Field Stones

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.

farm-equipmet

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.

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stones

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.

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The Square Footage of a Dream

Many years ago, I had a dream. My dream involved a big chunk of land, a rambling farmhouse and a barn.

In the place where I grew up, that really wasn’t a far-fetched dream at all. There were lots of farmhouses, bards and fields scattered all over the New England countryside. They stood as relics of the farming past. The years before the railroad connected the fertile Great Plains with the eastern city centers, this is where the food came from. It had to be close. Lord knows it wasn’t because New England makes good farm country. Unless you’re really into growing rocks, it’s a brutal place to scratch a living from the boulder strewed land.

My mental image of my quiet farm in the country was sculpted in the pre-Martha Stuart days; long before the masses of baby boomers were told that country living was the goal and the prices asked for such properties was driven to the moon. I clung to that vision for a long time.

farm

As is so often the case, my long range plan is not how things turned out. The house we live in is very tiny. It is perhaps nine hundred to a thousand square feet and the lot it is placed on is little more than a postage stamp. You might think that this would disappoint me. It most certainly does not.

The reasons for my change of heart are simple. First of all, a smaller house simply means less house to take care of. The modest size of our home is enough to keep me busy for weekends, stretching into infinity. Every time I look up a it, I see a new part that needs replacing, painting, fixing, removing or completely reengineering. A few months ago, the kids, Action Girl and I all went up the coast to visit a friend who had purchased the quintessential “old farmhouse”. The building wasn’t terribly big, as farmhouses go, but looking at its sagging floors, ancient windows, rotting soffits and ancient plumbing gave me the screaming heebeejeebees. There was a lot of work to do and it was easily three times the size of our place. I had the inescapable feeling that you could whittle away at it for years with out seeing any measurable improvement. It was going to take a long, long time and a lot of money and work.

Then, there is heating. Our home is heated quite easily by one small, gas fired, hot air system. No ductwork is needed and it sits quietly in the corner until it’s needed. This winter, I hope to close in our south facing front porch with a series of big windows. I’ll do the floor in slabs of slate and the passive solar will probably keep the heater off during the daylight hours, all winter long. Heating the massive, old and questionably insulated farmhouse of my dreams would be another matter entirely. Most likely, it would involve a combination of a lot of splitting, stacking and burning of wood and roughly a bazillion gallons of home heating oil. I grew up in a house with a wood stove and to be honest, the shine of chopping and stacking cord after cord of wood in the cold air and then schlepping it into the house armload after armload seems to have rubbed off some time early in my childhood. I can live with out going back to that and with the cost of oil these days; I can defiantly live with out that bill!

Now, imagine this old farmhouse sitting in amongst rolling fields, a large grassy lawn leading down a winding driveway to the roadside. Specifically, imagine having to mow the yard and hay the field. Now, there is one major caveat to this part of the workload that would come with my dream farm. It would give me the justification to own a tractor, and that is nothing to sneeze at. To have ownership not only the faded, red Farmall, in all it’s greasy, rumbling glory, but also a valid reason for having it in the first place… well, that’s nothing to turn one’s nose at.

farmall

I also know full well that I’d have to beat Action Girl to the driver’s seat if I ever was going to get to drive it. At least until running it became humdrum. And that’s the problem. It would be fun AT FIRST. Soon it would be another house chore of Damocles that would hang over my head, threatening to squash me flat under six tons of farm equipment. No. I’ll pass. My little plot of land is easily mown by an old fashioned, rotary push mower, built in 1881. It takes me about twenty minutes.

Last and most importantly, there is the space. Lots and lots of space. This would, for me, be very, very bad. I tell you now and with out shame, that I am a pack rat. It comes to me via genetics, or at least, that’s what I tell my self in an effort to diffuse guilt. My wonderful Grandmother, though she kept a tidy home, was a pack rat too. The floor of her bedroom was reportedly, navigable only by paths that wound and twisted through the stacks of “important” things that she had carefully set aside as too good to throw out. Apparently, when once asked about these collections of saved items, she replied, “Well, I’m not what you’d call ‘nasty neat’”. Neither am I. I’m more “friendly cluttered”.

If I think I could use it later, I’ll save it. If I think someone else could use it, I’ll save it for them. If I have no particular reason to keep other than it’s in perfectly good shape and otherwise it will go to a landfill… well, if any one needs it, it’s probably in my basement. Actually, I’m making it out to be worse than it is. I’m not THAT bad anymore, but it does go against my grain to toss something that still works or just needs a little love. Moving to an island, accessible only by ferry has only made it tougher to deal with my tendency to hoard. There is nothing more aggravating that getting stopped cold 90% of the way through a project because all you have are ¾ inch fittings and all you need is ONE ½ inch elbow. I tell you, it can lead to some interesting plumbing solutions out here. Here, having my boxes of odds and ends actually pays off!

Most of all, I think that people are gold fish, in that we will grow to the size of our tank. If I had the barn that I had always dreamed of, I am completely certain that it would contain at least four cars that I’d be “working on”, part of an airplane, old engines for both car and airplane and piles and piles of stuff that was too good to throw out. When the day would come for my kids to put me in a nursing home, Action Girl would be left to deal with my treasures and, really, the best way to do that would be with a match and a gallon of gasoline.

My house is small. I have no barn or field to fill with interesting tidbits. My basement is full and therefore, to put something new in it, something else must come out. I still dream of my farmhouse in the country, but it’s accompanied now by a shudder brought on through knowing myself. The house would own me, rather than the other way around and that would be a heavy burden to carry. No, I’ll stay in my little house with no fields or fireplaces and just dream about my farmhouse. It’s cheaper that way and the best part is, I never have to paint it.

I do wish I could justify the tractor, though. Vroom! Vroom!

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