Field and Reading Notes
The Fox’s Backward Glance
A red fox cuts across the geldings’ pasture, darker legged than any I have seen, he carries a small feast in his mouth, dark knot. He pauses to look back two, three times as if knowing I’d be watching. What is it with foxes and the backward glance? Each time I think Eurydice, but there’s nothing mournful, about it, nothing rushed. He can’t be followed, won’t be. I have seen a hunted fox do this, not seventy five yards from a pack of hounds, heads down, feathering, eager to find the line. He watched them cast themselves in crooked sweeps across the lawn and into the woods and he waited, back of the woodpile, taking his sweet time.
Earlier one summer, my friend and I rode the perimeter of the front meadow. Trotting down the long side, and we nearly stumbled over a fawn, one eye partly open, looking at us askance, the lovely curvature of his eye, looking out without fear or surprise, the neat tuck of limbs and sylph-like head folded over his angled shoulder. Luminous, the newborn spots, and shocking his smallness amid the knee-high sea of the unmown meadow. Does are in the habit of doing this, leaving their young for hours at a time, trusting to the unmown meadow and strength of the nap. We’d never have seen him, but for the horses, and I wonder if they, too, will remember this spot, above the crabapple, not so far from the covert; will it imprint their minds as it has ours?
The Kettle Whistling
Let it be winter, snow falling and the horses at rest in the Mid-Stream pastures. Let decisions hold their breath and the kettle steam on, shrill, high, insistent. Like a train that will not slow to a shunting, throttled down rock, it’s the one-wayness, waywardness of a kettle carrying on that’s the first sign of the writing winter for me. It takes time to hear the kettle. The mind’s hibernation is not a true sleep, but a recovering quiet. Like lying awake in a disheveled nest of bedclothes until the mind catches at the edge of the sound and feels its way back to the present, the persisting whine breaks its way in and reverie’s displaced. Crack of ice and you’re up and flying. Remembering. One winter day on the way to the barn I pulled off to the side of the road to watch sheep on their hind legs, reaching for a snatch of hay from a great cylindrical bale. The haybales are larger than millwheels, there’s something pre-historic about them. Some rested chin to knees, hind legs upright, others balanced on their hind legs, flank to flank, all crowded round the hay. The unorthodox tumble was oddly reassuring like visiting the barn in dead of night and listening to the horses chew their hay, a modest contentment.
Last night I lost you in the streets of New York. We left the door at the same time, but somehow, whether it was your long strides or mine, you disappeared from me. What light there was was marred by wrinkles and pockets of darkness like a midnight blue scarf textured by nub and sheen of patterns barely discerned. We were side by side again, laughing and wisecracking, and then you were gone into the unfamiliar city of my dreams. In every direction, the views were partial, even when I stood at the point where five streets crossed, a lantern above me. The night was strangely lit, each way oblique. I threw my head back and called your name, then your childhood name. No stars and not a word. You remember the fog in the cove, when you could see the mooring buoy rocking the line, but not the boat. Not so much as the gleam of an oarlock till the mists blew off. Slap of waves and the far off growl of a whaler, undersurf of the in-take and Flanagan’s fog horn blowing, intoning its warning. When at last we found one another, you asked had I heard you cry out? I had not.
There is something peaceful about polishing paddock boots and bridles, the smooth contours of the leather, the ingrained smell of saddle soap braids into the days, it’s something you keep from a childhood spent with horses, it ropes you in like gravity. The black leather tongues of old tack: hard to resist the compulsion to pick one up and pull the life back into an old martingale, stiff girth, the sharp rinse of linseed, horse sweat and sweetness. I pick up an old halter and think of the first pony. Oil pools the cracks, a gummy rinse coats hands and fingers, one horse then another. The smoothing scrub and pull is a stand in for a horse when it is too cold to ride, or there is no horse. Out here, solace is wakened by cold air, cold so bitter the roads seem empty, the clatter of hooves amplified in tinny air. The ear keeps the rhythm in some alcove of the mind’s back rooms, and when you step out into the first true cold, the achy draw swilling, you hear it again the four-beat rhythm of the walk, the comfort of a stride you know continuing. And so the clatter rings on in the single-digit cold.
