Sunday, March 29, 2009

College Entrance

After the cascading disasters of that October - my beaver lodge burnt, someone walked off with my prosthetic legs , and then I got run down by a thief riding my own bike - I was in no shape to homestead out in the woods again, so I decided to look up brother Davey.
Ever since Davey came back from Puerto Rico, his wife had them moving around so much that I was never sure where he was living, but I knew that Alan Pike had recently got him a Cornell gig teaching a couple of Pike's spill-over sections of freshman English..... so that afternoon, after resting my sore butt in the park, I started up through Cascadilla gorge to campus.

It had been warm enough when I was sitting in the park , but now the sun was off some of the gorge walls, and the contracting stone released a few pieces of slate to screed down into the creek.
A black water snake thick as my wrist, had been drawn from under his ledge by the sun earlier , and now lay half uncoiled in the middle of the walkway..... stopped me like a damn metaphor.
I picked him up and warmed him a minute, then put him under the ledge, hoping he'd make his way into the ground.
Later on that year, the encounter would be the source of one of my precious and popular written aphorisms: You can put a snake to the hole, but you can't push him down it.

I knew Davey shared an office with Pike in one of the buildings on the Arts quad. I wasn't sure which building, but Pike had a couple of labrador retrievers he left out on the quad when he was going to be in the office for a while, and I found them right away, running from one side of the quadrangle to the other with several fraternity dogs, playing football without a ball.

I sat up against a dying Elm in a last patch of sun and watched.

Maybe I even dozed off.....because Pike was suddenly standing right in front of me, asking where my legs were.
I told him about the series of disasters, and that I was looking for Davey. Pike said Davey and Kristal were moving again and he hadn't been in that day.
Pike was going to take the dogs home, then meet Linda and go to King Wing's Oriental Garden for dinner. Every time they went there, the Wings gave them three or four containers of left-overs for the dogs, and it was often food that had never even been on a plate. I could hang out in the office, and he would bring me some fried rice or whatever later on.

The office was was a big garret room on the top floor of Goldwyn Smith hall. It had a cathedral ceiling with a skylight . Alan demonstrated how it could be opened with the dangling chain, in case one wanted to vent animal smells or to smoke anything exotic.
The office had three huge desks: Alan's , Davey's, and one for a guy who was home or in the library writing his dissertation and never came in.
We put my stuff in the drawers of the ghost desk, turned it around so it faced the wall a couple of feet out, and Alan put one of the dog blankets in the leg space for me to lay on.

It must have been a hard day. I went right to sleep, and when I woke up much later, I could smell the Moo Go Gai Pan on top of the desk.
Getting into College had never been a goal of mine, but there I was, and so far it wasn't half bad.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Scythe and The Machete

When I lived in my Ellis Hollow beaver lodge, and before I started using a machete for just about everything, I came to town once in a while for some tool or other, or to get some replacement socks from my trunk at Edgewood place. If Mama Dot was around, she would invite me to stay for lunch and a bath. But as far as I'm concerned, bathtubs are for sleeping in, so I tried to come by when she'd gone to the grocery store to get something she needed for a recipe, which was most every afternoon.

Davey was down in Puerto Rico teaching English then, and during that time, the Edgewood Place refrigerator was my mail box. Mama Dot usually left a bag of leftovers with my name on it there, and sometimes attached a a " Dear All" letter from Davey to it.
One day it was a bag of fried chicken thighs and an unopened letter from Davey addressed to me personally .
In the envelope was a plane ticket to Puerto Rico, and a letter explaining that Davey's wife had left , deeply pissed because the university closed down a modern dance class she was trying to teach. It was too "modern."
I hadn't been anywhere out of New York State since traveling to Alaska.
And I didn't much care to go anywhere either. After all, it was getting to be summer, and it would be hot as hell down in Puerto Rico. And besides....what was his idea? That I should take over the dance class?
I guess if he'd sent cash, I 'd have thought twice about going, but I could take the ticket or loose it, and departure was only two weeks off..... so I ate a couple of chicken thighs and went right back down cellar to start getting my shit together.

