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Back to the Land

FICTION by Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O’Connor Award and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend, as well as Into Woods, Temple Stream, and the bestselling Life Among Giants. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. His work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York Magazine, and dozens of other magazines and journals. | billroorbach.com

Many decades ago as my junior year in college bumped to a close I put a few shirts in my canvas Boy Scout rucksack and climbed into Hank Martin’s station wagon along with Carol Luxbaum, his longtime girlfriend. Hank and I were twenty, roommates at Ithaca College, class of ’75. Carol was nineteen, and drove me crazy, always wrapped in a towel. We were from Jersey and New York City and in my case, Connecticut. We’d all been reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living The Good Life, and had got an itch: We were going back to the land.

Hank’s old high school pal Kevin Kellogg had bought twenty acres on a pond near Plymouth, Maine. But in the dead of winter Kevin hadn’t noticed that it was the bog end of the pond, ten acres of mosquitoes and mud, densely tangled alder, impassable.

We hiked in, passed through a handsome old stone wall and suddenly stepped into a pretty meadow, remains of an old farm field, still poignant, and still touched by spring, nascent milkweed every-where in the sour, abandoned soil, also wildflowers: orange hawkweed on tall stalks, Johnny jump-ups in patches of purple, dandelions uncountable. Down in the far corner we spotted Kevin’s Army-surplus MASH tent, hard to miss with that red cross on top.

Our host shouted from somewhere, emerged suddenly as if from the earth itself, muddy and soaked. “I’m digging a well!” he called.

He’d been on the land since April, when there’d still been snow, surprising him. He’d lost weight, looked weary. He hugged us each. He smelled of woodsmoke and stale clothes. A woman emerged from the tent carrying something. A baby.

Kevin said, “You got to meet Jenna. I picked her up hitchhiking first days here, like an omen. We fell in love. Truck’s out of gas. But the woman’s still running!”

Jenna made her way to us, calm as a tree stump, faint smile, baby riding her hip. She said, “We were picking trout lily.” She showed us her basket of tender leaves. Mother’s milk had leaked into her t-shirt, I did not fail to notice. Moxie, the shirt said. Carol’s negative judgment was plain on her face, thoroughgoing: Did back to the land mean babies? Hank and Kevin embraced, punched one another: they were the real friends.

The baby’s name was Birch. Jenna put him down, shook our hands. Baby Birch was big at fourteen months. He wasn’t a strong walker, but he could butt-scoot through the grass and weeds like a pro, headed for that well. His mother caught him up, a lot of giggling, both of them.

That evening we built a big fire by the future site of the cabin, drank my entire stash of Utica Club beer, finished our road bologna, slaughtered a startling salad of blanched dandelion clusters Jenna said), with onion grass and trout lily leaves, baby garden greens (none familiar)—also some kind of thready mushrooms Jenna had found, dressing of thin yogurt. I mean, startling because it was delicious. That was Jenna. She’d be our teacher. She’d wean us from the world.

Kevin outlined the misadventure so far: back in winter he’d pictured himself floating around in the pond, pleasant hippie lassitude. Instead it was all work. Really hard work.

“And therein lies the pleasure,” Jenna said warmly.

I held Birch a long time, hadn’t touched a toddler like that since my little sister was new, the sweetest thing, his big little hands tugging at my mustache. Late, Carol and Hank slipped off to his car. That’s where she meant to sleep, not in any stinking army tent, no matter how big. Kevin and Jenna and baby Birch seemed happy enough not to have to share, made their way down the moonlit meadow, the very vision of my homestead dream. Near the fire, I assembled my old pup tent, climbed in.
By the time the rest of us got up, Jenna had had time to make a couple dozen coarse biscuits with wild mushrooms and greens, spot of flour on her nose. Kevin came out of the tent in a t-shirt, no pants. Birch climbed up naked on my lap, happily ate four biscuits in a row, maple syrup from a Mason jar, his little double chin dripping.

“Ew, mushrooms,” Carol said, spitting out a mouthful.

We had a meeting, sitting in a circle on big logs. Jenna wanted us all to pool our money. I was in, contributed what was left of my cash, fourteen dollars. And Hank was in, twenty-one dollars, a man of means. Carol, I knew, was sitting on something like six hundred bucks, plus free use of her father’s credit card.

Carol?” Kevin said, acting as treasurer.

“I’ll put in the average of what the boys put in,” she said shrewdly. So that was another seventeen.

