I grew up in a family with solid farm roots – Dad from a farming family in Missouri and Mom from one in North Dakota. I also married two spouses from farm families – one the daughter of a New Jersey truck farmer and the other the daughter of a Vermont dairy farmer. So I am steeped in farm values, habits and principles.
One of these is “make hay while the sun shines”, meaning that if the weather is good, you should be outside getting some work done. Or generally, when conditions are favorable, get something accomplished. You can’t plow or cultivate crops when it’s raining and the soil is soaked. You can’t harvest the wheat or the corn then either. Nor can you even do the wash and hang it on the clothesline to dry. So good weather requires you to get outside and get something useful done because the rain might come again tomorrow.
Growing up in the four seasons of New Jersey, this precept was demonstrated to me quite often by my parents, both of whom had obviously experienced the urgency of good weather. It was only on rainy days, or in the winter, that the pressure was not there. It’s winter – the hay has been cut, dried, baled and stacked, the wheat has been harvested and marketed, the corn has been cut and is in the bin, fruit and vegetables have been picked, peeled and canned, the potatoes and turnips are in the cellar, the wood is split and stacked, the coal bin is full, the stove is heating the house, you’re well provisioned and secure for the winter, so relax, read a book or listen to some music.
Unless of course you are a dairy farmer, as was my late father-in-law. These dedicated farmers had to milk the cows twice a day, every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. They also had to take care of the cattle year-round, making sure they were fed, healthy and comfortable. And then there were always calves to take care of. But at least in the wintertime there was somewhat less to do – at least the hay was in the mow and the silage in the silo.
So on sunny days, I have always felt uncomfortable about staying inside and involving myself in indoor tasks. I’m trying to read a book but the sun is shining in through the window and lighting up the page. Something is wrong here, this shouldn’t be. I should not be inside reading when the sun is shining. There has got to be some work outside to be doing. So I can’t concentrate properly and fail to appreciate or understand what I’m reading – the page and the words are blurred by guilt.
Before retirement, this feeling was minimized. After all, we weren’t farmers, we were educators, so we plied our craft rain or shine. No matter what the weather, the children came to school and their teachers taught them. The teaching and learning went on when the sun was shining or when it was raining or snowing. It was during retirement that this pull of the sunshine and the comfort of rain or snow became most obvious.
Retired, we began the practice of living for six months or so in the house we have owned in Scottsdale, Arizona since 2000. This home in Casa del Cielo, a subdivision of Scottsdale Ranch, is a “patio home” – tiny backyard, very close to other dwellings in the back and on both sides, separated by six foot walls. During the other six months we live in our little house in Dorset, Vermont, on the last little piece of my wife’s family’s dairy farm – 1.2 acres of grass, gardens, some woods and a brook.
So the only cold weather we now experience are the late spring and early fall of Vermont – both actually quite pleasant. In springtime we work on the house, repair some winter damage, rake leaves, dead twigs and branches and other accumulated winter detritus, while we watch the lawn turn from brown to green and harsh bare trees gradually become softly green with new springtime leaves. Then during the summer there is the actual work of living there – maybe some new gravel for the long driveway that needs to be purchased, delivered, dumped and spread; perhaps some new paint on the deck and the trim, and always the weekly grass mowing and related maintenance of the mowers. And my spouse is busy clearing dead vegetation from her gardens and planting, pulling weeds and mulching.
And now here in southern Arizona, we are experiencing our “winter” – some cloudy, cool and rainy days in November and December, but typically mostly sunny days starting with cool nights, perhaps an occasional frost, crisp mornings and then temperatures in the high 60’s and low 70’s. Later in January to April when we generally depart for Vermont, the weather has warmed considerably, The sun steadily rising in the southern sky becomes discernibly more intense as the days heat up to the high 70’s, 80’s and perhaps even the 90’s.
During this time, we watch the green citrus fruit on our six trees gradually ripen to yellow and orange and around Christmas we pick and enjoy our first sweet tangerines. And soon we need to strip the tree, refrigerate the fruit, eat as many as we can and give away bags of tangerines to friends and family. Later we pick the oranges and squeeze and freeze the juice. Finally, right before we return to Vermont, we pick all the grapefruit, eat what we can and pack the rest in boxes to bring back to Vermont, store in our cold basement garage, and share with friends and neighbors.
And in March, we systematically care for the trees by spreading measured quantities of citrus fertilizer around them, watering it into the desert landscape and hoping for a spring rain or two to finish the job. And all this while, my spouse is enjoying tending her flowers and feeding her birds, while I work on organizing the garage and maintaining our vehicles – making sure they are properly serviced and vacuumed, washed and waxed.
