Plotting Against Me
by McCabe Coolidge of Beaufort, NC
Things fall apart in the spring in the Carolinas. Still after years of rebuilding an abandoned farm, I finally surveyed the newly cleared and seeded pasture, the outbuildings, the gardens and under my breath uttered, “Ah, it is good.”
Today was the day to dig another garden and plant broccoli. Spring had sprung early, March in the Piedmont woos, peas were already in, fear of frost disappeared with the blush of haze at dawn. I was ready. I had driven to Pittsboro the day before, and purchased old railroad ties for garden boundaries, unused for almost 50 years, ever since the spit of track from Sanford to Pittsboro had been closed by the Southern Railroad.
I had a mountain of manure, a combination from a trip to the Chatham County stockyard as well as ‘mucking’ out my goat barn. The dark musky pile sizzled and steamed in the morning sun, already doing its work of transformation. Double-dig, the French Intensive method was the way to go. I started with post-hole diggers, to get beneath the 12” of clay, somewhat softened by winter and spring rains. Into this grave-like long ditch I poured the organic fertilizer, then paused as I retrieved my hoe to mix in the clay with the upended dirt.
A hoe is like a surf-fishing pole for me. I throw the bait over the first breaker, click the line into position, then wait for a bite, all the time the pole is leaning into my waist while I gaze at the ocean. I slip the pole into a cut piece of plastic pipe and stick it in the sand, my feet sinking, sinking as tide coming in washes over them until I can’t move, then it’s time to wind up the line for another throw and another round of gazing. A great excuse for doing nothing but looking like I am up to something.
A hoe is like that for a farmer. Something to lean on while witnessing the rite of spring… robins chirping, flittering about, nest building. Projects finished and unfinished. Memories of some other spring, another farmhouse, or maybe conjuring up who had lived in this 150 year old farmhouse. The old hand dug well, now filled in with dirt, the kitchen, separated from the main house, had been partially burned when I bought this place, in the mid-1970’s, a long drive over dirt and gravel for ten miles into the middle of a wilderness. Nostalgia seeps in, like a soaking rain, narrowing humanity into a bit of a flow of time, nature wins, always takes over.
Temenos. The art of drawing a line, creating a sacred space. I was manic the first couple of years on this farm, ‘slash, cut and burn’ could have become my nickname. The farm had been abandoned for 30 years. Honeysuckle and kudzu ruled, vines crawling up every available building.
My biggest accomplishment was to create a two-acre pasture. Fenced it in, the milk goats romped, butted heads, enjoyed themselves, gave us kids. But the next spring, the locust trees budded, the honeysuckle grew abundantly on nearby pine trees, the goats saw, smelled and leaned. The entire northern boundary of my fence laid at a 45-degree angle as goat necks strained to eat the scented colorful honeysuckle. Temenos. The art of boundary making, protecting goats from nature and vice versa. One day I came home, my daughter Molly ran up the driveway pointing at the pasture, “The goats are out, the goats are out!” Proudly, as if she was rooting for the goats. They were out and it took me until dusk to tease them back into my fenced in ‘temenos.’ Innocence-mine, took a fall that day.
Returning from reverie, I noticed that a frog had bounded up, surveying my work. He was about 20 feet away, halfway between a brush pile and this new wonder of smell and sight. I watched him for awhile but he must have been watching me too. Each of us, as statues, unmoving. So I used the hoe to scrape some muck stuck on the bottom of my boot and as I looked up the frog had disappeared. Vanished. I looked around to see where he had hopped but I saw a long dark sliver rise up. A black snake. Then I watched the drama of her neck stretching sideways and the passage of ‘a thing’ seemingly stuck become unhinged and make the journey, down, down, down. So much for surveying my handiwork.
Late that spring, while I was drinking coffee, Molly had been instructed to take the pot of vegetables and coffee grinds out to the compost pile. She stomped her feet, a sign of her unwillingness to go outside with her nightgown on. I gave her the evil eye and she went out pouting, with the two dogs following closely. One of them, Fred, could leap high and land in the dun of all things rotting. Dessert.
“Dad!” Spread out into three syllables – southern speaking. Like ‘daaaiiiddd!’ Molly came running back, compost spilling from the sides of the old white pot. “Come look… cows in the garden!” I dropped my cup on the table, spilling the coffee on my newly washed jeans and ran. She was right. The rain had stopped a week or so back, the river had gone down, Mr. Brooks’s cows had crossed over at the ford and paid a visit to my broccoli garden. They had munched half of it already. Those tender little green buds, ready to flourish, had become breakfast for a dozen black and white cows.
I yelled, the dogs barked, the cows stared at me. Seemingly unwilling to move. “Molly go and tell your mother to call Mr. Brooks and tell him to come and get his cows!” ‘Geez,’ I say under my breath, ‘I wish he would fence those cows in on his own land.’
Meanwhile with the dogs barking and me picking up a stick and threatening them, they lumber off, down the mill trail to the ford where they stood and looked across the river. I could hear Mr. Brooks’ old Ford tractor bellow as it rumbled down the hill. Usually he kept a flatbed trailer hooked behind to bring hay to the cows. The cows heard the snorting tractor, crossed the river and were waiting for him as if ready for a second breakfast when he pulled up.
When summer arrives, the earth remembers. The loose dirt mixed with compost and manure returns to clay. Weeding is an effort bearing no fruit. The compost pile doesn’t like weeds nor do the goats. And it’s hot, 90 to 100 degrees. I lean on the hoe frequently as I attempt to dig under the roots of the weeds. As I lean, I dream of ocean beaches, riding the waves, cool canoe trips in northern Minnesota. Anywhere but here.
I look around, corn, tomatoes, okra, eggplant. Heat seeking plants. Broccoli has long ago bolted, along with the spinach and lettuce. The other day as I checked on the blueberry plants, my bloodhound Rosey trotted after me and proceeded to munch on the lower limbs of blue. I had thought all this time that it was the deer sneaking in, at dusk or early morning. My own dog. Temenos. I stand there, wanting to scold her but I am confused. The fencing, the planting of blueberry bushes near the house, the hacking away at kudzu, all efforts at creating a sanctuary, demarcating a boundary, a safe place for humans to dwell and to live graciously off the fruit of the earth, a protected distance from the screech owl and the bobcat. The clear dark, distinct line in my mind had become gray, zigzagging, and tired by mid-summer.
The dog eats the blueberries, the goats make my fencing look like a joke, the cows come by for breakfast, the limber puppy jumps in the compost pile. The snake eats the bedazzled frog. Temenos-sacred space shaping. Human hopefulness with good intentions but the boundaries don’t hold. The broccoli shoots up over night, their verdant green changes to a bulb speckled from old age. The okra has transformed itself into a banana shape, when I turn my head, now unsuitable for human consumption. All this is happening when my back is turned, when I lay my weary head on a pillow for needed rest.
Before sleep wrestles me down, I am pondering again, yet another ‘temenos’ project. “We’ve got a lot of old chimney rock laying in a pile, maybe I should load my truck up and take them down to the old mill…lay the rock next to the mill, create a pathway and a wall at the same time…” I love to bring the old back, give the stone, the railroad tie, the log cabin another chance, yet I seem destined to forget another truth of each spring, that nature, willful and unruly wants to reclaim her own, blur the line between what is to be tamed and what is to remain wild.