It went without saying somehow that Kevin’s share was the land and Jenna’s her knowledge, and that Birch’s maintenance was everyone’s responsibility.

Carol wandered off, supposedly to take a walk, but in a minute you could hear Hank’s car starting far up there on the road. No matter: Hank and Kevin got in the well and I brought them rocks from an olden farmer’s fieldstone pile nearby, two or three at a time in an antique wooden wheelbarrow. The work went slowly, my friends standing knee deep in muddy water. Kevin was supremely confident, ordered us around.

Jenna, meanwhile, worked in the garden while Birch contentedly patted the fresh soil she turned up. Lunchtime, nearly, and Jenna hoisted Birch and carried him into the forest across the stone wall, returned in an hour with an impressive pile of what she said were ramps, or wild leeks: greens, bulbs and all, super fragrant. And with brown rice from a huge bag marked “surplus” and more of the oyster mushrooms, also a sauce made with peanut butter from an enormous surplus can, that was lunch.

Afterwards I helped Jenna in the garden, like taking a class, Birch in and out between our knees and arms, naked as a baby mole. Mother and son smelled the same: pine needles and syrup and mother’s milk. Hands dirty, Jenna wiped the mud from her cheek on my shoulder, intimate work.

Dinner was two enormous pizzas Carol had bought someplace. She’d got her hair cut, too, and looked freshly showered: a day-spa in Bangor, half an hour or more away.

And our first days were like that, Carol wandering off to museums and department stores and famous beaches, the rest of us laboring, happy when she brought treats, which depended on her mood. Kevin was very unhappy with her, let us know it, let her know, too. And after two weeks she’d had enough. They didn’t even have to pack, as everything was in Hank’s car. But she must have felt guilty anyway, gave us a hundred dollars. “This is never going to work,” she said for the millionth time, even in the midst of a tearful goodbye. Hank said he’d be back, but I knew him pretty well, and Kevin did too, and we agreed he’d never come back, not without Carol.

Suddenly it was July. Kevin and I had gotten the well lined about halfway, miserable work, but then overnight after a heavy rain it collapsed, disaster. Kevin went into a rage, stormed down into the woods to hack at his cabin logs with an ax.

The second Tuesday of the month was surplus day at the town office, not to say welfare. Anyway, he state handed out surplus food to the elderly, also huge bags of powdered milk to nursing mothers, sometimes along with other donations like oil, flour, cheese, and sugar. Jenna had to appear in person, so I drove her in Kevin’s old pickup, the baby in her lap. First stop was for gas, and there went three dollars, all we could manage. Jenna wrote the amount in a little notebook she carried in her overalls.

At the town office, properly contrite, she collected her handout. At the little store with the gas pump she bought a single yogurt. “Culture,” she said. And wrote the cost, thirty cents. I had no clue what she meant, culture, but laughed with her. The joke, I guess, was her thrift, and that she made whole gallons of yogurt with the powdered milk. She was distressingly beautiful, the smartest person I’d ever met. In the truck she put Birch to her breast. I just looked out the windshield at the pretty day.

“You’re so quiet,” she said.

“I’m trying,” I told her.

She said, “But let’s talk. You’re in college?”

“College, yes.”

“And what do you love about college?”

I had to think a long time. “I had a film class once, that was good. But I couldn’t get into the program. Otherwise. I don’t know. I’m a history major. Pretty dull.”

“So why do you do it?”

A little later, on the way home, she told me to take a right on an unmarked road that descended a steep hill, the broken pavement turning quickly to dirt, then mud. At the top was an olden farm. A cheerful old man, seventy or more, trundled out of the spavined barn, his face lit like a kerosene lamp. “Our Alton,” Jenna said. “He came over with his team back in April to see how he might help. Kevin said we didn’t need any help. But Alton tilled the garden spot with me. And a lot more, when Kevin’s not watching.”

Birch was thrilled to see the old man. We tumbled out of the little truck. I felt conspicuous with my long hair. But Alton had no judgment in him, just shook my hand, kissed Jenna on both cheeks, kissed the baby. “Ah, you got some real help, now,” he joked. Me, he meant.

He had jars of preserved beans and beets and tomatoes. He filled my arms with boxes—seven or eight trips to the truck. “I hardly ate the half of it,” he kept saying. “I know you can use it even as your garden comes in.” Alton was in the slowest hurry I’d ever seen, kept consulting his ancient pocket watch—there was a church meeting in town he needed to get to. Back down in the barnyard I helped him harness his matched Belgians, kindest tones for both me and the horses, which he hooked to an olden buckboard, and off he went, like 1806, or really any year but 1973.

