Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hoya Saxa!

You would think that after thirty years of tilling all of the rocks would be gone. Not! - although this year they (four of them) didn't turn up until about half way into the raking process. And then two more when I was actually planting.

Our vegetable garden was just another area of grass back in 1977 when, under the careful direction of Mars' father, I dug into the sod for the first time. I used a garden shovel and a garden fork that I incorrectly called a pitchfork at the time. When I cultivated today I used the same two tools - as I also did each of the intervening twenty-eight years. Then and now I also use a metal rake with short stiff tines that, through the wonders of modern technology, I just learned is properly called a "bow rake". And for the past ten or so years I've also employed an television infomercial device called "The Claw" that I acquired at that time from an auction of used stuff held by the men's garden club to which I belong.

Each and every year I make at least two, and sometimes as many as four, complete passes over the garden. It all depends upon how moist and clumpy the earth is and, consequently, how much turning and tossing it takes to convert it from one solid monolith of mud into an area of much smaller dirt pebbles that sift easily through your fingers.

I push the digging implements into the earth as far as they can go, lift the dirt, and dump it back onto itself. The first round is always with the shovel. The second, etc. are with the garden fork. The first round results in about two thousand (actually I've never counted them - but an awful lot of) shovel-sized clods of dirt. The second, if I'm lucky, increases that lump count one hundred-fold (or so) and decreases the average lump size proportionately. If the gardening gods are not cooperating then the garden looks roughly the same after both passes. To the best of my recollection it has never taken more than a total of four circuits to reach a state of rake-ability.

But nowadays before I rake, I claw. This bright blue implement's only purpose in life, as far as I can tell, is to break up small clumps of dirt into smaller clumps of dirt. The business end is a set of four tines arranged in an arthritic looking configuration. At the top is an s-shaped handle. You jam the claw into the ground and rapidly twist the handle, lifting the device up rapidly after each rotation and dropping it down quickly for its next. On good days I can get a really smooth syncopation going. Then my mind wanders, I grab air instead of dirt, and I torque my shoulders like an owl too-rapidly rotating its head. After the resultant pain radiates down my back and out the bottom of my feet I take a deep breath and continue.

Usually I go over the garden twice with "The Claw" just because its so damn much fun and this is the only time I ever use it. Then I make several trips over the garden - back and forth, up and down, with the bow rake. Until the dirt pieces are acceptably small.

In each of these steps, for twenty-nine years, I have found stones - some small, some big - and thrown them aside. At the end of the first year I foolishly believed that they all were gone. In the early days, even though they kept reappearing each year, I tossed them haphazardly into the adjacent bushes. Then, becoming convinced that they were creeping back into the garden during the off-season, I placed them across the yard in a pile - or, in particularly paranoid years, threw them into the trash.

This year I got all the way through the shoveling, raking and clawing and announced to Mars that the rocks were finally, absolutely gone. They weren't. They were just toying with me.

I suppose I could electronically tag them - you know to try and track their movements. Nah! That's just crazy! The noise of those little beepers creeping across the yard would keep both the neighbors, and us, awake at night.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Tolerable Planet

"A competition sponsored by the Thoreau Farm Trust of Concord, Mass. is accepting haikus - poems of 17 syllables with five in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third - that reflect the life and legacy of Henry David Thoreau. Because the haiku form often is used to express the poet's ideas about nature and the seasons, contest organizers chose it to be 'an ideal reflection of Thoreau's philosophy of simplicity and life lived close to the land.'"

I've just been mowing my lawn, trying to come up with a haiku poem about Henry David Thoreau. I was using a walk-and-push power mower. Even though the machine has an attachment to mulch the grass and recycle it into the ground, I suspect that the Nature Philosopher from Concord Massachusetts would not have totally approved - unless he knew the whole story.

I have for a long time been a fan of Thoreau's writings, although as a Philosophy major in college, other than his essay on Civil Disobedience, I did not study him. Several years later, after fatherhood, and shortly before home ownership and the subsequent shift to avocational gardening and writing, I read quite a bit of him. And apparently spoke or wrote of him enough to inspire Thoreauian gifts to me. You would think that a measly seventeen syllables on my part should be easily doable.

