Sarah...I have shared this before on here, but figured you might have missed it. It was a few months ago that I posted it. Still I think it shows how I felt at a very dark time in my life (January 2018) and hope you, and others can realize you are not alone, but there is always hope. Things do change...
I called it Black Thumb
The snow squeaks under my snow boots as I step upon it on my way to a tree that stands majestically before me. Snow only squeaks if it is below ten degrees, and this morning the digital numbers on the thermometer of my house have a negative sign before them. The thermometer is not the only thing that tells me it is twelve degrees below zero here, and that is Fahrenheit and not Celsius, but almost everything.
I had to beat the gate latch with the back of an axe to get the gate to open, had a battery charger on the battery bank of my bulldozer all night, and used almost a full can of starting fluid getting the diesel engine to start. Even then I am not sure if the copious amount of starting fluid proved too much for the metal rings on one of the pistons because at such cold temperatures, metal loses its strength, and the engine now has a skip to it. I do the math in my head for a rebuild, easily a thousand dollars, not to mention the lack of production that will result from all the downtime. It almost is not even worth it to have started the lumbering machine up, as at best a day of intensive logging will net me five hundred dollars for the day, and that is when things go well. When it is this cold, experience has proven that everything takes longer, resulting in lower production and less money made.
Sadly, it is all about the money because if I had a choice I would not even be out here. Property taxes alone mean I must be just where I am, and despite the damage to moving equipment at such temperatures, at four o clock when my day started, I saw the dreaded email from my banker, demanding a response, and more importantly a payment for a back-owed loan that is two months behind. The words were coarse and haunting, yet typed while he sat in a cushioned office chair, probably a supplemental heater under his desk because his thin argyle socks hardly help from the overnight chill of the office building as it dips slightly from seventy-two degrees down to sixty-eight. All this helps to form a tear in my eye from the cold, anger, resentment and jealousy that wells, and just as quickly freezes.
“I made the commitment, I gotta make the payment”, I say to myself, as I talk to myself, which is something I do a lot, and yes, I even answer myself. I spend ninety percent of my time alone, and with the exception of Ole Buck, who has become a friend these last two years; following me around with his big fourteen point rack since my skidder, bulldozer and chainsaw keep the deer hunters away in November, and the limbs and tops from the trees I cut, provide feed on which he can dine in the winter; I live a solitary life. Yet the statement I make to myself is the heart of all farmers; we pick ourselves up by the bootstraps, and try to soldier on, even though no one can predict the future, and for us the odds are stacked against us. Agriculture policy, government bureaucracy, and the fickle taste of American’s palettes all play a role in creating an environment in which we tread, yet have little control over it.
I wish I could talk to my wife about such things, but with four young daughters, she is forever preoccupied. Monday is grocery day at all costs, and when the kids are not in school, parent teacher conferences, school pick-ups, and church events all take up her time and concerns, so what is there to say? I hint, but even she misses the dire signs; “I am so tired”, “What about you getting a job?” “Is there anything we could save money on?” The pressure to pay bills is mounting, made worse by the fact that we are already frugal. With no vices to blame, like cigarettes, drinking or smoking; emotionally there is nothing to fall back upon either. There is nothing to numb the pain of guilt for not working hard enough, and the incredible amount of fatigue.
The latter is not from depression, but rather from cancer that is confirmed within my body. It was discovered six months before when my chainsaw cut through a sapling that was bent over by a felled tree. When it whipped up, it sent my chainsaw flying into my face leaving me knocked out and a gash between my forehead. With no cell phone…a needless cost since I have no one to talk too anyway…I looked at my skidder for a second, saw it was hitched to too many trees for a fast getaway, and instead starting to run, the snow at my feet covered in spraying blood. I made it just past the stream, just past the halfway point to my home and passed out from exhaustion. Coming too, I saw the pool of blood in the snow and knew if I did not get up and run, I might never get up. Again, that solitary life, where it could be hours before anyone even suspects something is amiss, let alone that I might be out in the woods and in trouble. However, I did make it home, made a call to 911, and ultimately to a hospital where twenty stitches and four days in the hospital allowed me to recover. It was there, in getting my CAT Scan for my concussion, that cancer was found.
A few months later it was removed, but the bank does not care if a farmer had surgery and could not work, or that the cancer depletes all energy levels. Every part of me is sore, and this includes the soles of my feet that are now feeling like blocks of ice in the deep freeze Maine is now in. I try to shake it off, to clear my head, of bills to pay, a sputtering bulldozer engine, snow up to my waist and absolutely no energy. The doctor’s think blood tests show signs of my cancer spreading, but I already know it has; not because I am negative in nature, but because no one knows my body better than me, and I can just feel its affects.
And yet in some ways I feel fortunate because I have good insurance, a benefit of years of working for unions that provide benefits after retirement. In regards to health insurance, that is great, but in terms of the life insurance it is more of a curse. That is because I know I financially I am better off dead than alive.
