Of Cows and Cambodia

THE Atlantic

FOUNDED IN 1857

by Edward Hoagland

“He who fights and runs away lives on.”

During the invasion of Cambodia, an event which may rate little space when when recent American initiatives are summarized but which for many people seemed the last straw at the time, I made an escape to the woods. The old saw we’ve tried to live by for an egalitarian half century that “nothing human is alien” has become so pervasive a truth that I was worn to a frazzle. I was the massacre victim, the massacring soldier, and all the gaudy queens and freaked-out hipsters on the street. Nothing human was alien; I’d lost the essential, antiegalitarian ability to tune out on occasion, and everything was ringing in my ears. Of course, even my flight itself was part of a stampede of people who were doing the same; and since my wife and I happened to be involved in a kind of low-grade marital crisis, too, for all my dovish politics, during my last few days in the city I had been going to mean and bloody movies and reading dirty books, as I do in a trough of depression.

I’ve got a hundred acres, mostly woodland, which I’m informed is probably generating enough oxygen for eighteen hundred people to breathe. I don’t institute many improvements, both because of my ignorance and because, for instance, instead of chopping deadwood for the stove, for twelve dollars I can buy sufficient stove-sized scrap from the bobbinand-dowel mill down the road to cook and heat the house four months. A ten-mile stretch of Vermont State Forest adjoins my land, and there is more forest than that around, so what I really do is walk. An old grown-over stagecoach road which has been kept open by hunters’ jeeps and loggers’ wagons winds, with appropriate slow grandeur, up through a pass and down into a wild valley, where there are several ponds and much birdlife and an abandoned log shack or two. A long brook rattles through the undergrowth and evergreens for miles, and the ridges roll up to haystack humps and aggregate themselves into the broad miniature mass of Mount Hor, which on its other side looks off a giddy cliff into a springfed lake several miles long. There is a smugglers’ cave on the lake side where silks and whiskey used to be stored—the Canadian border is only fifteen miles away, and for a whole summer a revenuer slept in a hammock in the woods along the shore, posing as a poet but listening for sounds. Another nearly lost, forgotten smugglers’ camp, complete with cemetery and cellar holes—this dating from the Civil War—is up behind an opposing mountain across the lake; and around on my side of Mount Hor a deep, traditional sort of cave corkscrews into the mountain a hundred feet or more, a place where hunters lived, and once an eccentric called “Leatherman.” who wore skins and lived entirely off whatever he could catch or kill. Hor is a fastness for bears. I have heard descriptions of how six of them died of gunshot wounds in the valley below: their special staggerings and groans. The surviving bears, like shy, fleet Indians still holding out, hoot to their mates at dusk sometimes in the late summer, a single quiet hoot with a growl at the end, which distinguishes the sound from an owl’s call. Plenty of deer skirt through, and on the mountainside you can find boggy glades where these fellows have made their beds in the fine grassy patches, leaving the imprint of themselves after they run. There are frogs on the paths and occasionally a charged, invigorated snake with a frog in its mouth. I’ve seen mink holes along the brook, and I’ve seen a pair of tiny shrews playing at the entrance to their burrow. The porcupines, after huddling in congregations through the winter, spread out and fight for territory during the spring, with piercing, nasty screams, though in the evening you can hear them chewing bark high in the spruces, their teeth sounding gravelly voiced.

My collie, Bimbo, who accompanies me, tangles with mystery creatures like mother raccoons fifty yards back in the brush. Before I adopted him, he wolfed down crusts of bread on his visits, running four miles for the privilege. Though he is uncompromising with strangers, he’s almost overly loyal to me. He sticks beside me in the woods rather than ranging out, but chases any deer we see with businesslike directness, wholly wolfish for the moment, testing the air, before finally happily lying down in a stream. He avoids gun-carrying people, having seen some shooting, and is afraid of thunder, indicating its approach before I hear it come. He is most cheerful in the morning, as if the day as it advances saddens him—he points up a somber nose. But he’s a great ground-scratcher after urinating and a posturer with other dogs, dramatic, quivering, and tall, with his sense of self perhaps enhanced because he lives in isolation in the country and meets few other dogs. He fights sharply and seems to take a rich and realistic view of the citizenship of all the animals in the world, making no unnatural distinctions between those wild and “tame.” Cows, cats, fishers, grouse intrigue him almost equally. Meadow mice are a pleasure to hunt, but because in bear country he might possibly be the one who ought to worry, he doesn’t wag his tail as much but walks with gingerly circumspection through the smashed berry thickets, the rank and muddy wallows. When we set out, he springs with all four feet off the ground and catches my hand in his mouth for joy, and when we get back to the house he pulls off the burrs that have stuck to me, breathing loudly, lovingly. There are two things difficult about him, however. He personalizes cars, and chases them with an inimical bold heroism, since he’s been hit three times. And he loves to roll on the moldering bones of redoubtable strange animals as an aggrandizing maneuver, apparently, an agent of growth. Worse than just using a dead deer, he singles out a man’s—a picnicker’s— ordure to roll in if he can, smearing his fluffy fur with excrement, wearing it like epaulets, as the most mythic material of all. He romps and struts. It gives him a tremendous lift to smell so thickly like a man.

