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My Work in Progress

Sunday, July 19, 2020

I would like to tell you the story of my big and as yet largely untold life project. I've been thinking about making these posts for months, and I have finally gone back into my archives and fetched some photos so I could tell the story. 

In the last years of our marriage, Bill kind of fell off the land maintenance train. It very quickly became obvious what things he did around here, which was fix every little thing that broke, run the weed whacker, tractor and brush hog, and chainsaw up trees that fell. I did all the house maintenance, gardening, weeding, watering and lawnmowing.  Every few months he'd put in a little work, but by and large things that I couldn't do went undone. Then we had a derecho come through in May 2016, if I remember correctly, that brought down 32 trees on our place. thirrrrty twooooo treees downnnnnn
It was an ungodly mess, more than anyone could deal with alone. And if you've ever maintained a rural property, you know that if there's a tree in front of you and you can't get a tractor through to brush-hog the roads and paths, you aren't going to be able to get ANYTHING through in a year or two.

So the orchard got serious about the business of becoming an impenetrable tangle from the crash of that first bigtooth aspen.

Multiply this mess times 32, and this is what the four orchard roads looked like. See those encroaching walls of multiflora rose? That's what the brush hog is for. But the brush hog can't get through any more. Uh oh. This is going nowhere good, and fast.

There were trees down like jackstraws everywhere. Two enormous black oaks crashed down into the main clearing in the orchard. Bill hacked away at them for a few weekends with our friend and bass player Gibbs, but they didn't really make a dent.

All this ongoing and worsening mess set up a kind of despair in me. I had loved walking the orchard, and I really hated not being able to get through any more. More than that, I hated seeing the Asian multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle winning. Some of it was nice and straightforward--just a tree across a path. Anybody could deal with that.

Well, not me. I had learned enough from my dad and from Bill to want to avoid learning how to operate a chainsaw. I was afraid I'd cut my leg off, and I've never been much for fooling with gasoline engines, either. Chainsaw Operating was firmly on my Nope list. Life's too short for me to want to do something dumb and go around missing a foot or a hand.

Unfortunately, most of the orchard was like this. Just an impenetrable tangle of branches and trunks and rose and honeysuckle. When a tree falls, the multiflora rose and honeysuckle go NUTS, springing up in the branches and clambering over its corpse.  Walking out there depressed the hell out of me. It seemed like too much. Insurmountable. I got so sick of bending and weaving my way through the treetops, of having to re-route for the jungle.

The back of the old orchard is mostly in sugar maple, which is divine. They drop a branch here and there but I can usually deal with that without starting an engine.

This is what bigtooth aspen is good for: Falling down. That, and woodpecker nesting holes. They love these punky trees because they can excavate a cavity in a New York minute. When I hear a crash, I pretty much know another aspen has fallen, and another path will be blocked.

I felt like I was caught in a whirlpool, watching this place go to pot. I didn't see a way out, because I was frankly emotionally paralyzed. Bill got sick in September 2018 and died in March 2019, and I had him buried out in the meadow, which was arguably still a meadow, if a little high and weedy.

Exactly two months later, Bill's mother Elsa died tragically in a house fire, and I realized I had to get my act together fast. She had always told us she wanted to be buried in our orchard, next to Bill's dad, Bill Thompson Jr, who died in 2011.  But thanks to the storm, the orchard was a hellhole, a mess! So the very night she died I started making calls to people to come help me clear the way out to the family plot. And in the space of five days, I had to hire two crews to clear the way out to Bill's dad's gravesite. You do what you have to, when you have to, paralyzed or not.

All we could get done in those mad five days was clear part of one of the orchard's four roads, just as far as the gravesite. The men cut back the black oak tops in the clearing so it didn't feel quite so junky and crowded, and we buried Elsa on June 1, 2019. It wasn't the beautiful place I'd envisioned, but it would have to do for now.

I planted purple coneflowers I'd dug from all around my gardens, and we laid Elsa right next to Bill Jr. This is how the grave looked in April 2020. Like... not much. But I had a vision. It would all be beautiful someday soon. I would make it so.

As I look back on this large and ongoing project to reclaim the old orchard, I realize that Elsa's death, and being suddenly forced to clear the mess as far as the family plot was the keystone. Those hectic and exhausting five spring days, in which I was both foreman and brush-hauling crew as men with chainsaws roared through the portal to the orchard, made me realize-- like nothing else could-- that it was possible--no, vital-- for me to hire out what wasn't getting done. For someone who has never hired out much of anything, that was a revelation. It was freeing.

But in the next months, I had a lot of trouble getting anyone to come work here. People have their own lives, and they get busy, and they promise to show up again and again and then don't. It was very frustrating. Here I was with a little head of steam, and I wanted to keep going. I had to. I wanted to banish the sadness of having everything going to briar and honeysuckle around me.

All that changed when the Amish showed up to put a new roof on my house.

To Be Continued....


Waiting with bated breath!

No fair.....hate to wait!! Xo

Cant wait to hear the rest if the story. I know when the Amish are around things get done. When we lived in Wisconsin before we moved to WV, we had a few families as neighbors and their work ethic was bar nonr

Thank you. When your life changes drastically it’s hard sometimes to know what to do. I like it’s more then revelation: it’s freeing.

wow.... always fascinated by the destruction caused by fallen trees, though in a millenium they do decompose....have not read your blog for awhile as there were too many bad things happening(!) but glad to see that you are forging ahead.

Do not underestimate a Makita battery chainsaw. Learn to use it properly, be safe and be empowered! You'll love it. I promise.

Thank you. Thank you. And, thank you. I'm so eager to read the next chapter.

You are amazing. Can't wait for the rest.

Love your cliffhangers!

I can so relate to things going to hell on your property, not wanting to ask for help, and then not being able to find help when you finally give in. It must be a common rural dilemma. The word Amish let's me know that good things are about to happen! Can't wait to hear the rest!

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