One summer in the mid 1980's, when our son Bram was attending a weeklong fencing camp in Concord I made the pilgrimage to Walden Pond on the day I was to pick him up for his return home. I brought my bicycle. After parking my car at the home of the family with whom he stayed, I biked through the suburban streets of town to the sacred site of Henry David's two year and two month experiment in self-reliance and simple living.

At the time the location was, to put it kindly, pretty underwhelming - a small body of water surrounded by sparse woods and an un-maintained and root-ridden hiking trail over which I walked my bicycle because there was no storage place for it on the grounds. (My understanding is that considerable work, including a replica house and improved pathways, has been done has been done since.)

At a nearby information center I bought a postcard with a woodcut portrait of Thoreau and the quotation "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." I hung it on my work office wall right in front of my desk at eye level. I reread the thought periodically but I cannot honestly say that it inspired me to do any particular thing.

I was more impressed by his thoughts on nature - not as much his aphorisms on the importance of the environment but his descriptions of how he felt being in it - e.g. hoeing beans in his Walden garden. His message seemed to be that nature was not a magical separate entity to be viewed with awe and wonder, but instead needed to be interacted with by man in a sustaining and nurturing way in order for both it and man to have their full significance.

I was at the same time just acquainting myself with the natural world in the yard of our first and so far only house - my first horticultural experience ever. Then, one month after moving in, our entire landscape went from a collection of non-existent or short-and-orderly bystanders to a run-amok mob of thigh-high grass and rapidly growing unfamiliar flora. And my neophyte hopes of a transcendent and spiritual relationship with Mother Nature changed to the terrifying fears of a sinner in the hands of an angry goddess.

But partially because of Henry David's words I was gradually able to settle on a combination of methods, techniques and tools - like hand-tilling the gardens, creating my own compost, organically treating the yard, hand-trimming the bushes and hedges, and the aforementioned mulching mower - that allowed me to gain control of and then re-shape our tiny topography into a place where Mars, I, and (hopefully) the flora and fauna of our outside world feel at home. It is still a work in progress, and always will be to a certain degree - that is after all the fun of it.

"What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"

A Tolerable Planet

Bare hands gently place
Compost 'round roots from a friend
Three lives are enriched.

Friday, May 18, 2007

bas couture

A college friend of mine used to say "there is no irony in real life." Wrong! I just had a pair of Birkenstock sandals resoled by an Italian cobbler. It cost thirty dollars. He gave them back to me in a clear plastic bag. I figure that there's got to be enough incongruities here for at least one essay.

First I should explain a little about my history with Birkenstocks. According to Wikipedia they were first sold in the U.S. of A. in 1966 and quickly became to the counter-culture and liberalism what Manolo Blahnik is to the ladies of "Sex in the City".

Somewhat boastfully the Federal Republic of German's Cultural Institute tells us "'Many visitors to Woodstock wore our sandals,' states the manufacturer Birkenstock. This orthopaedic shoe, or 'Birkenstock sandal', experienced an astronomical rise in popularity thanks to hippies and proponents of the alternative lifestyle. It finally became a fashion item with the '68 protest generation who declared this dedicated health shoe to be a prime example of 'anti-fashion', a perfect accessory with which to express their socially critical opinions."

Even though I graduated from college right the middle of the sixties, and agreed from a distance with most of those "socially critical opinions" (or at least the non-chemically enhanced ones) I knew nothing about the appropriate footwear to foster those beliefs. Instead I did the best that I could with sneakers and loafers - occasionally radicalizing my appearance by going sockless. I also missed Woodstock, Mars being seven months pregnant, and me having just begun work at the local insurance company from which I retired thirty-six years later. Actually I probably wouldn't have gone anyway.

I did however discover "Birks" in one of the hotbeds of sixties radicalism, San Francisco, albeit while on vacation with Mars and our son in 1983. We were in a store that I remember as more fancy-schmantzy than hippy-dippy when I saw them and, to my surprise, impulsively tried on and purchased a pair. The clerk emphasized the orthopedic and comfort qualities of the sandal rather than the social cache that went along with them - an indication of either my apparent conservative demeanor or, more likely, a sea change in the world of pedi-culture. They were comfortable immediately. And I wore them basically nonstop for the rest of our trip. And likewise since then, summer, fall, winter and spring, except for situations that required dress shoes, athletic shoes, or mukluks - without learning of their lineage for several years.