Besides believing nothing human should be alien, we used to aspire to another condition: as D. H. Lawrence said, we must live more intensely; we thought that, vague and dreamy, we were letting life slide by. But I was joining a mass swing of people looking for country acreage who had begun to feel so hard-pressed that their main effort was just to disengage themselves. They were of different politics and different vocations, yet some of them felt that if they lived any more intensely, they might have to be hospitalized.

Although we’re swamped in populace and intensity, a few ridges over from me was a commune—twelve or fifteen persons in their twenties whose response to these dilemmas was more hair of the dog. instead of barricading themselves behind thousands of acres of forestland, as I was trying to do, they intended to chum and combine with some of these overnumerous souls. And with the aspens trembling, field flowers blooming, the blue sky and the lavish landscape, their admirable experiment seemed to be working out. The children were sunburned and muscular, doing without diapers and generally caring for each other. They lived in a Children’s Tent, and while there was some uncertainty and ear-pulling, mostly they roamed between adventures, catching toads, feeding the hens. The grownups slept in pairs tucked into plastic lean-tos or hunters’ tents under the spruces—there was one lofty-looking tepee. They had a geodesic dome which wowed their visitors and was intended to be transformed into a candle factory eventually, and a roomlike area covered with sheets of plastic draped over poles where the cooking was done, and a large produce garden that didn’t succeed, owing to its pH reading.

Consistent with their life-style, they tried to welcome strangers, even explaining their beliefs to sightseers if asked to, or letting a hitchhiker camp with them a week or so on a probationary basis. Since several were veterans of an ill-fated commune further south in the state which had turned into a kind of motel for traveling hippies, this time they’d bought enough land for an agricultural existence, but without buildings, so that nobody in these first months could stay over unless he bestirred himself at least to pitch a tent. They built an outhouse, chicken house, and cow shed, repaired their road, attempted to incorporate as a private elementary school so they could educate their own children, avoided obtrusive drug use, helped their neighbors hay in exchange for the loan of farm equipment, and wisely went to meetings of the local Grange so that the people could see firsthand that they were not dragons. The men were fit-looking—the long hair didn’t appear to be a mark of bereavement—and the girls eloquent, graceful, appealing; they had big eyes, and, as in many communes, they got the job of dealing with outsiders. I felt wistful when I dropped in. Obviously, no notable amount of work was being done. Everyone went off on jaunts into the countryside or swam or gathered firewood and sat talking all day in the cook tent, fixing salads of sorrel and wild mustard leaves with little berries and raw eggs stirred in. They made butter and ice cream and pots of sugared oatmeal and boiled milkweed and fried cornbread. It was a summer idyll. Lying underneath the trees, they never did get the log house built that they had planned.

By October, like grasshoppers who’d danced the harvesttime away, they were looking for winter quarters to rent, stung by the frosts, worried for their children’s health. It developed that the townspeople were not so friendly after all; nothing was available. They were college folk, and they weren’t really going to have to stay and freeze, but I was interested that the most favorably disposed faction in town were older persons who could remember living off the land and looking rather ragged themselves during the Great Depression. Also, the older group managed to connect the rootless appearance of these hip types with the itinerant loggers from French Canada in earlier days—long-haired, linguistically a puzzle, with underfed dependents —and therefore weren’t afraid of them.