Cathedral of Birds
Horseless, I walk the Rushton fields toward Delchester. Leaving the meadow for shade, I take the path by the fallen beech with its massive slump. Heavy rain has riven a channel down the middle of one long bridlepath. It’s good to walk if you cannot ride. Damp and cool, it feels like rain waiting. If this were the New England woods, you’d see sassafras and just finished lady’s slippers, then flutes of Jack-in-the-pulpit as you cross the boggy swale that separates Rushton from the Willistown Meeting fields. As I loop back into the open meadow, the asters top out like waves, milkweed’s green boles are tinged with pink, and white clover has not yet ceded to the red that will turn every horse in the pasture into a drooler. Looping back through open fields, a scent catches: honeysuckle holding its own in mid-June. It drapes itself over wild rose, bayberry, and olive. In the covert, scent gives way to sound. Pure liquid warbling, backlit by a blur of syllables. Everywhere there’s a cathedral of birds: wood thrush, warblers, tanagers, and orioles, such height and depth to their early morning singing. Vaults and arches, psalm and song.
It reminds me of the house our friends described the night before last. The house had once been a church, its sleeping loft snug against high arches and stained glass windows. Imagine the stained glass come evening, staring out into a canopy of trees. A feast of dark colors, deep blues and ruby reds and a green so black its the color of the Adirondacks by night. If you woke in the middle of night thirsty, would you sit on your bed just staring out or find your way downstairs for a glass of cold milk in the kitchen that was once an altar? Imagine a vase where the ciborium once stood, a vase of hydrangeas just now turning their beautiful blues. Perhaps there’s a toaster on the counter and before you walk back up the stairs the former altar will fill with the good smell of raisin toast and butter.
For Eddie and Alina
The Long Call Out, April
“Your name, called into the wind,/ slows the wind down,” Sylt II by Valzhyna Mort. There is something so satisfying in that line, in both idea and craft. The first comma is already slowing the current of the line, then the repetition of “wind” and the closeness of sound in “slows” & “down” make a repetitive echo so that the sound carries on like an echo. “Your name called into the wind, slows the wind down,” it reminds me of that echoing line by Hardy: “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, / Saying that now you are not as you were / When you changed from the one who was all to me.” Hardy is suddenly stricken with the loss of his wife, they had grown estranged of late, but with her death comes his sudden understanding of the whole of her life. He sees her as he did at, at first., and the grief is long call out, a desire to make amends. Like Hardy, Mort’s line is haunting and beautiful. It’s a prayer the universe hears, for it seems the wind slows its pace listening. The garden is as good place a place as any to call out, especially now as on all four sides of the enclosed green, pink boles of peonies fatten and the iris who just a week before were slicing the air like knives, are now tipped in eyebright purple. All six of our pears’ white blooms have fallen, and in their place the bulbs of incipient pears begin: green with a flush of russet, four or five to a stem. The world’s pulse fattens and moves on.
Bird-Banding at Rushton Farm
The white-throated sparrow of my New England childhood: a sing of yellow on either side of his head, just a lick of brightness that like his song is a heartening, steady thrum in the turning wood. Lisa Kiziuk, an experienced bander, deftly lifts him from the mist net; he’s hardly tangled, it’s as if he’s been here before. (And he has, “sixty-nine” reads the imprint on his ankle band; last October he was caught and banded in the Rushton woods.) He is an easy keeper, not to be compared with that fussing welter above him, small chickadee who has roiled about so that each curled foot is knotted in fine mesh. I can’t imagine there’s anything to do but cut the net. But then Lisa strokes his leg lengthwise, the way you might straighten a dog’s foreleg before removing a thorn, and with one steady stroke the claw releases its tenacious grip. Square by square the mist net untwists. Lisa closes the angle of the perfectly hinged wing, slips one loop, then another, past shoulder and wingtip. One quarter turn of the wrist, and he’s unencumbered. The chickadee rests in the cradle of her palm, head caught in the vee of forefinger and ring finger. He peers up from under the loft of his punk black head, undeterred. Given a millimeter of wiggle room, he’ll do it again: pinch a fold Lisa’s forefinger, feisty as a pirate on his way up the rigging, cutlass between his teeth, before he’s eased down into the white fog, slip-purse of a bird bag and carried away to the banding table.
