Malus Aforethought:  the ciderman's credo
Had to start a new letter as soon as the above heading came to me - another horrific pun from the Foresyengland Punfactory. (Here is the author in the grip of cider-enthusiasm.  Mr. Toad rides under the banner of those who have no god but great curiosity about how far life can be stretched - before it snaps back and guillotines the curious.) 

I knew there was an apple-crab in the thick of the swampy overgrowth out along the roadway, and I wanted to award it the recompense of open air and sunlight for having survived into maturity in such abysmal ground. An offshoot of the tree across the road, I was sure, and the probable-parent itself an old tree of unknown provenance, a veteran which the neighbors tolerate only because it is too big to mow down. This is apple country; Maine is apple country.  Old orchards abound in unexpected places.

Tangent:  Maine has more forest now than it did a hundred years ago - so much cleared agricultural land has been abandoned and is since overgrown. The small farmer wants to come back from behind the dark curtain of obscurity drawn by large capital and visioneers of permagrowth.  Agribiz can't do it 40 acres at a time, but Mainers can.  The process is already underway. It is about what grows in your climate.  Apples, potatoes, blueberries, even corn do well here. Chickens love it, think they've gone to Paris on vacation.

Just opened the regular email from MOFGA and found their '20' list; it shows 20 foods that Maine can supply locally which would serve to make the state able to completely feed itself: Potatoes, apples, milk/cheese/dairy, blueberries, eggs, maple syrup/honey, carrots, tomatoes, grains, dry beans, onions, garlic, greens/spinach/kale, many types of seafood, ground meats of all the usual sorts, root veggies, winter squash/pumpkin, cabbage, processed veggies: corn, broccoli, peas, beans, peppers, mushrooms. Think how big that list must get as you move south into warmer climes.

Back to the topic - you may think I mean crab apple, but no, an apple-crab is a tree sprung from seed that has not held true to the parent fruit.  This is usual; apples must be cloned, grown from a graft, to be true to form.  All trees grown from seed produce something other, an apple-crab. The offspring may be any sort of apple.  A new variety of wonderful qualities even.  If you get an apple you like on such a tree then you lop off a shoot and graft it onto another tree and, voila!, you have preserved that apple for as long as you care to graft it out. You cannot pluck a seed from your favorite Pippin, plop it into the soil of your yard and expect to get a tree of Pippins.  Odds are against it.

A rescue plan formed. The first feat in my chainsaw campaign to reach the apple-crab would be to take out the 50' evergreen that was slowly metastasizing into the drive, trying to tear off mirrors and wipers at every pass. You can see right off that there is no love lost between me and evergreens. I'll take the color-shifting deciduous that have the decency to go naked in winter every time.  Dormancy is good; maybe like tree-yoga.  We all need time to sleep like the dead between bouts of chasing the sun.

I got out an 80' length of 3/4" nylon line, laddered myself as far up the tree as felt safe and tied it around the trunk with the Navy-approved bowline.  The other end went to a come-along attached to the back of Ranger Rosie.  Plugged in my Milwaukee electric chainsaw, took a half-diameter notch out of the offending conifer, aimed toward Rosie - this was important as I had power lines on one side and the garage on the other; Pat just hates it when I make small misjudgments in these things, and I do confess to a streak of impetuosity when muscles get pumped and vision narrows - as it all must happen in any important physical undertaking. Maybe it's a guy-thing, headlong into the fray. I took up the slack in the line to pull the trunk down into the notch and then cut thru the back of the tree.  With a great SNAP!! the tree laid itself out down the yard right at Rosie.  Very cool.  I hadn't done any of this stuff for years, not since I did a little felling up in Humboldt County when I worked for Forestry in the early 70's.  Bucked that all up and moved on into the brush.

