Lessons of the soil. Our clay.
The raised beds and asparagus patch.
Start with composting. Collecting all the bagged leaves each autumn, to compost. Two hundred, at times, stacked somewhere in the yard.
The heat, followed by red wigglers.
It’s a particular place, after all, in a specific region. I had never thought I’d view sprouting maples as weeds. I quickly recognize other invaders, especially the ground ivy. Soon, uprooting them becomes reflexive.
Six years into this, I realized our soil was improving. I’d pull up the weed maple sprouts, roots and all, easily. No need to find the pliers.
* * *
The outdoor room I called The Smoking Garden.
It’s panels of ferns. Lilacs.
The necessity of a brush pile.
* * *
The house across the street, once so right, now showing serious signs of neglect.
Our array of drip-line neighbors.
Also behind us, the dogs. And a kitchen renovation followed by another before we could do ours.
Old Ernie passing, opening way for the young Yuppie couple who quickly had four sons.
That is, within neighborhood.
Waiting for the brood to return from their mission in Bolivia.
* * *
Look ahead. Work far from done. Our five-year plans. Our twenty.
Downstairs bathroom. Stairway. Rerouted driveway.
Replacing the shed.
Side screened-in porch, with the hot tub.
Will it ever be done? Will one or both of the kids return, with children? Will we be, in the New England tradition, a multi-generation household? Or will my wife and I outgrow this, and abandon our asparagus patch?
All the money, rebuilding this house, how many times over?
* * *
Stacking two cords of firewood in little more than a day (with two more on the way) – oak, maple, birch, this round. Its aroma after rain when I return past midnight.
Select squared-off pieces for erecting corners. What would you or I have to barter?
All the hard work of the old days already done: felled, transported out, cut, split, and delivered. Here, since the woodpile will be more a square than a row, demands extra care – sloping inward, expecting settling. The finished stack like a sculpture (do not touch). In the wood, touches of pink, yellow, burgundy in the end-grain (will weather to gray). Working a puzzle, the multiple ways each piece might fit, made solid, knowing movement will yet appear. The satisfaction, expecting the family to find comfort by winter fire. Gloves, my hands soft from the office, prone to splinters. My desire for everything in place, ready, functioning.
My practice, going to the far side of the dumped wood first.
What critters will be taking refuge here?
The energy factor (don’t ask).
But here we are, together again, with friends on the way. A home, after all.
Buying a house changes a man’s vision. More accurately, buying a property and its landscape changes that vision, with the house itself becoming the domain of his spouse. He will do what he can there, for her, in their wellbeing. In the process, he will perceive much that previously eluded his awareness.
Squirrels, of course, as they really are. Or the appearance of dampness in inappropriate places. Flaking paint or shingles. Many other signals for combat, as well, for the list is long.
In our case, a New Englander in walking distance of downtown in an old textiles mill city. (The particular design … purchased, unaware that a side lot we’ve come to call “the swamp” was included.) The impact of deferred maintenance … chimney relined, immediately, and then having the roof replaced, not with the standing-seam metal I’ve admired but rather a durable, affordable shingle the recommended roofer favored … the furnace boiler …
And then to the barn – a carriage house, actually, though that sounds pretentious.
Drip line. The crooked boundaries.
Jacking up on clay and roots. Drawing into the air, seemingly.
Working with Rick, a master carpenter and licensed electrician.
The monolith, a thick cement slab we had to remove from the back door when it came time to replace a rotting sill.
The kitchen renovation, long overdue.
Painting is the easy part, and even there I fail.
* * *
I remember his appalled expression when I voiced a thought about metal framing, rather than wood, which I now know will warp or settle. The uneven floors, the hurt look of a bed-and-breakfast owner when I mentioned his bathroom.
As Rick and the plumber both grin, “Old houses, you gotta love ‘em.”
* * *
In the television episodes, I used to be appalled by their all-too-quick readiness to rip out walls or fixtures. Now I find myself cheering them on, while the money and work crews are available.
The amateur work we keep uncovering here.
Still, in a project involving framing or drywall, I find myself in awe at the various stages of construction. Stand in the empty room, pondering. Trying to envision, with some futility, how the next step will actually appear. Even when I’ve put all this to paper, drawn the lines and measurements, it holds mystery. There’s a great satisfaction, too, when the final result proves right.
New understanding of various eras emerges. The lack of closets and storage. How tight the space, in the utility room. All the shelves we’ve added (with all of our books expanding).
There had been a second stairway, up the back. Or was the bathroom a later addition? The one closet, blocking hallway light.
What was in the side yard, and what filled the swamp?