I read somewhere that rather than replace a worn-out pair all I had to do was remove the old sole myself and "simply" glue on a new one. This story of self-redemption appealed to me and was in keeping with the sandal's history of which I was then aware. I even bought a pair of soles to use for the event, although I can't remember where.

When the time came to perform the act I decided that (a) I had no idea how to remove the old shoe bottom and (b) even less of a concept of how to attach a new one. I went to several cobblers in the area, shoes in one hand and soles in the other, seeking absolution from my soulful situation. But each patent leather Pharisee cast me out, disdainfully saying they did not work on "those shoes."

Ultimately I did find a shoemaker who repaired and also sold them - along with other brands of "Earth Shoe" like products. He even wore Birkenstocks. I did business with him for many years and then one day, as happens frequently with the older trades, he was just no longer there. Although I realized that there were several mail order repair services I went back to discarding and replacing. Without the aromatic haze of leather and shoe polish in the air it just didn't seem right to outsource the repair job.

Then recently I heard of another relatively local cobbler who would repair Birkenstocks. Like my former fixer he was Italian with enough family pictures on the wall and cordovan stains on his hands to indicate the many years he had been at his trade. He also sold shoes - faux Ferragamo and lots of the gray or white walking shoes that frequently adorn senior women's shuffling feet.

"Can you put new soles on these?" I asked.

"Yeah." He growled begrudgingly, with no eye contact. "Tuesday if I gotta order 'um. Saturday if I gottum." He walked away and returned almost immediatly.

"Saturday. Thirty five dollars."

I wasn't able to pick them up until Wednesday. When I gave him the ticket he started rummaging through his pile of completed work.

"They're Birkenstocks." I said.

"Oh yeah. Them." He found the shoes. "Give me thirty dollars. Go spend the rest on gas."

They were wrapped almost hermetically in a thick, sturdy plastic. I am wearing them as I write this and they look to me like they've been shined, so I'm thinking that the polyethylene was intended to protect the polish.

That is why these countercultural movements never fully succeed. In the end they have to depend upon some small part of the mainstream societal infrastructure to take care of them. And these traditionalists only know how to do their job the way they have always done it. Until one day when they are just not there any longer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Border Patrol

I noticed the other day that I can actually tell where our property ends and our neighbor's begins. I think that is a good thing - every piece of private property should have its own identity (or what's the point of it being private). And every border should be natural, even the manmade ones.

As I think back over the past twenty-eight years I can remember other instances when this was true. With one or two exceptions everyone in this neighborhood mows their own lawns - and has for as long as we've been here. That's important to me. I remember visiting an aunt of mine in suburban Long Island where one and only one landscaping service essentially mowed the entire street, interrupted only by the need to go around the metal or plastic fences that demarked each otherwise identical Eden. Everything looked very nice but to me it somehow just seemed wrong.

My former next-door neighbor John used what he said was "the cheapest" power mower he could find. He replaced them basically every year, and each and every one of them left, for whatever reason, deep, well-defined tire tracks in the new-mown grass. John trimmed his lawn with geometric efficiency and the end result of his efforts was a series of concentric squares stretching from border to border - as obvious as some of the patterns that today are deliberately cut into the outfields at baseball stadiums. He loved cutting the grass, and watered and mowed it frequently, so at least half of the time his fescue reflected the latest impressions of his latest effort.

At that time, as I do today, I used either a power mower or a reel-type push mower - depending on the length of the grass, my level of energy, and the part of the yard (some of the vegetation collapses limply in front of the spinning reel and then pops back up mockingly just in time to be seen on the return trip). My power mowers always have a mulching attachment that, with varying degrees of success, "puts the grass clippings back into the ground" - giving me a least a little ecological cover for polluting the air that I, and others, are inhaling.

