“If you die on me, I’m selling this place.”
I’d toss the words into the air freely and often—whenever my discontent with our ramshackle life on our rural homestead overflowed like saturated storm clouds spilling water.
The last time I remember saying it to you was on an early summer evening. We were in the garden, uphill from the house. The sun was still high and bright but readying itself to sink behind the evergreens. Pines and cedars. Madrones and firs. When the sun descends behind the tree-topped knoll, it’s a promise the dark night approaches.
Our two-year-old grandson Tristan dug in the dirt. You said, “One of these days, you’re going to be the one to take care of the place.”
Your vision was of a hand-tended land passed down through generations, an inheritance of hard work, of skill, of treasured appreciation. From grandfather to grandson. Someone to pick up hoe and rake and rototill in your stead.
“If you die on me, I’m selling this place,” I said. My refrain emphatic but always veiled in light-heartedness, a comical threat with an edge.
Your refrain was altogether different. “I want to live to be at least a hundred. Better yet, a hundred and twenty!”
I never could understand your obsession with living to an over-ripe age. “Not me,” I’d say. “You can live to be that old. I want to be the one to go first.”
And then you died. Thirty-five years short of your goal.
Now, I gather firewood, split it, stack it, haul it inside, and keep the woodstove stoked and burning. I hike into the forest, up the ridge and down the other side, bushwhacking my way to the creek to clear the intake for the hydroelectric system, and then return to the battery house, where I crank the generator, turn on the pump, and open the valve to prime the system. I learn how to fix the PVC pipe at the ridgetop, where a bear has severed the line, and to fix the leaking faucet of the outdoor tub by inserting a shutoff valve into the pipe and insulating it. I climb onto the roof with a putty knife and a pail of tar and paint every nail that pierces the rolled roofing so as to prevent leaks—unsuccessfully, I discover when the first snow arrives. I change the valve from one propane tank when it becomes empty to a full one and light the on-demand water heater by hand because the automatic striker no longer works. I flatten the heaping pile of shit in the composting privy with a pitch fork and spread a layer of pine shavings to cover it. I patch the fence with extra fencing, wire, and stakes where the dog has snuck underneath to meet up with her friend, the neighbor’s dog, to go roaming. I do this again. And again. I water the lawn and garden and rake the leaves. I tend to the fire that erupts from hot ashes cleaned from the woodstove being dumped next to a pile of pine needles and composted chicken manure from the coop. I cut back overgrown blackberries. I dig out hundreds of thistles in the meadow before they go to seed. I feed the feral mother cat and her two babies who have established residence on the covered porch. I give them wet food from a spoon in hopes of taming them.
With each task, I speak to the tongue and groove cedar walls of the cabin you built. I speak to the trees and plants in the forest. To the sky in rain or snow or sun. I speak to the stars as I soak in the hot water of the tub. Over and over and over, I ask, “Why did you leave me?”
But I do not sell the land. I refrain.
Laurie Easter lives off the grid and on the edge of wilderness in Southern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, and Under the Gum Tree, among other publications, and have been anthologized in The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. Her essay collection All the Leavings was a finalist for the 2018 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize.