Help Me help You!

When Martin and I lived in the suburbs, we barely knew anyone on our block, aside from our Jimmy Buffet-loving neighbors who had a bar in their basement, and Kevin, the ageless man-boy with Tourette’s who rammed passing cars with a shopping cart, mowed lawns (and flower beds and trees), and delivered the Washington Post, all the while screaming “here’s your Sunday inserts, sh*& heads!”

But now that we live in rural-land, we’re part of a tight-woven community. People call you “neighbor” even when you live 8 miles away. And when the closest store is a 15-minute drive, of course you can borrow a couple of eggs. Heck, just come on over for dinner!

People who measure life in acres, bales and diesel prices won’t hesitate to loan you a set of tools or lend a hand to split a pile of wood. But more than anything, they love to dispense advice. As in, “you gotta fix that fence line” or “about time you reseed your pasture” or “you planning to prune back those trees?”

I don’t mind the gentle reminder, the not-so-cloaked nag. Please, tell me what I should do. THEN, tell me how I should do it.

That’s where the lines of communication go dead. And I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that “I walked to school five miles in the snow, up hill, in both directions” mentality. They toughed it out, now it’s your turn.

Most people who live out here grew up out here. They learned how to fix a tractor, pull a horse shoe, mend a fence. It’s inconceivable that you don’t know how to attach a bush hog to your tractor.

Never mind that just a few years ago, I would have guessed that a bush hog was a wild pig that lives in the shrubbery.

My rural education began and ended in 3rd grade when we spent two days studying “agriculture in Eastern Maryland” and I learned why the two-laned road to the eastern shore stinks like chickens.

Unfortunately, Martin’s in the same boat, which is why we alternate asking questions. “Should we spread lime on our fields?” “How much gravel do we need to fix the drive?” “What’s this funky fungus on our grapevine?” The neighbors just smile all the while thinking, “Are these two joking or are they just stupid?

So we’ve abandoned asking questions. We pretend we know what we’re doing and plunge in. Unfortunately, the learning curve is paved with potholes.

When we first moved here, we borrowed the neighbor’s tractor and promptly stranded it in our field. “Don’t you know that you can’t run a tractor totally dry?” the owner asked us, as he hiked through knee-deep fescue to prime the fuel pump.

So far no one’s lost an appendage through our mishaps, though Martin came awfully close to blowing up the house when he showered the cellar in fuel while fixing the furnace. But again, that was a single slip-up. Most of the time we just look like rubes, not suicidal maniacs.

Years ago before the days of the sheep, when the apple trees were still moderately fruitful, people said, “You got to prune those trees!”

“Okay,” we said. “How? How much do we take off?”

“Well, you got to cut them back a lot if you want good fruit.”

Martin took that advice and a set of pruning shears and 3 hours later, it looked like Edward Scissorhands had been over. Months later, we were holed up in the dark, smoky shadows of our local bar, escaping the summer heat and humidity. In the normal neighborly fashion, the old guy sitting next to us introduced himself, and we swapped “what to do you do” and “where do you live.” When we described our farm, his eyes widened with recognition.

“Oh! You aren’t the folks that hacked up those nice apple trees!”

Martin and I both paused to suck down our beers. “No,” I finally said, rolling my eyes. “Those are our neighbors.”