The questions, like weeds, keep growing.
Maybe it’s the artist in me, this desire to dwell in either a sturdy old house or else a clean-lined contemporary masterpiece. It certainly hasn’t originated in any builder’s skills in my hand or heart, or in any large income or legacy. Oh, there was a fleeting hope for a while of living in a center city apartment, close to the cultural and political action. What I’ve never wanted was a suburban existence – no ranch house or split-level or garrison for me, where one must drive everywhere, constantly. Instead, for most of my career, I’ve rented – in a railroad-junction downtown loft, at the edge of forest, in an orchard, beside a river, on top of a wooded hill, even in a federal-era Baltimore rowhouse. Which is another way of saying, I’ve been more nomad than I ever desired.
Until now, the only break was a couple of years when I owned a brick craftsman-influenced house in a steel-mill Midwestern city, hardly enough to introduce me to the homeowner experience. With the marriage splitting apart, there was little incentive or energy for big projects, for continued investing in the land and structure. Instead, the sojourning continued, and when there were problems, I learned to call maintenance.
Even so, in the final years leading up to my second marriage, I became enamored with the public television show, This Old House, especially its Colonial-era project in Milton, Massachusetts, remaking not only the house but a barn and workshop as well. Never mind that the undertaking cost more than my lifetime earnings, I identified with something in this effort, and it wasn’t simply the fact that so much of New England is infused with similar houses. It was more, too, than the fact I had hiked about the Great Blue Hills Reservation a few miles away or that I was rapidly outgrowing the townhouse I rented. Maybe, feeling rootless, I wanted to be lord of the manor and all that go with it.
For me, surprisingly, the house and grounds have become an expression of family – not a nest for a solitary, monkish writer – and the beloved, sleek style I’ve admired for so long may be all too fragile for the rough-and-tumble reality of children. Girls, surprisingly, can be at least as hard on a place as boys are. The same goes, of course, for antiques and collections of all kinds. Hard lessons, I admit.
Flash forward, then, to the search for a house of my own and the dismal recognition that within this market, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. (What we saw in the range of what we could afford was utterly depressing.)
And we now recognize how fortunate we were to land even that, considering where prices went soon after.
Notice, of course, I say “we” – a new wife, two stepdaughters, and – shortly – a mother-in-law, in the barn.
My wife observes I have a low tolerance for the nitty-gritty details of life. I have trouble accepting that things break down or fall apart. I don’t like cleaning up afterward. I don’t like confrontations, much less having to call people to remind them of their obligations. Maybe it’s just a factor of getting older, or of feeling myself constantly pressed for time.
What I have found is that turning the compost has therapeutic value. I’ll retreat there when I’m at a loss for dealing with people. My little buddies, the red wigglers, extend their own comfort, simply by being. I don’t know how they survive winter. They simply disappear and come back.
My daughters balk at carrying kitchen refuse to the enclosed compost bin. The task falls on me. I wish they wouldn’t feel grossed out, as they claim. What I realize is how much this practice reduces the amount of trash and garbage we place out on the street for weekly pickup. More than the several hundred dollars we save each year, in city-issued trash bags, the practice heightens my appreciation for what we can convert back into soil. I wish we would do more with newspapers, for instance. The ash from our wood stove is applied rather than bagged lime.
And I’ve seen the ground itself responding, becoming softer, more pliable, and more verdant.
There are many life lessons here, as I keep seeing, collecting, turning, and spreading this process.
Red wigglers truly are, as the jingle in the comedy WKRP in Cincinnati proclaims, the Cadillac of worms. While that show’s fictional sponsor touted their excellence as fish bait, I could never willing drown them: I’ve come to greatly value their appearance in the compost, first as a harbinger of health and progress, and then as a profusion taking the decaying matter (in our case, mostly deciduous tree leaves) into the final stage, which resembles dark, rich soil. Their arrival shows the work of decomposition is nearing completion. The original organic matter is now down to a quarter of its original size, or less, and will soon resemble rich soil.
Whether this process is scientific or simply mysterious is answered to some degree in the eye of the beholder. I do my share in turning the mass in each bin with a pitchfork, to work in more air, and then try to add nitrogen, one way or another. Our household, for instance, has a pet rabbit, and her manure pellets are concentrated energy for this transformation. And then, as the conditions become optimal, the slow process occurs. A new pile to be composted begins to retain moisture before typically reaching a takeoff point where the interior mass becomes quite hot to the touch, perhaps reaching 150 degrees. After a light rainfall, the bins will actually be steaming.
