Judgment

I’ve already mentioned my scythe in these pages.  An impulse buy at our ‘Common Ground’ organic fair, it has not languished like so many of my ‘good ideas’.  A well-handled scythe is as deft as any weedwhacker, with the added advantage of waking no one up at six in the morning, when the grass is wet and so falls easily before the blade’s arcing sweeps.

Scything requires an unexpectedly lovely total rotary movement, Spiral and Functional Lines working around a stablised axis from feet to neck.  Like Tolstoy’s peasant workers, I march slowly forward with an easy swinging motion.  Unless I am working around a rock or tree, I watch out for using my arms, as this changes the movement from ‘being’ (axial) to ‘doing’ (appendicular) in an instant.  You can carry on with the core movement for a long time without fatigue.  And about the time you do feel a bit tired, you pause to hone the blade with a few singing sideswipes of the whetstone I carry on my hip.

This morning’s task is to clear out around ‘Lake Julia’, our small pond by the road.  With my larger blade, even the tough-stemmed ragweed and Queen Anne’s Lace (must be almost time for school) is cut off at the knee, releasing bursts of pollen to which I am happily immune.  An unfamiliar runner passes and asks, “Is this your farm?”  A bit aback, I look around – here I am with a scythe, across the country road from where Donna is turning out the horses and feeding the ducks – I do indeed live on a farm, though I have never aspired to the romance of farming, and don’t think of this my home – which has had three names in my lifetime: Saltwater Farm, Abandoned Farm, and Mudfog Farm – as a farm at all.

I turn back to my scything, where we can leave me working the next hundred feet or so of weeds along the shoreline with the ducks and geese eyeing me warily while we set up the next and more interesting encounter of this dawn’s light.

I believe I also mentioned in my autobiographical posts that I have been stuck between town and gown my whole life here.  As a boy, I was a Mainiac, born right here in Damariscotta and raised right here on this ‘farm’.  My parents, however, were ‘summer people’ who had graduated to ‘from away’ when they moved here in ‘49.  Long story short, I never felt at one with the native kids with whom I went to school in the winter, but nor did I feel much kinship (nor they with me) for the kids from Darien and Scarsdale and Wellesley who came in for the summer, with whom I did sailing lessons and scampered among the granite boulders while the adults with drawling  upper crust New England accents held evening shoreside boozy picnics.  I was a half-caste in both groups, and learned to enjoy my own company.

I have great sympathy with the locals – almost all of the shore property has been bought up by these out-of-staters, so that only 20 miles of the entire 2000 miles of Maine coast is accessible by commercial fishermen, and few locals can afford the kind of access that these Boston bankers can easily buy to occupy only one or two months a year.  In order to have a chance at buying this farm from my family, I have had to live away from here to make my fortune before returning, and still board planes regularly to keep me in funds.  So my cultural sensibilities are of the over-educated foreigner, but my political leanings are with the locals who wrest their living from the river – and thus our wharf is available to local lobstermen and aquaculturists as well as yachts.

The confusion extends to the locals themselves.  On the one hand, I am ‘little Tommy Myers’ whose crewcut, bottle glasses, knock knees and Keds used to climb the hill to the two-room schoolhouse; on the other hand, I don’t speak like a local, clearly have resources, and the whole bodywork thing is certainly a puzzlement.  Mervin Rice offered the opinion that I must be teaching these people to grow marijuana, because ‘no one would come way out heah to learn to rub bodies’.

And it is to Mervin’s son David that we now turn.  David and I grew up here together, under Mrs. Thompson’s watchful glare.  ‘Thompie’ once caught David ‘feeling up’ Cheryl in the back corridor, and furiously pelted him through the schoolroom, punctuating her words with blows: “David Rice, how dare you, you, you…” and forced to use a verb: “fighting with that girl for?”  We managed straight faces until they were through the far door, and then we burst into wild giggles – she was the last one to know what was going on in behind the wall, all of us having seen that ‘fighting’ was the last thing on precocious Cheryl’s mind.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when David ‘inherited’ the cottage in the corner of our field from Eleanor, Mervin’s patron and girlfriend (they were so cute – even at 90 they ‘didn’t want anyone to know’).  As Adam, David’s son, said, “He ain’t goin’ to hurt her none.”  The gift of her house was a surprise, as Eleanor – still very much alive, the feisty old curmudgeon – went around her only daughter to do so.  This raised some eyebrows around the neighborhood and there were murmurs of ‘undue influence’, but honestly, this was none of our business.  I mention it only to set the context for the larger issue – once ‘in’, David applied for permits to build a large pier out from the cottage into the cove.

Yesteryear, you could build what you wanted on your own property, but now laying a single plank over the water requires all manner of licenses and public notice, which brought the neighbors, a mix of locals and summer residents, out in true NIMBY fashion, me among them.  I sat uncomfortably in this group – we have a large pier, and the cove (and my neighbors’ view) is cluttered with lobster boats and aquaculture gear we have initiated and encouraged.  Who am I to deny a local fisherman access, no matter how dubious?

The neighbours were pursuing various means to stop David in terms of misrepresentations on his permitting application, but their ace in the hole was that the right-of-way to Eleanor’s cottage (and thus his projected pier) run over our land, so that we could conceivably stop any commercial operation David might want to commence.  I offered for David to have a mooring  and lobster from our pier, but that offer was declined with some salty language thrown in.