The push mower leaves absolutely no evidence of where it has been other than an occasional tuft of belligerently uncut grass, a beheaded dandelion stalk or two, and the thin carpet of detached grass blades that shoot up from the rotating blades, briefly hover, and then float down to the ground. Since I don't rake them I assume eventually they must work their way into the earth - where else would they have to go? - but apparently not as rapidly or efficiently as the power-mulched ones do. At least according to the folks at the Toro Power Equipment Company.

The gas mower leaves tracks, but not anywhere as prominent as those of my former neighbor. This might be partially due to the fact that my cutting paths are more random than geometric and therefore more difficult to discern. Fortunately, at least for tracking purposes, the mulching attachment is less than one hundred percent effective and some of the clippings, rather than being sliced and diced, are instead clumped and dumped at various spots along my cutting route. This is especially true in areas where the grass is taller.

As I understand it the mulching attachment works by bouncing the blades of grass back into the blades of the mower for repeated smaller and smaller chopping - sort of like Cirque Du Soleil in a blender. In order to achieve peak efficiency I probably need to mow while the grass is short enough to allow room for each individual leaf to fall freely, rather than bumping into each other and bundling together - Cirque Du Soleil with some of the acrobats wearing Velcro. I.e. every two or three days. But then I wouldn't need the machine power to push through the waves of grain. I could use my hand-push reel mower and not pollute the skies. But then the grass won't compost, at least not right away.

But there is more to retirement than cutting grass. There is writing about thinking about cutting grass for example.

Anyway the point is that whenever John and I cut our respective lawns at the same time the borderline between our respective properties was readily apparent. Two or so days later that distinction was totally gone. We both had the same genus and species of grass - Kentucky Blue Rooted Tongue Bladed Fescue or something like that. Anyway it was green most of the Spring, Summer and Fall. And stuff grew in it - like dandelions, crabgrass, ground ivy and an unidentified-at-the-time pink-purple weed that popped up in bunches pretty much anywhere it wanted. Having other things to do we both were less than one hundred percent devoted to eliminating them. So, while these uninvited suburban guests didn't exactly flourish on each of our lawns - they were nonetheless a presence on both sides of the border.

Then a few years ago Mars and I began using an organic lawn care company. And John sold his house to Ralph, a thirty-something college professor trying for tenure who shortly thereafter married, and then had a child - not someone likely to be a lawn fanatic. While our yard headed slowly towards weed-independence the one next door drifted somewhat in the opposite direction. (In general there are now three classes of yards on our street: zero dandelions (ChemLawn), a handful of dandelions (Organicare), herds of dandelions (no lawn care).)

A couple of days ago I happened to be walking the property line and noticed thick, pristine, green grass to my left and a blanket of pink-purple to my right. The next day Ralph asked me if I knew what the pale red weeds were. I didn't, but later that week my organic lawn care guys were working across the street at another neighbor, so I wandered over and asked them.

"Henbit." He said after picking off a piece and staring closely at it. Then he walked along the edge of my property with a concerned look on his face and said, "We'll have to keep an eye on that this year to protect your property."

At first I thought he might have been some kind of landscaping Minuteman fanatic, trying to force his own view horticultural uniformity on a less-than-willing population. But on further thought I decided he was just doing his job of providing a little "Lawn Order" on the border - kind of like Sam Waterson in rubber boots and a white polo shirt.

I told him "I'd appreciate it."

"DUN dun"

Saturday, May 12, 2007

All My Life's A Circle

Something or someone is eating the tires on my Weber Barbeque Grill. We know who the culprit is - well not specifically "who", but we are certain of the species that is partaking of this polyethylene. And unless Attorney Barry Scheck and "The Innocence Project" show up on our doorstep with irrefutable DNA results to the contrary we are going to hold them accountable to the full extent of the law - whatever that means when you're talking about squirrels.

It is pretty much an open and shut case - a "slam dunk" to use a recently discredited sports cliche.

(1) We just do not have anywhere on our property, on a full or part time basis, anyone else with either the denticles (means) or the desire (motive) to decimate and digest these disks.

(2) Mars and I have both observed the subjects of interest devouring similarly constituted "foods" (modus operandi/criminal history). In particular they seem addicted to soda bottle plastic (we use the containers as "bird" feeders), same genus, different species than the synthetic material in the wheels. They then devour the pieces of duct tape that we use to repair the aforementioned openings.