What a tangle.  A catalogue of things that thrive in shade and slime.  How had the apple tree survived?  Apples want well-drained soil and sunlight - I read that in The Apple Growers Testament.  Grand, rugged rootstock worth saving; that was my best guess.  The campaign against the bog-brush is hard fought and goes on three days later with only a slow progress of cleared ground to show for all the aches and pain.  The ground needed clearing anyway.  Bog-brush forever pushes forth in fecund abundance, always trying to burgeon over the fence and into the garden, and oaks, maples, birches, firs and pines shoot up making a shady mockery of late afternoon sun.

A Ramshackle brother is here today - sun is out! He has offered to help me with my brush-work, for a price that hasn't been mentioned yet, but I think he should concentrate on the work already paid for and yet to be finished.  He is alone as the other brother has disappeared over the weekend of the Fourth with the truck.  The missing brother has been known to run away with the carnival in the past.  Truly; he gets offers to haul the rides with the one-ton and off he goes.  Greener pastures?  Carny girls?  Bright lights along the midway?  Who can fathom the intricate desires of the working man? It does leave elder brother somewhat unfocused.

Hours later and I have again loaned the steadier of the brothers a sum of money; don't ask how much unless you truly want to embarrass me.  We are budgeted for such exigencies, until California sends us our first IOU, at which point we reassess the viability of the retired life. Maybe the Ramshackles will take me on as a senior advisor, or at least as a driver and beer wallah when it all goes to hell.

It now appears that a deal may be in the works for some brush-shredding assistance.  I don't mind as one of the 4 piles is over 6 feet high, 10 feet wide and much longer than that.  My enthusiasm for shredding and chipping the lot has waned as I struggle ankle deep in muck cutting and dragging what the chainsaw lays out in its wicked wake, and the pile-to-be-shredded grows and grows, bloblike. Steve McQueen where are you in my hour of need?  I am almost up to the end of the garden fence and have everything cleared out about 15 feet.  (I envision a backhoe ripping out a deeper drainage channel - deeper than my hand-dug effort, to drain the water before it over reaches into the garden, but maybe that is another chapter; ever the eye expands the hand's reach.)

A friend's wife is ill.  It does not look promising; at least not in the way of the promises we long to hear, the Golden Years and happily-ever-after sort.  I think about this, my own sense of time tightening more and more, like a spring jammed up hard against my own physical limits, and I wonder where to put it all. I have known this friend since I was about 15; he is the only person from my childhood that I do know.  There isn't any news on the kid next door with whom I played from age 2 - he doesn't exist, never did - maybe in long-ago only-child dreams.  There is no keeping track of my five best friends from high school, knowing with a grin what careers they followed after all their big talk, which other acquaintance they married and stuck to or didn't, or how their kids have done in these strange times - they don't exist either. The faceless ditto-crowd of intimacies I never had. 

I did have two friends in high school, one of them I still actually see now and then.  I have known him longer than I knew my mother.  She died when I was 35, and I have known Stuie for 50 years now.  Ok, it is true, I don't exactly know him, but we were young together and did dumb things in each other's company, and made mistakes, and worked on who we would be when we grew up. That, to me, is knowing someone. For me it is a rare sort of knowing, one with a connection that only time and age could have manufactured. It means more than knowing exactly who they are right now, creaky and slowed and impressed by decades of experiences I will never be aware of.  There lives in me some trust that the person I knew long ago still abides at the core of the man, my friend, who exists now and sits at the beside of a sick wife.  Why is there comfort in this for me?  I cannot begin to say. Some mysteries are simply to be enjoyed because they are pinpricks against everyday acceptance.

My friend brought to the fore a conversation Pat and I have been lately having.  He said he was an agnostic with strong atheist leanings.  Pat lays claim to being an atheist.  I have some problem with this, but don't know how to state my arguments properly.

My own claim is to agnosticism:  I don't know if there is a god, or gods, and I see no way of proving the proposition either way.  I am free to simply throw my hands up and yell "I don't know - and I really don't give a damn." 

