Living Small in Eastern Europe

Living Small in Eastern Europe

Living Small in Eastern Europe My father, Jim Freeman, has lived in the Czech Republic since 1992 or so, and although for a number of years we didn’t really hear from him much, over the last couple of years he and I have developed a nice email relationship. Dad sent his last weekend, and since I have a weakness for draft horses, I thought I’d add it to the blog (although be advised, no one calls me “Char” except that handful of people who knew me before I was six):

Dear Char—

Seems I ought to share my day with you. There are days that just call out
for the sharing and this was one of them. It’s almost an essay and I guess
I’ll keep it as one, but I thought you’d understand it better than anyone.

I walked Barkley late this morning, up along the creek road past our little
local ski area and on up toward the reservoir. We haven�t been this way for
almost a month, our tours instead up past the pension that stands several
hundred yards above us, then circling further up and around on the blacktop
road. It hasn�t been visibly blacktop for months now either, packed snow
instead and well plowed, easy to walk.

Stuart Horwitz asked me just the other day if I wasn�t ready to �retire� to
a warm climate, but I am a winter man in my bones. I enjoy spring, tolerate
summer, love the fall, but my special season is winter and its wood fires,
heavy snows and the solitude of long days dark.

Anyway, Barkley was true to his Labrador spirit today, taking frequent
wriggling snow baths, nosing this and snuffling out that, being particularly
patient with my human requirement that he sit as occasional cars passed.
Beyond the ski lift, there�s no need of that as the road ends and it�s
closed to all but loggers and cross-country skiers from there up. We didn�t
go all the way up, something I reserve for New Year�s Eve and occasional
guests who want to wear themselves out.

But they�ve been logging for a week, five or six hundred yards up and, it
being Saturday, we came upon a solitary man with two lovely draft horses and
his German shepherd, snaking logs down to the road. They still do that here,
when they�re selectively logging instead of the increasingly cost-effective
clear cuts that scar our mountains as they do all mechanically lumbered
areas back in America. We have two men in our little village who trailer out
pairs of draft horses behind their tractors for just this purpose. But I
don�t often see them at work, more usually confined to a wave as I pass in
the car. So, today was a treat and I wished I�d had a camera. Maybe I�ll go
back. It’s possible they do this somewhere in Montana as well, but I kinda
doubt it.

He worked his horses down a skid-path, muddied and churned by their hoofs
and the fallen timber they pulled, one behind the other, he and the dog
following and not a word spoken until the bottom. The first time down, he
chooses a sightline path without too many drops, one they can manage and he
leads, chuckling the Czech language at them as they follow. After that, he
merely accompanies to see that nothing goes amiss, chaining up at one end,
unchaining at the other. Once they know the route, the horses know the work
and all follows from there. It�s as amazing to me as watching sheep-dogs
work a flock, this absolute communication and respect between man and
animal.

There were difficulties with the lead-horse log when they got down to the
stack. The butt dug in and caught, this huge chestnut gelding unable to get
footing enough to move it and �stumped.� Maybe that�s where the term comes
from. Man and animal, they worked it out together patiently, neither loosing
their cool, the woodman speaking softly and never touching his horse. The
second horse stood waiting behind, without much interest. If you�re looking
for an inquisitive animal, a horse is a poor choice. A few cross-country
skiers piled up, their run down from the reservoir interrupted by the
blockage. Like me, they watched, fascinated. Like me, they will tell this
story. The gelding turned uphill and jerked, hooves churning in the thawed
ground, came back around and lunged, backed off and waited. Tried a
different direction and the log rolled a half-roll, came free and moved.
Together, they got it lined up with the pile and Barkley and I moved on as
well. This work didn�t need a crowd.

Further up, it flattens to a small meadow and even though it was still
selective cutting, loggers were able to use four-wheel drive tractors. The
area was understandably churned up in wide arcs and cross-arcs. Without
doubt it was a more economic moving of timber, but without romance, without
the quiet words and understanding between man and animal. They don�t work
Saturdays, these machinery guys. When we came back down-trail, it was lunch
break and horses heads were deep within oat buckets, the shepherd worrying
some scraps and the man eating a sandwich, his back turned to the trail as
if he wished to be deeper into the woods.

This small miracle on an ordinary dog walk has stuck with me all day and I
somehow feel compelled to tell you about it. As if the telling will preserve
it in amber, because you and I both know this day is submitting to modern
methods and there are no young men learning the work. As I write �learning
the work,� I�m struck by the fact that this is work at its most honest. Not
the job we do, not the place we put in our hours for a fee, but the
cooperation between man and animal that our great grandfathers would have
instantly recognized.

Four hundred yards toward home, the modern world revealed itself (as if I�d
thought it gone or wished it gone). The parking area jammed with cars, lines
at the lift, skiers carving down the mountain to be mechanically towed back
up for another run. They�ll be high spirited tonight, then relaxed around a
fire or at dinner, eager for tomorrow and totally unaware of what transpired
a quarter mile up the trail. As I might have been, if Barkley hadn�t tired
of the same old walk and urged me elsewhere. I mark it as a wonderful day
and one of the reasons that keep me rooted to this country.

Anyway, I thought you�d enjoy it. Buy yourself a Subaru for those trips over
the pass.

Love from here—

Dad

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