On the way home, Jenna filled me in: he’d lost his son in Vietnam. His wife had died at home of a disease never diagnosed, likely cancer. They’d never had electricity or plumbing, so never missed it. “Kevin barely tolerates him,” she said, “and that’s a mistake we can’t afford. Ignoring your elders, I mean.” And, “Don’t tell Kevin where we got all this stuff, okay?”

August came and Alton Beaver turned up, un-announced, though I got the impression Jenna had invited him. That team of Belgians was amazing, and helped finally haul the logs for the cabin, Kevin acting all superior, like Alton was just some old fool.

But Alton offered his bucksaw and log dogs and homemade charcoal line and broadax and adze and drawknife to plane the logs out— Kevin hadn’t thought about all that prehistoric stuff. As Alton demonstrated technique and I tried to learn, Kevin scoffed and ordered us around, pointing with his hardware-store ax, outlining his plans for building. Alton politely stopped him—those piers weren’t frost deep, not in Maine. The cabin wouldn’t last its first winter. But Kevin had read how deep piers needed to be set, read it in a book.

And Alton very respectfully said, “Maybe the book was about another part of the country. No sense in building on piers that will fail.”

Kevin lost it: “Listen, you old hillbilly. You take your horses, you get off my land! And don’t ever come back!”

I was shocked and mortified at the insult—hillbilly!—but Alton just held his head high, calmly walked his Belgians out of there, the wages of kindness. Earlier, he’d suggested building a log cradle so we could notch the huge timbers one by one without danger of their rolling. I was all for it. But now Kevin had something to prove. He went to work in a fury, capable guy. But no log cradle. And so the third log rolled and he missed the joint, swung that razor-sharp new ax straight full force into his knee. He screamed like a wild animal, tumbled off the log and to the ground.

Jenna, as always, knew what to do. She tourniqueted his leg, eased it off every minute or so. Kevin vomited, passed out. His pickup had run out of gas long since—Alton and his horses had towed it home from town. So I sprinted up the right of way, ran down the paved road, waved my arms to stop the only traffic, an elderly woman who knew Alton and said she’d fetch him.

Within half an hour he was there, and with one of his horses and a cart he wheeled Kevin to the road where the same woman met us and drove our casualty to the hospital in Bangor.

Kevin’s dad arranged to have him flown to a hospital in Jersey by helicopter. Our boy had developed sepsis, almost died, wouldn’t walk for a year.

Jenna and I worked on the garden, just kept going. She had tomatoes coming in. We ate them greedily standing right there in the beds, no real way to preserve them, fed them to the baby. I was pretty worried, said as much when she finally asked.

And Jenna said, “Alton will take us in. We wouldn’t have survived the winter anyway. Not here. Alton will love to have us.”

Us.

I dropped the idea of college right there. And took to sleeping in the Army tent with Jenna and Birch, all snuggled in their covers on the noisy mattress she’d made of swamp madder and cedar bark. I felt I loved her and on the third or fourth night I told her so.

“Survival of the fittest,” she said. And even though it was a joke, I was pretty proud of myself. Plus, by morning, we were lovers. True love, and always.

Alton took good care of us, and in our turn, we took good care of him. We worked his farm beside him, and then worked it as he had. He died very quietly at ninety-four after a day moving boulders with his team. His last will and testament was written on an envelope stored at the judge’s house in town. And that’s how we found out he’d left us the farm. And three new kids later, a couple of them through college, Birch and our youngest still home on the farm, Jenna and I remain a good matched team. We often comment on the accidents of fate, that Kevin never returned, for example. In the late nineties, though, he did gift us his plot of land, and after some hard work behind that second set of Belgians, it makes nice spring pasture for our milkers, though it’s never been much for hay.

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A sneak peek of the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms annual journal

In the next week or two, the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms annual journal will be arriving in mailboxes across the state and beyond. (Hot tip: If you’re not yet a member, or haven’t renewed in a few years, join today to make sure you get your copy of the journal!)
Here’s a sneak preview of some the stories you’ll find inside the new issue:
  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins heads north to find Maine-grown grain on the rise in potato country
  • Melissa Coleman considers the sustainability of scaling up
  • Farmer Stacy Brenner imagines the potential for savvy marketing to sync rural farmers and urban customers
  • Machias landmark Helen’s Restaurant shares a recipe for the very best blueberry pie
…and much MORE. 
 
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