(3) It just gets worse. This morning I drove off in our Jeep Cherokee. It sputtered and jerked for a block or two before it seemed to "blow itself out". When I looked under the hood I found a pile of chewed up acorns sitting in the depression on top of the engine block. Ironically this morning's paper had a question in the Auto Advice column about keeping squirrels out from under the hood. Apparently there are electric devices that deter them. Moth balls work also - although unless you have a really strong slingshot it is difficult to imagine how they would.

It looks to me as if the little terrorists have crossed the line from harmless vandalism to premeditated acts of mayhem. And we need to react accordingly. I plan to push the legal system for the maximum punishment available - "The Hot Seat", "Old Sparky", "Gruesome Gurtie", "Yellow Mama".

Only one problem though - none of them are working. It seems that something or someone is eating the wires.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Fighting Fashionistas

One of the persistent myths about the Battle of Gettysburg is that Robert E. Lee came to that town in search of shoes for his ill shod or barefooted soldiers. This story is based upon the false premise that Gettysburg was, at that time, a prominent producer of footwear. It was not.

What is true however is that a goodly number, if not the majority, of Lee's army was significantly sartorially challenged.

According the website "It was not uncommon for the uniforms to be ill-fitting, with sleeves either too short or too long, and to have buttons missing.....Those lucky enough to have a fitting pair of shoes would often nail horseshoes to them to prevent the soles from wearing down." Soldiers garnered clothing wherever they could. Occasionally Rebel soldiers were seen wearing women's hats into battle in order to provide them protection from the sun and heat.

Additionally, and possibly explaining the millinery preferences of at least some of the Southerners, was the fact that ".....their ranks also included women (posing as men)." (op. cit.)

While the morale of these soldiers remained high due to their victories in battle, General Lee realized the extreme importance of physical comfort to his troops in maintaining that enthusiasm and confidence. He also was aware of the increasing prevalence of flowered bonnets on the battlefield, particularly among the more heavily hirsute, and the increasing grumbling in the ranks about the overall drabness of their ensembles.

He gathered his next-in-commands in council and posed the issue to them. The room was filled with cigar smoke - and total silence.

"Come now gentlemen. Surely at least one of you must have some thoughts on the subject. How about you Jeb?" Lee said, looking at General James Ewell Brown Stuart - as a cavalryman one of his most dashing and fashion-savvy officers.

"I'm a-sorry." replied the horse-soldier, who had a slight speech impediment that caused him to insert the letter "a" inappropriately into words. "I am-a drawing a complete blanak."

"Of course" said Lee. "And how droll of you to self-effacingly disguise your brilliant idea in a pun. Gentlemen. Tomorrow we march to Lancaster Pennsylvania to take advantage of their annual sidewalk sale of high fashion shoes.

It was on his way to this shopping spree that Lee's troops happened upon the Union Army at Gettysburg. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So we will never know:

(a) what would the shoes cost in Confederate dollars?

(b) How would the Union troops have reacted to Pickett's Sashay?

Please check out the following links for other observations on the world of haute couture footware in our travels to Florence Italy (part 1, part 2 & part 3) & Quebec City, Canada.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

...And Leave The Driving To Us

Soldiers weren't the only ones to descend on the small town of Gettysburg during the first days of July in 1863. Nor were they the only ones to linger in that town after the battle was over.

As they did throughout the entire war, groups of friends and relatives, along with others who did not personally know the warriors, followed them from place to place. Even during this deadliest conflict in our nation's history there were tourists visiting the arenas of war soon after the smoke and dust had settled - often before the dead and wounded were removed from the scene. During our recent on-site Elderhostel in Gettysburg we learned that visitors actually picnicked on the site of that battle while wounded soldiers lay nearby calling out for food and water - not that dissimilar from our willingness to watch television's saturation coverage of, for example, the recent Virginia Tech shootings.

On a lighter note it is popularly believed that the origin of the word "hooker" comes the female camp followers of the charismatic Civil War General "Fighting Joe" Hooker. While it seems to be true that the commander did have such an erotic entourage trailing him throughout the conflict, etymologically speaking the term was already being used to refer to prostitutes as early as 1835.

