house dismantling treework sugaring painting stone building snow-shoveling dirt-shoveling junk jobs. If it needed doing and no one else would do it, we did it. Made a living. Pushed our way forward, and people always people helped us. Many many communities.

I'm about to release the next four chapters of a bibliography detailing the last many years of Longhouse showing what we have printed and released to this date — 400 items, which comes to over 1000 poets over forty years at networking and out of those 1000 poets I can't think of much trouble except here and there. We all survived. We kept small. Our motto: if it makes sense we want it. If it doesn't, it'd better be real interesting. We cared nothing about holding a ratio of women to men to black to white. Immaterial. Just make it float. Many many people lent a hand. Earlier in the spring, still in winter coats, I met a friend who we are working with on our next book project. Out of his old coat, in a sleepy parking lot, he handed me notes for a manuscript that he is holding as an executor. I took it. He asked me the cost on the book. I told him. His next unexpected move was to unroll half of that amount we would need, in cash, into my hands. We nodded. Job done. Better than a handshake. Certainly better than any contract. If I cheat him, I'm the cheater.

So what happened down here in this river valley, after all? Some people got out of hand. The simplest thing in the world to do. And as simple to repair. You just stop and know what you've done and act on it. A bunch of knuckleheads get caught on our land cutting trees and acting bigger than their britches. They're meaning to do well, but they're ignorant as to where they are. Stop them. Okay. Now try to talk to them, reason with them. They want nothing to do with that, and now here's your problem. Watch it escalate for the next year. Listen to them tell their own version of the story, spread as bad gum gossip. When here's the only version: you were trespassing, damaging land, and you should have stopped, apologized and mended ways. It's simple.

Woman who steals rocks is next up and she's heard about the first ruckus. No problem with her wanting rocks on our land, but why not ask us first? She doesn't think she has to because "it isn't your land", she informs us, though it is. Go check the town land map, I offer as advice. Check the town records just who pays the taxes on this land. Believe me because I'm telling you, politely. She doesn't. Calls me the Most Unfriendliest Man in All the World. I think of using it as a book title. Asks me if she has to dump her bucket of rocks out? I say, of course not, keep them, but maybe ask next time you wish to come and take. She calls me the Most Unfriendliest so-so again, even after I say take the rocks. Scowls. Drives away. Before she gets too far I ask my wife to try her hand at smoothing things over with the woman; the woman leaves her, as well, in a huff. The woman then calls the town clerk when she gets home. The town clerk is away and a young man is substituting in her place. The Friendliest Woman in the world asks about our property and the river and its land mass, "who owns this?" The young man is in uncharted waters. He says things he shouldn't say, mostso to this woman. This woman takes what she hears as verbatim and calls my wife and they begin a screaming match on the phone. The woman's husband, who knows nothing of what has occurred with me on the river, jumps into the act and begins to scream, too. They are both working on the information given by the young man at the town clerk's office. He's a nice fellow. A school chum once upon a time with our son, but he's over his head, and so is this screaming couple. All are now fueled on misinformation. When the screaming stops, and a day later, I wrote and asked the couple to come by for a talk. Nothing doing. The young man working at the town clerk position loses his job for an undisclosed reason. The mess just gets bigger and bigger.

This woman now teams up with another woman, never mind the folks kicked off our land for woodcutting, and the buzz is "You (Arnolds) don't let people on your land." Funny, we have the only unposted swimming hole on the whole road from here in Vermont to Massachusetts. There aren't many, but they're all posted, but not ours. The person who tells us we don't let people on our land uses our swimming hole. I have very intelligent friends who just about now in this story are asking me, "Bob, what in the fuck are you doing dealing with these people for?" Because they're my community. It's what we got. I'm in my home.

You Don't Let People On Your Land woman has a true chip on her shoulder. Though a somewhat friend with my wife this won't stop the woman to pick a fight with my wife. You see her three sons have built a fine looking circle of rocks and quarter down on our land, they think hidden from our view, and this all happened after Hurricane Irene. Quite a time for us all. The young men have made a special place to meet and have parties. It isn't on their land, it's on our land, but that doesn't seem to matter to them. They like the spot. It's along a brook that feeds the river. This brook happens to be on their own land as well. No matter. They like it right here, stay here. Their mother knows it's our land but the three sons are out of the house, out of her hair. Little do they all know we hike our land, all of it, and discover the stone council ring. It's well-built, made of hefty stone, some elaborate chair models and a circle campfire. Very King Arthur. Because of the Hurricane and all that we went through, we let this go since winter is coming on. It'll disband on its own probably over the winter. We don't say a word.

In the spring we discover the council ring is larger, the campfire is larger, looks dangerous, is dangerous, it has been a dry spring. No one is thinking about the danger of fires. My wife while hiking up to our mailbox one morning meets this mother and tells her about the campfire and says it was a good thing after the Hurricane, drew together people and raw emotions, but now we'd like the land returned to the way we like it. No more dangerous fires. The trash is everywhere, please pick it up etc. The mother cares nothing about hearing any of this. It's been a good thing, why stop it? is her plan. My wife says, fine, we'll be here Thursday (it's now Monday) to see it's cleaned up and put back to its original way. Please tell your sons.