This corner of Vermont is without industry, and when a summer resident shows up again the following spring, the winter news of friends and neighbors is likely to be bad news—bad luck, bad health— because so many younger people clear out, and there is hardly any way for a man who has stayed around to have advanced himself. Seventy-five years ago the town had factories manufacturing cheese, knickers, shoes, and butter tubs, and what was then the longest electric power line east of the Rockies (seventeen miles). It carried 800 kilowatts and was the hobbyhorse of the inventive-minded middle class, although farm boys still went into the woods after spruce chewing gum, which they cut off the trees with sharpened poles and sold downtown for a dollar a pound. Later they saved their gum money to buy battery radios and “windchargers,” noisy windmills that turned and turned on the roof of the house and kept the batteries charged.

Since then whole settlements have disappeared in the outlying sections of town, and the country has grown so wild that one of the postal clerks has killed twentythree bears so far. The saying is that you need only soak your feet in a bucket and set the salty water out by the back door and deer will drift right up to drink. A deer is just a joker like oneself; he’s not much better at hearing a man move toward him in the woods than the man may be at hearing him. Like most of the other abandoned farms, mine has its relics of projects that failed: a stunted orchard, an attempt at raising Christmas trees. The soil was marginal, and the family tried to keep goats at one time, and they had cows but the barn burned. Failure makes some men rough on their wives. There are stories of how the man who lived here during the thirties wouldn’t bother to cut the stovewood short enough to fit the kitchen stove, wouldn’t even cut down more than a week’s supply, in case, as he said, he died—she could cut down her own trees after that. He did die, by and by, and his wife moved off the place, saying that she was sick and tired of “staring at that damn mountain.” Another, more sensible enterprise had been raising hunting dogs.

Woodcocks fly up, a little fox runs down the road. In the springtime, when I arrived, being in my own fields was plenty for me—airing the house and stepping in and out, discovering again that the night sky exhibits stars by the thousand if these aren’t blotted out by lights. No matter how brutal the winter has been (last Christmas fifty inches of snow fell in a single week), the grass is coming up like kettledrums; birches and pines, which grow as much as three feet in a year, are mustering themselves and shooting up. Goldfinches pick apart the dandelions, sapsuckers chisel for bugs underneath the maple bark. I roasted potatoes to eat in their jackets like rolls and took walks on the drizzly evenings, listening to my brook, admiring the treetops against the sky, comparing spruce with fir, red spruce, white spruce, red pine, white pine. I watched the bats over Little Fish Pond, hearing trout jump that sometimes sounded so big I stepped back under the trees, afraid somebody was heaving stones.

The young men hunt in season hard, turning their attention to the sport, but the old men think about it all the time; it is an elixir to them. They seem to feel they’ll live long if they are still able to shoot, as though in dealing death they were immortal for the moment. Far from shying from the ghastly antics of the dying deer, they recount these covetously, like a formula that may stave off the same collapse in themselves—the creature jerking its legs up as it fell, twitching and groaning on the ground. These tales can extend through half an afternoon, each man has killed so many deer, often outwitting the game warden, too. Porcupines and groundhogs can be hunted all year, so some people do that when times are grim, either for the relish of the kill and as a means of staving death off day after day, or else for food. When neighbors quarrel, they hear each other out in the woods next morning shooting small game; and in the fall they both lay up a store of gutted groundhogs—in any case, when the hayfields are mown and visibility is good—later grinding the meat with onions, apples, and sunflower seeds into a matchless burger steak. Years ago people put up barrels of salted smelt caught in the spawning season, and bins of root vegetables, and canned green tomatoes, and grated horseradish cut with turnip. Then in midwinter, after letting a barrel of hard cider freeze, they’d drill a hole in the middle and tap the nearly pure alcohol, which made a man’s heart feel as if it were wrapped in soft cotton.

In farming country the old people are not sequestered away, and when somebody dies nearly everyone knew him. Only last week in the drugstore he’d crossed his fingers and said with a mild smile that he was hoping for a clean bill of health from the doctor soon. The butchering, the weighing of each cow’s fate every few months, makes death a familiar companion, too. Not every cow that doesn’t freshen promptly is sent to slaughter, but she goes “down the road,”to bob in terror under the auctioneer’s prodding. It’s personal, rather like a slave auction, perhaps. “What a pretty lady this is! Look at the teats on her! Keep her in the pasture this summer, and then if you don’t like her, cut her throat in the fall!" Milk farmers are involved in all the intricacies and ambiguities of life-and-death power, and generally are glad to be. They’re paler than some of the farmers who grow crops—the Midwest fellow raising soybeans is on his tractor under the sun, whereas the dairyman works mostly around the barn. Not until the 1960 census did Vermonters come to outnumber their cows, and several say the reason they were in no hurry was that they simply liked cows. In the isolated gores and valleys cows were a kind of harem. They could withhold or volunteer part of their milk, and if well-soothed and happy, they gave more. Even with machine-milking, the udders need a good old-fashioned warm-fingered stroking beforehand, and when a cow is bred artificially, the technician massages her cervix as well as squirting in the semen. After he leaves, again, a skillful farmer will squat down for a while and in a friendly fashion rub and squeeze her teats.

