by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
BY OUR MISTAKES DO WE LEARN
“The health of the land and the health of the people are inextricably linked and we must heal them together.” – Peter Forbes of Knoll Farm, Vermont
On the wall in the kitchen of the two-story walk up of my grandparents home there was a framed photograph of a boy seated upon a pony. The photo was old enough that the faded colors had been hand-tinted upon its surface. The boy in the photo looked happy but complacent upon the back of his stolid and stationary mount. He was wearing the shorts, knee socks and cap of a depression era city boy. I looked at that photograph every time we came to visit and not having any experience with horses myself, wondered what grand adventures that boy on his very own pony most certainly must have had. Of course, I knew at some level that the boy in the picture was my dad, but at that age I found it impossible to conceive that he had ever been anything other than a grown man who wore suits and ties during the work week and golfing clothes on the weekend.
Recently, I had occasion to ask my dad about that photograph which he now possesses, stashed away in a box of memorabilia in the basement of his home. He told me that he was six or seven when the picture was taken, and that he was atop the pony of a peddler of sorts, a man who stopped by outside the schools as the children were released in the afternoon to await the opportune chance to entice their parents into paying for a photo of their child upon his trusty mount. But even with knowing the true circumstance behind the photograph, my childhood impression remains embedded in my psyche — my dad was once a boy who had a horse and when I grow up I should like to have a horse of my own.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it. Whatever value, usefulness or inspiration may be found in this account is owing to this fact.
My father was nine years old when World War II broke out. All his childhood dreams were fueled by images of heroes rushing headlong to combat the forces of evil. When it became clear that he was going to be drafted to fight in Korea he enlisted in the marines. As a college man, he went directly to officer’s training school and learned how to fly jets. The sound barrier had only been broken in 1948, so every jet pilot flying in the mid-1950’s was essentially a test pilot. When my father was stationed in Hawaii, even though the war had been over for a year, 1/5 of his squadron died in the air. On one routine flight my father’s jet went into an uncontrollable spin and he had to eject over the ocean at 10,000ft. The emergency protocol of basic training had been so effectively drilled into his brain that, between the moment he pulled the lever to eject until the time he found himself sitting upright in an inflated raft in the middle of the Pacific, he had absolutely no conscious memory. He never went up again. Even though he attained a full honorable discharge from the corps, for many years afterwards he suffered with the feeling that he had lost his nerve.
There was a hay field out beyond the backyard fence of my family’s suburban ranch house. Just up the road, at the far edge of that field, stood an old empty barn. I remember being about five and sticking my nose into the dark recesses of that relic building. The faint scents of old hay and sweet horse manure still lingered enough to conjure in my imagination the ghosts of farmers and cows and horses and chickens and pigs. A reverie of a past once teeming with ebullient life gone silent and cob-webbed and rusted and moldering somehow still kindled an almost mystic yearning in my child’s soul for a paradise lost.
EARLY WARNING SIGNS
Green teamsters and fast horses don’t make for a good mix. Back in 1994 Kerry and I befriended a young farmer neighbor of ours named Eric who was in the starter-up phase of creating his own family farm. He had some horses on his place. Among them was a mustang mare and her foal, both adopted from the Bureau of Land Management, and a 5 yr old Belgian stallion named Luke. Eric invited us over to take a wagon ride with the stallion. We met him out at his farm on a beautiful spring morning. He had an old wooden wheeled buckboard and an ancient leather harness. He pieced together this outfit and got the snorting rippling young stallion hitched. With a degree of trepidation, Kerry and I climbed aboard into the bed of the wagon, and off we went. Our host must have seen the shadow of fear cross our eyes because he called back to us from the driver’s bench that he’d just had his two little kids out for a ride the previous weekend.
Eric turned the stallion out onto the unpaved back country road. Kerry and I leaned back against the wagon sides and took in the light dappled scenery. It was a fine day for a horse drawn excursion. All of a sudden at a bend in the road something went terribly wrong. Luke veered off the road and began cantering over a bumpy meadow. Eric began desperately calling out; “Whoa!” and hauling back on the lines. Kerry and I sat up in alarm, holding on now for our lives. As Luke careened back up onto the road, heading back in the direction from which we had come, Eric called back to us over his shoulder; “He’s lost his bridle — I can’t control him!” And indeed, we could see that somehow the bridle had either popped off or broken and the bit was no longer in the horse’s mouth.
In the next moment, like some Hollywood stuntman, Eric leapt off the buckboard seat and started running alongside the wagon. He managed to get up beside Luke’s head and tried to reset the bridle, but his legs and lungs just couldn’t hold that pace. He lasted all of about thirty seconds before he slipped and fell. Kerry and I felt the sickening bump as the wooden wagon wheels rolled over his leg and we looked back in horror to see Eric writhing in pain in the middle of the road, clutching his broken leg.
Now it was my turn to contemplate heroics. I looked at Kerry, huddled in my arms, her face white as a sheet. I thought about our prospects of survival should we try to jump and roll. I looked up to Luke, still bombing down the road in a full flight of terror. I considered trying to leap up onto his back to get that bit back in his mouth. I picked up the lines and pulled back; the bit pulled uselessly at the horse’s throat. I looked up ahead in the road and realized that we were about to pass Eric’s house, after which the road wound and curved sharply down to a narrow bridge and then intersected with a busy paved road that lead to the village center.
I determined we were going to have to jump. But as we passed Eric’s house his wife Emily happened to be out on the porch and saw us come barreling by. Thinking quickly she grabbed her keys, hopped in her car, and gunned out ahead of us. She managed to get out in front of the horse and started applying the brakes. Miraculously, she got the horse to slow and then pull over and stop at the side of the road, his lungs heaving in exhaustion. We were about three-hundred yards from that bridge. No doubt in my mind, she saved our lives. I guess we might have been scared off working with horses right then and there, but we weren’t. I’d like to think that at least a modicum of caution had been etched on my psyche, but if so, subsequent events did not reveal much trace of it.
DAYS OF THE GIANTS
Even if I had never met John Hunt I would already know a lot about him through farming the place where he had spent his life farming. The land and the barns speak of his character — for instance; the concrete foundation painstakingly poured under the entire perimeter of the gambrel barn to replace the original one of field stone that had heaved and was falling down. Any thing that he built that I wound up having to take down filled me with grudging admiration for his “build it to last” approach. Foundations were poured at least 4’ deep, fence posts on which to hang gates went down 6’ to avoid all possibility of their being lifted by the frost, rafters and stringers were held together with enough four-penny nails to belie his Yankee frugality.
Over the years I have come to know John Hunt as a neighbor; he has shared many recollections of the horse farming days of his youth. He told me that one time his mother, Mae Hunt, was out raking hay with the farm horses on a buck-rake when all of a sudden the tines of the rake tore through a nest of ground wasps. The horses got stung and broke into a panic. Mrs. Hunt was scared to death that she might be pitched forward and then dragged by the rake so she decided to bale out backwards. She landed bruised and scratched but alive to tell the story. The horses finally ran themselves out and she climbed back onto the metal seat to finish the job.