Place of Rest

What I Found under a Maple Tree

One fall day, I decided to take a break from working my farm in upstate New York and drive to a distant town for supplies. It was good to relax and reflect on the passing year. I thought about the year’s crops, the sweat equity I earned, and about my family—how we were doing and where we were headed. I had packed my lunch and was looking for a quiet place to pull off and eat in the fall sun.

Soon I came upon the Holiest of Apostles Cemetery. It looked very comforting inside, with trees in brilliant color. I drove in.

The cemetery grounds were even larger than my farm. The land was covered with gravestones of every description: weeping angels, Michelangelo knock-offs, and granite crosses of every height. I spotted a sugar maple with leaves in full glory, and parked beneath it. I stretched my bones upon the ground, and unpacked my lunch. It wasn’t long before I looked around to see who was situated nearby.

Mildred Owen was to my right, and Anthony Lombardo to my left. I raised my soda can as to say hello and figured they wouldn’t mind my company.

It was quiet.

I heard no cows bellowing, as I do at home, and wondered what my cows might do if given all this grass to eat. I imagined them kicking their heels so high with excitement that many things would be up-turned or knocked to the ground. As they covered the perimeter, they would dig in for a moment as they passed St. Peter’s statue. Of course, a cow pie would land here and there, but I’m sure the grass wouldn’t mind. The grass here would feed my cows until snowfall.

Once while in Ireland, I witnessed cows grazing in a cemetery and marveled at the beauty. The flat markers were level with the ground. Some were three hundred years old. The occupants seemed not to care—nor did the bovine, for on and on they ate the greatest of the world’s grasses. It was beautiful to watch.

All this grass going to waste seemed unthinkable.

I wondered if anyone had ever tapped the massive maple tree that I leaned against. Cemetery sap must make maple syrup as good as that from my woods, in fact maybe better. I thought back to something I had read about scientific experiments regarding mass. If an entire city were burned, the article noted, and a bubble of some kind was set over the city in order to collect and measure all the gases in the atmosphere, the sum would be identical to when the city was in full bloom.

Nothing lost, nothing gained—all related.

So I wondered if the sap from the maple tree upon which I leaned, with it roots deep in the ground gathering nutrients, included Mildred Owen and Anthony Lombardo? It must, I thought. Endless possibilities ran through my head.

On a sunny, but cold Good Friday last spring, a calf was born near a small creek on my farm. I spotted the new addition before dark and checked on Mama and baby, and both were fine. The calf was nursing, and the mother was licking the little one clean. I looked at the sunset. It seemed like it would be a calm night, so I decided to let them stay where they were. I carried a load of dry feed to the mother so that she wouldn’t have to leave the calf during the night, and I guessed that in the morning she and calf would be close to where I left them.

The next morning I was awakened by bellowing, and knew immediately there was a problem.

As I walked toward the field, I saw that during the night Mama had decided to cross the creek. From the marks along the water bank, I could see that the calf had tried to follow her. But he had slid down the slippery slope and into the ice-cold water. The calf was stone cold and dead. I stood looking in sadness and disgust as I asked the mother, “What prompted you to cross the creek when everything you needed was on this side?”

I asked myself why I had left them there by the creek instead of moving them closer to the barnyard. I remembered a family argument that afternoon; perhaps I wasn’t thinking of everything I should have.

I pulled the calf from the water and placed its frozen body on the ground and listened to the mother complain. I felt as though I had failed her and I apologized. I knew I would have to listen to her bellowing for the next two days—as if I needed reminding. I decided that I would deal with the calf after calming myself down with a cup of coffee.

The farm doesn’t have much in the way of burial plots. And I knew the coyote population has disrupted many a shallow grave, but in the end I suppose it turns out to be a gift to them after a long hard winter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As I carried the calf toward my truck, our college girl Kathryn pulled into the driveway for the Easter weekend. She immediately surmised the situation.

“You are not taking that poor dead calf to the woods so the coyotes can eat him,” she said. “You have got to bury it correctly or I’ll never say a word to you again.”

I know when I’m beaten. Off the three of us went, Kathryn, the dead calf, and I with shovel.

I thought it would be fitting to bury him under the large maple tree along our dirt road. We dug into the frozen ground deep enough to keep the scent in and the coyotes out. We laid the little one in the grave. As the two of us looked upon the hole and its new occupant, we leaned upon the shovel and offered our farewells. Kathryn said “goodbye” to the little calf she had never known, and I apologized for a short life under my care. We covered the hole.

It was at that moment I decided to tap the maple tree.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 

John Keidel lives on a farm in Penn Yan, New York.

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