Birds around here fall silent in winter, but this summer and fall the woods around this little cottage have resonated with so much birdsong at times that we’ve raised a fist skyward: trying to sleep, here—can you please keep it down? A parliament of owls lives in our trees. That’s what you call a group of owls—a parliament. The sound of an owl in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee, was rare and enchanting. But in this Vermont forest they awaken a light sleeper in the night, making it difficult sometimes to fall asleep again before the early morning alarm sounds.
On the drive down our steep mountain road one morning last week I disturbed a bunch of crows who were sauntering around in the road like they owned it. You call that a murder of crows. Murder is what I’d like to do to a few owls who are interfering with REM cycles in this house.
I picked up that piece of birch bark out in the yard a few weeks ago because it was so spectacular: somebody was hard at work, for a while. I love how methodical and tidy the holes are, in neat rows evenly spaced. We have woodpeckers here, too—teeny ones and big ones. The maple that smooshed our cars a couple years back held a nest of woodpecker babies deep inside its trunk, who cried and cried when the tree came down. We could hear them, but could not see them. The mama was nearby and distraught. The next day we found a dead baby on the ground by the downed tree, probably abandoned by a critter looking for an easy meal who perhaps though better of it for some reason. Or maybe bald baby woodpeckers are an acquired taste. Nature sure can be cruel.
Meanwhile my own baby—my twenty-something manchild—arrived on my doorstep somewhat unexpectedly last Tuesday. He’s hanging out with us for a while, helping us pack, perhaps helping us move, too. We’ll see. House closing day is only a week and a half away, and then the big work begins. It’s an exciting and terrifying time for us. For my part, I’m thinking about 1936, the year the house we’re buying was built. Those were tough times, but the worst of the Great Depression was over and the American economy was beginning to recover: the ‘waste not, want not’ values of my grandparents—and of so many others of their generation—resonate with me even now.
Who built our house? Who bought it? Was it a family? Did they have a dog? Had they suffered through hard times? How did they make ends meet? I know only that somebody thought to conceal a cutting board under the kitchen counter—it slides out and shows beautiful signs of many years of use. And close to that is a drawer made just for bread, with a sliding metal lid that’s perforated in an artful starburst pattern. Once upon a time I think we cared a tad more about aesthetics in ordinary objects, like bread boxes. And street lamps, and toasters, and bridges. I think all of that matters. And I love that the people who re-made our house with modern comforts and conveniences saw fit to keep some of the things that matter.
The bird or birds who made the holes in the found birch bark were probably more concerned with finding their next meal than with art. But there is most definitely art in their industry. The twenty-something helped me puzzle through a problem with my Nikon, and made a few pictures of his own. I like this one he shot, in full color: to me it shows a perfect, tiny landscape and tells the story of so much that happened to this tree, which surely provided shelter to more than a single family in its history. Soon we’ll start making our own thumbprint on the new-old house, putting our own holes in the walls, if you will. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
We are tired. All of us. Yesterday Scout and I ran five miles, the longest run we’ve undertaken together. We reached a familiar milestone on the Battenkill I once met with Clarence-the-Canine, and then turned and headed back to the car. We did not run as fast as Clarence and I ran, but we stopped to chase chipmunks, important work. Scout does not yet possess the endurance of a veteran German Shepherd runner. And his human has a chronic foot injury and extra baggage. Still, we finished our run, and it felt effortless—we scarcely broke a sweat on a temperate New England morning in October. That is good news.
The rest of our weekend has been hijacked by preparations—for winter and for our upcoming move, which is right around the corner. Snow tires have been hauled out of storage, air conditioners have been pulled out of windows and cleaned up and boxed ’til they’re needed sometime in June, curtains have come out of plastic bins to be washed and pressed and readied for new windows, and everywhere furniture has been shifted around, cobwebs cleaned away, bug carcasses vacuumed, and inventories made: keep, sell, pitch, pack. The soundtrack for all this is the unrelenting rhythm of life—grocery shopping, laundry folding, vegetable chopping, and dog washing. A dog whose filthy feet and stinky coat finally came clean today after weeks of dodging the bullet.
With succulent, steaming chicken in hand, I was finally forgiven.
Changing your address can change your life, chirped a too-cheerful woman in a slick TV advert for planned community living.
We are long accustomed to cranking out some pretty impressive cuisine in our outdated, strapped-for-space, apartment-sized kitchen. We’ve made do using a teeny kitchen table that belongs to our landlord as adjunct counter space, perfected a risky bowl-balancing technique at the T-shaped junction of our rusty divided sink where it meets the lip of the unfortunate formica countertop, ditto the V-shaped metal dish drainer, and in a pinch have even pressed into service the flat top of our stainless steel garbage can to hold some large cooking vessel or other when there was absolutely nowhere else to put it. (Scout’s food storage bin doubles as a decent cookbook holder, I have discovered.)