For the record, I’m not a gardener. My wife is. My role is more the assistant, constructing raised beds, maintaining the wood-chip pathways, mowing, some weeding, and composting, especially.
My first real encounters with composting came in religious circles. When I lived in the yoga ashram, we were serious composters, although most of the hands-on work with it was done by others. We also had a significant amount of manure from our horse and chickens to work with. Later, traveling within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I overhead a number of conversations regarding the practice and learned that the root word of humility is related to the concept of composting. Humus, then, as rich soil for growth.
The lowly worms lead the way.
* * *
The worms become emblematic of the unanticipated directions this journey has taken. I have no idea of where they come from, other than underground or perhaps from neighboring, more finished compost. Yet they appear. They show up as reminders of unfinished work and of rot. There’s nothing sleek, secure, and finished about our house and yard. Everything seems to be in motion. I keep hoping we can afford to put a new roof on the barn, while my wife wants to redesign the driveway. Turning the compost is something I can afford, as is collecting all the bags of leaves from the neighbors each fall. It would be so much easier and nattier to have truckloads of topsoil and finished compost delivered, if our budget allowed. The worms move around, as most of our possessions seem to do also.
The worms also reflect our desire of going organic. They are living organisms, rather than chemical applicants.
They are red, like our house and barn and small garden shed.
Bonnie Friedman, in Writing Past Dark (Harper Collins, 1994), recalls “leaves kindled on the trees, bursting into orange and red and yellow almost with a gasp like a pilot light lighting, and they hung there the barest instant – a week, nothing – before they flung themselves to the earth. The ground flowed with colors as if a globe had been spun. Everything urged disorder.”
To demonstrate how intensely the dominant Puritan culture could bear down on those who opposed its values, historian David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989), relates the origin of a well-known American word:
“In Massachusetts Bay, an eccentric Devon family called Maverick settled the present town of Chelsea and an island in Boston Harbor that still bears their name. They had trouble with the Puritans and moved away, keeping one jump ahead of the larger cultures that threatened to engulf them. By the nineteenth century, the Mavericks had found their way onto the western plains. Their name was given to range cattle that bore no man’s brand, and became a synonym for independent eccentricity in American speech.”
The fact remains that New England has, at its heart, Puritan roots – which, surprisingly, include an awareness of witchcraft. Fischer demonstrates that the United States bears the often conflicting legacies of four distinct English migrations to the American colonies. New England, he argues, arises almost exclusively in a culture transported from East Anglia – in particular, the counties of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. From the Boston accent, which in England was known as a “Norwich whine,” to the diet of oven goods (pies, Yankee pot roasts, and Boston baked beans), to the “saltbox” and “Cape Cod’ style of houses, to the New England sports of baseball and American football, the origins can be traced to surviving parallels in East Anglia and neighboring shires. Fischer also reports:
In England, every quantitative study has found that recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled. The American historian John Demos concludes, “… interestingly, the figures look most nearly equivalent when New England is matched with the [old English] county of Essex alone. Essex was beyond a doubt a center of witch-hunting within the mother country …”
Apart from the seasonal recipes my wife trots out in autumn – the leak-and-potato or butternut squash soups, for example, or the last of the fresh eggplant parmesan – I mark the occasion with my own extended ritual. Somehow, each October, I pull out my recordings of the symphonies of Charles Ives and play them in sequence. Rarely as 1-2-3-4 and the Symphony of Holidays, either, but more as a dozen playings of the first, followed by a dozen of the second, and so on. And then that’s followed by George Whitefield Chadwick’s string quartets, often leading to other New England Romantic era composers – John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote – as well as the more contemporary Walter Piston and his colleagues. These are not pieces I hear often on the radio, not even Boston’s, where all but Ives had lived and worked. (He had become the leading insurance executive in Manhattan, as well as a legendary maverick musician.) These are the neglected but brilliant and often innovative voices of New England, defiantly proving to the world what the Germans were not required to match. I’ve come to feel their music in my soul as my own.
Occasionally, while driving in autumn, I pass a meadow of intense green, even after a killing frost. How inexplicable this reminder of spring aspiration feels so late in the year!
Once, approaching Pinkham Notch on my return from northern Maine, I pulled over beside a boulder-strewn streambed and hiked briefly, thinking myself alone in the now pale yellow, chilled air. As my exhale fogged, I glanced around the forest and listened to the echo of the few remaining birds. Then I noticed the fly fisherman in his waders, patiently casting.
The line, as easily a filament of music as of hope or tranquility; the skill of casting, advanced over the years; the mastery of tying the feathers themselves, likely in the long nights of winter: all coming together in the passing, the present, now, momentary, fleeting, falling wonder.
