Into the hills
Morning . . . and it is notm raining. Which is a significant discovery for me, because my lasting impression of the State of Washington is that of great green bear-like mountains observed through silver sheets of rain. Clear and cold rain, falling perpetually. This factor alone discourages many visitors from becoming settlers. The last time I flew west to visit Cousin Lenny's farm, I peered through those rainy veils for nine consecutive days. On the one hour of the one morning when the sun bravely appeared, people danced.
But Lenny was renting a farmhouse then, and we had a cozy little kitchen to dawdle in with friends, talking together the pieces of our lives that distance had split apart. And a potbellied stove warmed the chill mornings and nights, sending smoke-scented dreams sidling up to us. Rain or shine, though, there was work to do. The pigs didn't call off hunger because of rain. Neither did the ducks, geese, chickens, cows, or goats. I still remember with wonderful clarity the petite grandfatherly faces of the goats, upturned in the rain, nibbling on my fresh-picked rain-washed comfrey.
But on this morning, two years later, we've only a small trailer to wake up in. No kitchen where we can loll over breakfast. No fire to take the bite out of the air. This is Cousin Lenny's newm farm. With few exceptions, the only being that waits to be cared for is the land.
To an objective observer, my cousin has taken several steps downward on the prosperity/comfort scale. But a quite significant difference marks this place from the other I'd visited; and even if I didn't know it already, I would sense it in Lenny's face. This land belongsm to Lenny -- as soon as the mortgage is repaid, of course. This land is his home.
The day here begins with a shock. We walk back to the well and draw a hand-pumped basin of water -- water that wakes suddenly every muscle in your face. Cold? How cold do you imagine the spring is, resting 200 feet under earth? Though it takes some getting used to, this startling wakefulness becomes a cherished thing. In an instant you've caught up to the already moving day.
Over small propane burners, we get together a breakfast, then head on to work. The main object today is "the bridge," which Lenny speaks of with monumental rev spect (as if a second Golden Gate were being constructed). Three cedar logs, built into the embankment, span twenty feet over a creek. Across these, we are securing huge 4-by-12 planks, hammered in place with ten-inch steel spikes. Lenny lifts the six-pound sledge with a careful driving rhythm. We cross over the creek twelve inches at a time.
Lenny was not raised to care for cows and chickens, to ridge creeks and build fences. In the vast stretches of his home town -- New York City -- such training is not considered essential. More precisely, his schooling decreed him an architectural draftsman. By all reasonable expectations, he should be living in his own house by now in a respectable suburb, earning $20,000 for his yearly travail, investing perhaps for a comfortable family life. That same objective viewer would declare something lax, something very wrong,m about this pastoral turn of events. It is a long and winding path that led Lenny across the country and into the hills of the Great Northwest. But never in my life have I sensed such rightnessm about the way a person was discovering his home. It was as if this life, no matter how improbable for a "city boy," was waiting for him to arrive.
Lenny's family is often at a loss for a word to describe their youngest son's occupation. "Cattle ranching," Aunt Ruth once offered tentatively. (He had a bull and three cows then, so she was not wrong in category, only scale.) Lenny has his own word securely in mind for what he is engaged in: homesteading.m His occupation is making a full life and secure home from labor and a small parcel of land.
The turmoil that shook our society during the 1960s sent many young Americans off in pursuit of new ways of living. Scientists and lawyers found themselves hoeing corn rows and planting beans. But many of the individuals who truck out on their own found their new visions too difficult to realize, the bucolic dreams too much work to maintain. It is not easy to sacrifice the security, the prestige, the material and emotional sureness of the established roads . . . for what? Sleeping in a trailer and working in boot-deep mud?
My cousin, in his quiet way, is a heartening reminder to me about the power of choice. The inconveniences of his daily life increase his appreciation of the minor miracles that surround him. Days do not blow past like leaves: they are each in their own way, victories.
Working beside Lenny, I am made aware that the heat of labor, the fervid persistence of dreams, provides its own sustenance. Living here on this land -- without electricity, telephone, running water, plumbing, and other small luxuries -- is Lenny's first taste of freedom. He does not say the word with a poet's flair or a philosopher's earnestness; it is something he lifts carefully like the heft of the six-pound hammer.
Until he becomes more self-sufficient, Lenny (like many of his friends) puts in 45 hours a week in the lumber mill to earn money for the seeding of these dreams. Then, after six hours of sleep, there is a day's work on hiw own land; the salary for this is accounted only in the hands and the heart. Freedom, for Lenny, is not the easy stretch of idle hours; it is choosing your own vision and working it into reality. And how, I wonder, can a man or woman be any more useful to the world?
Already the sun is draining into the mountains. We've passed our hours with work and talk, hammering and singing. Now we walk back to the trailer; the young alder trees are poised beside the road, stick-thin and lissome. In the low sun, shocks of light and dark appear in the woods, and I watch the wind carefully shifting them. I am thinking of Gustav Klimt and the abstract geometry of his forest paintings. My eyes have been filled and overfilled this day; and i am happy. Lenny is considering the work we've done, speculating on the work and weather that wait for tomorrow morning. The dogs canter beside him , playfully nipping at his fingers. The sky is clear tonight; and he is happy.