As I prepare to move from twelve acres and the family house to an apartment in a nearby town, the priorities that should be claiming me fade away. I should be putting yellow labels on the things that are coming with me but it’s the things that aren’t coming with me that I can’t shake.
For the most part, there is real pleasure in setting aside the accumulation of 56 years in one house, but there are two things that were such an integral part of my life during all that time that a genuine sadness sweeps in when I think of them. It’s just that the actual things I have loved are different from what others might love.
My tractor (an all-wheel drive Steiner 525) and my Jeep (a Wrangler with a Meyers wide blade snowplow). Those two things and their predecessors were the constant in a life that has been good to me. I’m not leaving family or friends I love; they left me in the natural course of life. The children I so loved grew up and married; my husband and I agreed after forty years that we would each be better on our own. But from 1959 when we moved to this land (I was pregnant with our third child who is now 56), to the present moment, the fields around me have needed mowing and in the winter the roads needed plowing and doing just that became for me a time for reflection and creation and peace. I could think about the things I love to think about without distraction or duty telling me to hurry and all around me as I drove, the snow moved aside in neat lines and the grass fell to the mower, cropped short next to the unmowed rest, each section – mowed and unmowed – handing me the absolute peace of repetition.
My former husband, on the other hand, is of a nature that dislikes repetition of any kind. On a canoe trip in Vermont one day I began to understand that he was always paddling faster on the straightaways to see what would be around the next corner. When he took his turn mowing our field, it looked like an enormous green expanse marked up with disordered swaths and swirls, the defense of an adventure seeking mind against the familiar, a mind always looking for something new.
And so the mowing and plowing fell to me. The ‘60s were a time of deep snows, of quiet nights when the traffic was thin and he was home asleep with the children so he could be at work early in the morning. I had a ledger where I billed my customers – a school, a church, parking lots, neighbors, near and a little farther, but not so far as to waste time getting there. I guaranteed that each would be out by 8 a.m. The jobs were different every time because of the depth and consistency of the snow. Was it frozen? Wet and heavy? So light it blew back in my tracks with every puff of wind? If it was a blizzard, I needed to gauge how many times I would come back during the night to avoid the point where my plow wasn’t up to the depth of the snow. I loved maneuvering my plow to allow for all this as I made angles and straights beneath me. It felt like art.
That happened one night at Mrs. Noonan’s. Her place was high on a small hill down a long dead end road and on this night I had to plow my way in to get to her driveway because the commercial plows ignored the sparsely populated road. As fast as I plowed, more fell so I came back twice during that night.
Once a snow fell hard and fast until dark when the night turned still and luminous under a clear sky and brilliant moonlight. Is there anything in this world as beautiful as a new snowfall covering black roads and green trees? Everything everywhere was still and white and I didn’t want to go home. Just then I saw an unplowed driveway on a dirt road not far from my house and I turned in, plowed the driveway and circle and went home to sleep. I heard later that the owner was outraged that someone had dared to come on his land in the night but I had the thrill of carving beautiful paths through his snow under brilliant moonlight in the absolute silence of the night on a country road. I would treasure that memory and look for the peace of it ever after.
With global warming, the plowing has become a rare thing. But still, the fields need to be mowed. During May, June, and July, they grow fast and If I don’t cut regularly, the tractor clogs. Solution: to divide the land mentally in quarters and do roughly two hours each day so each quarter was mowed at least once a week. That decided, the whole thing felt peaceful.
Each time out, I would nudge the edge of the field a little further into the woods and then watch new grass sprout unbidden where brambles had been. I could imagine opening lines for reviews, write essays, and just roam around in the world inside my head. I loved the beginning out on the perimeter of whichever piece lay in front of me and then the methodical mowing for a couple of hours as the area grew smaller with each pass and the final feeling of victory as the last small square fell.
August always brought a mixture of regret and relief as the grass grew more slowly and threatened to stop altogether. I have loved it, every single cut, though nothing has ever quite equaled that night when the moon turned the landscape to daylight. Plowing or mowing, I don’t remember ever wishing I were doing something else while in the Jeep or on the tractor.
And now they are gone. Last week I sold each one. I have a month to make the material things in my life disappear and those are the only things I will miss. They weren’t really things; they were the way of my life for a very long time.