23 September 2008
Today was a special day for me, one that comes only twice a year, and always serves as a time for me to reflect on milestones, and accomplishments, and to put my day-to-day scheduling into a larger context of the handiwork of God. Today was the Equinox.
All summer the days have been growing shorter, a little bit shorter each day, but at a faster and faster rate. From my sophisticated astronomical observatory on the front porch, I can step out and watch the sunset two miles away on the ridge to the west. During the summer the sun goes down behind the maples on the northwest hilltop, way up towards the progressive metropolis of Bethesda about eight miles off. Each day the sun sets a bit more to the south, as the Equinox approaches. And finally, today, 21 September—the Autumnal Equinox—it sets just behind a little barn owned by our neighbor up on the ridge. Tomorrow, the sun will miss the barn entirely, and set just behind his house instead, a little more to the south. And as the autumn progresses, the sun will keep setting farther and farther south all the way until the Solstice—the first day of winter—when it will begin to swing back like some sort of cosmic pendulum, until it finally passes the house and the little barn again on the first day of spring next year, but going the other way. In six more months.
I’ve always used the Equinoxes to mark time, to keep track of my life on the somewhat slower ticking clock that is available to me out here in the sticks. To me, the Equinoxes represent tipping points, momentary pauses in a slow cycle of change, resting points that come twice each year where I can stop and ask myself why I’m where I am. To make my life easier, I tend to organize decisions and events around the equinoxes and solstices, to make them easier to remember. I married my lovely wife on the vernal equinox, many years ago. When somebody asks me what our anniversary is, all I have to say is “The Vernal Equinox.” Then when they say, “When is that?” I just point to the little barn on the ridge and say, “See the sun going down over there? When it goes down behind that little barn, then I know it’s our anniversary …” This seems to satisfy most people, because they don’t seem to ask me any more questions about it.
But the slow ticking of this cosmic clock is what is important to me—the chance to step back and take stock of things myself at regular but distant intervals. I kept bees commercially for ten or twelve years—about 900 beehives—and working with nature teaches you that the Big Cycles are slow, and come around once a year, or even longer. I once knew a country boy who said to me that it was easier for country people to adapt to city life and living than it was for city people to adapt to country life. I asked him why, and he explained that it was all a matter of timing. You see, in a city job, if you mess something up, you just wait until next Monday and start over. If you mess up a contract, just do better on the next one coming up. You can learn to do something pretty quick, because over a month or two you get a dozen chances to try again. In the country, though, in agriculture, your opportunity to learn comes one time, each twelve months. Mess up on the timing when you plant your wheat, and you lose—your second try is twelve months away. Don’t split your bees in time in March, and they hit the trees in April. You lose your replacement colonies and your chance at making honey until next year.
What this means is that a country person in a city job can learn how to do it more or less reasonably quickly, because the information he needs comes in quickly. A city person used to the rapid repeat of the city information cycle tends to get lost in country tasks, because the information comes in so much more slowly. In urban software technical writing (I used to do that) I could have a dozen or two dozen assignments each year to learn from. In the country, I will have perhaps only two dozen more farming seasons for the entire rest of my life. This is quite humbling, and it’s one of the reasons that I use the Equinoxes to keep track of the passage of time.
Right now is the sixth Autumnal Equinox we’ve spent up on this hilltop in Appalachia, a long way from Silicon Valley in California, where Shawna and I met writing computer manuals for IBM. We bailed out of that world right when people were trying to figure out how to make money off the Internet and decided to run 1000 beehives for pollination and commercial queen breeding instead. So we left San Jose and moved into the fertile Central Valley, where temperatures were 114 degrees and our bee business had lots of customers. And now we’re here.
We have 25 acres of hayfield and hardwoods, a perennial stream (sort of), an ancient post-and-beam animal barn, a carriage house, milk house, a brandy-new 3000-square-foot insulated metal building with a half-mile of heating coils in the floor, about 900 dead-out beehives (another story) and lots of potential. Almost nothing but potential, it seems.
In the winter the road is under snow, in the summer the well goes dry, we have inadequate fencing and little of the necessary equipment. The wheels fell off our old Farmall Super-C when we tried to load it into the trailer in California to get it here, and it’s still sitting there where I rolled it back. Tractors are expensive, and we don’t have a replacement yet. But we have plans. Lots and lots of plans.
And this is where they are going to be:
Shawna put this new blog up to allow us to organize what it is we want to do with the rest of lives—what we want to grow, build, preserve, learn to do, and most of all, keep track of. Stop by and offer suggestions, or just check on our progress. We'll be running this project from now until the cows come home. And we don’t yet have cows.
But we still have those stinking goats. Tina from the junkyard wants goats, and said she would come by and look them over last Saturday. But she didn’t come, so I assume her husband talked some sense in her. But Tricia (who drives the school bus) is looking for goats. Our kids are the first ones on and the last ones off the bus, so maybe if I hog-tie them one at a time I can toss them up in there on the floor sometime next week.
Or before the next Equinox, anyway.