The View from a DistancePhoto Credit : Tom Haugomat
On the morning of March 24, 2020, we awake to eight inches of new snow. The ground, which had only just begun to emerge in tawny patches from beneath a winter’s worth of accumulation, is again covered. I pull on my chore boots—the good pair, the pair that hasn’t yet split at the crease where they always split midway through their second season of use—and trudge through the snow to milk and feed the cows. The snow is unmarked. Not even the cats have been out yet; they’d mewled at the door as usual, but when I opened it, they just stood there, ears alert and eyes wide, and then retreated back to the comfort of the couch. Well, I could understand why.
We live a seasonal life, here on our Vermont homestead, so I tend to write seasonally, too. If it’s for a winter issue, I’m writing about snow and cold and skiing. Breaking the ice on the cows’ water. Getting stuck and plowing snow. That sort of stuff. If it’s for a summer issue, I write about swimming in the pond or running fence or maybe pulling weeds in the garden (because if nothing else, there’s always weeds to pull).
And here I am, in the July/August issue of Yankee, at the very height of summer. The blueberries are just now ripening, the sweet corn knee-high (you know the saying, right? “Knee-high by the Fourth of July”?), the tomatoes still green but showing promise, the cows listless in the heat, tails switching lazily back and forth to shoo flies, the boys cannonballing off the big rock into the cool of the pond—yes, all of this right outside our half-open front door. Yet I am writing about a snowstorm in March.
The reason, of course, is that March 24 is when everything changed. Or rather, March 24 is the day when I fully grasped that everything had changed. Maybe this is because it was the day that I used the last of the cream in my morning coffee and knew I wouldn’t be going to Willey’s store for more (though I was sorely tempted), or because it was the day that our governor issued a “stay home” order for all but essential workers. Most likely, it was simply because the constant drumbeat of news relating to the coronavirus—the overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare workers, the swift and merciless economic fallout—had finally burst through the bubble of our quiet rural life, which until this point had seemed far removed from the chaos unfolding out there.
To be sure, we hadn’t been entirely unaffected by the pandemic. We’d stocked up on essentials (ice cream, check … coffee, check … cat food, check … and yes, toilet paper, check) and as many fresh vegetables as we figured we could eat before they rotted. We’d already taken advantage of our local library’s “call in” service; after requesting our chosen titles, my wife, Penny, went to retrieve the books, which had been left in a paper bag outside the front door. Figuring there was no better place to practice social distancing than deep in the woods, I picked up some new chains and a few gallons of bar oil for the saw and filled two five-gallon cans with ethanol-free gas. If nothing else, we’d emerge from this pandemic with a heck of a firewood pile.
And yet before March 24, so much seemed exactly the same. I still woke early, still started the fire and sat quietly while waiting for my coffee to perc. I still did the same chores with the same animals, still climbed to the knoll behind the barn to look out over the old church steeple and into Bob’s hayfield. Maybe there was a little less traffic on our road, but honestly, it was hard to tell, since even on a busy day it’s not uncommon for an hour or more to pass without seeing a car. And unlike so many of our friends and neighbors, I still had work—not a lot, but some, and for the time being, enough. So while I knew the world was changing in ways that would surely reverberate through our lives, it was almost as if we existed in a time lapse, buffered by geography and circumstance. I felt grateful for that buffer. And since I knew what a privilege it was to have it, I felt guilty, too.
I water the cows, and fork hay off the big round bale I’d situated just outside the wooden fence of their paddock. For most of the winter, they’d been running a piece of orchard pasture, but the recent spring weather had gotten their dander up: They’d breached the barbwire fence twice in the previous week, and even wandered across the road and into our (very understanding) neighbor’s backyard. Clearly, this would not do, so in the aftermath of the second escape, we chased them into the confines of the paddock and closed the gate. They would roam no more, at least not until the spring grass had sprung in full. I felt a bit sorry for them—surely they preferred the relative expanse of their pasture lot—but then again, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
After chores, I change into my ski boots and bee-line through town to Bob’s hayfield. Yesterday, it’d been nearly clear of snow, and on my evening walk I’d counted nine deer, heads bent to the ground, so intent on filling their bellies they didn’t even notice me. Today, it is once again an unbroken sheet of white, and I ski straight to the height of the field, where, if I turn around, I can see back across the mountain road and past the church steeple, to the barn and paddock where the cows are still nosing through their morning ration.
But I don’t turn. Instead, I keep climbing the steep pitch beyond the hayfield’s boundary, right up into the sugar woods, where the sun is just high enough that the trees cast narrow shadows in my path. Where I know that if I just put my head down and keep on moving, everything else in the world will fall away.