It is undoubtedly true that the majority of these caravans of supporters traveled via the same means of transportation as the soldiers - by foot and/or horse. However this recently discovered albumen print by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady shows that at least one high ranking officer was able to provide much better accommodations for his band of groupies.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Road Thrice Traveled.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed "You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you." He probably said a lot of other things but very few of them survived - which makes sense for someone who felt that everything and everyone was constantly changing.

I thought of this predecessor to Socrates last week as I walked alongside the banks of the stream running through Rocky Acre Farm in Mount Joy Pennsylvania. Mars and I were staying there at a Bed and Breakfast located in what used to be the farmhouse. We first visited the farmstead on two one-week vacations in 1981 and 1982 with our now thirty-eight year old son Bram.

The B&B is owned and operated by the Benner family. In the 80's Mr. & Mrs. Benner (Galen and Eileen) were also running the farm. Mr. Benner has since retired from the milking business and sold that enterprise to his son Arlen who along with his brother was a mid-teen farmhand on our earlier visits. Mr. B. now plays "camp Grandfather" to the hordes of children that are guests at the farm. Over those years the B&B has grown in the number of rooms, and notoriety - having appeared in the New York Times and on the NBC Today television program - but otherwise it and the farm have remained pretty much the same as when Mars first discovered it in our local paper's travel section. And coaxed me into giving it a try.

The Benners are Mennonites. In 1982 when Mars first mentioned vacationing on a local farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country my first thought was "What? No electricity! Horses not cars! Is there indoor plumbing?"

I was mistakenly thinking of the Amish "an Anabaptist Christian denomination in the United States and Canada that are known for their plain dress and limited use of modern conveniences such as automobiles and electricity." (according to Wikipedia) - not the Mennonites who, while also Anabaptists, pretty much freely embrace a lot of the technology in the modern world.

I knew the Amish for their distinctive beards (identical in mustache-less configuration to mine which was darker and fuller at that time), and their steadfast adherence to old-world ways in spite of their physical immersion within the perpetually modernizing twentieth century culture. Bearded men, women in long flowing skirts, communities living off of the land, pacifism - it sounded like the ideals of Woodstock come to life - without the music, but with the mud, albeit more fertile soil. I came of age in the sixties and in 1982 was a neophyte gardener. So, while I knew that I couldn't possibly embrace the austere Amish lifestyle, I expected nonetheless that I would ruefully admire some of their time-honored behaviors, in particular their relationship with the land, and wish that I could find a way to incorporate them into my own lifestyle

A little checking with the Pennsylvania state tourist organization assuaged my initial fears and I began to think that the Pennsylvania Dutch lifestyle might be a good one to take part in - as a guest outsider. Although I still did have a few reservations about the strict way of living, and extreme religiosity I feared we might be trapped within.

Not that I was then, or am now, spontaneous. Among other things, at that time, Mars and I were both doing regular recreational running - everyday for me, an occasional day off for her. And I did not intend to slack off in the slightest during our stay at the farm. Shortly after we checked in to the farmhouse apartment I changed into my running togs and went out to determine what our daily route would be.

I trotted down the driveway onto the road in front of the farm, turned left, ran to the top of a hill and checked my time. It was just about seven and one half minutes. I turned back, ran past the farm down the road alongside the stream up another hill and looked gain at my watch. Once again it was seven minutes and thirty seconds. I returned to the farm with an almost perfectly symmetrical running route, which Mars and I faithfully followed just about every day of our two one-week stays. Familiar routines quickly make the unusual into the everyday.

That evening on the front porch we met some others guests who, when they saw my beard, recognized me from my run that afternoon and had, they said, been quite surprised to learn that the Amish jogged. It was the only incident of such confusion on either of our trips, but being mistaken for a native did make me feel a little more like I belonged here.

The Benner farm turned out to be almost as non-Amish as we were. In addition to the electricity and the indoor facilities the cows were milked by machine, John Deere tractors roamed the farmland, Mr. Benner rode a golf cart around the acreage, and the Benner boys turned their mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks into high-speed Harley rides through the cornfields. A boom box blasted rock music from the tool shed/garage in the center of the farm and pick-up basketball games developed with Mr. Benner (on break from his sixteen hour workday) joining in and banging bodies under the boards.

