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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Cool Down.

Fall in Maine does not approach calmly or with advance notice. On one day, it’s summer. The leaves are green, the air is warm, the flowers in bloom and the tourists cover the roads like lost frogs oblivious to the traffic bering down on them. Local drivers like to award point values.

This morning fall arrived. It is not an arguable point. The temperature out side, as well as in, is chilly, and the sad fact that the heat will need switching on after a long summer break is inescapable. If any doubt remained to the change of seasons, then the arrival of the cats last night, sleeping on our bed, removed any further argument. It’s time to button up and get ready for the cold.

The trick with Fall in the upper New England states (Here, I’m talking about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) is that there is no good way to dress for a day like today. When I got up, it was feeling quite raw. Socks and a flannel shirt was picked out for my own attire while miniature sweaters with a variety of entertaining themes were put on the kids. That, and the comfort of corduroy pants for Short Stack. It was that cold.

To quote my son, today was quickly turing into, “A fine, bright day”. Every day is a “fine, bright day” for him now. It’s a quote from one of his favorite Miffy episodes and he tells it to us often. Pretty much, if it’s not actually raining, he decrees it a “fine, bright day.”

Today however, he was correct. Bright, fine and nippy. After my first two cups of coffee were gone and the grisly remains of a shared english muffin sat next to me on my plate, we headed out on to our porch. The mid morning sun flooded over the various toys and strollers and Short Stack amused him self with some plastic trucks while Lulu Belle reclined in her bouncy seat and soaked up some vitamin D. I worked on cup number three. Within about ten minutes, I was shedding my flannel and stripping objecting children of their woolens. By the time it I had to get them to the baby sitter’s I was in shorts and sandals. Mother Nature in New England might not throw earthquakes, fire storms, or tornados at us too often, but she does try to confuse us to death.

The part that amazes me the most is our neighbor. She left for the season just yesterday and her timing this year is verging on the clairvoyant. She is a summer resident of our little corner of costal Maine and calls Florida her home most of the year. She’s single, in her seventies and appears in portrait in most dictionaries next to the definition of “Fire Cracker”. We love to see her arrive each summer and bring her boundless personality with her along with the official mark of “High Summer”. She adds a lot of life the place and lets nothing stop her, with one exception; the cold.

“Cold” is a relative term, really. I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to winter. Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’ve seen snow and freezing temperatures and they don’t scare me. I am however, a big wimp compared to a good friend of mine who is a native of North Dakota. If I’ve got maple syrup in my veins, then she’s got molasses. I may not gripe about the snow, but she goes out in it barefoot to get the mail from the end of the drive. Routinely. That, is tough.

If I’ve got maple syrup for blood and my friend has molasses, then our hot shot, summer neighbor has tap water. Action Girl and I have seen her in a full length down coat in June and come the first whisper of the possibility of a rumor of cold weather moving for the season, she locks up the house and returns to the stifling heat of central Florida. She probably doesn’t even switch on the AC when she gets there.

The amazing part for me is that she has been gone now for exactly 24 hours and fall has moved in like it’s been waiting for he flight to leave. From now on, the windows will be mostly closed around our house and I’ll start panicking about the outside jobs that I’ve been foolishly putting off all summer. I’ll test the generator out this weekend, just to make sure the gas is still good lest we discover it otherwise come a power outage in mid winter. I’m not going through THAT again!

There are some real good things to look forward to as well though and Fall is truly my favorite season. The leaves blaze up with the colors of a thousand sunsets. The tourist, bedecked in their fanny packs and out sized cameras start to thin out and the black fly and mosquito finally meet a deterrent mightier than Deep Woods Off. Frost! I’ll get to go to the range more often and do some shooting and with some luck, go turkey hunting with a friend once the leaves drop. It’s all worth the chill, so far as I’m concerned. In just a few weeks, I’ll be able to put on one set of clothes and leave them on for the whole day without broiling come noon or freezing once the sun goes down. Okay, the freezing part will probably happen, regardless. It’s a long, cold winter here, but I’m not complaining. It aint North Dakota!

Vermonsters

As I drove up the rural onramp to get up on I-91, I knew that something wasn’t right. The notion that car just didn’t seem as peppy as it should be floated through the back of my head but the alarm bells were hardly going off. I was driving an elderly, but good and solid Subaru Legacy up to a cousin’s wedding in the northern reaches of Vermont. The drive was going to be a long one and I had already done a lot of driving the day before. I was okay with that, though. I didn’t mind the drive. Then the power really started to fail. Hmmmm. This was starting to not feel right at all.

“Holy crap!”

My eyes popped as I looked in the rear view mirror and I realized that the giant grey cloud that was rapidly filling the onramp was coming from me. Not good! Alarm bells! Bad! I pulled off the highway having not quite made it out of the merge lane and shut the car off. Three things were in my favor here. One was the fact that I was following my parent’s car and they had noticed the smoke screen that I was laying down behind me. My father, ever an astute individual, figured that I was not trying to screen the fleet from marauding u-boats and that perhaps, I might need a lift. The remaining two aces in the hole that I had were my a cell phone and a AAA card.

