Saturday, October 08, 2005

If you were to click on WeatherDotCom and type in 22560 you would see that it is raining in town. It’s also raining outside my window - and on the river - and up the county. To the casual internet surfer this might not be particularly interesting news but to anyone living south of Pennsylvania and east of the major east coast mountain ranges, this is not just news, but Blessed Relief. For we haven’t had rain for 2 months. Not a drop. Nada. Niente. Zero. We’ve lost the bean crop (that pays the other half of our property taxes in December) after losing 20% of the corn crop. There is no hay to feed cattle anywhere west of 95. Half of the trees have already dropped their leaves. My beloved forest, which took such a beating 2 years ago, was in grave danger of dying off even more, during what I believe will be a hard, cold winter. Dried out trees just quit trying if they have to make it through a long freeze.

It’s also hot, muggy, clammy and sticky, but being able to endure, and even prosper, in Weather always feels somewhat virtuous to me - like the feeling I get when I have extra money in the bank. I feel like I can survive not just hard economic times, but hard physical times. I delude myself into believing I’m Tough and I live On the Earth. In a RealEnvironment, not climate control. Whether it’s true or not isn’t really important. The only important thing is that it is raining and now my precious forest has a sporting chance.

As for the rest of my life, the rest of my weekend, well. I plan to clean the house - something I’ve left to the MagnificentSheryl since the beginning of September. Time for my hands to caress my intimate world. And then I’m going to finish up that boucle yarn. Pictures next week.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Lay of the Land

“Then he took his gun, and slinging his ax on his shoulder, he went away to the clearing to cut down some more trees”
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

“You see what you can do about the campsite. I’ll build the path out to the point.” And hefting the bucksaw and machete, BD went away through the woods and began looking for a house site.

Not bad for fantasy fulfillment. Because that is just what he did. Once we’d moved the tent to flat ground and he’d built the lean-to shelter, he left me to do what I did best and he strode off to make use of his talents. I’d learned a good bit about woodsmanship from him already. I knew enough to walk 3 feet behind anyone blazing a trail, so that branches wouldn’t snap back in my face. I knew about brushing your feet forward on unknown ground, rather than stomping flat footed into whatever ankle breaking hole might be covered by last year’s leaf fall. But the librarian still lying dormant in my little soul was the better organizer and the Hercules within his was just bursting to get at it.

Organizing the campsite was fun. It’s exactly the sort of thing I enjoy doing. And of course, I was really playacting as well. My head could fill with all sorts of fantasy pleasures while I did little domestic activities. That these gentle things were being done beneath a canopy of leaves, to the accompaniment of bird sounds, beside a clear running stream added the mystical magic of beauty to them.

Among my domestic duties, though, was producing meals and this proved to be a most challenging activity. I was armed with my wild food books and my trusted Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking School manual. Besides, I was out in the country, where one would suspect all sorts of goodies might be found. Right? The source of all sustenance, bounty, surpluss. But this was 1975 – perhaps the most chemically sterile period in American agriculture. If one is looking for poke weeds, lambs quarters, or even dandelions, he will have greater success in an abandoned suburban parking lot beside a dead shopping center than he would have in the fields of amber grain blowing beneath the wind of the 1970’s. DDT had only just been banned, but Monsanto had many other tricks still in its bag. Try as I might, I never found any wild food to eat during that entire summer, saving the blackberries of July.

In fact, we were lucky we came down here when we did, because it was truly the last blink of twilight of that ancient rural lifestyle that could be traced back for thousands of years. There still was a grist mill that would grind your wheat or corn into flour or meal. One could still pick up animals at a livestock auction in town – anything from chickens to coon hound pups. There were still country stores, with a little post office in the corner, that sold tin heaters and kerosene lamps, along with boots, ax handles and an orange cheese in an enormous wheel that tasted like heaven when it melted in your mouth. All of that is gone now. While 5 of the 6 families living on our road, from Farmers Hall creek to the river, had gardens back then, only 2 of them had any livestock. Today, there are only 3 gardens with vegetables in them and 1 with chickens, and that one is LD's!! I’ll be forever grateful that we made it just in time to touch another era, even if only briefly.

What I did have was beans. Navy beans. A food I despised, but which was touted as so completely nutritious, I felt duty bound to learn to tolerate it. It carried with it the further virtue of requiring no refrigeration. This was not to be a camping-with-all-the-amenities experience. What could not be stored at the ambient temperature or prepared over the campfire would not be offered. The idea had been to supplement our diet with wild foods. What we ended up doing was loosing about 50 lbs between the two of us, because, not only was there no wild food, but the weather would eventually remove even the possibility of navy beans for sustenance. We survived chiefly on instant coffee and cigarettes.