I suspect much of the tourist attraction has to do with factors other than New England foliage itself. This, despite the reasons proffered by state tourism and agricultural officials, who will always declare the foliage condition “outstanding” or shaping up for another incredible presentation; despite the forecasts of unofficial experts, each ready to announce when foliage has reached “peak” condition, even when no consensus exists on its definition or measurement; despite the over-coffee passions of everyone else, who rarely agree; and even despite the occasional native who will debunk the whole activity as foolishness. All the same, there is widespread anticipation each August and September; forget the practical reason of tourism.
Like it or not, autumn is our season. We could blame the Pilgrims, whose arrival in Plymouth Bay late in 1620 and subsequent sufferings led to the celebration the following harvest of what we now observe as a November holiday that, for several centuries, was uniquely New England’s, even as the region banned or ignored Christmas as pagan. Curiously, though, the first official Thanksgiving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, north of the Plymouth Bay Colony, was on February 22, 1630/31, after provision ships arrived just in time to prevent starvation. Yet the harvest, rather than mid-winter, celebration prevailed.
Autumn also links New England with Halloween, perhaps a consequence of the Puritan obsession with witchcraft or perhaps a consequence of the Irish immigrants’ reaction to the general avoidance of Christmas. In the Colonial era, the witch trials of 1692, while the largest outbreak, were by no means an isolated aberration.
Poet Donald Hall has argued that the region embodies a Gothic sensibility that distinguishes it from the rest of North America. Repeatedly, I’ve heard guests ask the new owners of an old house if they’ve encountered any ghosts. And I’ve heard people who are otherwise perfectly rational reply with detailed observations. For the record, let me say our house has none, other than the ghosts of broken marriages.
Throughout New England you will find brooding, grotesque turns filled with unspoken shadows: if you look into the October foliage not at the bright spectrum but rather at the darkness behind it, you will stare into a specter of death about to sweep flesh away, baring a skeleton of forest to stand angular the subsequent six months. Somewhere in the soul of every authentic Yankee this awareness lurks; the leaf-peeping tourists will be gone before the first icy nor’easter slams these shores, before the snows pile up, before frost inches into our soils. Fall, too, brings relief from a sequence of blackflies, greenbottle flies, and mosquitoes that bring so much misery to our springs and summers. The October we cherish is dry, clear, sunny, crisp, a fleeting remission between clouds. Over the centuries, the Puritan legacy evolved into Yankee character as well as Transcendentalist philosophy, and subsequent ethnic migrations to New England have assimilated many of its values; to some extent, then, immigrant Roman Catholics become Calvinists. The leaves remain a mystery or magic.
While the tourists come for some feeling of history and rural character, we need to ask which New England comes to mind: green village commons of Vermont, stone fence lines of New Hampshire woods, lobster boat harbors of coastal Maine, Ivy League campuses, brick millyards along seemingly placid streams, urban skyline reflected in Boston Harbor or the Charles River? Five of New England’s half-dozen states are relatively small, compact enough that a driver could likely touch soil in all six in a four- or five-hour expressway dash. Rhode Island and Connecticut are the tiniest, and – to the surprise of many – Vermont and New Hampshire are each nearly a fifth larger than Massachusetts. Off to the east, practically by itself, Maine is roughly the size of the other five put together. Even so, New England has a density found in few other North American locales: this is not someplace one explores adequately in a week or a month, but rather years, as an individual landscape slowly discloses its character and attraction. Visitors are sometimes amazed to discover that they cannot “do” Vermont one day, New Hampshire the next, Boston the third. Even when you narrow your focus, exploring with any comprehensiveness requires much time. Perhaps this is why so many vacationers choose to return year after year to the same “camp,” as cabins are known hereabouts, or to the same resort – returning to the same ocean shore or mountain lake. In the Granite State, for instance, I remain struck by how different the Monadnock Region is from Sunapee-Kearsarge-Dartmouth to the north, or to the east from the textile mills legacy of the Merrimack Valley or from the area of earliest settlement, the Seacoast. This, even when so much of the Yankee stock remained identical. Climate, too, can vary widely, from short summers of the far north along the Canadian border to mild winters of Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay (which are themselves vulnerable to hurricanes). One year my friend in northern Maine reported that frost hit their neighborhood just before Labor Day. Further south, we get an occasional snow in mid-May.