But if I had to fault this kitchen for a single thing above all others, it would be its darkness. At times this vexes me enough to send me into a tailspin for a solid evening, when I can’t find my damn readers, and that on top of badly compromised eyes in the first place.
I’ve taken on the black-and-white photo challenge for the past few days, the one everybody’s doing. I decided to edit these in black and white, too, but the absence of light in our little kitchen speaks volumes through my Sunday morning biscuits in the make. That, and my inexperience with a camera. I expect more of our soon-to-be kitchen, a wide-open space with light fixtures everywhere, loads of natural light, and a pleasant collision of interesting 1936 cabinetry and storage with 2017 finishes and appliances. Yes, that change of address will indeed change our lives.
White Lily flour is the gold standard for Southern biscuits, and for over a century was milled at a factory near a familiar intersection just northeast of downtown Knoxville (the company closed its Knoxville plant in 2008 and moved operations to the Midwest). It was what everyone bought and baked with, a pantry standard along with Hellmann’s mayo and for many years, JFG coffee, if you lived in Knoxville. For a while Williams-Sonoma peddled White Lily at a stupid price in its brick-and-mortar stores and catalog; they seem to have come to their senses. Anyway, up in these parts King Arthur flour is the thing, and is what I put in my biscuits this morning.
My mama begged my great-grandmother Grace—Granny Grace—to tell us some of her beloved recipes many years ago, long before she died. I am sure Granny had recipes tucked away somewhere, but by then most of what she routinely created in the kitchen was stored in her noodle, and so she simply quoted from memory. Granny’s vagueries were maddening sometimes (‘put in about that much milk,’ said gesturing with tar-stained fingers between puffs on her ciggie, or ‘bake it ’til it’s done’). To her way of thinking it was obvious.
This morning I did a side-by-side of her biscuit recipe and the one on the White Lily bag, and dang if they’re not pretty much identical. I clipped the White Lily version from my last bag of flour, the one I schlepped all the way to Vermont from Tennessee with me. It’s on the door of the fridge, right next to my mom’s potato soup recipe—soup she routinely made and brought to me the year I was going through my divorce, when I would eat nothing else. I’ve begged her to send it to me for years, and not long ago she finally called and quoted it to me over the phone. It reads pretty much like a Granny-Grace style concoction—a little of this and a little of that, until it looks right, and cook it ’til it’s done. She comes by it honestly, anyway. And when I protested, she merely quipped unapologetically, you live with a chef: figure it out.
The biscuit sandwich I made this morning assuaged my days-long desire for a made-from-scratch biscuit. It was not exactly what Granny Grace would eat: in lieu of her crispy bacon, for example, mine had a leaner applewood smoked turkey slice. There was no fried egg, but instead a small egg whites omelet folded, and folded again; I did not cook it in bacon grease as she might have done, but instead used coconut oil. I schmeared the biscuit with a little bit of apricot preserves, no butter, and layered on crisp, fresh spinach, the year’s last from our favorite farm stand. I still have a few tomatoes in the windowsill that probably come close to Granny Grace’s high standards for tomatoes, and so I added a thick slice. (She would wait until lunch for hers, sliced and laid out on a plate or saucer and doused with salt, taken with strong black coffee and another smoke.)
I’ll keep on making Southern biscuits wherever I live: some things should never change. And I know Gracie would agree.
It’s unfair to name October a season, which more properly belongs to fall. But it does mark a big transition in these parts, a time beyond which the air feels more authentically like winter to a person with Southern roots. Not once in the five Vermont winters I’ve seen have we missed a respectable snowfall—a ‘plowable’ snow—before Thanksgiving; if the trend continues we’ll have our first one soon. It won’t hang around for long, not like the snow from a nor’easter does, the kind that takes down the power grid and leaves you wishing your elbows did not have bursitis when you pick up the snow shovel, the one you forgot to leave by the back door, the reason you now have snow melting inside your boots. Rookie mistake. Nature has a sense of humor: thirty years ago last week a surprise early snow knocked out the power for five solid days, the news said. HCB remembers it.
That kind of snowfall comes later mostly, in February and March, and buries the landscape until spring thaw. January in Vermont can be oddly pleasant thanks to a phenomenon known as January thaw. But the big storms here often persist right into April, until winter has no choice except yield to the sun’s new angle in the sky. The miracle of life after all that never fails to amaze me, the idea that underneath those sinister layers the planet is birthing something new and wonderful. I always felt the same about spring in the South, but here the sensation is exaggerated.
