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How to Live

Flocks of sandhill cranes fly overhead during the day, millions of the birds wintering in our river valley. They choose more or less V formations, but not as pronounced as the Canada geese do. The geese fly like air force formations. The cranes seem to follow the wind currents more, the branches of their patterns more resembling the meandering rivers below except they constantly undulate like the tails of Chinese kites. Their recent proliferation might represent positive progress in the relationship between humans and nature—when I left Indiana in 2001 bird-watching enthusiasts were still excited to spot a flock of maybe forty. Folks we visited with in California, as well as friends of my son and I back here, were a little surprised to hear we were so glad to be back home, Mendo being so green in the winter. But we've been cutting firewood in the state forests ever since returning, taking advantage of the last days of autumn. Three dollars a rick is all the State of Indiana charges, and for some reason not too many folks take advantage of the opportunity. Last week we cut up some wild cherry that had been down for several years, plus a few ash trees. The ash of this region is all but extinct, thanks to the work of the "ash borer." I don't know the whole story, but the forester from DNR who stopped by to check our paperwork and bullshit said the tree is going to be wiped out within several years, meaning that the woods are full of falling ash trees, and Major League Baseball is going to have to find a different species to use for the Louisville Slugger baseball bats. This constitutes a national emergency. Every time I raise the splitting mall and watch the perfectly-grained ash logs fly to either side of the blade, I hear the ring of a fastball meeting the money end of a swing. I do as much splitting as possible, trying to get back into shape now that I'm beyond the age of 40 and my son's friends are all entering the prime of physical development. Major League baseball players rarely survive past the age of 40.

"Let the old man split the wood—he needs the exercise," my son (17) tells his friends. They cut on the hills and roll the rounds down. When the chainsaw shuts off, I enjoy the winter quiet. Maybe a pileated woodpecker knocks on the trunk of a rotten tree. A flock of cranes sounds out from the nearby swamp they've elected to land in. "You know, boys," I say, "I like these woods better in the winter. For one thing, you can see all the wildlife since there ain't no leaves. For another, you got no ticks, no mosquitoes, no snakes—“

"Shut up with the hippie shit and get to splittin," says my son. "We ain't got time for that.”

Back home, squash seeds covered the native oak floor of our front room Sunday morning, a mystery that perplexed me until about noon, when I learned that one of my son's buddies had smashed a Delicata winter squash across the head of another dude, sort of a friendly gesture. Those Delicata seeds are actually valuable—more than one hundred dollars per pound out of my favorite seed catalogues. Pretty sure we managed to grow them without crossing with pumpkins or zucchini. I try to consider their value as I sweep them into the dust pan. I try to remain philosophical about everything in our bullshit economy. I did study Philosophy extensively in college, mostly because it was the only course you could pretty much totally succeed in without doing anything except thinking. After picking watermelons and playing sports, thinking always sounded like an easy activity. This I think as I sweep up squash seeds, as I sort through all the recycling—the cans, the bottles, the other crap that my son's friends all take for granted. I baked some the night before, and maybe a few folks enjoyed them, but mostly it was me and Miss Piggy out back.

Miss Piggy, our pot-bellied pig, somehow escaped the chicken coop while my son and I were visiting friends in Mendo. In fact, I was standing beside the first little pond I built at the old Boont Berry Farm in Boonville, with the manager, Tim, and my youngest boys and second Ex, when an old high school buddy called from the farm in Indiana to say the pig was out. He'd voluntarily come down to check on the animals at the place, more than a half hour drive from his own homestead—just to make sure that the people I'd left in charge of the animals were doing their job. "I brought a couple baskets of corn ears and dumped them out for her," he said. "She doesn't seem likely to go anywhere.”

Not more than a hundred feet, anyway. Our dogs chase her back to the woodlot, according to my old buddy, who lectured me somewhat on our return. "Spec, what's it going to take for you to get back to your original goal, and start showing people how to live off the land? Milking cows, raising livestock, putting up all your vegetables for the winter? The old-time stuff. You got to show these young kids how to live.”

"Man, I'm in no hurry to. I mean, I just visited my old farm in California, and…

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