Atheism, an entirely different animal, seems to me to be fraught with an obligation. Since both the existence, or non-existence, of a god, any god, cannot be proven given available facts then both belief and non-belief must rely on arguments based in faith.  Any semblance of "proof" an atheist, or a believer, lays claim seems wishful thinking: my definition of faith.  For me that doesn't cut it.  Belief and nonbelief are thus equally beyond the pale of reason.  That gives me the chills. Atheists might be as likely to have an inquisition as believers.  Not for me. Faith seems to throw out kindness and bring up the blood when it takes root. I will take the throwing up of hands and the laughter at the absurdity of it all. I am not obliged to prove to you that I know something you don't, and then assail you for not sharing my concerns.

If this life  is anything it is the cosmic kindergarten, and we are here to have our lunch money stolen, sand kicked in our faces, and to be thrust off the jungle gym onto our butts.  What does it mean?  "God only knows", he said and smiled.

Pat said that if there is any sentient life beyond this planet then we would be in the position of North Korea, proscribed: a prohibited zone of highly infectious claptrap, insane individuals, and a place of extreme danger to all life. Top of the cosmic list in the Axis of Ignorance roll.  I will have to ask the not-don for further clarification: life speaking to life across the smeared Plexiglas barrier by scratchy phone on allotted visiting days - if anyone bothers to come.

About 6 days into clearing brush and I have reached the far post of the garden plot.  Much more challenging toward the end as I ran out of extension cord and had to start falling with a small single bit axe.  Did my masterpiece this afternoon: a 60' oak laid down along the fence line like I had drawn a diagram on paper and had it come true like a blueprint.  My nylon line and come-along and a keen eye for where the notch should go has kept me from 1. smashing the garden fence, 2. laying a tree across the power lines, or 3. crushing passing autos filled with innocents.  All in all a pleasant reason to come in and have a beer and pat myself on the back.  Now I have the resultant brush to shred and chip.  Chicken bedding, compost and soil supplement for the ages.  Oh, there is also the firewood I produced.

I have had a Ramshackle Reckoning, and I feel dispirited about it.  Eleven days ago I was thinking I would really like to see the work I had paid for completed and get my place back.  Ramshackle the Elder showed up that day; I told him I would like all done by the end of the week.  No arguments.  He worked a couple of hours and left, not unusual; this is how we progress, in small and intermittent steps, but I wished to speed the process.  The same day I refused to loan him Rosie the Ranger any longer.  He had been in the habit of working a bit and then borrowing Rosie for the rest of the day, and overnight when possible, to pursue other business.  I thought that if I refused to loan him Rosie he might not come over for a bit, but 11 days was more than I reckoned for.  Since then I have been doing the carpentry and painting already paid for and looking at his stuff in the barn with growing disquiet.

This morning I realized I needed to move on.  Being angry with him for work not done and money borrowed and not repaid would seem to be the natural course, but it is not a course I much like.  The reason is simply my own deficit which comes to the fore in confrontations.  I don't have a lot of middle ground.  I like being a nice guy, helping people out, listening to their troubles.  Easing the way for others pleases me; it seems a duty as well as a pleasure.  But between the amiable-me and the me-who-wants-to-kill their isn't a lot of ground.  You might think all the years I spent in emergency psychiatry bargaining, talking down the furious, calming the waters of rage would have left me perfectly capable of doing the same in my own life.  They didn't.  That was not personal.  I was never truly involved in the life and death rages of the E.R.  There was simply no personal emotional stake. What I did was done to protect lives and keep the peace.  There was no payoff in ego terms. That was really the secret to being good at what I did:  I was never ego involved; I took nothing that was said personally. But in the outside world you dip me in the shit, personally, and I can come unglued, moving in one step from nice guy to enraged.  I could lay it off to brain damage, but I was that way even as a kid, before my brain got banged up. There was something I was supposed to learn that I just didn't.  I became a two speed adult in a multispeed world.

My head needed clearing on the home front so I loaded all the Ramshackle gear into the back of Rosie and drove over to the Ramshackle residence.  I wasn't going to have a garage sale with their tools and try to recoup some of my losses; I wasn't going to put their stuff on the curb for free pickup.  I wanted to do the right thing, to take the tools where they belonged and then to wash my hands of the whole mess. I had no intention of inflicting harm for harm. 