And here emerges the problem that I hinted at in my first several paragraphs. While here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I find it very difficult to read or write because of the abundant sunshine. Typically, the only time I can comfortably read or write is early in the morning before it gets light, or in the evening after the sun goes down. The rest of the time I am dealing with the pull of sunshine and the urge to get something done because the weather is good – maybe only a walk to the mailbox, a bicycle spin around the neighborhood, grocery shopping or a trip to Costco but I find it utterly impossible to read a book or write anything when it’s sunny outside. Even cleaning up the desk in my study is uncomfortable when I can see outside. So to get anything significant accomplished there, I keep the blinds drawn, blocking the outdoors and making the room as dark as possible.
Now in southern Arizona there is a time of the year, like winter in the east where I grew up, when you are comfortable being indoors doing some reading, writing or sewing and do not feel compelled to work outside, despite the lure of the constant sunshine. This is the summertime, when the heat here becomes unbearable. It is during these hot summer months that you draw the blinds, make sure the air conditioning is working properly and hunker down and relax because it’s too hot to do anything outside. You do your shopping or eating out early in the day or in the evening when the heat is more bearable but spend the rest of the day on indoor activities. This is the season in southern Arizona that resembles the winter in the east – the outdoor work is done, you did it when the weather was cooler, so it’s ok to stay inside now.
And in Vermont, where rainy and cloudy weather is much more common, it is truly much easier to work inside, not only doing some reading or writing, but also some interior painting or work reorganizing the basement or cleaning out the garage. But on sunny days, we are pulled outside like a magnet. Hey – forget those dishes in the sink, forget clearing off the kitchen counter, to hell with the dusty floors that cry out for vacuuming, avoid that full laundry hamper – just get outside and mow that grass, mulch that garden, pull those weeds, repair that fence, rake that driveway. Do something, for crying out loud. Well, if it’s all done, which is rare, do not remain inside but instead take that favorite walk around Scallop Drive, a lovely, colorful, and fragrant 2.2 mile walk north on Danby Mountain Road, then west uphill on Scallop Drive, south along the wooded mountainside, then east downhill to Danby Mountain Road again and home.
In the fall, right before the winter sets in and we leave Vermont, is when I feel the most intense influence of this farmer frame of mind. It’s October – the leaves have turned their stunning shades of red, yellow and orange, and have begun falling and, as they dry, begin blowing about the yard, accumulating in piles wherever the breeze drops them. My wife has cut her dead flower stems and collected what seeds she needs for the spring. She has dug up the bulbs she needs for planting next May. Her gardens are ready for the predictable onslaught of another harsh Vermont winter. And I have painstakingly cleaned up the mowers, changed the oil and air filters, disconnected the batteries, sharpened the blades and stowed them in the garage. I have carried the outdoor table and chairs from the deck and stacked them in the garage, cleaned up the barbecue, disconnected the propane tank and taken them there as well. I’ve carried the heavy steel milk cans from Bobbie’s father’s dairy farm, now painted a bold red and embellishing the entrances, porches and stairs of the house, into the garage and stacked them for the winter. All the rakes and shovels are hung and the big steel wheelbarrow is now in the garage too. I have turned off the outdoor spigots and opened the faucets so there is no residual water to freeze. And I have had the plumbing company come out and clean the boiler so it’s prepared and trustworthy for the winter.
But now what do we do? Instead of blowing the dust off those books, opening them to where we left off and settling down for a season of relaxing security inside a warm house while the cold wind and snow swirl outside, we pack some suitcases, box the big black books of cd’s and dvd’s, put our folders of receipts and records and my piles of journal articles in file boxes, pack them all carefully in the car and leave our snug house with everything done for the winter for the four day drive to Arizona. And there we do it all over again – contend with the eternal sunshine and the constant urge to get outside and do something, start getting up very early to get the reading and writing done and never experience that rare winter feeling of enjoying life inside looking out, reading a book, writing a letter or a poem, taking a nap, doing some sewing or baking some cookies, because all the outdoor work is done. We’ve left all that back in Vermont.
So now, avoiding the frigid winters in Vermont and the boiling summers in Arizona, there is little time to feel comfortable about being relaxed indoors and getting those indoor tasks completed. My spouse has been dragging her sewing machine back and forth between our two houses wondering why she never feels like sewing. And I drag my music and writing stuff back and forth wondering when I can focus my mind enough to get something significant completed. Well, having thought about it and experienced it, I know why. We are farm people drawn outside by good weather and happy to stay inside during less agreeable times. But going back and forth to obtain the best weather in both Vermont and Arizona and avoid the worst, we’re missing those special secure and relaxed indoor times entirely. However, I know we’ll experience them again someday, perhaps sooner than we think, because as we age, we’ll no longer be able to maintain two homes and will have to choose one to remain in year round. So again we’ll experience that secure and relaxing feeling during either a long Vermont winter or a hot Arizona summer – the outdoor work is done – relax and enjoy indoor activities.