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THE RURAL LIFE

Some of America's best authors write from a strong sense of place. The place Verlyn Klinkenborg evokes, however, is not a single geographical point. In his New York Times column called "The Rural Life," he describes a specific place where New York state meets western Massachusetts, but he is really capturing the spirit of hundreds of pockets of rural America, now nearly vanished.

"Other seasons come abruptly but ask so little when they do. Winter is the only one that has to be relearned," Klinkenborg writes in The Rural Life, a collection of his columns organized in the form of a diary from January through December.

Our relationship to nature also has to be relearned, says Klinkenborg, whose editorials and columns give voice to the working farmer who, unlike the rest of us, is not removed from the land and the animals that sustain him.

"I wake up in the middle of the night and begin to take inventory of the things I plan to do once the snow melts away and the ground begins to soften," he writes. "Then I remember it's January, a month when only the potatoes are optimistic about warmer weather."

One day last week, I headed north from New York City to visit Klinkenborg on his farm. The cold and snowy weather in Manhattan had already broken 100-year-old records _ and Klinkenborg told me that the city is usually 20 degrees warmer than where he lives. The drive takes 2{ hours along the Taconic Parkway, past valleys with scenes out of Currier & Ives and through villages dotted with white church steeples, red barns, some badly in need of paint, and signs for chair caning and cabinetmaking. The ground is hard. Tall leafless trees cast eerie shadows on the white snow in the sunlight.

With the Berkshire Mountains as a backdrop, Klinkenborg's farmhouse, bought six years ago, at first seems isolated. A two-story dwelling (mostly built in the 19th century, it has "boards," he will tell me, from the 18th), the house looms over a tree-lined road that to the south runs past the clapboard post office in the unassuming burg of Austerlitz (pop. 1,453). Just across the Massachusetts border, however, lies one of the most tourist-trekked areas in New England. Many of the houses are second homes, belonging to New Yorkers and Bostonians who come in the summer to enjoy concerts at Tanglewood and watch the ballet at Jacob's Pillow.

But the Klinkenborg house, which mercifully hasn't been spiffed up, retains its country feel: The yellow house paint is peeling and the stone wall at the entrance is either crumbling or in the process of being built up.

Just coming in from the chicken house, the 51-year-old Klinkenborg, his smooth face red from the cold, greets me. I am led through the mudroom, where I peel off my outerwear, into a cheery kitchen warmed by Fiestaware, family photographs on the refrigerator and a wood-burning stove. Klinkenborg has a single egg in his hand, which he places in a wire basket along with several others his wife, Lindy, brought in earlier this morning. Usually, the hens lay their eggs early in the morning and late in the evening, Klinkenborg explains, but the cold has altered their habits. If he left this egg out, it would freeze.

Klinkenborg is not himself a farmer, he is quick to point out. Two days a week he commutes into Manhattan, where he maintains a small apartment on the Upper West Side, to participate in editorial meetings at the New York Times. "It's my job to be irate," he says, explaining that he writes about everything from land use to food production. He is often tapped to write the editorials that require a lyrical touch, says his boss, editorial director Gail Collins. She turned to him, for example, to write the editorial of record about the horror of 9/11.

The real farmers were his grandfather and uncle, both of whom worked in Iowa where farmers still feel the brunt of agribusiness and where Klinkenborg was born in the small town of Clarion in the central part of the state. His father taught music at the local school, and when Klinkenborg was 14, the family moved to Sacramento. Attending Berkeley and Pomona College, getting his Ph.D. in creative writing from Princeton, teaching at Fordham and Harvard, Klinkenborg seemed groomed for sherry parties, not baling hay.

Klinkenborg ushers me through the living room, with its wide pine floors and piles of books, into a cozy sitting room with the house's only fireplace. To my right on a table are pictures from Miss Dunnette's first grade class in Clarion: younger versions of both Klinkenborg and his wife. They were born in the same town, he explains, but re-met in 1991. Lindy, a photographer, had read and was impressed with his first book, The Last Fine Time, and she decided to track him down. ("What are the chances there are two people with that name?" she asked a friend). They were married shortly after. Lindy's photographs of flowers hang on the walls. She has her own book out, Straight West, a collection of photographs of ranchers, Klinkenborg says proudly.

In between farm and city chores, Klinkenborg is trying to finish his next book, on Gilbert White, the first writer of natural history in the English language. White kept an incredibly detailed diary in the 1780s of his garden, including the life of a tortoise named Timothy. In Notes of an Abject Reptile, Klinkenborg is telling White's story from the tortoise's point of view. "Everything in the book is true," says Klinkenborg. Except, of course, for the scribbling tortoise.