As I step up to the tree and begin to bore my way through the first cut, what would have normally taken just a few seconds to power my way through, takes an agonizing amount of time despite the sharpness of the saw due to the frozen wood. Still it is that same saw that can give my family what they deserve, not from the felling of trees that can be sold to a paper mill for money, but the taking of my life. Secretly I wish it would, and looking deep into the photos of me logging, a person can see it; not so much what is seen, but what is not. There is no safety gear, for if I make a mistake and my saw makes contact with flesh, what is it to the world? It has already happened three times, and it is not because I am too dumb to learn from my mistakes, but rather because I do not care if the next cut is fatal. I am just a dumb sheep farmer who misjudged income levels, cannot seem to work hard enough to pay my bills, and could relieve my wife of her vows of matrimony for life so that she could find someone better, someone with more energy, and whose dreams did not involve little white woolen balls, eating green grass, pooing out black pellets, that somehow makes red meat.
I have told her this, at least in my own way, telling her through tears that it sucks when your dreams die. She did not understand the gravity of the situation, and while she was sad and teared up, she has no idea how many times suicide runs through my head.
Even now, as a stream of sawdust spews from my saw; the thought invades…a shotgun blast to the head or the chest…which would be a faster death? I have thought of it so many times it does not even bring me to tears anymore, just a dark somber though of the details of it. I really do ponder which technique would be better. Just from this alone I know today will be a bad day as I know mulling suicide will beseech me all day…will bombard me a dozen times or more as I freeze out in the cold and ponder, ‘why do I do this?’
The truth is I know I am hardly alone, in fact, statistically speaking, I have the highest probability of actually following through with my thoughts. That is because I am a middle aged, ninth generation, full-time farmer. Despite the vast amount of media coverage regarding veterans and suicide, farmers have twice the suicide rate than veteran’s. This is a sad statistic as it is often stated, “armies travel upon their bellies.” This was pointed out one day when at age eighteen, and army recruiter who would not take no for an answer, took me to a restaurant and asked, “don’t you want to do something for your country?” Without saying a word, I gripped his plate of food and slid it towards me. He just looked down, then at me, then back at the removed plate of food and saw the point I was making, and later took me home and never asked again if I was going to join the army. The point was poignant; without farmers the country stops, even the greatest army in the world.
One reason the statistics are so murky on farmer suicides is that we have an ample amount of ways to carry it out. If I cut myself with a chainsaw and bleed to death, no one would be the wiser that it was self-inflicted, and not that of an accident. We also have access to massive equipment, so being driven over by a bulldozer is just as likely from and accident as from suicide, considering the high fatality rates associated with farming. All that and more means the statistics that are often cited for farmer suicides are probably low; very low. Self-inflicted gun-shot wounds are far easier to decipher, but considering the free access we have to them, it is no wonder they are often employed.
With the changes to the tax code, it is more than likely that farmer suicides will increase. This has been one of my most stressful years, and yet because of changes that were not in place just a few years ago, while I cannot even buy stuff to put in the Christmas stocking for my wife, on paper it looks as if this is the best year I have ever had financially. That says nothing about the payments my banker is so adamant about receiving, yet I cannot even deduct that cost, making the stress even more pronounced. The reality is, I must work through flesh numbing cold, to make money that I cannot keep, and pay even more money for making that money again on April 14th. For the farmer this all seems so wrong.
“How patient will my bank be: is the real question, and one I am not sure I know the answer too?
I have a history of always paying our bills, and love the feeling of paying off loans and being current on payments even if it means my family goes without, but there is a limit to trees that have grown to enormous size that makes valuable logs. Even now I am not logging to supplement my logging income, but rather to clear forest into fields so we can raise more sheep. Maine has lost most of its paper mills, and saw mills are failing as their own supplemental markets file for bankruptcy as well. In two years’ time, our forest, part of the American Tree Farm System has lost one-third of its value, and I am scrambling to convert forest into field while I can still get rid of the wood. This was not the way it was supposed to be, family forests such as mine, managed for sustainability were supposed to have its forest products purchased in difficult times as a reward for doing the right thing. Instead, the paper mills chose to not honor that agreement, leaving our well managed forests worthless. For me, this is forest that has been selectively harvested for nine generations. The pressure of losing such a long-standing farm is tremendous, and I would rather face the bite of one hundred shotgun balls to my chest or face then to be at the helm when all is lost.
My faith in God is pronounced, and so far, it has kept me from toting my shotgun to a far-off field and ending it all. It says in the bible that God will not give you more than you can handle, so how can I thwart his plan for my life by ending it via my own hand? Yet I have known many Christians who have lost everything too, and that includes farmers like me. For many I see their nine-hundred crosses dotted across in the mid-west from back in the 1980’s when they could not make their payments. Inevitably many of those farmers had faith in God as well, so how could they have taken their own lives? So far, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, keeping my shotgun resting on the rifle rack, but my chainsaw safety gear on a nail in the garage; should a logging accident end my life, so be it, it would be the ultimate relief from it all.
And so, I as I continue through the cold, notch out my tree, and make my back cut; skill allows the tree to start leaning over on its fateful arch to the earth. Somewhere along the way its branches hit a widow-maker and send a large branch crashing down. I see the movement out of the corner of my eye and dart out of the way at the last second, and yet as it crashes into the frozen ground, I curse myself for instinctually bolting.
“Darn”, I say, knowing sadly I am not under it, and all my problems as a farmer are gone.
Death, a final loving gift to my wife and four daughters.