At Claytor’s Farm
Weeks of waiting and then we see him again, red fox in the mare’s pasture, full plume of his tail suspended behind him. He wanders the perimeter, cub-like in his trust, and why not? The mares care so little as to never lift their heads, the two of them intently grazing. Each blade and tuft leading to another, they make scraggly paths across the pasture, wet prints displacing the dew drizzled grass. In their eyes, the solitary fox might be one of the red-tails lining the drive, waiting for the henhouse door to open and the feasting to begin, not their worry. He makes his way as they go theirs. It’s no wonder we lose track of time here, at Claytor’s farm, every living thing making its slow way. The barn cats deliberately head in from hunting. They’ll stop for a dust bath in one of the dried clay swivets, luxuriously stretching, rolling the dust into their spines, shoulders and flanks. Though we hardly lavish attention on them, the cats wait for our return, the familiar car pulling down the long drive. And it’s not simply that we spin the top off the raccoon-proof container and fill a bowl with a spill of kibble. Often enough, the cat food is there on the open sill, waiting.
What the barn cats want from us is company, a near proximity. Perhaps it’s a defensive behavior, our stature and size keeping them safe while they eat. But each time, I am reminded of Homer’s lines about warriors at day’s end banishing the gore of day-long battles with a shared meal. “They reached out for the good things that lay at hand / and when they had put aside the desire for food and drink.” A fleeting communal moment. They will eat while we curry the horses, and the horses draw the length of a long summer day from fall-harvested sheaves of hay. The cats take turns, eating and waiting. Now and then, we reach up to scratch their none too gorgeous ears, nicked with trysts and stand-offs. The small calico is newly dominant. Harold, the mustard yellow male, must wait for her to finish before he can begin. Patiently, he sits, legs straight as the pharaoh’s cat while she hunches forward grinding each cube of kibble with a deliberate, painstaking grace.
Language of Gestures
Our third blizzard. The horse waits by the pasture fence for the car to pull in, but it won’t, not for days. He has plenty of grain and sheaves of hay, good enough. Still I see him in the mind’s eye. His eyes scan mine mid-day as I stare out at the hurrying snow. It’s not the beet pulp he cares for anymore, though he will eat it happily enough if you bring the green bucket steaming with the earthy punk warmth of the soaked shreds. It’s the company he craves, watch him with Natalie when he’s not seen her for a week. The high pitch of her singing and his head drops to hers, gently, his nose lifts the weight of her hair, the same deft move with which he clears the snowbound grass of the red pebbles that line the drive. A sort of swishing back and forth and then he scissors the green tips free of red stone. Sound of a horse grazing at the end of a lead, it’d settle a bank robber or a thief. I am reading Thoreau’s letters, anxious for more about Cape Cod. But the yield is bitter, meagre. The wreck of the Elizabeth:
The cook, the last to leave, & the steward will know the rest. I shall try to see them. In the meanwhile I shall do what I can to recover property and obtain particulars. Wm H. Channing…has come with me…we got here yesterday noon. A good part of the wreck still holds together where she struck, & something may come ashore with her fragments….
Nothing at all like the grown girl with her horse. A language of gestures, unscripted as the skating on a frozen pond, that first moment when laced and stiff with the tightness of the old skates, the ache of the blade on the ball of the foot–then the glide takes you and you’re off. It’s like that with the two of them. The horse at first dodgy with her hand in mid-air, thinking where have you been? and why should I bow my head to your chest? Then her voice clarite, claritas, running like water, and he exhales noisily, infinitesimally leans in, and it’s fine now, things are as they were. She can scratch his wooly ears, the cowlick in the dark sea of his face, heart shaped, whirling.