Richard and Jenny are nearly desperate at the end of February in this endless winter.
Only 20 per cent of Americans live in rural areas now, the others have all moved to where the jobs are, where the new global economy is. Rural life is out of fashion, the politicians in Washington and the economists have decided it is inefficient in the modern age, they have turned their backs on the people who live there.
Members of Congress and Presidents are not helicoptering in here with offers of aid, there are no FEMA people with windbreakers handing out forms for checks, governors with baseball jackets, the Red Cross is not here with their soup kitchens and relief teams, there are no telegenic reporters from CNN or the Weather Channel asking people to tell their sad stories.
Yet there is great challenge and suffering here and in so many rural areas this winter.
Richard and Jenny do have a story to tell, although no news channel will be telling it. it is different from mine, from other people I know. Mother Earth is bringing us a new reality, many of us are very reluctant to see it and accept it.
For me, the winter has been challenging, also beautiful and spiritual, in it’s own way. I have wood in the shed and heating oil in the furnace and Tyler to come and help us dig out and Maria to climb upon rooftops, a dog to move the sheep around, a well-maintained car with four-wheel drive. There are any people with none of those things.
For some, this winter is an exercise in beauty and contemplation, for others a dreadful inconvenience. For Richard and Jenny, retired dairy farmers, it has become something else, and I realized yesterday I should know more about it than I do and think about it more than I have and write about it. Theirs is a story that needs to be told, is not being told.
More and more, we are trapped in our screens, our lives shrinking to the size of what see or hear. The stories of individual people are lost in the mayhem and argument that marks our time.
Richard and Jenny still live in their 1830 farmhouse, it is seven or eight miles from here. They have sold off most of their 80-acre farm, they have ten acres left. They live on their Social Security, a tiny pension and Jen’s work as a part-time waitress in Manchester, Vt. and sells some of the vegetables she grew in her garden. They will never go to Florida, she says, their family and church are here. And after this winter, she adds, she could never afford it.
Ice dams have formed on their rooftops, snow slides have torn off their cutters, water is leaking into the ceilings of their bedroom and living room and kitchen. Their battered old Chevy does not have four-wheel drive and cannot get through the snow and ice. Jenny cracked an axle trying to get out of their driveway, she cannot get to work.
Richard is 71, he had a mild heart attack last Spring. Jenny is 66, she has severe arthritis in her left leg. They have two children, one in the Army, the other working for the state Department of Transportation several hours away.
Jenny’s sister comes by and takes her shopping once a week, but there is not much food in the refrigerator, there is not much money to spend at the market. For the first time in his life, Richard went to the local food pantry – his son made him go – to get some soup and vegetables. He said it was all right, he was made to feel very welcome there, he was treated with dignity. They also picked up medicine for he and Jenny.
Richard and Jenny ran out of firewood three weeks ago – they have never used this much wood in the 40 years of life on the farm, they have never run out before. Their house is very cold. Their old wood stove requires seasoned firewood to burn safely, new wood gives off a noxious black smoke. Seasoned firewood is hard to come by in this winter, it costs $250 a cord, and they do not have it.
They have worked out a careful script for their winters and this winter has shredded it. They always leave the stove burning at night and turn off the furnace to save on heating oil, but they can’t turn the furnace off at night because it is so cold,the pipes will burst. Two already have, fortunately they were at home and got out some hair dryers.
Their power has gone off a half-dozen times, the wires knocked down by wind, ice or falling trees.
Their budget has been blown, they have been paying for heating oil with cash reserves and credit cards. For the first time in their lives, they are in debt, it feels, says Richard, like they are “falling down a deep black hole.”
Their farmhouse is buried in drifts and ice, they are worried part of the roof will collapse, and part of the old barn too. The ice dams are two feet thick, there is nothing for the to do but wait for warm weather. The sweet old cow they kept behind died in mid-February when it was – 30. “I think she just couldn’t handle the cold,” Jenny says. They brought kibble and milk out to their barn cats, as they always do, but many of them are gone.
Their porch has five feet of snow on the roof, the screens have been blown out by the wind. Their old dog can barely walk on the snow and ice, they put newspapers out for him in the mud room.
Richard has never known debt, never bought anything he could not pay for. But he had to get oil for the house. “I’m fighting for survival now, ” he says. “We have thousands of dollars in credit card bills now, there was no choice, the roof is badly damaged, we are out of wood. It hurts to see Jenny all wrapped up in scarves and sweaters in her own kitchen.” It is hard, he says, to sleep in such a cold house.
He is not supposed to be shoveling snow, but he does, almost every day, or they will not be able to get outside. And now, they cannot afford to hire the plow man they usually use. He has offered to work for free or defer the bills, but Richard and Jenny are prideful, they are not comfortable taking “charity.” If you can’t pay for it, he says, then you can’t have it.
But Richard can’t imagine having enough money to fix the car or pay off the credit card for the heating oil. He doesn’t want to think about it yet.
“We have always taken care of ourselves,” says Jenny, “it will be that way to the end.” Richard and Jenny have never heard of Kickstarter or Gofundme., online crowdsourcing sites. They don’t want anyone to give them any money, certainly not strangers on the Internet. Spring will come soon, they say, and they will figure it all out. “We’ve always had faith,” Jenny says, “God has always taken care of us.” I hope he is paying attention, mutters Richard, and is not off in Florida being warm.
Their pastor is coming by with some people from their church on Sunday to shovel and he says he is bringing some firewood and some strong backs. He doesn’t think he can fix the car.
Richard and Jenny say they look forward to being warm again, they are waiting for Spring. They seem to love one another very much. They pray, they say, that the meteorologists are wrong, and that this is not the winter of the future. “I don’t think we could do it again,” Jenny says.
I love winter in many ways, it is beautiful to photograph, and Maria and I share it, it makes us closer and helps us to appreciate one another and our good lives. We are comfortable, handling it well. We have what we need, including a sturdy old farmhouse that is as tough as the winter.
This winter is cold enough, but sometimes I think our society is becoming colder. Richard and Jenny worked hard for sixty years, paid their taxes, voted, obeyed the law. There is really no place for them to go for help, there is no government agency seeking to help them, or even thinking about them. It hurts me to think of April and May, when the phone calls will start coming in from the bill collectors, and Richard and Jenny will have to face the hard reality of their winter, not the exciting video game shown on the Weather Channel.
Jesus said it was our duty to help the poor, God says in the Kabbalah that it is everyone’s duty to make sure the poor have reason to hope. Gandhi says a society that turns it’s back on the poor is without conscience or soul. Our politicians often speak of faith, but don’t seem to have much.
Their pastor says there are people who will help them – I will surely try and help them – but he also says there are many people suffering as badly as they are or worse, and very little money to go around. “We do what we can, for as long as we can” he says, somewhat bleakly. “You would be amazed at how many people have no heat at all, one of my parishioners is taking his old barn down, board by board and using it for fuel for his wood stove.”
That is not exactly the command of Jesus or God in the Bible. Their pastor seems tired too, he says he has never seen so much suffering in a winter. “If this were New York City,” he says, “they would be calling out the National Guard.”
There are many generous people out there, but Richard and Jenny are not seeking money and will not accept any. I respect their choice. I wish to be mindful of them, and of the many people like them when I write about winter and take photos of dogs and shadows.