It is a dry autumn, and tramping dry woods is wonderful, especially when the weather is mild, (provided you wear loud clothing and sing “I am not a deer” constantly). I have been continuing my study of the deserted farmland, focusing in on the brief period when this town existed as a farming town of the original Puritan sort, before the craze for building mills hit this area. The town was settled in 1750 and likely only existed as a purely farming town for around a quarter century, before people realized that all the rushing streams represented untapped power.
Though in some ways I am of an old and inbred family, dating back to the Pilgrims, one “newer” branch immigrated to America around 1830 due to the mill-building craze. Lore has it the immigrant’s last name may have been “McDoogle”, but he changed it to “Miller” to avoid possible prosecution, as he was recruited from England because he knew “secrets” involving English mills. (It sounds like an early example of industrial espionage to me.) He apparently had a thick Scottish accent, which makes me wonder what he fled in Scotland that wound him up down in England. Then he skipped England. Perhaps he was a bit difficult to get along with. He was a strict Presbyterian who called Christmas Trees “Damned Papist Idolatry.” His wife died shortly after he arrived, and when he remarried his second wife was not of the better Puritan families, but a somewhat mysterious woman known as “Miss Eagle”. There are murmurs she might have been an Abenaki Indian, which would mean the “newer” branch of the family tree was grafted with the “oldest.”
I bring this up to show the sort of chaos involved in dramatic economic changes, which seemed to clout New Englanders on a regular basis. Those who portray New England as a sort of quaint and changeless place don’t understand the details of our history. Perhaps in Europe there are places when life was lived as it always had been lived, for century after century, (or perhaps not.) America, as far as I can tell, has always been a more dynamic place. Maybe people dream they can “settle down”, but there is an ongoing flow to life that sweeps them off their feet. In the late 1700’s the disruption was the profitability of water power. In the late 1980’s the disruption was the profitability of computers.
As an old man I can’t say I approve of disruptions. I like things the way they were, and it annoys me to have ask my granddaughter how to turn on the newfangled radio in our new car. Life is starting to pass me by, which makes sense, as I can’t run as fast as I used to. I long for that which is lasting, because I tire of learning new ways only to find they are outdated when the newest cell phone comes out.
I find a sort of solace in tramping in the woods, and seeing the ruins of farms that were built by men who obviously thought what they built would be lasting. They left a very real signature on the landscape, whereas the words I type could vanish in a blink, if this computer crashes.
I recently was exploring an abandoned road when I came across a side road that doesn’t even appear on old maps, “Stafford’s Lane.” It likely was a cart-path useful only to a farmer, cutting across a ditched pasture. Now it cuts through swampy woods, in what is officially called “wetlands”, a designation which has prevented the maintenance of the draining ditch, and has turned perfectly good pasture into a mosquito-breeding swamp, during wetter summers, and also killed a large area of trees. Last summer was dry, so even the mosquitoes died, as the “wetlands” became parched soil. This spring, when water returned, it was a most peculiar “wetlands”, for where every other patch of water held a chorus of frogs, this area was totally silent. It was a wetlands without frogs, without fish, without ducks or herons or diving beetles or whirligigs or any wildlife associated with wetlands. There were no pond lilies or pitcher plants or cattails. It was wetlands because some bureaucrat designated it so, and claimed it was “environmentally vibrant”. I think the old-time farmers knew better, when they designated it a “ditched pasture”.
As I walked the lane I noticed a lot of stone had been moved, and that, straight ahead, the lane seemed paved with very big, flat boulders.
While I might be able to shift the stones of the wall to the right, the flagstones were more than I could have budged even as a young man. (To the left, upstream in the photo above, is the frogless swamp that was bone dry at this time, last year.) As I passed I could not help but pause and look back:
That is a heck of a big rock to move, just to drive a cart over a miry patch of pasture. I walked back to think about how I might have moved such a stone, back in 1775. Oxen? Block and tackle? And then I looked past the stone and downstream.
I clambered over the stone wall, and once I was downstream looking back upstream, I became aware more work was involved than I originally assumed.
As I looked at the amazing amount of stone men moved, before they discovered TV sets, it occurred to me the farmer must have understood some years the pasture would be wet, and some years bone dry. It also occurred to me that cows need to drink. Therefore a smart farmer would not only ditch a pasture, but also create a dam to hold back some of the water on dry years. Moving the stone was therefore an example of human laziness. The farmer did not want to lug buckets of water to his cows, and therefore it made economic sense to lug some stones one time, so he wouldn’t need to lug buckets of water a thousand times.
Still, the amount of stone moved by people if the past seemed amazing to me. Likely the movers were members of a single, large farm family, improving their single eighty-acre farm. They also likely thought they were making an improvement that would help future farmers on the same farm. I doubt they understood that with the coming of mills their way of life would become old-fashioned, and the farm they worked so hard to clear from wilderness and improve would be turning back to forest within the lifetimes of their grandchildren.
As I thought these somber thoughts I climbed back towards Stafford’s Lane, and startled a frog, who leaped into the pool reflecting sky in the above picture. It made me smile. The frogs were coming back. They were moving upstream, like settlers moving out into the Great Plains in covered wagons to claim homesteads and start farms in the years before the Dust Bowl. Did not the frogs not know that the wetlands they moved up into might again become bone dry, in the future?
Do we know as much, as we pursue our modern aspirations?
These words I write are written on sand,
Like the hearts young lovers stroke upon beaches
With innocent fingers; valentines grand
But fleeting, as the surging tide teaches
All of us that castles crumble, and change
Will wrinkle beauty’s skin, silver her hair,
And make familiar landscapes look so strange
That we can be home and not know we are there.
Ever new is our world. We can’t go back
For our goal is not here, but far higher.
Our aim to settle is really a loaded pack
On our shoulders. Turtles should inspire
For their homes move, as do mice and men
And frogs, when sudden droughts transform their fen.