We did come in contact with several bearded or bonnet-capped members of the Amish on our drives through the countryside and at the local outdoor markets. Their farms were easily identified as having no electrical wiring leading up to them. And the people were recognizable by their black horse-drawn buggies, and their black untailored suits with collared shirts (mostly sky blue) for the males, and ankle-length, long sleeved dresses for the women. They do not want to be photographed.

The farms were, at least to my suburban eyes, enormous. As were the men who seemed like muscular outgrowths of the land that they worked - visibly separated from the brown and green landscape by their black and blue clothing yet seemingly attached to the earth by their solid stance. Images of the Muffler Man from the comic strip Zippy or the heads from Easter Island crowd into my mind alongside those of the sturdy, stolid Amish men who gave the strong impression of belonging wherever they were while the rest of the world seemed to float ephemerally around them.

The Benners likewise, while they dressed more like suburbanites on a weekend break (jeans and white tee shirts), seemed at home in all that they did - flowing seamlessly back and forth from their farmer role to their innkeeper role to their family role. Their world was the farm and the farm was their world.

Except for church - which, in addition to Sunday, they went to one week night while we were there and asked us to "please watch the cows". And we did just that as the black and white herd wandered one-by--one out of their pens, across the road, and off into the darkly invisible cornfields. Fortunately they later returned of their own accord, possibly from their own bovine worship-night, well before the Benners did. No harm, no foul.

One morning the veterinarian arrived in his Volvo station wagon to perform an operation on a cow with a badly twisted stomach. He bought with him, in addition to his black leather bag, a wooden and rope block-and-tackle device that was used to hover the ailing bovine a foot or so off the ground inside the July-hot-and-humid barn. Guests excitedly gathered around to watch the doctor reach up into the innards of the animal and mysteriously untangle the cow's digestive disability. Then he sewed her up, let her down, and left.

For the Benners, most of who were off working during the event, it was just another day on the farm. For our son Bram it has proven to be the most memorable vacation event of his lifetime and he still regales friends with the story and his fading photographs of the hoisted Holstein to this day.

At Mars' instigation we decided to revisit the farm last month after an Elderhostel that we attended in nearby Gettysburg. This time we were able to reserve our room via the B & B's own website but payment by credit card was not accepted over the web or in person - cash or check only. There also was no television at the farm. The Elderhostel was pretty busy with attention-requiring activities each day and on several evenings so, much as we were in the 1980's, we were looking for the farm to provide us with a little down time. We wandered the acreage, photographed the cows, and sat on the porch and read.

There are two multiple-story trees in front of the veranda. Each one has multiple trunks and branches, and multiple families of birds establishing their annual nests within them, just as they or their ancestors had done before - possibly for as long as the farm has existed.

We also drove deeper into Amish land on Route 30 which has changed from a relatively busy road into a display case for every chain restaurant and outlet store in America - stacked one top of each other with not even enough room to swing a trans-fatty French Fry without hitting an equally unhealthy thick-shake. We rushed back to the solitude of the farm.

We both still exercise pretty much every day but neither of us runs anymore. We do however walk a lot (along with weights, yoga, elliptical and other health club machines). One day Mars opted to rest and I went for a walk along the second half of our old running route.

Walking the road allowed me to be more consciously aware of the surroundings that twenty-five years earlier had been pretty much background noise to the sounds of running shoes and heavy breathing. But somewhere in my brain the old sights must have registered because, just as I experienced on our drive in through the farmlands to the farm, pictures of what was to come seemed to appear in my mind just nanoseconds before I saw them in real life. And, because (other than tree and bush growth) everything along that part of the route, up to and including the farm, basically remained the same, my precognitions and perceptions were always in sync - giving me the feeling that not only had I been here before but, if I chose to, I could be here again in the future.

Heraclitus also said "The road up and the road down is one and the same." This strikes me as possibly an exception to his more publicized "everything is changing" view of life. Maybe in addition to being a Pre-Socratic philosopher he was also a pre-Mennonite dairy farmer in his day job.

I mean who says that our ideas about him can't change too?

For more photos of the farm and other things, please check out the View From Mars.