Glimpses of the Old and the New

A story written a couple of years ago based upon an incident that occurred in the mid-1970′s.  I think of Gerty often.  Enjoy!

“More powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” would not accurately describe Gerty but she sure could swing a scythe with the best of them.  The first time I met Gerty I was looking for a friend’s house on an old dirt road that wound around a steep wooded hill in southern Vermont.  As I drove up the gravel road I rounded a corner and on the right hand side there was a small house, a very minuscule barn, and a two or three acre field completely surrounded by dense forest.  I had lost all confidence that I would find my friends place and took the opportunity to stop at the first sign of human activity to ask for directions.  As I pulled in the gravel and grass drive I saw an elderly lady wearing a loose dress made of dungaree material .  She was swinging a scythe on the western edge of the field.  I stepped out of my nine year old 1965 Econoline van and started walking across the field in the direction of her work area.  I could see that she had mowed several thousand square feet of the tall grass field.  As I approached this woman I admired her steady movement.  She was graceful and controlled.  She did not really swing the scythe but held her arms straight and with a sweeping motion twisted her body at the hips.  Her loose dress swung with the movement as did her long graying hair.

When I first drove onto her property I noticed that she looked up in my direction.  She clearly saw me get out of my van.  She then went back to her scything task keeping her head down and her eyes on the movement of the razor sharp blade.  As I trampled the grass around the edge of the field I didn’t think she was being shy or reclusive but rather I believed she was focused on the work at hand.  When I was within about ten yards from her she stopped her work, looked up, and smiled.  Sweat ran down her sun-brown weathered face.  I was surprised at her apparent age, perhaps 70 years old, because she moved so freely while swinging her implement.

“I’ll bet you’re looking for Laura and Rob”, she stated.

“You read my mind, how did you know?” I replied.

“Well, I don’t know you, and they are the only other people that live  on this road.  Besides, you look like you’re not from around here driving that yellow hippie van!” she said with a friendly smile on her face.

“You’ve got me there, my name is Bill”, I said extending my hand.

“Mine’s Gertrude, my friends call me Gerty, and so that’s what you should call me!” she said in a matter-of-fact manner as she shook my hand.

“So, I am on the right road, Laura and Rob do live around here.” I said trying to coax directions out of her.

“Yep, about another quarter mile up the road, in my old place.” she said pointing her leathery finger at about a forty five degree angle indicating it was uphill.

“So you moved down here to get out of the clouds?” I said hoping to raise another smile on her lovely face.

“The old house is too big.  I’m too old.  So I decided to rent it to Robby and Laura.  This little cottage and animal barn are just fine for me and my goats.  Years ago the help lived here, back in the days when we had a dairy farm”, she looked off into the distance like she was directing her voice to an audience that could not hear her.

“You seem pretty handy with that sickle”, I said hoping to bring her back to the here and now.

“Oh, this, well it’s not really a sickle you know, it’s a sythe.  I learned to mow grass with a contraption like this when I was a little girl and that wasn’t exactly yesterday!” she replied.

I looked at the long row of mowed grass.  Most of the grass lay in one direction indicating to my untrained eye that she really knew what she was doing. She had a long way to go if she was planning on mowing the entire field.  I felt sure she was not going to do it all by herself today.  It occurred to me that I was keeping her from her chores.

“You’ve got a lot of work to do to get this done.  It doesn’t sound like I will have trouble finding Laura and Rob’s place so I will let you get back to your chores”, I said feeling like I really wanted to hang around and get to know her.

“Nice meeting you Bill, I should get back to work.  You know, you can’t make hay when the sun don’t shine!” she said while laughing out loud.

She stared at me after making that statement like I was supposed to think about it.  I took note of her pause, but did not respond simply because I had nothing to say.

I was walking back to my car around the edge of the field that.  I stopped, turned around, got a whiff of freshly cut grass, and admired the elderly woman as she swung that scythe, head down, swaying back and forth from her hips all while humming a song.  Human movement can be mesmerizing and powerful.  I thought about a light and breezy ballerina flowing and dancing to classical music.  To my way of thinking it was much like this graceful older woman, swinging a sythe, falling grass, to the tune of the wind in the background.

Before climbing back into my van I looked into field.  Gerty was leaning on her scythe taking a breather.  I wondered how much she would cut today before she had spent all of her energy.

When I got to Rob and Laura’s I parked my van, got out and went to the back stoop where there were two old chairs. The cane seats were being repaired.  It looked like the new cane material was cattail leaves.  The material had been dried and was somewhat unrecognizable but the sharply pointed terminal end of the leaves gave me a notion of what it might be.  I knocked on the door.  There was no answer.  I knocked again; still no answer.  I walked over to the barn that contained a garage-like room and noticed the car was gone.  I was a little disappointed but not too surprised.  Rob and Laura did not have a telephone and so if you wanted to visit them you just showed up.  I thought I might stick around for a while to see if they returned.  I went back to porch and sat on the steps.  The sun was now perched in the dead middle of the blue sky.  A light breeze brushed my face.  This early June day seemed filled with life, wonder, and expectation.  Taking in the pastoral view that included an old barn, stonewalls dotted with shade trees, and old pasture,  I could not help but feel very fortunate to be here at this moment.  I had no better reason to be anywhere else. That was for sure.