I inquire about the animals Klinkenborg has written about, and he answers as if talking about our old mutual friends. Adeline, the dapple-gray mare who looked ghostly white in her winter coat, has been sent back to her original home in Maine and is very happy. Three horses remain _ two mares, Ida and Nell, and Remedy, a gelding. And Badger? "It's a deep, sad story," Klinkenborg sighs. The dog had to be put up for adoption. He kept trying to eat the household's more senior canine. "It was a dark day," sighs Klinkenborg.

Then I ask about the pigs.

"They're in the freezer," Klinkenborg says, matter of factly. Tamworths, an old breed that doesn't like living indoors or in stressful environments, produce a lean bacon that is nothing like you've ever tasted, he explains. When they grew from 40 pounds to 300 pounds, they were ready to be slaughtered. Otherwise, they would have grown to be 600 pounds. It was time.

But wasn't it hard to scratch them behind the ears and rub their bellies all that time and then kill them off? I ask.

I'm not the first to ask him such a question. Recently when he was giving a talk on the Upper West Side, a woman exclaimed, "How can you eat your animals!" "I didn't think of how to answer her right away," Klinkenborg remembers, "but later I thought I should have said, "And whose animals do you eat?' "

The subject is obviously a touchstone for Klinkenborg. I know every bit of food that went into those pigs, he tells us. I know that "every day but one" of their lives was happy, he adds. And even on that day, the pain was swift and merciful. "God save us from lovers of animals," he says, pointing out that they are too often the ones who will think nothing of eating meat from animals raised in cruel conditions who suffered every day of their lives. "We need to take responsibility for what we eat," he says.

But wasn't it also a dark day when the pigs were killed? "I didn't take naps with the pigs," he tells me.

When I ask for a tour of the outside buildings, we head back to the mudroom where we diligently pull on our boots and wrap ourselves again in the outerwear that makes everybody look like the Michelin man. Klinkenborg has on a brown Patagonia cap, pulled over his ears, and gloves over his hands that seem to triple their size. He is wearing jeans, topped by a black and blue hunter plaid jacket. We are only going a few steps to the barn, but we are ready for the Arctic. The temperatures have already registered 16 below, Klinkenborg had told me, with 25 mph winds.

As we step out, I hear an ominous crack like the earth is being torn apart. Klinkenborg points to a tree next to the house that is split in two and ready to crash to the ground. There's no danger to the house _ it will fall toward the pasture, but "when it gives, it'll scare the horses," Klinkenborg laments. Nell and Remedy seem to eye us warily from behind the pasture fence.

The metal-enclosed pig pasture is empty, save for the portable box Klinkenborg used to truck the two pigs from pasture to pasture as they were growing large and fat. The chicken yard, on the other hand, is crowded with residents, including some with impressive pedigrees. The black and white banded chicken with a rose comb, looking like it walked out of a colonial painting, is an endangered species known as the Dominique, a 17th century breed that came with the Pilgrims. The silver white tom turkey with black banded feathers is a rare Royal Palm.

Next to the barn a row of yellow beehives offers a splash of color. Klinkenborg hasn't harvested the honey since the bees need it for fuel during the cold months. The worker bees, he explains, cluster into a tight ball, creating a toasty 63 degrees at the center for the queen bee. We duck for a moment into the barn to shield ourselves from the wind. In the center stands a plow at the ready. Three large green barrels at the entrance hold food for the horses, ducks and geese. A fourth _ for the pigs _ is gone, Klinkenborg points out. A few minutes later I spot him in the pasture cutting the twine from a bale of hay he has lifted into the feed box. "Every evening just at dusk I carry two hay bales into the middle pasture," he wrote in The Rural Life. "Each bale is bound by two strings of sisal baling twine. I cut the strings near their knots, which were tied by a mechanical baler sometime late last summer in a Massachusetts hay field. The bale springs apart, and the hay falls into flakes. I coil the strings into a neat loop and put them in my pocket. There's at least one coil of twine in every jacket I own and another in the hip pocket of every pair of jeans."

This year the winter here has been especially brutal. A pipe burst in the Klinkenborg's kitchen. Lindy made a hay igloo for the turkeys to keep them warm. Even the ducks and geese, who are usually impervious to the cold, quack at us as if protesting the bitter wind. Klinkenborg, raised after all in California, does not seem to relish being out in this weather either. It is a better day for staying indoors and writing. Later, in fact, at dusk, when I pass again in front of the Klinkenborg farmhouse and see a light on in the second floor, I imagine him doing just that.

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