In spring the Battenkill will roar through our little hamlet in an angry torrent. It will lick the low-hanging branches on its banks, leaving icicles that dip down into the water, exotic crystalline formations that will finally relent on a sunny afternoon. It does not feel like spring here, not a proper spring anyway, until June. Vermont winters are long, quipped the man connecting the phone cables in my cottage basement back in 2012, shaking his head while he worked. I get it now.
Meanwhile the air feels more like late summer; Nate will pound us with rain for the next couple of days. The kids are playing soccer with padded shinbones, still dressed in summery shorts and tank tops, not for long. It’s Columbus Day weekend, a time when droves of tourists pour into the state (not in numbers like they once did, insists HCB) for the foliage and to buy the same syrup they can probably get back home at the neighborhood Kroger for less. Give them their syrup: they pump dollars into the local economy, and anyway it’s more fun to buy some where you can watch it being made while you lick sticky sugar from your fingers, the sugar that coated your apple cider doughnut a moment ago. It’s what fall is about, or October at least. Best to enjoy that doughnut this weekend, because there’s not much foliage to see, still a lot of green on the trees and it is raining indiscriminately—if Nate had come any later he’d have left us a naked landscape, but these trees are not quite ready to let go.
Still, October is about lasts. It is time to polish the silver for the last time—not for the last time ever, one hopes, but for the last time in this little cottage in the woods. And HCB will chide me for it, because we have bigger fish to fry. Polishing silver is my default strategy whenever I hear the words ‘pack and move.’ It is procrastination through and through.
Moving from Tennessee to New England inspired the most silver polishing: that is one heck of an undertaking, disemboweling a home where you’ve lived for sixteen years, prying apart what is yours from what is his, stuffing as much as you can onto a crowded moving truck, and saying goodbye to the stuff that refused to stuff. No use crying over spilt milk, but I cried plenty.
My first lakeside home in Vermont’s Upper Valley was exquisite but beyond my reach in spite of the best-laid plans, as fate proved. I squeezed out enough cash for a year, maybe to my detriment, but in hindsight it was probably important for me to live there. Vermont winters never suffer fools gladly, and my first one was forgiving in that cottage, exploding pellet stove and zombie basement notwithstanding. Life there was a sojourn, a pause I needed from the misery I left in Tennessee. It had its terrifying moments.
Thence further inland towards the central part of the state, where I said farewell to my beloved Clarence-the-Canine and finally grasped a new reality: that year and a half or so forced me to square my shoulders and face the music, as it would anybody with a dwindling bank account. Getting a handle on living expenses came at the expense of living among people. I understood people who had gone before me found healing in that beautiful setting I was lucky to call home—180 pristine mountainous acres—but I did not. It was instead an exercise in adapting to isolation, living in fear and living lean, leaning on the lessons I learned growing up during rough years in my mama’s house in Memphis: you can survive if you’re smart. I had that at least going for me, but occasionally I also wondered whether my time there resembled anything like a monastic life. Maybe I needed simply to shut up and listen. I left my beloved Clarence-the-Canine buried on that land, a reminder that life is transient and nothing belongs to any of us forever. Maybe there was healing after all and I failed to recognize it.
Combining two households almost three years ago made sense. It’s true two can live cheaper than one to be sure, but there’s also the sheer joy of being together with the person you love instead of a two-hour drive from him, to say nothing of the great satisfaction of writing a new chapter, a big one, and importantly, a hopeful one. Moving here has not been without its vexations: the outdated infrastructure in this tiny little house in the woods can’t support two full-time, full-size human adults, plus one part-time teenager (a while back there were two of them) without protesting. It is a place bursting at the seams—with the landlord’s stuff, HCB’s, and now mine; overflow went into storage. Since I moved in almost three years ago we’ve dealt with bears unafraid of people, with dangerous, law-breaking neighbors, with a fallen maple that badly damaged one new car and left the old car parked next to it with a good-sized flesh wound, and with one tragic visit to the emergency room after a dog bite last October. We are still somewhat isolated on this mountain top, in spite of living in a neighborhood. On an icy morning it takes a while to carefully navigate a dirt road before reaching the highway down below. But we are together.
Soon it will be the last time to navigate that treacherous road, and weather gods willing, maybe we won’t at all. Instead we will take on the new challenges of living in a distinctly urban setting, in and among a community of people, in a house that is waiting for us at this moment. The walls in our 1936 ‘New Englander’ hold the stories of generations of families who have gone before us, to which we’ll add our own. Vermont winter will still come to us there, and we’ll be ready for it. Next October I might polish the silver, or maybe I’ll let it wait ‘til Thanksgiving. But next Halloween I shall certainly pass out candy to neighborhood children. And I shall walk to Main Street with Scout-the-Lab and HCB. I’ll say hey to people I know when I pass them, people I’m about to meet, a couple of whom I know already.