As soon as we had made the call, we transferred my stuff to their car and then waited on the side of the highway for the tow truck. Moment’s like that are always interesting to me. I didn’t expect to have a lot of time to chat with my parents that morning and especially not sitting on the scrubby grass next to cars whipping by at eighty mils per hour. As we cleaned out the Subaru, we talked about how different this sort of thing used to be and what it meant.

Not so very long ago, a break down like this would have meant a lot of different leg work. If I was alone, I would now be walking down the road to the village about six or eight miles back. I would be looking for a pay phone and then trying to explain where the driver could find both me and my car. Having gone through this in cell-free, years gone by, it made this situation look like cake. Not fun, to be sure, but hardly high drama either. The tow guy came around twenty minutes later but had sadly, left his personality in his other coveralls. An older man, round and mustachioed in a striped cap, it looked for all the world like having your car moved my a grumpy Mario. I wondered if Luigi was back at the shop working on Princess Peach’s Fiat. A few grunts from our Nintendo-esque tow truck driver and we were on our way again, packed in tight for a two and a half hour drive.

Vermont is a beautiful place. Action Girl hails from there and I have both spent a lot of time driving through it and briefly living there my self. It’s those amazing mountains. The Green Mountains are not like mountains you find in other places. They aren’t even like the mountains of New Hampshire, where I grew up. They are their own thing. If bare of vegetation, they would stick up like the teeth of an enormous granite, saw blade. Any one looking at them would immediately forgo any notion of hiking over the long ridges and precipitous cliffs. That’s how they would appear. In actuality, they are green. They are in fact, very, very green. Not only do the forests of Vermont seem to go forever, but it’s the fact that they are mostly hardwood forests that makes the autumns here so spectacular. The soil, though poor for large scale farming, is perfect for maple and oak trees. Pines, though abundant as well, are relegated to the edges of rock formations too ambitious for their slow growing, leafy brethren. Together, they turn the landscape into a softened spectacle, reminiscent of rumpled sheets on a bed freshly mugged.

As we climbed through the state along its highway spine, I waited with anticipation for views that I knew were en route. Deep river valleys speckled with towns opened up beside us. A cluster of old homes crowded close to the high white steeple of the village church marked the place where farmers had settled and toiled for hundreds of years. It made me want to move back, nestle into the soil and never leave again.

Eventually, we got off the highway and took the smaller roads that by necessity, wound deep into the dark valleys, following closely the path of the rivers and streams. In much of the state, a five mile trip “as the crow flies” means a fifteen mile trip, winding along the bits of the landscape that are actually passible to anything terrestrial. It’s a beautiful way to travel, but slow. You’ve got to be patient.

The wedding went off with out any undue drama. The bride was beautiful, my cousin looked calm and the backdrop for the out door event was a lush mountain range and a mirror smooth mill pond. You could literally not have painted a prettier picture. I mean that. As the party moved inside and we met folks from far away, we got to answer some questions about New England.

“Was it so green because of excessive rain?”, asked a couple from California. “No.” We replied. “It’s supposed to be like that.”
“How bad are the winters?”, asked another woman from Maryland. “Oh, it can get pretty spectacular. Especially in the valleys where the snow can really pile up and is shaded from the sun. It’ll be several feet deep come spring.”

It’s with a real sense of pride that I call my self a New Englander. Living here is not an easy thing a lot of the time, but to my mind, it can’t be beat either. Years ago, when describing the oppressively humid summers and the bone chilling winters to a young man in Germany, his immediate reaction and next question was, “Why do you live there?” To be honest, I don’t have a good answer to that. The extremes of the seasons are breathtaking and require a lot of work, but I do love it here, Mario look alike tow truck drivers and all.

The next morning as I took my hangover out for a walk, I just kept looking up at the Green Mountains. In the distance, I could listen to birds in the trees, watch the wind move along the hills and over the next ridge, just make out the report of someone sighting in a rifle, possibly getting ready for deer season. On the way back to my folks house and my car problem du jour, we stopped at a little diner called the Wayside, where I had enjoyed many a greasy breakfast when I called this place home. It was just as I remembered it and the pancakes came with real maple syrup, naturally. It was fantastic.

I really do love Vermont and New Hampshire and I miss them terribly sometimes. I’ve lived on the coast of Maine for over a decade now and I honestly don’t see us leaving. Where we are fits up mighty well, though mountains do call to me still. I know they do for Action Girl as well and some day, I think we’ll have to get a little cabin up there. It would be nice to have a place to call our own. We could go there in the summer and swat mosquitos and black fly, chop wood until our the sweat gets in our eyes and come winter, try to shovel out and not freeze to death.

I know part of my heart is still up there in those high valleys, because all that actually sounds like a good time to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we ever left. I’ll have to go back soon anyway. I’ve got to see what Luigi’s done with my car’s head gasket and if they accept payment in 1up’s or or floating gold coins.

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