Against the sense of exuberant release I felt on long walks in the woods was the knowledge I had that this in fact was just a hermetic patch of wilderness with highways on all sides, scarcely larger than a park: it was a ship in a bottle, and I was only hiding out. The commune idealists, who read the Whole Earth Catalog as a life’s chart, seemed doctrinaire, not easy company. And so on days when I wasn’t out with the dog hunting for smugglers’ camps, I started accompanying an artificial inseminator from Newport Center named Donald Nault on his regular rounds. (I had the frivolous idea that I might be watching the way human procreation would eventually be carried on, each liberated woman choosing semen that suited her from a listing of donor traits. Instead, the cows, pinned in their stanchions, looked around at us like moose which have been immobilized and turn and watch the wolves approach to eat.)

Nault is a good explainer and seems to smile more than most people do, although he’s perfectly prepared to yell. He’s gangly and has short gray hair and the open-faced look of a high school science teacher, with thin-rimmed glasses, a spacious physiognomy, but narrow bones. His voice is flat-timbred and dispassionate-sounding; he breaks his vowels in half, twanging the halves in different tones. He keeps bees and hunts with bow and arrow for hobbies, and works in the 4-H program, a much more freewheeling proposition than Scouting, being geared to what farm youngsters can do off in the boondocks by themselves. Like the bulk-milk pickup drivers, the feed dealers and John Deere men. he’s one of the county’s peripatetics. His corner of it has 7600 cattle, according to tax figures, of which he services about half; the rest still rassle with his competitor, the bull. Even allowing for the heifers that are too young to breed, this means he averages at least ten jobs a day because he does free repeat breedings when the first doesn’t take. He’s off three days a month, including Sundays, but gets no other vacation, and is paid at the rate of $2.80 per service. The total fee the farmer pays is $7.

I learned about Nault’s business, along with a good deal of outright gynecology, riding around with him from farm to farm, meeting shaggy dogs, seeing the lightning rods atop red barns and white houses (summer people reverse the colors—red houses and white barns). The farmers took no more notice of us than of meter readers, and though the days turned out to be sadder than I’d expected, with sometimes afterbirths, and once a dead calf on the floor, there was the pleasure of the roller-coaster pasturage and woodland and the big-siloed, spruced-up farms lying in front of the dramatic silhouette of the Green Mountains, Jay Peak jutting up asymmetrically immediately in front.

Nault, who was born on a farm in the neighborhood. is medical in manner, not chieftainlike like the farmers, and though I admired the delicacy with which he handled his task, I pitied him the tedium of it, pounding round and round between a hundred farms year after year, none his. Some of the fellows envy him his free-lance life, however. Leaping land values, the overall slide toward change, cause a hollering across the countryside. Farmers think of retiring on the money that their acreage would bring; yet dairying really has never been more profitable, they say. A hundred pounds of milk will buy two hundred pounds of grain, but a cow only needs to eat about a pound of grain for every three or four pounds of milk she produces during the winter months, or one to nine or ten pounds when she is pasturing. This is a ratio that matters financially. Also, about an acre of grazing ground and one of hay are necessary to support a cow in New England. If she brings in a yearly profit of perhaps $200 after all the expenses are figured in, then each acre is worth $100 a year to the farmer and he will only continue keeping cows as long as that $100, when measured against the prices the land speculators are offering him, does not seem too paltry a sum. Whereas in the old days a man might dabble in winter logging or the Christmas business or maple sugaring and take the chance that a few of his cows would catch pneumonia while he was gone, now it’s best to be a specialist, with all the thorny breeding questions and mastitis and Bang’s disease and vibriosis to watch for. Little farms must have the same expensive milk-handling equipment as big ones, so that the little operators are bought out. Efficiency demands that they get rid of the mediocre milkers, then feed the good producers all the protein they will eat, whether in the form of short early-cut hay and high-value alfalfa and clover, or store-bought nutrients like beet pulp, citrus rinds, and choppedup corn, wheat, barley, oats, and molasses ground together. Most of the cattle Nault breeds are black-and-white Holsteins. which yield an average of 14,900 pounds of milk in a year, including 540 pounds of butterfat, far outperforming the brown-andwhite Guernseys or Jerseys. Holsteins are also more genetically trustworthy than Guernseys, and being big, are worth $200 as beef as well, just as they stand. Jerseys do keep a lingering hold on some farmers’ affections because they’re quite emotional and heated, yet small, easy to manage, and their milk tests high in butterfat, which means a premium is paid.

The landscape grew more familiar to me as we tooled around Nault’s territory, and sometimes, during the afternoon, we went right back to the same farms, driving through gray rain squalls, past fields of timothy, rye grass, and vetch and stands of lusciously foliaged trees, in the townships of Troy and Coventry. We saw Canadian Frenchmen with the De Gaulle nose at the age-old New England occupation of gathering stones. We went by the house of the district’s healer, a seventh son of a seventh son, who can cure everything from hemorrhoids and dropsy to the twist in the postman’s hip. which got out of its socket as the poor guy leaned from his driver’s seat to reach the mailboxes. This healer is a rough type and doesn’t pray beside his customers; he simply puts his hand on the ailing area and holds it there for ten or fifteen minutes, telling raunchy jokes meanwhile.

Once we passed a mink farm, consisting of cagefilled sheds and several horses waiting in a vacant lot to be cut up and fed to the mink, then drove up the first grade of the mountains near Hazen’s Notch to a brown slumping home isolated in deep woods, with a toolshed in back where a brown cow was tied. No grown-ups were around. A girl of twelve came from the house and handed Nault seven one-dollar bills and watched him work; she had been left in charge. Afterwards we coasted back to moneyed rolling pasturelands, with immense barns with stanchions by the hundred, all electrically hooked to the fire alarm so that cows would be freed automatically in case of a disaster. Indeed, the latest innovation is to dispense with stanchions entirely, letting the creatures associate as they wish about the barn, only walking them through a “milking parlor” at milking time, because the more benign they feel, the more milk they will brew.

These new procedures naturally discourage the macho bent of many farmers, which is why lots of them still keep bulls. The snorting beast costs hundreds of dollars to feed, more than the farmer saves in breeding fees, and inhabits a stall where otherwise he could stable a milker. Yet some people will alternately utilize Nault’s super variety of semen and their own yokel bull, and then, to his consternation, instead of raising the fine new calves which have the perfected genes for future stock and selling off the quirky local progeny, as often as not a man will keep his own bull’s calves and send Nault’s scientific infants straight to the butcher’s block.

Besides enjoying the guided tours, I was glad for the friendship between us. We were contemporaries, and whatever we didn’t have in common tended not to come up, but the hard monotony of breadwinning communicated itself, too, just as it does whenever one gets inside the routines that another person must live by.

I am describing what I did in the aftermath of the Cambodia invasion, not a story with an end but of interest to me because it is what I would do again in the event of other invasions, or practically any other kind of trouble—it is the only thing that I can think of. I liked being poised near the Canadian border the way I was, and found that ducking quickly into the woods had helped, and living by myself: up early, aware of other creatures besides man, with the sky-clock of sun and stars. After hiking awhile around Mount Hor, I began going across the road to explore a large steep formless upland known as Robbins Hill, after a rifle-toting family of Raggedy Anns, who’ve disappeared. I’d been learning to recognize the common trees, and a riotous arboretum of these were crowded together on Robbins Hill in what was an orgy for me. Young trees, particularly, send me into a hustle of needle-squeezing, bark-tapping, and branch-waggling; I can’t believe my eyes, how straight and true to type they are, how springy to the touch and brown and green. To discover so many examples together in deep grass, lacy cedars next to hemlocks next to wavy larch and beech and yellow birch, was grounds for glee. Laughing to myself, I rushed from one to another, touching the leaves—perfect complete little maples, perfect little balsam firs. There was a flowering shrub called by the old people moose missy and a flower that they called frog’s mouth.