I let the peaceful ambiance settle though the pores of my skin.  The month of June embraces a color of green that is nearly indescribable.   This green color of newly sprouting leaves and emerging grass blades is light, fresh, and calming.  The color is tranquil yet somehow full of life.  I wondered if Laura and Rob had time to enjoy it.  Both worked long hours at low paying jobs to pay the bills.  I did notice that a large garden had been laid out and was ready to plant so that made me feel like they had life under control, at least for the moment.  Laura and Rob were old friends of my girl friend and they had quickly accepted me.  We shared a common need to be in touch with the land.  None of us had any real economic means.  We knew that if we were to have anything it must be earned with hard labor and ambition; a common bond for creating lasting friendships.

The green fields out beyond the nearest mossy stone wall appeared to be an old pasture abandoned within the last decade.  Old fields speak to me.  They are full of the old and the new.  This notion attracted me to the old field and a short walk later I stood amidst this rural scene.  I thought of what it must have looked like ten years ago.  The cows likely kept it closely cropped.  Sections down hill and on the other side of a stone wall to the south looked fertile and were probably used as hay land.  From this vantage point, in the here and now, there was a wonderful mixture of old field grasses and newly established native plants.  The latter were trying to recapture the landscape.  These fragile plants, rendered dispensable by the agricultural practices of mowing and grazing, were nearly wiped and out and were replaced with European field grasses that could withstand the repeated weight of cows and machinery.   The native plants were never intentionally eliminated.   They were out competed by sun loving turf grasses that stored energy, and food, for winter cow feed.  But now the environment had changed.  The grazing and mowing were gone and the native and naturalized plants slowly found their way back to old their haunts.  Amongst the returning residents were wild strawberry, pokeweed, dandelion, orange and yellow hawkweed, blue and yellow violets, and lots and lots of buttercups.  All of these renewed plants were sprinkled between the orchard grass, timothy, and perennial rye grass from the old farming practices.  I was struck by the contrast, the new and the old, although it was unclear to me at the time as to what this all meant.

Looking at the sky I realized the sun was much lower in the blue sky now.  At least an hour or two had passed since my arrival.  I was now aware that Laura and Rob might not be back soon.  I thought I might head out, still hoping to see them drive up that dusty old dirt road.  On the way I could stop by Gerty’s for a short spell to see if she needed a little help.  That way I could keep and eye out for Rob and Laura should they return while I was still in the area.

I walked back to my old van.  The sun shined through a homemade sunroof on the van that had been cut with a torch in the shape of a Mayan sun god.  Filtered light splashed against the inside of the van in irregular and elongated patterns creating tiger like dark and light stripes on the interior walls. The day seemed mystical from any angle and from any position.  I just let it all in. As I drove down the road I wondered if my brand new acquaintance, Gerty, would still be working away.  When I turned into her drive I could see her sitting in a chair in the shade of the house.  I stepped out and she waved at me.  I walked closer to where she sat.  She was smoking a corn cob pipe.

“It seems like Rob and Laura aren’t home.  I hung around for a while but it doesn’t seem like they will be coming back too soon”, I said as I walked closer to her.

Gerty looked off into the distance.  She puffed on her pipe.

“I’m surprised I didn’t hear them drive by earlier.  They must have left awfully early.”

There was a slightly awkward moment of silence.

“So, Gerty are you done mowing for the day?”  I said looking at the long rows of grass neatly laying on the ground.

“Yep, I’ll roll that hay over in the morning, let it dry, and put it in my wagon”, she said pointing at a large cart with tall bicycle wheels, “and then I’ll put it in the barn to keep for winter.  After that I’ll mow another row, perhaps tomorrow afternoon.”

“Sounds like a lot of work.  That will keep you busy!” I commented.

Gerty looked off into the distant field.  She took another puff on her pipe and blew the smoke out through her nostrils.  As she sat there I thought about Rob and Laura.  I thought about Gerty.  I thought about the field grasses displacing the native forbs.  My thoughts were like looking through a colored glass window.  I could see the shapes but I could see no clear images.  A few moments passed.

Gerty cleared her throat and spoke with a certain air of intent.  She repeated  the words left for me to fathom earlier this day.

“You can’t make hay if the sun don’t shine!” she said.

We both laughed out loud.

Written for in April of 2010.

  • Ratty

    Wow! Your writing had a real power to it this time. It always does, but this story pulled me right inside. I felt as if I was there watching and all of this myself. Gerty makes me think of my grandma on her old farm. She was the wisest person I ever knew.

  • Montucky

    What a welcome contrast to the world that I see evolving today. I hope it will always be more than a memory. Your story was well told.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Montucky. Yes, the contrast is apparent. Something we should strive to get back to. Simple, quiet, honest. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Wild_Bill

    Gerty, both real and honest, speaks wisdom seldom seen in the present age. Thanks Ratty.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    Bill, I’ve had trouble leaving a comment. It said my browser was incompatible, so I’m using a different browser…
    Gerty sounds like a great lady. Love people who love the land. I so enjoy reading stories about my blogging friends pasts; they fill in the gaps of our lives. A very enjoyable read, with some well-turned phrases.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    A lovely past and it is nice you are keeping Gerty alive here in this story.


  • Wild_Bill

    I like your idea or notion of keeping Gerty alive!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Teresa. For some reason I could not reply to one of your comments last week for a few days. Then I tried again and it worked. Don’t know what the problem is. I am happy that you enjoyed this. I also like learning about your earlier life. When you’ve never met someone, but kind of know who they are, filling in these gaps is a lot of fun, isn’t it?

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