This mother doesn't tell her sons because her sons told us they weren't told a thing. We find this out when we arrive to dismantle the site and meet one son bewildered by the news and shaking enough to go fetch his older brother who comes down swearing and fussing and calling me an "Asshole", four times, itching for a fight. No one told him either. I shook his hand when he arrived, and with those same hands took the camp site apart right before his eyes. He showed no interest in helping. Because of his assault and his mother's neglect and enabling, my wife called the law and the law came out from town, investigated, and posted a no trespassing order on our land only for these two family members. There are two others sons, but they caused no problem (other than taking part in the campfire).

In our experience, the mother and the oldest son cared nothing about respecting what we wished for our land, nor willing to return the respect for us allowing their use and now returning the land to its original way. And of course it only got worse. Weeks down the road, one morning, again my wife was hiking up for mail and the woman lay in wait, with a friend of her's briefly hanging around. This friend saw the start of things before she took off. How the woman provoked an argument with my wife who wished to avoid any contact except a friendly hand wave (it's pathetic for me to think of how much grace my wife still could share). The woman admonished my wife for calling the law in, putting up the trespassing order, and of course she's mocking its rule. My wife tried to explain how she patiently went through the reasonable route of asking the woman and her sons to clean up their mess from our land and depart. Simple? Nah, of course not. The woman screamed "Fuck You!" at my wife, stormed across the road onto our land, broke the trespass law and began to jump up and down on trash she often throws from her land onto our land and screamed some more, "I'm Trespassing, I'm trespassing. Call the police! Call the police!" she sang like a crow. Arms flailing. My wife shook off the swear words, studied the woman jumping up and down and noticed and was reminded by her trash on our land, saw this woman's personality had grown way out of proportion and was now a threat, and said, "I will." And she did.

The chaos that has ensued since then is a carnival ride out in a big black nowhere. Elsewhere I detail what the law has done. Law, court appearances by the woman, bogus witnesses she has enlisted that had nothing at all to do with the altercation with my wife, scowling looks by all the family at us, from other neighbors, cars that drive by us dangerously fast. Loud car horns in the night passing our house. Fun and games. The lousiest form of gossip about us, like how we have brought "a law suit against" this woman. All untrue. It's the State of Vermont who has taken a close look at this woman, her son and their actions and they are drawing a bead. I wonder almost every day what keeps her from coming to see us, except she can't (court order, not my order) and talking this out, mediating as they say, apologizing, and rebuilding a relationship. It's simple if you can do it. Except it gets worse and worse. Not one person on this road ever comes close to us to ask what in the world is going on? Of course they have heard things. No, this care and query will arrive instead from Scotland, Japan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Venezuela, Florida and other world locations. An old friend from the Berkshires says, "watch your back." Only the oldest friend we have in the valley, who lives two miles up river from us in the village, and is the oldest person in this valley and a person whose family owned all the homes in the village once upon a time, so she has seen some things, been through some things, knows the region with a fine crystal ball, asks Susan, "Why are they picking on you, dearie?" When she hears why, she winces and then winks and says, "I'm your witness."

I have friends who ask about my earlier essay and this landlocked land I wrote about. Lots of good people have little property spots and they're landlocked. Tough to get to. Often they need help and an abiding landowner to let them slip through. You bet, I'm all for it. I've done it with abiding landowners all my life down here. But the landowner I was writing about in my essay was someone looking for a land grab; something more when she sold her house and property and then this extra landlocked piece, and it didn't seem to bother her in the least to tell the realtor to just go through our land. There wasn't some cabin in the woods there that some old prospector or hermit couldn't get to because the big bad wolf wouldn't let it happen. It was a landowner reaping more for her benefit and against our wishes of not wanting one more driveway and development where it was quite happily wild and content.

Over this summer, those "fireworks" folks I've written about from time to time, who neighbor south of us, sauntered up the road while Susan and I were on the river cutting an old downed maple tree on the rocky shore. Lots of work. They asked if we knew where our boundary line ran with theirs because they saw a swimming spot right in the vicinity of the border. Not only did we know where it was, twenty-five years ago we taught our son how to swim there. We later abandoned it like good Indians and found another swimming hole and another, moving our tent around. Leaving the places unharmed. Grown in. We told them, "Sure — the boundary line runs right through the swimming hole and it's on both our properties." They asked, "Is it okay if we make a small path down and swim there?" We said, "Absolutely, go ahead. We used to swim there all the time." End of story. Very simple. They thanked us and walked away. They came for something, got it, left. We didn't hold it against them. We don't hold anything against anybody playing fair. We wanted to show them how easy it was to ask and how easy it is to move along.

Bob Arnold
8 September '12

top photo : "susan & eleanor"
photos & art © bob arnold