It was late that first full day when BD returned to the campsite. He’d built a path through the woods, mostly following Jacob’s Gut, to the end of the forest, to a high bank that opened to a magnificent view out across the greeny-gold summer marsh, over the blue waters of the river and to the high cliffs of Westmoreland County. The trek back was nearly half a mile through woods that hadn’t heard the zing of a saw in over 100 years, though there was a time when even these venerable trees had been babies, sprouting in the pastures of the old Salvatore Muscoe land patent. The shadows of skeletons of old split-rail fences were still there at the edge of the high ground, proof that at one time, the scarcest crop in eastern Virginia was trees.

We sat around the campfire that evening discussing a house site. We wanted it to be far off the road. BD wanted it near the marsh, where he might eventually be able to launch a boat. The high bank at the end of the path was one of two points of land jutting into the marsh, separated by a finger of marsh that probed into the high ground, but didn’t seem to have any channel or stream. This spot had everything we were looking for but BD was troubled. His concern had to do with access. To build a road out to the point would require tremendous timber cutting and even greater efforts to maintain the surface. Even though I wanted to live “deep in the woods”, could I be happy on the other point?

It would have the advantage of being even further off the road, but it would also be possible to build the road around the edge of the fields, only cutting into the woods a few hundred feet. He’d explored the land across the swamp and it was plenty deep enough for our needs, and the swamp itself was fed from a spring. He could build a spring box so we could have fresh water, till we had a well dug.

Of course, the idea of the long drive through the woods was appealing and a tad bit hard to say good bye to, but the thought of taking down all those trees – why – we would have to spend the entire summer building a road and when cold weather came, where would we live? Without even going to see the spot, I decided. The new house would be built on the far point.

Because it was farming season, we saw a lot of the man who worked our land. Because we were “those young hippies” our neighbors made sure they at least caught a glimpse of us. Folk were friendly, if puzzled, at what we were up to. "Crazy city folk", I suppose, is what they thought of us at the time. But with the tolerance and philosophical acceptance common among people who have to trust the weather to earn a living, they were welcoming and kind to us in spite of the beat of our different drum.

“Sure, just drive around the field, you won’t be taking much cone,” Ray said when BD asked if we could put in a road along north edge of the field. We were standing by the car, in the blue of the evening, when he drove by to see how we were doing. He was one of the neighbors BD had met with last January. A special man I had heard of ever since we first started talking about moving to the farm. As a young man, both of his legs had been blown off in an explosion. When he had recovered, he went to college and became a CPA, but his heart was in farming and his wife was a farm girl too. There was nothing to do but follow his heart. With two artificial legs attached to his knees, Ray managed several thousand acres, with the help of his dad, his 10 year old son and a hired boy. Perhaps what we were trying to do didn’t seem so alien to him. After all, he too had had to follow a dream.

So it was, though, that the next day we built that road – with a 1965 Ford Mustang, plowing down 4 foot tall cornstalks as we bumped and humped our way back to the second point, a little 5 acre plantation of 25 year old pines. The air is always warmer in a pine forest. It has a resinous scent and when stirred by the wind it sings a whispery song you don’t get in forests of other trees. It’s funny; I can’t remember what the forest floor looked like. It quickly changed, of course, and took years and years to become a grassy yard. I remember that the bank was high, maybe 25 feet above sea level, with a similar view over marsh and river to the high bluffs of Fones Cliffs. I remember also, that there was a contentment that came from knowing that here was the place. Here was where I would put down my roots. I wasn’t sure if they would take hold, but I would sure give them every opportunity.

Here is a little map of the place. The thick black line on the bottom is the tar road. The next line is Jacob’s Gut. It forms the boundary of the farm, as do all the other purple lines, though they are not waterways. The dotted blue lines are the paths, out to Mossy Point and Home Point. The thicker grey lines within the farm show the old road – now abandoned but what we used till 1983. The two orange dots represent the campsite and the house site.

And here’s a sketch of how I remember the campsite.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Daylilies, poke weed and Ramen Soup

June 12 was not the first time we’d been to the farm. On a whim, we’d visited it the previous August, without any sort of camping gear, trying to sleep in the car, (gad, was I ever small enough to think I could sleep in the front seat of a Mustang?) till the mosquitoes drove us away. BD also made a January reconnaissance trip, scouting out the territory, deciding where we’d set up our campsite, getting to know the neighbors. He hadn’t stayed the whole night, for he’d nigh on to frozen himself to death, but he had found the perfect place to set up headquarters. As comfort harbingers these two trips were pretty accurate. For once, I’m glad I have hindsight and not foresight.

The spot he’d chosen was just inside the property line, through a little copse of woods with a lovely stream that forms the farm’s southern boundary. This place was part of a larger estate, divided by BD’s grandfather at the turn of the century into 4 roughly equal farms. He bought our portion of it as a dowry farm for his new baby daughter. She rented it out, first to Hill Dillard, who owned one of the other quarter parts, then later to a cousin, Robert Lindsey Ellis, who owned another 4th and whose son had married Hill’s daughter. She hadn’t visited it since she’d lived here during W.W.II and I am sure the locals expected to buy it at some point and consolidate the entire parcel. In fact, they have since bought the last section and Rennolds Quarter is almost reunited.

