Carla Carlisle on the cold snap

All week long, it felt as if a state of grace had descended on the countryside. Frost turned the hedgerows into diamond mines that glistened in the dull daylight. The peacocks huddled together for warmth, their gaudy feather tapestry the only thing visible under the duvet of fog. For the pheasants, it was a joke and a reprieve: the guns surrendered and came in early, but not before testing the ice that covered the reservoir, ice as thick as the London Yellow Pages, ice solid enough for skaters. Perhaps. Who can be sure?

Ice is as exotic in this part of Suffolk as polar bears.  Despite the shivering, the cold was welcome. In the horticultural world, they call it vernalisation, a period of cold required by a plant to initiate flowering. People need it, too. These seasonless years deprive us of ceremony and understanding, and there is no health in it.  One wintry ceremony that has been on hold for too long: blueberry pancakes and streaky bacon. A jug of maple syrup presides over the kitchen, its simple label a work of art: Pure Maine Maple Syrup, Made by Everett Moulton, South Parsonsfield, Maine.

In fact, the contents aren’t made by Everett, who gave up sugaring when he was 95. This is maple syrup from L. L. Bean, decanted into one of Everett’s old jugs by my friend Susan, one time resident of Parsonsfield. Every year, she arrives at Wyken with a new harvest of maple syrup and vintage Everett stories. It’s right that we should begin this cold as Maine day with a ceremony of pancakes, because last night, Susan called to tell us that Everett had died. Everett’s expression of the verb to die was ‘get through’, as in ‘Everett Moulton got through on Friday’. He was born in 1909, and, in September, would have been 100.

When he married Minnie in 1927, they moved into the house, a classic New England centre chimney cape, next door to his family’s farm on Moulton Hill. His farm of 230 acres marched beside his family’s place, another 150 acres including about 50 acres of ancient stone-walled fields, which he mowed with a tractor he had made from an old Ford truck, pulling the trailer he had constructed out of hefty timbers. 

The hay was feed for his cattle, a herd he restricted to about 14. He’d slaughter one a year for the house, but the rest was his capital. He kept the herd until he was 95. When he finally sold it, he kept one old cow for companionship. His animals informed his view of life. He liked to describe the birth of a calf. ‘When it first comes out, it is lifeless. After a little nudge and a few licks, it suddenly comes to life. And that’s all that separates life and death: a few licks.’

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The farmer-philosopher was caretaker of the land and caretaker of the local cemetery. Solemn and practical, he dug all the graves by hand long past the arrival of the mechanical digger, faithful to his belief in the superiority of the handmade grave over the machine hole. He’d begin by cutting and peeling off a neat rectangle of sod with the skill of a tailor cutting priceless cloth, carefully lifting it to one side. After the funeral, he would fill in the hole and replace the grassy blanket with such precision that you couldn’t tell that the earth had been disturbed. With his respect for the earth and a barn filled with the machinery of another age scythes, pitchforks—Everett’s life was like a poem by Walt Whitman, a song by Aaron Copland, an essay by Wendell Berry.

A farmer whose knowledge of culture and agriculture, of man, animals, the weather and the land follows him into the grave he dug for himself. I’d like to think that he will be taken there in the 1936 pick-up that sits in his barn, the truck he drove for 70 years, until, reluctantly, he gave up driving aged 97. Even now, I can hear him speculating on life after death. ‘They must find good work there,’ he’d say with a straight face, ‘because they don’t come back to Parsonsfield.’