This post is dedicated to all those who love their land and who fight to keep it in spite of evermounting challenges.
It's a typical Northeast Kingdom, Vermont, late spring day. Rain is falling, the temperature is hovering around 40, and the mountains are obscured by a low-lying mist. I welcome the chance to take a break and get some reading done. I grab a novel, head to Mountain Man's favorite chair and curl up by the wood stove. I am embraced by the warmth of the fire, the sound of rain pelting our metal roof and the snores of seven resting dogs.
My eyes are getting heavy, the book is dropping from my hand when Mountain Man enters. "Mail's here, and our tax bill came." It's a day we both dread for each year our property taxes spiral upward in an uncontrolled ascent. Mountain Man looks at the bill while I await the news. "Well, the barn assessment doubled since last year. That's an obvious mistake. I'll call and take care of it." Mountain Man picks up the phone, says some words and is silent for a long time. "No, the bill is correct. Remember when we put the floor in the barn last year?" How could I forget the blue stain pine Mountain Man lovingly installed knowing it is my favorite wood. "Well, now we no longer have a barn. It's got a floor so it's been upgraded to a stable." I think of grooms leading glossy thoroughbreds to well attired women who have never chipped a nail mucking stalls. Stable seems so fancy a word for such a modest, much used barn. "And the property assessment went up too. Doesn't matter that land values are dropping." Mountain Man sits down with the calculator, divides the number of hours in a day into the bill and determines just how much money we need to make each day to pay the taxes. It's a staggering number.
And we ask ourselves, as we often do now that we are approaching retirement, why do we struggle so hard to hold on to this piece of earth? Why not take the easy way out, sell and leave. And as I do when I'm in need of answers, I decide to head into our woodland.
It's been a while since I've hiked deep into our woods. A black bear has been visiting us lately, and I'm not anxious to encouter him again.
"What if he's out there?" I ask Mountain Man.
"Just sing. That'll scare him."
"You know he didn't scare before when I was making so much noise, and it's mating season now."
"I doubt he'd find you very interesting. Go live your life."
That's what I decide to do. I grab my jacket and a noise maker just in case. My contstant companion, Logan, a german shepherd, jumps up to accompany me. It's raining, and the damp cold permeates my old bones, but I continue on.
I walk under canopies of green, and I can feel my heart lighten.
I set the camera to sepia and think of the past.
The forest has its own sound; never silent, trees soughing, leaves rustling with animals unseen darting through the underbrush.
On the way home, I feel compelled to visit the graveyard that lies within our farm. Logan rests in the water while I contemplate the crossing. I'll have to balance across the logs if I don't want to get wet. I accept the challenge. I walk the plank oh, so carefully and I am across.
We make our way through overgrown vegetation. My clothes are soaking wet, but I pay no heed.
For I have arrived in my place of refuge where I go when I need to think. A place where those who lived in this beautiful wilderness I call home now rest.
And it is here I understand how easy I have it today compared to those who came before. Tiny tombstones surround me, but none more poignant than these; a testament to a family's grief all in a row.
We remain silent, and I pay my respects to those families who lived so long ago. A final prayer, and we head home. Down steep hills, through more water crossings.
Back again to our pasture land. A doe awaits. She's been there every day, grazing, playing chase with the horses at dusk.
She runs when she sees Logan.
But not far. She turns and faces us and snorts. A sound I've never heard before. "Go away. I want to graze," she says.
We are the intruders in these woods she calls home.
Into the house, shedding wet clothes, muddy boots, ensconsed by the warmth of the wood stove once again. This is my farm for the moment. I'm privileged to hold it in trust for those who will come after me. And perhaps they too will one day walk to the graveyard and ask themselves why. And I know if they listen, they will hear the answer.