Two weeks later I was sitting, trying to play my harmonica, on the balcony porch of Davey's second floor walk-up apartment in the Finca - the U.P.R, faculty housing complex which used to be a ranch , and still was as far as the cattle grazing there were concerned. It was half a dozen three story apartment buildings in a remanent of range and jungle, all inside a chain-link fence, surrounded by many square miles of San Juan sprawl.
Beside me on the porch was a half bushel of mangoes I had picked up off the ground just across the drive the day before, plus a water glass full or pretty good Ron Rico rum, . All around me the roar of a million coquis - the singing national frog of Puerto Rico - so loud I could hardly hear my own harmonica or, when I gave up and put the harp to soak in the rum, it, the sound of the lawn guy's mower.
Davey had gone off to teach a seven am class, and come back at ten for siesta carying a big Jungle toad which he said had been crossing the drive when he left, but was still there when he returned, having died and already half dried in the attempt to cross. He planned to mail it to some friends in Ithaca.
At three O'clock a pair of Puerto Rican parrots flew over: a species endemic to Puerto Rico. Hally Wood downstaris told me that they were the last two of the kind. I don't really remember the parrots on that specific day, but they flew over every day at three o'clock, just like every day at four o'clock, it rained cats and coquis for about fifteen minutes. So the wise grounds man was careful to be finishing up the mowing before the expectable rain.
When the actual mowing was done, he sat on the curb to file the edge of a machete, then he went over it again with a whet stone.
I watched him go all around the borders of his mowing job, trimming up with the machete. Neat as a barber. I don't think he even ticked the curb. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
I suppose that now days that job is done with power weed whackers, even there on the Finca, but seeing it done with the big knife it was a permanent conversion experience for me.
The machete was hardly the only thing I got out of my time in Puerto Rico, but I've been a machete man ever since.
The one I picked up down there cost me a dollar ninety nine and was about good enough for cutting banana shoots and the made in China one I got from Agway the next year wasn't much better - was probably stamped out of old Ford fenders in China, but the one I use now is a Vietnam era government issue machete at Gee's Army Surplus in Ithaca. It's heavy bladed , high carbon steel, and I can do about anything with it that you can do with a Hudson Bay crusier ax, plus filet a trout.
Of course, if I could, I 'd have one made of steel as good as the that in Davey's scythes, which are cold forged Damascus style in Austria from many layers of alternating hard and soft steel - high and low carbon - so that it takes an edge easiy, and keeps it well.
It's a shame to see the damage Davey does to his scythes in the orchard. He has one for brush and one for grass but they both come back looking like bread knives that've been used to cut nails.

Around the time I came here to manage the chickens, Davey destroyed the old power mower by repeatedly hitting rocks, sumac stumps, and half-burried farm implements with the whirlly blades. . So until he he developed his scythe enthusiasm, it was up to me and my machete to keep a way clear through the jungle growing up here. The roosters keep the bamboo, the blueberries and the garden vegetables in check, but everything else has to be mowed, hacked, chopped, or dug.
The machette can do most of that well, all of it if necessary. One of the first things I did when I moved onto the farm, other than my chicken duties, was to hack a loop out through the property and back. Through goldenrod, honey suckle, buck thorn and sparing the volunteer pear trees.
Scythes are fine when you are mowing grass - and if you are normally proportioned - but even Davey's bush scythe won't willingly take out a Buckthorn bigger around than your finger (though he tries) - and until I want to wear my sheet rock stilts around here so I can handle a scythe, I'll stay with the machete.
It's only March here now and nothing much other than garlic has started to grow, but Davey has already been slicking up his scythes, so I 've been out on the lanes with the loppers and the machete, cutting back the sharp, foot spearing stubs left by his earlier work, which other wise will not only lame me and the dogs but also catch and bung up his scythe when the grass comes up to hide them and he comes hacking through.
The harmonica is my favorite tool, and the hammer has been my money maker, but I can always whistle and sing, and I never need more than one sock half full of quarters. Without my machete,
I'd be be dead in the road by now.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