Now this was all escapism (a word that’s going to lose its sting). I was escaping to recuperate, my ears still grateful for the quiet of the woods. My wife flew up to join me as soon as she could, and except for her company, I found the old people best to be with, rather than people my own age, saddled with mortgages, emphatic politics, and what not. My neighbors told me about brewing beer forty or fifty years ago that had a head so thick they wrote their names in it and spooned it off for sandwich filling. They’d bake next Christmas’ plum pudding on Christmas Eve, to marinate in brandy all that while, and serve last year’s. The husband remembers skidding logs down off Robbins Hill with oxen one winter after a forest fire. The fire leapt across the road on some loose birch bark that caught the wind, and he remembers how pathetically the porcupines squealed as it caught up with them. There was only one farrier in the county who shoed oxen for icy winter work—a man named Duckless; he did it as a kind of stunt. Oxen are stiff-legged and they can’t lift their legs as a horse can, so he employed a block and tackle and canvas sling to hoist them up. Since they are cloven-hoofed, each foot needed two shoes. The dogs would collect from the farms nearby as if a bitch had come into heat. Dogs love a blacksmith’s visits because they chew on the hoof parings—the parings are taffy to them.

My friend Paul Sumner went “foxing” with his dog as a youngster, following the fox for many winding miles and many hours. He’d get $25 for the skin at a time when the daily wage at the sawmills was less than $1.50. A fisher skin was worth still more. He had a Long Tom rifle which had a kick that knocked him down and a bolt action so loud that when he missed, if he was shooting at a deer, the deer would stop running and listen, mystified by the strange sound. They were ten children, and necessarily the boys hunted for meat. They’d get one rabbit started, and in dodging about, it would visit every other good rabbit hiding place, scaring up a throng. The father after each snowstorm would tramp around the swamp, leaving a great circle of snowshoe tracks beyond which the younger kids were not supposed to go. Though they were very poor, the saying was that no woman could be admitted into heaven who cut more than four pieces from a pie. Paul still makes his own bullets, weighing out the grains of powder as some men roll their cigarettes. He used to make shot for his shotgun by mincing up a flattened pipe, and would hike off for days with a bait pail and traps into the Big Woods over in Essex County, carrying a few bottle caps with wax and string in them to heat the kindling for his firewood on a wet night—he poured his supper grease on the next morning’s firewood. He remembers Halley’s Comet, in 1910, having climbed Mount Hor especially to see it, sleeping on top and watching a duckhawk fly up at dawn out of a tree and kill a fast-flying duck with such impact that both of them fell from the sky. He remembers fishing in Canada and catching northern pike four feet long. If the line broke, by jinks, he says, the fisherman jumped in the lake and wrestled with the fish chest-to-chest, almost like another man. The blueberries were big as thumbs and turned the hillsides blue.

He tells the legend of how oak trees acquired scalloped leaves: there was a man who signed a pact with the devil according to which after enjoying his handsome looks and fortuitous riches, he would have to give himself up “when the oak lost its leaves.” But oaks never do lose all their leaves; some stubbornly cling to the trees through the winter until fresh foliage sprouts in the spring. And so the devil, who was furious at losing out, ran round and round the archetypal oak, chewing on its leaves, marking the edges with his teeth.

In the cavalry down in Brownsville, Texas, after World War I, Paul used to feed his horses sugarcane for a treat. His barracks mates kept an ocelot for a mascot; and there was a pet terrier in the bar they patronized which was so tough the customers would throw a tennis ball at it as hard as they could, down the aisle between the tables and the bar, and the dog, bounding in the air, would catch it on the fly. Back in Vermont, Paul, who was always a fisherman, located an old quarry hole with bass swimming at the bottom of it. A man lived nearby in a tar-paper shack, ten feet by six and all grown over with blackberries. “The house was only standing up because the termites inside were holding hands.” It stood under a fine white pine that the fellow called his “sunflower tree.”He raised tomatoes on the site of a defunct outhouse and baked his bread in loaves so big around a slice was the size of a pane of glass. He spent his days bucking firewood for money, though flourishing his rifle when people came to pick it up (he’d grab a broomstick and “aim" with that if they were kids). He was so fussy that he wouldn’t let you touch his cartridges, afraid you’d leave some sweat on them and tarnish the parts of his gun, and yet his house was stuffed with filth and junk, scarcely allowing room for the bed and stove. He never washed his dinner plate, just dumped more food on it, and every few weeks would scrape off the detritus and fry that, too, what he called “stodge.” Another character on that road was the Turkey Buyer, who ranged about the state in a truck carrying gobblers. When he passed a farm that raised the birds he would screech to a stop, jump out, and run up to the door to tell the farmer that one of the turkeys from his truck had got out of its crate and scurried in among the farmer’s turkeys; would he please help to catch it? So together they would catch one of the farmer’s turkeys and then the Turkey Buyer, with many thanks, would drive away.