Ramshackle the Elder was in the yard on his cell phone when I drove up.  "When isn't he on his cell phone making deals?" I silently asked myself. I told him I wanted his stuff out of my barn so I could do the work I had paid him for; he was terribly contrite, terribly apologetic, terribly sorry that I was upset.  Actually I was doing rather well; I raised my voice as I told him what a loser he was, but I did not yell.  I explained in simple terms, only mildly abusive, that all that I had done for him had been repaid by dishonest dealings.  He was very upset.  The problem in dealing with him is that his very soft approach tends to force you to back away, listen to his explanations, then commiserate with him, and finally let him off the hook.  That was a continuation I wasn't willing to pursue.  My retorts were forcefully stated, but with little anger.  He was to stay off my property in the future.  I refused his offers to come over and finish the work.  I told him getting the loan back would be hoped for but that I didn't want him around.

I drove away with him very hangdog and downcast in his driveway and me feeling rather like a bully, but I had handled it well, no rage, no threats, no red veil descending to blind me, just a terse and informative dismissal.  I felt bad anyway.  I don't like to be a bully, to denigrate, to talk down to people.  I figure most people have it hard enough that they don't need me adding to it, for any reason.  I am glad it is done with, glad I wasn't really nasty.

We are all members of the I-told-you-so club.  It's inherent in our natures that we want to be vindicated.  What is more pleasant than having been right?  Especially, and unfortunately, when another, who should have listened to us, is proven wrong and suffers.  So satisfying to utter that phrase, superior status in place, and so hateful to hear the words.  I do try not to do it; knowing I really had it right, saw it coming, took steps to ameliorate the pain, jumping up and down in glee that I had escaped - and so hard not to slide the ugly phrase into the conversation, even obliquely, like a knife between the ribs.  I say this for all of you who did shake their heads at the appropriate moment and I extolled my arrangements with the Ramshackles.  When you say "I told you so" please do in under your breath, facing away from me, best with me one county over.

The death of myth is mourned.  The spirit of America, the rugged individualist, the can-do fellow, all are our common myth.  Of the frontier, of the west, of the entrepreneur in his garage.  It dies hard.  The myth of the blue collar guy who can do it all with integrity, scoffing at powers above as he moves.  All that has to slide over a bit and make way for the other American.  He comes axle to axle with the honest men moving west, and his is a gaudy wagon advertising Snake Oil Remedies.  He smiles and fleeces you.  He is as much a part of us as the fellow with the axe on his shoulder eyeing where he wants his garden to go.

As a child I recall coming across the idea of corruption, and I could not fathom it.  Why did people in other places have to pay bribes, to grease palms, to smooth the way with a little gift? The word baksheesh was like having a live snake in your mouth. I looked around and felt I lived in the real world, the one where people did their jobs and asked no more than their wage.  Police didn't have their hands out.  The firemen didn't wait to connect their hoses until a price had been established.  What was wrong with that other world that it had gone so horribly awry?  Now I see us slipping into the same frame.  From the top of our government down there are cheats and crooks dipping into the till.  This is a way of life, a philosophy, and it corrodes us all, bit by bit.  The fact that it is so often done officially, by exorbitant fees for pointless services, makes it no less corrupt.  We are all infected.  I do fear we all become more and more Ramshackle in our dealings with one another.  Our slide toward third world status seems slowly inexorable.

I like what I have seen called the first two rules of Austrian Economics:  two plus two always equals four, and if something cannot continue, then it won't.  Those who lead us have absolutely forgotten both those.  And they drag us into national failure.

I should get off my soapbox and retire this letter now.  all the best to all of you, don and pat and animals.

All is approved by the editor with the exception of the small rant. She thinks some of you will tune me out if I give vent to rather contrary political views.  Two things come to mind.  One is that views such as the above become more mainstream every day, and what I have said needs saying.  We must understand that we have been, and continue to be, betrayed.  We have to understand that we voted for, hired and promoted these people, and we seem nowhere near to replacing them.

This page was last updated: July 31, 2009