You Want to be an Agrotourist

Here is the ad I expect to put up on Craig's List, as soon as I can scrape some of the caked-on crap off the horizontal surfaces of the chicken house, get in
fresh wood shavings, and ready a new space for myself under the main house. I figure it's going to put a lot of quarters in my sock, which will all go toward my journey to Great Bear Lake .... if I can get Davey to cooperate. So check it out:

Bernie Made Off with your investment money, your house lost half its market value, and your credit cards were canceled, so now you can't even pay summer hotel prices in Paris, Texas ..... and anyway, you want to reduce your foot print and your waist line, while contributing to a sustainable enterprise by eating local foods, and living on the land's natural bounty. Yachtless in the Finger Lakes, you want to ride the bow wave of the latest popular movement: You want to be an Agrotourist.

Here is your chance to experience, not simply life on the farm, but the full, free-range life - life as the farm animals themselves experience it, embedded with the flock, keeping their hours, sharing their quarters and their rations, totally home on the range.

As a guest at Dog's Plot, you will rise at dawn, if not before, and thrill to the fierce mock battles of our colorful, designer roosters, who (because they are not hardened and provoked by professional football players or small time gamblers) will seldom hurt one another while providing your entertainment and working out a social order with their incessant sparring.
You will luxuriate in the affectionate burbling of the hens as you forage with them for seeds, nuts, and small game, then roll and bathe with them in the mulch under the pear trees. You will have an opportunity to join in the usual activities of a small working farm, such as helping the chickens to rid the garden plots of noxious weeds and insects, and occasionally intervening when hens who are overly concerned with their relative status, start to peck and pull out each other's feathers.

After a full day in the sun, you will crawl into the fresh wood shavings of the nest area bedding, and marvel at the sweet smell of the chicken house interior and of the assembled birds themselves - a smell which results from the grains, greens, insects, and occasional frogs, shrews, or voles in the diet which you will share with them.
Of course you will not be required to eat bugs, or mice, or anything you don't want, and of course we will provide you and your family, (who after all have no beaks to crack or crops to grind grain) with the means to prepare your food. Naturally, you will also be free to dust yourself off patronize one of our local restaurants.

But we guarantee that by the end of your stay, living for a week or more entirely on this cleansing diet, you yourself will be as sweet smelling as a bird of paradise or an Irish Spring, and that your personal droppings will be delicate brown curls around a light center, as dry and odorless as cake decorations..... or else the first day of your next stay of a week or more, will be free of charge.
2009 season starts July 1.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sleeping Dogs Lie

When Davey saw my foot sticking out from the wood shavings in the chicken house, I was already waking up. Dragging me by the feet and bumping my head on the threshold was really unnecessary.
I had surfaced to the point that I was dreaming; and dreaming is next to waking .
Sure, it's true that my natural born ability to lower my body temperature and literally hibernate, didn't come with a corresponding ability to rouse myself from that state. And yes, It used to take another person, a rise in ambient temperatures, or something else external..... like a possum gnawing on my foot.... to bring me around, but I long ago learned to summon dreams and in them to recognize that I am dreaming, so that I can wake myself. Conscious dreaming is an old trick others practice ( they say) so they can fly around and do other such things without consequences or the limitations of physics. For me it is strictly about waking up.
It was a hard skill to learn, and I admit I did some unnecessary fooling around before I mastered it.
Once, when I thought I was dreaming, I climbed up on top of a car and tried to fly off it.... but I wasn't dreaming; I was only drunk, and I crashed directly after take off.
I landed squarely on my feet and, thanks to my short-boned legs, the mere six foot drop, and my rubbery drunkenness, I was unhurt. But I have long since given up drinking to the point of existential confusion, and I have become a lot more attentive to my dreaming.
I learned my lesson; but I am not giving lessons, and I don't encourage anyone to take up hibernation as a sport.. Mostly, I would just urge you, In case you run across someone in my sort of meta sleep state, to use the common sense most people have anyway, if only from knowing the truism : Let a sleeping dog lie.
Thank you for your consideration.

