by Ryan Foxley of Arlington WA
April is the cruellest month
Breeding lilacs out of the dead
Land, mixing memory and desire,
Stirring dull roots with spring rain.
— T. S. Eliot, from The Waste Land
It is April and I am miserable. Well, not exactly miserable, but rather feeling that keen disappointment that comes when hopes are dashed by this cruelest of months, when change comes in creeping, furtive fits, teasing, tempting. April is like that: one day you are plowing and planting in an early blaze of sunshine with spirits running high; the next you are again digging out long underwear as you watch the descending snow level on the mountain, wondering where it will stop, how low it will go. By all rights winter should be over; according to the calendar spring arrived weeks ago. The bulbs are up: garlic, tulips, daffodils; the potatoes in the bin are pushing sprouts, reaching skyward, and like everyone this time of year, desperate to shed the confines of winter, to live and grow again in the pleasant glow of summer. Despite these sure signs of reawakening, I remain unconvinced. The persistent, damp chill in the air refuses to soften its coarse edges, leaving me always less than warm. And the wind which normally blows over the top of our sheltered little valley, seems now to blow continually, creeping down under my collar. I can’t help but wonder if I planted too early again, or if I am going to have to replant like last year, after seeds rotted like so much manure in the frigid, soggy April ground.
The horses too know April means spring. Their winter coats shed out in earnest in preparation for warmer days to come. Before harnessing up in the morning I brush and brush and brush, repeatedly pounding out big clumps of horse hair from the curry comb. Brushing it all out is impossible, and eventually I say enough is enough, and I go to harnessing. The hair finds its way down inside my shirt, into my mouth, plastered onto my Scotch cap, and if I forget to don a slick raincoat before starting, my wool vest and sweater too will soon be completely covered in horse hair, fjord yellow, Suffolk brown, or both.
April does sometimes feel like a Wasteland, all cold and lifeless, yet memories will stir, roots will awaken, and lilacs will bloom in a lovely spring rain.
Because it is planted on the mysterious hill behind the farmhouse, I have decided to call my new vineyard Colline Mystérieuse. I am convinced that wine made from Clos Colline Mystérieuse will be far more delicious than that made from “Mysterious Hill Vineyard,” with the French adding a certain linguistic terroir. On verra, we’ll see. If the wine is so-so with the French, maybe some improvement could be had from Collina Misteriosa, after all, the Italians make pretty fine wine themselves.
But what about this Hill, this geologic enigma? Now that I’m spending quantities of time up there tending the young vines, I’ve been thinking more about its origins, pondering where it came from and why. First I’ll set the scene:
As you leave the county road and drive through the farm gate traveling in a westerly direction, you’ll see that the lane bisects the farm. On either side of the lane are perhaps two of the oldest and best preserved barbed wire fences anywhere. If a barbed wire fence can be beautiful, this one certainly is, though perhaps a fence of character more aptly describes it. There remain yet a few old-growth cedar posts, but most have rotted away, having been replaced by tee posts, themselves now rusted down to a fine patina of burnt umber. The wire itself, matches exactly the color of the posts, lending to the whole a sort of unified, rustic elegance. What started out as a five strand fence, is now reduced to four, the bottom wire long ago having been absorbed into the cycle of growth and decay at ground level, proving the notion that permanent pasture and hay lands build soil. With two twisted wire stays between every post, the fence is wonderfully tight and rigid, not because we so diligently maintain it, but rather because it has achieved a sort of immortality, a petrification, frozen in time and in space. The fence is like an old brigadier general, leaning some, unable to stand straight, fragile, yet rigid in demeanor, and commanding in presence. On the rare occasion that a strand needs repair, we do so with the utmost care, like a surgeon delicately repairing broken ligaments. I fear that with one extra click of the fence stretcher, the whole thing will come tumbling down, leaving nothing but a row of rusty wire fragments, lost forever in a carpet of meadow grass. But I digress…
To the right of the lane lies a sliver of pasture bordered by a row of cedars hiding a steep incline leading to a terrace below. On the left lies a hayfield of eight or so acres. Bordered on the south and west by woods, it wraps around and envelopes the farmstead in a pleasing sort of way. The field is gently rolling, but lies generally in the same plain, and one would not call it hilly. The Hill itself, rises up out of the field in a most unnatural manner, a bump in an otherwise flat field that in no way resembles any other geologic feature of the surrounding area. Perched on the summit and leaning like the Tower of Pisa is an old concrete well casing.
When we first moved to the farm in 2005 I was told by someone, who was told by someone else, that old Merle Oleson, who bought the farm sometime in the late 50’s, wanted above all to be prepared, and that he had built beneath the hill a giant tile-lined water cistern — for the hard times. That was a captivating idea to ponder: a secret vaulted cavern plum full of fresh water! I held on to the myth for a while until one day I decided to see what I could see and I drug a ladder up to the top of the Hill to have a look inside. After hacking my way laboriously through a thicket of blackberries, I leaned the ladder up against the well casing, climbed up, and with an enormous effort and the aid of a pry bar, managed to push the lid off just enough to drop in a pebble. I guess I was expecting to wait a few seconds and then hear a splash as the pebble struck the underground reservoir of cool, refreshing, subterranean water. What I heard instead, almost instantly, was a rather tiny plunk as the pebble hit the dry concrete bottom of the well casing. Upon further excavation and inspection I discovered some plumbing that disappeared into the ground, leading directly, I assumed, to the house. Okay, so Merle perched a well casing on top of the Hill to provide gravity flow water to the house during the frequent power outages we experience due to trees falling on power lines. But considering the modern pump house he built shortly after his purchase of the farm, it seems unlikely that he would have constructed an artificial hill of this size simply to bring backup water to the house. There must be another explanation.
