A Rural December (15 Days)
He delighted, in those days, in the startling fixity of her opinions; he taught her, bit by bit, what she needed to know about the country. – Annie Dillard, The Living
In November, I softened with age. All living things slow in the face of kindness. Just when we think we’ve captured the clock, it races off with so much trajectory. But what do we expect other than a few good times and the crinkled eyes of a newborn and maybe a little adventure on some distant horizon. Every farmer knows these things.
December 1 - Inside the typical discussions of weather comes that which farmers call good, bad, or too soon. I have since learned to nod and flow with these discussions. Fifteen years ago, I had no empathy. Cultural integration occurs when patience, understanding, and an ability to nod effectively are regularly displayed in the presence of antipodal exchange. Today the neighbor called to tell me a storm was rising.
December 2 - Write about winter in summer, Annie Dillard said, and summer in winter. Well, it’s near-winter and I’m writing about frosts because blade damage has browned our grass. And I’m writing about six untouched alfalfa bales in the pasture while the sheep munch on scruffy weeds lining the fences. And I’m writing about dug-in water lines that froze and froze until I was forced to carry pails of water to the barn while the farmer stood by and asked, are you sure you want to keep animals again this winter?
December 3 - The gentleman farmer lives on a different plane. Everyday simplicities elude him; he dwells in abstraction, only occasionally touching down to cut and bale hay or eat at one of his three favorite restaurants. Even then, his mind easily flies to another world. He forgets the overflowing garbage that must be taken out, the bills that must be paid, the laundry that must be done. He imagines a universe engineered to care for itself, a more efficient, zero waste version according to the principles of Lean Six Sigma.
December 5 - I drive past a field of cattle and they look up from the cornstalk stubble to see what it’s all about, the clack clack clacking of the diesel engine so loud it has to be turned off at a drive-thru order station so I can be heard above the commotion. Diesel trucks either get plugged in or sit all winter in such as tonight’s -15 °F wind chill. In Alaska, they use Arctic grade oils, fuels, and vehicle lubricants. They have heat blankets for the oil pan, the radiator, the transmission, and even the battery. Knobs and door handles break off if wrenched on when it’s this cold, and tires freeze flat on the bottom and must be thawed on long slow straightaways.
December 6 – The farmer is J, J is the farmer. He remembers it was fourteen years ago that a drunk driver hit us; and I decide not to read Walden through. If our indigenous peoples had been white and literate, would Thoreau had gotten any press at all, I ask. He has no answer and I have no more questions.
December 8 - I swim the icy waters; he warns of hypothermia. I shoulder boulders the size of my world; he wishes me luck. I watch him rise from the depths in shades of white; he learns tenderness. This is our gnawing love, our three-tiered awe.
December 9 - First snows, like first loves, leave one panting for breath. Maybe it’s the beauty, but more likely, the shoveling. First snows signify change. New season, new thinking, questions. Like how to winterize a drafty barn. When to disable the outdoor faucet. Where to park the car for easiest entry when the drifts pile high. The problem with firsts is that they’re only ever first, but seconds keep on and on forever.
December 14 - The farmer keeps a tractor or two, is painstaking with instructions. He tells me to plug one in in this kind of weather before driving it. The steering column bucks, I discover, until warmed and loosened. The hydraulic lever sticks too so I lean into it bit by bit until it’s either high enough or low enough on the column for my purposes. I have channeled Edurne Pasaban today, climbed an eight-thousander, K2 or maybe Annapurna, hefted packs of feed enough for the mules. I jam my flag into the snowy peak and smile at the knowledge that I’m one of a few.
December 19 - One road frisks. A sign at the head says Enter at Your Own Risk: an invitation for incident. This is the glory that is Jeep, the grandeur that is Truck. What it is is a swatch cut into a ridge, bored out and smoothed. We drive through a tunnel with tree branches forming the roof, and slips of sun and adventure along its sides. The laterals are tall, ten feet in places. Dug into the wall’s bare dirt are gopher holes; tree roots sprawl exposed, and a good rain could wash it all down. Yet there are three prime houses here where Rough meets Luxury, and I wonder that they don’t mind the dust. One big branch fell down and will lay across the road soon enough. Fallen leaves by the thousands. All dirt, and mud sometimes. And little evergreens gushing like Christmas.
December 21 - A tendency toward the tautological in any discussion of winter or weather is expected. For example, cold snow, winter’s cold weather, freezing cold, biting cold, December cold. My coat lays on the chair.
December 29 – Roll over me, the farmer says, in seedtime and harvest, at the base of snowy Kilimanjaro, erode yourself for me. I tell the farmer I can’t work when he’s around. Then go somewhere else, he says. It’s not that easy, I say, because you’re still here. So I settle next to him and we watch the proverbial corn grow, or in this case, some kind of usual freezing shenanigans.
December 30 - One day small towns will disappear, countrified casserole recipes will fade into the annals of ancient history. The City will be ubiquitous—one large snarly lizard swishing its tail from shore to shore and boundary to boundary. And one day the sun will fail to rise.
December 31 - Time is a maze we get lost in, I tell the farmer. We never feel old like summer might turn to winter in a flash, but ease at it incrementally, a green tree frog slowly going brown while suctioned to the bark of a giant pin oak on a hillside, a little darkening speck barely noticeable, turning in turn, turning in turn. The farmer blinks twice then turns his head and sleeps on.
About the Author: German-born Chila Woychik has bylines in journals such as Silk Road, Storm Cellar, and Soundings East, and was awarded the 2016 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award (Emrys Foundation). She craves the beautiful and lyrical, scours the pedestrian countryside for such, and edits the Eastern Iowa Review. She enjoys occasional visits to Michigan friends of friends who maintain a potbellied pig and an average dog just for grins.