Last chance to talk was a highly emotional shouting match down on her property when the DEP had a meeting for airing the issues – and this was a couple of years ago.  The DEP was not impressed with our arguments, as they tend to side with the fisherfolk; and with the bitter words spoken (nay, shouted) at that meeting, the rift was complete, and none of us spoke to Eleanor or David any more, and a tense silence has reigned in the neighborhood. In due time, David (whose family is well-connected in town) got his permits and the pier went up, in spite of the efforts of the neighbours and their lawyers to delay or stop it.  It was indeed a large pier for a one-man show, but honestly the overall negative effect on the cove was underwhelming.

The neighbours, who include good and decent folks, as well as those summer visitors concerned only with their view, continued their legal efforts to get the pier restricted or even removed, but now that it was in, I could no longer find much adamance inside myself.  The pier wasn’t so bad, and he only seemed to be running a traditional single lobster boat operation off’n it, and I could hardly object to that in good conscience with three lobstermen doing the same off our pier.  And also (again, none of my business, but I couldn’t ignore it), they seemed to be taking good care of Eleanor, giving her 24-hour care and keeping up her home, where she had clearly voiced for years to all of us that she wanted to stay – so they certainly weren’t neglecting her.

So one day I called up David’s brother, de facto mayor of this tiny town, and confirmed with him that all David wanted to do was run his lobster boat, not anything bigger – no trucking operations or multiple fishermen the large pier would suggest.  “If that’s all it is,” I confirmed, “You’ll get no trouble from us.” A few weeks later, our family lawyer conveyed this sentiment in legal beagle language.  No good deed goes unpunished: I heard that David was crowing that the Myers’s had ‘backed down’, and the neighbours group was quietly furious at me for tossing away their ace in the hole – so I found myself again in the middle with no friends on either side, but my conscience was clear.

Since then, my feelings continued to be in sympathy with David, an unpleasing man who is just ‘not a people person’ according to the local philosopher, and I found myself increasingly frustrated with the neighbours’ huffy objections, which seemed petty, superior, and without much standing.  David and I hadn’t spoken, but he took to waving at Quan, and then to me when we passed on our little road.

One of the neighbour group opposed to the pier is wealthy enough to own a beautiful sailboat, but he isn’t much of a seaman and checks on it very seldom, and scarcely uses it all summer.  One day on a spring tide his boat lifted its inadequate mooring and floated off down the river on the ebb.  David, coming back from his day’s lobstering, noticed it.  I was on the phone at the end of my wharf, when he steamed up close and points to the boat as it was turning merrily out of sight, calling over his engine (the first words to pass between us since the shouting match), “Damned if I’m goin’ after it after what they done t’me, but you can if you want to”.

The law of the sea is clear: you don’t let a boat be destroyed if you can help, so I jumped aboard my sailboat and went and chugged off to rescue it off the ledges where it had lodged, calling the owner when I had it in, so he could come and reset it.  Scant thanks I got for my few hours work, but if you will allow it, I know the boat itself was grateful and bobbed its thanks to me, and that was enough – she’s a beauty.

Truth is, I have more respect for a man who can care for a boat, no matter who small or humble, whereas the one who just buys it for status is not as much of an ‘owner’ in my book.  Participation = ownership = democracy.  When he first wanted to access this boat off my pier, it was his idea that since he wasn’t using his boat for a commercial operation, he should pay less than the others, the fishermen.  Now that’s noblesse without the oblige,  My idea was that the fishermen had bait and fuel and traps and permits to pay for, and that he, a man of leisure, should pay more.  My respect for the neighbours’ position continued to deteriorate.

So back to scything along the farm pond, and by now I am down near the dirt road that forms the right of way down to Eleanor’s.  A new black pickup pulled to a halt at the head of Eleanor’s drive (actually ours), and out rolled David, and he came over to speak to me.  He’s my age, but he feels older and short of breath.

The details of the conversation aren’t important – he still feels persecuted, though he has largely gotten his way.  He wanted me to know the neighbours were speaking against me also – all that aquaculture gear out in the cove – but I don’t set much store by that either way.  We agreed the river is there to be fished as well as enjoyed.  I asked after Eleanor, and asked for permission to go see her, as I really enjoyed the old battleax before this neighbourhood falling out.

Up close, he was still unpleasant, but sad and just incompetent at communicating, not a villain.  As we finished, I stuck out my hand in a way he could not refuse, and in that handshake a wave of relief came over me.  I was not afraid of David, nor of the neighbours, and am accustomed to the cognitive dissonance of being at odds with either or both.  But how sweet to put this chapter behind me, to be at peace with the surroundings.  Neither David nor the errant sailor will probably ever be my close friends again, but I can handle them both.  It set my teeth a little on edge to have a two-year silence after a shouting match with the guy who (de facto until Eleanor goes, and de jure after) lives next door.

I heard his boat going out into the harbor a few minutes later as I finished edging the pond, and shouldering the scythe, I stepped off my country farm and back into the management of the worldwide Anatomy Trains ‘empire’.

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2 Responses to “Judgment”

  1. mistralmyers Says:

    This might be one of my favorites so far.

  2. Sharon Says:

    Your story is so organic to you that the metaphors are incidental. Because of that, the metaphors are universal & profound. The scythe of judgment, cutting both ways, discerning real from phony, important from petty, cutting you loose to freedom. Wow. WOW. What a weaver you are.

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