Winter is setting in on the little farm in Northwest Georgia where I serve as caretaker for 13 overly-groomed and controlled acres, and with it cooler temps and rain are producing greens and mushrooms enough to provide food for me, barter for neighbors’ eggs, and gifts for city-bound friends more reliant on grocers and furnaces than I.
From the kitchen window this morning I look east across a closely-mowed field where, weeks ago, the edge of the woods veiled its inner machinations but now, for a brief while, the curtain has dropped and a sliver of the forest world is revealed. Deer follow their well-worn paths while crows gather in the canopy and shout their disdain for loss of cover. When my timing is lucky enough, I glimpse a sharp-shinned hawk knifing around and through the trees after a northern flicker or unsuspecting bluejay. Perhaps the shouting of the crows is a warning to their corvid cousin.
There is something comforting in the nakedness of this season.
It is warm enough in this tired old farmhouse whose only heat is a small propane burner in the living room keeping that space and the adjacent kitchen pleasant, but providing little for the back half of my home where piled blankets will suffice as fall turns to winter and even in Georgia the mercury will proclaim single digits soon enough.
I am sitting on the couch this morning where a thick, hot cup of coffee perfectly compliments the thin air and swirling winds outside. It is not cold today–forty-five degrees at last check–but as long as I stay inside and in the north end of the house, my imagination allows the angle of sunlight and level of mercury to be a little lower, my relative warmth that much greater, my coffee that much more comforting.
The season brings new chores on the farm–grape vines long neglected need rescue from poplar, sweetgum, blackberry, and honeysuckle; the south “forty” is ready for bush-hogging; and several large burn piles await their fate. But I do not work outside today.
That this particular day of rest is a Sunday is coincidental. I do not, nor do the natural cycles that guide me, honor such a fixed and arbitrary allowance. Today could just as easily be a Thursday, a religious holiday, or the anniversary of a military battle (which it happens to be). For me, the December calendar marks but one day of significance, and that arrives in two weeks when the darkness of the solstice arrives and we once again begin looking toward spring. To mark that occasion, I will tell a story to a handful of people gathered to mark the occasion. But today I am sitting on the couch with my coffee while a winter flock of mixed blackbirds moves through the yard after grass seeds, some of them lucky enough to stumble upon tiny cracklins I scattered there last week after rendering a month’s worth of lard.
It is an equitable exchange between the blackbirds and me, though they are not aware of any commerce taking place. They receive treasured fat for winter and I am allowed a close view of their ranks among whom I note redwings, brewers, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings who although are not blackbirds, are black birds and not discriminated against by their brethren, none of whom is aware of any of the labels and distinctions I apply to them.
Through the back door a dry, brown, spindly fern sits in a hanging basket. There is a second one in the same state of death across the porch and out of my sight. Perhaps, tomorrow, I will gather those and the half-dozen others around the cabin I keep an eye on, and layer them in the compost where they will mix with coffee grounds, egg shells, rotting apples, sweetgum leaves, and whatever other garden trimmings and kitchen scraps lucky enough to be chosen as building blocks. This is a season of building, and the right blocks, layered, managed, and maintained, will provide fertile soil for another season of nourishment from the garden.
Here, in the living room, more building blocks serve my ends–books, notes, and recordings are piled around me on the couch and in front of me on the coffee table. These are the sources for a story I have been pondering for six or seven years and finally began building this fall–an appropriate season for just this story. As the last of the chestnuts fell to the floors of forests and lawns in the region, I began writing about the blight that wiped the once-dominant species from the the ridges and valleys of the Cumberland, and the mountains and hollows of Appalachia. Though I do not yet know the shape of the product to come, it is, like all stories, one of relationships. People and mountains. People and livestock. People and food. People and forests. People and survival.
But unlike building compost, or houses, or machines, I do not know what the final product will be. I begin with an idea, a general direction, but I have neither blueprint, nor even compass for my journey, only an idea. Like when I threw the cracklins to the lawn I had an idea that they were better there than in the compost or landfill not knowing that it would be blackbirds and black birds who found them and paid for them so generously, I am spreading pieces around the living room, translating them to paper, shuffling them around, and waiting for a story to emerge. The blackbirds could have just as easily been unnoticed ants scurrying their prizes below ground to store for future use, or nibbled in the dark by mice who were then exposed to the screech owls I heard calling a week ago.
My rambling distraction from story building has stretched to a thousand words… now, so perhaps it is time to get back to the work currently being avoided. Along with my construction project, I have letters to write and gifts to package for the mail–rewards for the generous supporters of a fundraising campaign that ended nearly three months ago. Unlike the ants, mice and birds for whom procrastination would mean certain death, it is a luxury I often afford myself, and one whose time provides the opportunity for ideas to ferment, but it is also one which, if allowed too much time, can erode the very foundation of my work.
So… enough bird-watching and pontificating, enough dreaming. It is time to write.
But, first, just one more cup of that hot, comforting coffee…