As a consequence of its varied landscape and climate, New England presents an array of foliage viewing opportunities, varying from chilly remote mountainsides, a few already dusted with late-summer snow, to azure fishing ports. Because of this climate differential, “prime” foliage in the North Country can run as much as three or even four weeks ahead of peak conditions along our southernmost shorelines, which are moderated by relatively warm coastal ocean currents. (Summer visitors need to be warned, moreover, that these warm currents shoot far out to sea as they roll around Cape Cod: swimmers are generally shocked when they discover how frigid the waters are at beaches north of this point, even in July.)
Consider, too, how a mountainside expands the amount of foliage available to the eye. Not only the number of trees, but also the range of microclimates: some species grow at higher elevations than others, and thus the available colors multiply. A pond or river or harbor, too, opens distances that present more trees to the observer – a dimension differing from the mountain.
This expanse of foliage is, to some degree, an unintended consequence of a pattern of agricultural technology introduced from Holland to East Anglia and then to New England. “The technology of farming was much the same as in England, despite many environmental differences,” historian David Hackett Fischer writes in his Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989). “The Puritans specially prized ‘champion,’ which was their word for flat, open land without trees or hills. They found it in Dedham, Watertown, Sudbury, and Concord [Massachusetts] – pockets of rich alluvial soil that are still farmed profitably today. From the start, the Puritans worked their American land with British ploughs – a method unlike the hoe husbandry that prevailed in other parts of British America.” But throughout much of New England, the landscape was hilly and forested; thin, rocky soil prevailed; and the Puritans’ traditional agricultural practices, combined with additional methods adopted on these shores, such as fertilization with saltwater fish, had disastrous consequences in depleting the soil. By the early 1800s some farms were being abandoned, a phenomenon soon compounded as farmers migrated to more productive farmlands of the Midwest. Later, when a town’s young men enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War, they were often grouped in the same company; heavy casualties in a single encounter could cost a New England town a generation of young men; the consequence was a population decline that has impacted many communities to the present. After two centuries of shrinkage, the forest spread outward once again. Where mixed use farming continued into this century, a changing national economy finally took its toll; in Life Work (Beacon Press, 1993), Donald Hall describes how the traditional exchanges of hard toil, cunning, and community that sustained his grandparents in a largely cashless rural matrix has vanished, taking with it a kind of Yankee frugality and practicality. When we drive down narrow, twisting backroads lined with stone fences and canopies of maples, and glance at unique New England-style barns with their thirteen glass panes above the barn door (one for each of the Revolutionary colonies) and the rambling farmhouses with their connecting sheds, we are looking into the autumn of this Yankee tradition, as well. We look, and are often touched by something we cannot express.
“Another environmental factor was the land,” Fischer writes. “New England’s terrain was immensely varied, with pockets of highly fertile soil. … But most of the land was very poor – thin sandy scrub on the south shore of Massachusetts, and stony loams to the north. Much of the coast consisted of rocky shoals or marshes, and the rivers were not navigable for more than a few miles into the interior. By comparison with the Chesapeake estuary, there were comparatively few points of access for ocean shipping. Both of these factors – the distribution of pockets of good soil and the configuration of the coastline – encouraged settlement in nucleated towns.”
This pattern of Puritan settlement, with few individuals living outside the nucleus village, followed the East Anglia model – and differs from much of the rest of the United States. There is more to the lovely green common than meets the eye.
A closer examination of the pattern of settlement, however, presents a more complex model. Joseph S. Wood in The New England Village (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) argues that settlement in Colonial New England was more dispersed and that much of our idealized town center actually comes from the Romantic elite in the nineteenth century. What they thought they were preserving, then, was something they were instead creating.
Regardless of its origins, what we have before us is a stylish array of architectural periods presented primarily in white frame structures and settled within a wooded landscape. It remains distinctive, idealized, and widely copied.
This matter of being rooted in history extends beyond appearances. For a number of reasons, few New Englanders moved away from their towns. “In New England as a whole rates of refined persistence were very high – in some older country towns, the highest that have been measured in any adult population throughout the Western world. This pattern continued from the mid-seventeenth century into the late eighteenth,” Fischer writes. They stayed close to their village commons and markets, families, and friends. In such a gridwork, Boston could indeed be seen as the “Hub of the Universe,” its spokes radiating out across New England and the Georges Banks.
I am always disconcerted while hiking high in a remote mountainside and stumbling across an ancient stone fence line running through what is once again wilderness. How much industriousness went into the determined effort to wrest a farm what must have been, at best, marginal land? Our renewed balance of forest, village, and meadow is a beautiful ecology. It appears to be by design, though clues indicate otherwise. The stone fences in forest remind us that the trees have crept back, almost as forgiveness. They seem to have a sense of forgetting, as well, and of striking a new balance, however tentative.