Whatever life experiences shaped Scout-the-Lab before he came to us last December, there is this one truth about him, and about all dogs says the vet: they forget nothing. Scout’s skittishness is authentic, part and parcel of who he is. I may have envisioned a goofy, tail-wagging demeanor in my early quest for this dog, and that is my own folly. People at home and at work are sometimes crestfallen when he rebukes overtures of affection, when he shies away from an outreached hand, or jumps out of his skin at the slightest provocation, or even cowers when an unexpected human comes barreling around a corner. Taking these reactions personally is a human problem, not a doggish one, just as my own expectations of what Scout would be when he came to us were based on my own preconceived notions of a Lab, and not on Scout as Scout. And anyway, the first time our vet cupped Scout’s chin in her hands and peered into his evocative eyes, she said, Oh Scout: you are a Chessie.
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is not known for its effusive personality. It does not really matter.
I’ve always loved the name Scout, my favorite literary character in my favorite piece of Southern writing, the little girl with whom I identified growing up. (Never mind that Scout-the-Lab is a boy dog.) But if I had to draw a parallel between my Scout and a single character in that exquisite story, I’d be more inclined to link him to Boo Radley, the tragic, misunderstood character, “with his shy ways.” He is who he is.
A few weeks ago when we launched on our Dogged Adventures with Scout comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Subi, I worried he’d be unable to reconcile what was going on in that little noggin of his. After his tenure with two separate families in Texas (humans who loved him, to be sure), he went into foster care for a couple of weeks. Thence onto a transport van with others of his ilk, rolling all the way from Austin to Brattleboro, Vermont, arriving on what was the coldest calendar day in New England at that point, turns out. Thousands of miles across the country, and into the arms of two perfect strangers, who seemed nice enough on the face of it. But surely, without ascribing too many human emotions to a trembling dog in a foreign land, I believe ‘bewildered’ must have described his condition, at least in part.
Scout was long familiar with climbing into the car and going when it was finally time for our vacation—going to work with me most days every week, going to dog camp one afternoon a week, going up to my financial planner’s office once in a while on a big elevator (head tilts for days), going to the store, and even going inside some stores. But this time the going would keep on, well, going. I worried Scout might imagine he was being rehomed. Again.
What happened instead was a week’s worth of adventures with the sweetest rewards: being invited inside the home of some friends down in Knoxville and socializing with their dog for a bit, exploring all kinds of worldly venues with me, my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, and my twenty-something, enjoying some extended outings in nature on a couple of occasions, eating exceptionally well, and—joy of joys—sleeping in a big bed with humans, a thing he can’t do at home because of the Dreaded Spiral Stairs. By the end of our trip Scout had grown accustomed to looking for the bed first thing when we checked into another hotel: Ah, there you are, bed. <check> Now, let me just <muscles twitching, preparing to jump>, THERE we go. Yep, this one’ll do fine. <circle around, plunk, exhale>
Earlier in the week when we checked into our Asheville Airbnb it took him a bit longer to get his bearings, because we had an entire apartment to ourselves. He split time between our bed and the twenty-something’s futon in the adjoining room, but always slept with us, alternately curled or sprawled between us near the foot of the bed. One beautiful morning as we began to stir, HCB reached his long arm down to scratch Scout’s noggin, and in a single, perfectly coordinated movement Scout lengthened his sinewy body until his head rested on the pillows right between ours. We lay there and giggled and continued to dole out affection: it is fair to say the dog was content to indulge in the moment, as were his humans.
Still, there must have been this unrelenting question: where are we going?
The final, sunny afternoon of travel when we began the steep ascent up the twisty Vermont mountain road to our home in the woods, Scout sat up in the back seat and surveyed the familiar landscape. As the car rolled to a stop in our drive, I hoped everything—the events of the past week, and now this moment—would crystalize for him: I am home. There had been no aha! moment on that cold Brattleboro day back in December. Only the passing of the leash from one hand to another. Here, I hoped, we had arrived at the place where everything would finally make sense to Scout: this is my home and my family—we do things together.
I had to wait until the next morning for my answer, early on Monday when it was time for post-vacation work reentry. Curled up comfortably on the sofa in his favorite spot, Scout only barely lifted his head to acknowledge me when I told him it was time to go. Nah, he yawned sleepily, you go on: think I’ll lay here and watch some telly, maybe get a little shut-eye today. Have a good one, see you on the flip side.