Dan Tanner was a neighbor too. Dan was a seven-footer who once killed a bear which went after a string of fish he’d caught by stabbing it with a sharp stick of heartwood just underneath the arm. Dan was exceedingly tough. His wife, Abbey, used to wash the blood off all the men he licked. A good trout brook made up in their back field, though mostly it went underground for the first mile. Nevertheless. there were some holes you could fish through and catch short little trout, discolored from not having seen the sun. Tanner ran a still that cooked his booze so hot the pots and tubing jounced. He set aside a jug for Saturday and one for Sunday, but usually he’d finish Saturday’s before sunset and vomit it and finish Sunday’s, too. He didn’t trouble himself very much about the law and feuded with the game warden. One time when the warden was trailing him, Dan carefully tossed the doe he’d killed behind a rock and turned downhill, taking small steps, down to a brook—then walked backwards in his own tracks, stepping exactly in each step, and hopped behind a dead spruce on the ground, where he lay still. The warden, pursuing him. passed by and reached the brook and looked in vain for Tanner’s tracks across on the other side. Thirsty, he stooped to drink, and Tanner shot into the brook just right next to his nose.

Paul, who is a father, a widower, is a less violent man. He suffers from angina but cuts pulpwood for a living at $19 a cord. One corner of his farm is about to be razed for an interstate highway and parallel with that will be a power line, so his years of retirement will probably be spent between these belts of fierce activity. He was a lineman for a power company himself much of his working life. The photos on the wall show him in climbing boots high on a leaning pole with a tree fallen on the line. He’s got blue eyes and a jug-handle pair of ears, a puckcry. sharp-witted face, a twisty smile. He jokes a lot, collapsing in laughter, swinging his arms, although he has a sense of misery as well. In wintertime he needs to shovel the snow from in front of his windows in order to see out; it gets so deep he can walk right onto the roof when the ice must be scraped off. He grows winter apples, which are not picked until after the first snowfall. The frosts seem to condition them; that’s when the deer prefer them, too.

He who fights and runs away lives on, and that’s what I had been up to. As the summer closed, I went again with Bimbo to the roots of the brook under Mount Hor, finding the split-pear prints of deer and listening to the ravens honk. There is a “boiling spring" Robert Frost used to visit, according to reports. The spring no longer boils, having become choked with leaves (and never did “boil" in the Westerner’s meaning of the word; they don’t have hot springs here), but it still tastes pristine and heads a cold and lively stream. Talking with the various old men, each one with a heart condition, I sometimes felt the need for haste in gathering information: even a sense that if the fellow should suffer a stroke before my eyes, I would bend over him, urgently asking again, where was that cave? Who was it that you said lived there?

Each of them, after his own manner of doing things, was in the process of selling off his land—at least the relics on it—pretending he was just trying to “get rid of the stuff,” impatient that the buyer hadn’t come for it, and watching as his pastures, laboriously maintained since the nineteenth century, grew back to tangled wilderness. In September I accompanied a man I am fond of into the jungle that formerly had been his lower pasture and now was on the point of being sold (to me). He was in his middle eighties and walked very slowly indeed, like a frail Galapagos turtle, looking incongruously weightless but leaning very, very heavily while I helped him to edge through the willow-alder thickets. We looked for the old fence line, where bits of barbed wire remained on the trees, and the stump of a black cherry tree that he thought the bears had killed, and a round rock called Whippoorwill Rock, and a big butternut, and for the place beside the stream where he and his brothers had once successfully rigged a power saw operated by a waterwheel. The alders were a jungle, yet he struggled much farther into the center of the property than I’d expected that he would, calm and slow about it. swaying a little when the wind blew. Many landmarks had been obliterated, but he found a few. The grass was swamp grass now, or smothered in spirea brush. Remembering as he went along, he persevered so far I was afraid that even with my help he wouldn’t be able to extricate himself again. □