The drive up to my in-laws for Thanksgiving was not too hard. Though the way up was prematurely darkened by changing seasons and daylight savings, it was nice to get out of the house and then farther away from the city where we spend much of our time when out and about. A few years ago, Jack and Ellen decided it was time for them to look for a new place to call home. Back in the Last sixties, they were fleeing New York and Jersey City and landed for many years in a valley of central Vermont. Having raised their children there, they had grown accustomed to country living and even after the kids had all moved away to other New England states, they stayed in their valley for many more years. As grand kids entered the scene, they took to driving long distances to see recitals and ball games, baby sit and gather for holidays. As the years went by, they decided that it was time for a change of geography.
Unlike many their age, they elected to move north, rather than join the conga line to the southern golf courses and bridge tournaments. That’s not their style, at any rate. They’d go crazy in two weeks. With two out of their three children living in Maine, they sold their house of thirty or so years and moved to the Pine Tree State. They live about an hour and a half away and though in a pleasant location, it’s not what I’d call picturesque. It’s farm country, plain and simple. Slowly rolling hills and young tree forests where vast fields used to cover the landscape. The old, colonial style farmhouses still perch on the hillsides, looking down on their slowly shrinking and mostly unused fields.
Even so, there’s still a good deal of farmland being used, mostly for hay and corn. One of these small “gentleman’s” farms sits next door to my wife’s folks. Being outgoing people and good of heart, they immediately became friends with the old bachelor farmer who lives in the old, white farmhouse nestled in a dip on the way up a hill, leading out of town. Short Stack loves visiting there too. There are chickens!
The morning after we arrived, a heavy fog was sitting over the land, giving things a softened quality that one would usually associate with snow. Snow had, in fact, already arrived just a few days before but didn’t have cooperating temperatures to keep its foothold. The five or so inches that had covered everything was gone with the warm front and had found new life as the fog and a heavy rime-ice dew that gave what would otherwise be smooth surfaces, a spiky shell of minute crystal. The grass, though wet looking, would crunch under each footfall. After getting the various children fed, visiting with rarely seen relatives and topping up my internal coffee tank, I decided to take a walk in the foggy fields.
One of the things that I love about New England is the stone. More accurately, I should say, the stonewalls. This area of North America was covered in a massive ice sheet over a mile thick during the last ice age. The action of that weight and motion ground down our mountains to their roots and left us with few imposing peaks. Where all that stone till went was directly into the soil. This makes for a difficult soil to plow since it’s full of beautifully smoothed, rounded rocks ranging in size from a small orange to a plush living room chair.
Years ago, I went for a walk with a friend of mine who grew up in Nebraska. As we strolled along path through a deep wood, he stopped at a pile of boulders and exclaimed, “Will you just LOOK at these rocks!” When I replied with something witty like, “Um. Yup. Those sure are… rocks” he set me straight. He explained to me that where he was from, a rock was about the size of an unshelled almond, and that was it. To him, the stones that had vexed New England farmers long enough to turn most of them into Nebraska farmers, we amazing to see littering the ground.
With all these massive balls of granite filling your fields and cows that were none too clear on where they were supposed to graze and where they were not, it was natural that stonewalls would quickly crisscross the landscape, and indeed, they do. If you go out for a walk in any New England wood and head off in just about any direction, I will guarantee that you will eventually find a stonewall. Eighty percent of the state of New Hampshire, to give you an idea, was open farmland just a hundred and fifty years ago. Now it’s eighty percent forest. The trees here grow quickly. When the leaves have fallen but the snow has yet to obscure things, you can fly around in a small plane and get a clear picture of the way things once looked. The arrow-straight walls run off to the horizons, transforming the rolling geography into the ghost of a quilt, long since nibbled away by nature as she reclaims what was always hers.
As I crunched out through the field across the road from the house, I was lamenting the use of a modern electric fence to keep livestock in place, rather then the traditional wall. So many traditional, if labor intensive fixtures of life have disappeared from our culture. The modern solution, though simpler and faster, will simply not stand up to the test of time. That’s for sure.
I walked a bit farther on in the mist and could, in the silence of the countryside, just make out the sound of a brook somewhere. What my eyes I couldn’t see through the fog, I found by ear. As I got closer, the sound was beautiful and entrancing.
The farmer had dug a huge drainage ditch to allow a stream to pass through this place with a minimum of flooding come spring. It measured easily ten feet wide and was roughly five feet deep in a smooth half pipe curve. The entire bed of it, he had lined in beautiful round stones, doubtless from his fields. Beneath the layer of rocks came the sound of a hidden run or water, showing its self only briefly here and there before once again vanishing under the bits and pieces of broken and smoothed mountain tops. This, the traditional building material of the northeastern farmer, will endure, and that makes me smile.
Filed under: family, History, Maine, new england, Nostalgia, Ruminating, Vermont, Writing | Tagged: farm, farmhouse, farming, field, fog, Grandkids, grandparents, granite, Maine, new england, New Hampshire, rocks, stones, stonewall, tradition, Vermont | 3 Comments »