Zulu Rescue

Having my head dragged over the threshold of the chicken house, didn't so much speed up my waking, as it further troubled, confused, and dragged out my dream .

In the dream I had been wandering around an unfamiliar city, looking for something. I might even have been able to find it, if I had known what it was I was looking for.
My dreaming had at least gotten to the point that there seemed to be something vaguely familiar about the city I was in.
Then, I found myself up on the flat roof of what I recognize now as the old Strand Theatre, which is, or was, at the foot of State Street hill in Ithaca, just across from the spot where, years ago, I was knocked down by the thief who was riding my own bicycle.

In front of me were several other people who, one by one, jumped off..... not to their deaths, but almost soaringly, with slow descents and clumsy but safe landings, like baby birds learning to fly.
So It was just occuring to me that this was a dream and that I had better either wake up of take off..... when I felt a pressure on my chest and heard a clicking.
The dream I had been having was already evaporating and being displaced by a memory of the day the guy on my bike knocked me down at that Ithaca intersection. The memory was so sharp, when I opened my see Gorgeous George the rooster, standing on my chest and pecking at one of my buttons... I was surprised it was not Shaka Zulu in his dashiki I suppose the confabulation has to do with a connection between having my head knocked against the curb back then, and knocked again over the threshold of the chicken house so recently. That and the tapping.

Because after the bike hit, and a moment of unconsciousness I felt that tap, tapping on my chest, and opened my eyes to see a brown guy in an African robe, his face close to mine, asking once with each tap, if I was alright: you alright? you alright? you alright? unitl I finally said I was.
That, to say the very least, was an exaggeration .
My head hurt, my butt hurt, and I didn't know if I was in Africa, or Ithaca, whether had fallen off the State Theatre and broken my neck, or what.

He handed me my shoulder bag , and asked me if I wanted a cigarette.
I said yeah..... forgetting that I had not been in the habit for quite a while.
He helped me sit up and then asked if I had any cigarettes.
I said no, so he helped me to my feet, and said we needed to go get some.
He asked if I had any money.
I had buried a coffee can with some cash in in it at the base of the lady statue in the cemetery, but I just said I was a little short.
He asked if I was a midget. I am not a midget or a dwarf, etc. as you know, but I didn't go into that right then. No.
He said his name was Shaka, and that fortunately for me, he had a few bucks at that moment in time.
We went across the street to Mayers smoke shop and my new friend bought a pouch of the cheap floor sweepings that are so loose and dry that you have to twist the ends of the cigarette or the tobacco will pour out when you lean over or tap off the ash.
We took it to Dewitt Park, sat on a bench in front of the Baptist church and Shaka rolled up a couple. He added some lint from a pocket or a pouch inside his dashiki.

We sat there for an hour or so in the October sun, talking and smoking most of that pouch of tobacco and all the pocket lint.
My new friend's name was really Shaka Zulu. He had it legally changed to that after moving to Ithaca. If you're from Ithaca, you probably know him. Black pride was one thing, but Shaka had discovered that the African name and the robe were an advantage when he went up the hill to pick up girls on the Cornell campus.
Before Ithaca and the name change..... in Vietnam, he was PFC Ronald Wright. In his experience, the Army sucked so bad that when his tour was over and he had been shipped back to the U.S. he deserted at the dock, instead of going to get his discharge.

I would eventually get to know Shaka in a lot more detail, and if you are from Ithaca , you know something about him too, but after an hour on the bench, I had to get moving. My head hurt some, but mainly, I was stiff as Hell. My head had hit the curb, but the bike had hit me a hip shot.
Shaka himself had already been up on campus that day, so he went to look for a guy who owed him money, and I headed on up to campus to look for brother Davey.