Between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, in our region known as the Vashon Stade, Puget Sound was sculpted by enormous glaciers that moved south from present day Canada as far as Olympia, WA. These glaciers were up to 3000 feet thick and profoundly transformed the landscape in their slowly creeping path. The Puget Sound lowlands, where Littlefield Farm sits, was formed by the scouring action of these giant sheets of moving ice. The glaciers picked up stones, boulders, and sediment of all sorts, rearranging and redistributing it along its path. A glacier could pick up and transport a giant boulder the size of a house and deposit it at will on its tireless journey.
Considering these facts, I’ve decided that it is entirely possible that the Hill could have for its core one of these giant boulders, dropped by a receding glacier. Our little valley was also shaped by the course of the Stillaguamish River, which at one point would have flowed around the giant rock. It must have been a lovely island in the middle of the river. Over the course of time, grasses and other plants would have taken root in the cracks of the rock, eventually creating little pockets of soil, which in turn encouraged more vegetation and so on until the original boulder was completely obscured. At some point, the river took another route further to the northeast, changing the status of the rock from Island to Hill.
Because the west side of the Hill slopes gently, while the east side is rather steep, I have thought it possible that the Hill is composed of soil and rocks excavated in the creation of the farm. Vehicles would have driven up from the west, dumping excavated material on the east, thus creating the steep slope on the one side, and the more gentle slope on the other. The material could have come from the creation of the road leading from the house to the barn. As plausible as this seems, I’m not convinced. The hill is simply too massive; it would have required machinery, money, and effort beyond what I would expect from a homesteader of that era.
The fields hereabout were once covered in bountiful old growth timber. In the making of the farm, these trees were cut down, and the stumps removed. I have thought that perhaps the stumps were somehow heaped into an enormous pile, which over the years, mellowed, and softened into a natural looking hill, covered with soil and rock. I am less convinced by this theory than any of the others. When I dig into the hillside, as I have done numerous times over the years, the soil appears very natural, with layers and strata of gravel, rock, and organic matter. There are simply too many rocks, too much mineral, and too many unanswered questions: how would they have piled the stumps so high in the first place, and why? Wouldn’t the stumps have eventually decomposed, leaving only a bump, rather than a hill? Was the stump pile covered over with soil and rocks intentionally? If so, how and why?
Maybe someone will come forth someday and tell the straight truth of this mystery, but until then I have resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never know for certain the what, the why, or the how of the Hill. In a world where nearly every question has an easy answer no more than a click away, I’ll content myself with the pleasant work of nurturing a new vineyard, and not get too preoccupied with the origins of my Hill, my Colline Mystérieuse.
I am driving through a high mountain landscape, craggy granite outcroppings punctuate a once fertile valley. I know this place and yet I do not; it is at once intimately familiar and strangely unfamiliar. On my left a field comes into view, or at least what used to be a field, now mostly patchy bare dirt with only a few scraggly weeds scattered about. A loose, neglected barbed wire fence surrounds a herd of dairy cattle, sorry, skinny creatures. Behind the farmstead lie heaps of old rusty iron: cars, tractors, oil drums, horse-drawn mowers, a smashed up dump rake. Several outbuildings dot the farmstead, all in various states of decay and collapse. I know this farm, remember it when it prospered even here, in this marginal alpine country once known as “Little Switzerland.” At first I am content to see that there is still at least one working farm in this beloved valley of my youth, even though I know the creamery has long since closed its doors for good. My hopeful feeling is quickly erased by the evidence: all is disrepair, ill health, and a hopeless, desperate, clinging sadness. I turn my attention away and drive on, more slowly now. Taking a wide bend in the road, I see off to the right, two barns, oddly close together. The roofs are collapsing in on themselves, siding boards lie askance, and the crows’ beaks above the hay mow doors, once so proud and inviting, now hang down, melting, drooping, folding, like Dalí’s clocks. Unable to continue, I take my foot off the gas and let the car roll to a gentle stop. Silence. I stare at the scene for several minutes, wondering at the continued mingling familiarity and strangeness. All is perfectly still, no sign of life, until at last, a single black raven hops out of one of the barn doors. He cocks his head knowingly, and with his little black eyes stares straight into my blue ones with an unsettling intensity. For several moments, we regard one another. Then the jet black bird, strangely luminous in the grey twilight, gives two loud croaking calls, and like a shadow, flies up over the top of the drooping barns and disappears into the tattered landscape.
I awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed, breathing heavily. An enormous sense of relief flooded over me as I settled back down under the warm covers. Dawn was just breaking, and the horses would be expecting me down at the barn. Outside my open window a chorus of songbirds announced the day.
Red on Red
Tack tack tack tack tackety tack tack
Teaspoon on tin can
Tea can on tin spoon
Tack tack tack tack tack
Rapid, earnest, insistent
Shifty morning zephyrs confuse
Tack tack tack tack tack
High tone bell tone
Tack tack tackety tack tack
(or tock tock tock?—language fails)
New Call of the Wild
But still…what, and where?
Tack tack tack tack
Foot follows ear follows tone
Around bend at last to field’s edge
At foot of Hill
Tack tack tackety tack
Concordance of color
Not still Life
Red on red on Red
Breasted sap sucker
Love songs on
Red Farmall chimney cap
Tack tack tackety tack
Red on red on
Red on red