It was late in the day when we turned onto the farm lane and crossed the little stream we call Jacob’s Gut. The dirt road turned a sharp 90 degree left just past the stream and skirted the big fields that comprise most of our farm. Woods nestled up to the right of the road and a grassy spot just at the junction of road, woods and field made a good place to park the car, beneath a willow oak so big it must have begun life back when this farm was a colonial land grant. A ditch separated the road from the trees as well, but it was just a little hop-over type of thing.

Stepping into that bit of woods was a little like stepping into fairy land. There were holly trees, little sassafras saplings, huge tall oaks. Evening birds sang. Little things scurried through last fall's brown loam carpet. The forest begins to widen immediately into a secret darkness of trees. The ground is fairly flat here, but the Camping Expert (not me, you can be sure) thought we ought to find a somewhat sloping spot to pitch the tent. “So water can run off, you know”. Now, mind, this part of the county is called The Flats - and for good reason. It’s the sort of place you read about in school history books when the author says: “The settlers built on the river flats where the rich soil assured good crops.” But BD found a little spot where the ground began to slope down towards Jacob’s Gut and we assembled our home, a linseed oil soaked canvas buddy tent, of the sort that buttons down the ridge. It holds two, along with a few personal effects. We also had a canvass ground cloth, some sort of padding, probably a sleeping bag unzipped, some sheets, blankets and pillows.

The next thing to do was to find a place to build a campfire - the nourishment hub of our new adventure. BD had all the expertise here as well, though I had done a bit of campfire cooking over the past few years. He quickly cleared a bit of ground, found two stout forked sticks and a cross stick thick enough to hold an iron pot, and built a little fire. It would transpire, over the next days, months, and even up till today, that I was the Fire Goddess, (Friday’s disaster notwithstanding) but that first night he did the honors while I pulled surprises out of the larder I’d brought. I’d spotted daylilies growing along the bank of Jacob’s Gut and I had my eyes peeled for young pokeberry plants, but I had also brought a great delicacy. Ramen Soup!

You may laugh, but back then, one had to go to an oriental grocery store to purchase Ramen Soup. It seems to me, in my memory, that the noodles were better then too - perhaps they were made with rice flour instead of wheat. Whatever the reason, they didn’t have that gummy taste that crept in once they became available in regular supermarkets. I won’t even eat the stuff now. But at the time, it was a tremendous treat. Water dipped up from the stream, the crackle of a wood fire, the sharp peppery taste of day lilies, and all the promise of living out a fantasy. It was an exciting first night for us.

In fact, it was so special, I believe the magic of that first thrilling evening, out under the leafy dark sky, was enough to carry us over all sorts of rocky ground, including the dreadful sloping tent site. Oh La, that was the worst sleeping we ever did. Our feet swelled, the ground was unimaginably hard, and of course, it was mosquito season, and this tent had no bug proofing. I can’t remember now if we got up before dawn to find a flatter tent site, or suffered through the whole night, but we had moved by the following night.

We also put up a little lean-to shed between 4 trees to keep our gear. Food was hung high or kept in tight shutting lard tins, purchased at the Champlain store. Clothing was pretty basic, some shorts, some shirts, I had one cotton knit dress - just in case. (That’s the Virgo in me. We really care about clothes.) It was all folded and stuffed inside the tent along with a battery powered am/fm radio and a flashlight. Carpentry tools went under the lean-to, as well as cooking utensils and very minimal dinnerware. Two log sections eventually became seats. And that was our happy home. Almost like the Laura Books.

One thing that drew me so strongly to the Laura Books was the fascination I have for the domestic arts; in particular, fiber and food. Those books are rife with exquisite detail about cooking, housekeeping, sewing, knitting, and managing a home on no money at all. Mind, now, I can get tired of cleaning a dirty house - or just not see that it’s gotten dirty, and I don’t like being broke, but I’m fascinated with the knowledge needed to do these things - always have been, and learned most of them early.

But the female skills weren’t enough to make this venture possible. The more manly skills of the woodsman, the carpenter, the hunter were also essential. I already knew BD could wield hammer and saw, and besides, all the Haile men are engineers, even the fey poet types who won’t admit they are math guys. And it was early enough in my marriage for me to believe there really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Take hammer and saw and build me a house? Well, of course he could.

But now I think about it, I am amazed at what I took for granted he could do. He not only built the yurt (“But a circle is the most floor space you can get using the least amount of materials” - I mean, is that an engineer talking or not?), but also the house we live in now. There are many other lovely things aroud this place that are his little blossoms - not the least of which were the poems he wrote and then clipped to trees and plants for my last two garden parties. And he continues to scatter these lovely things about.

Did I feel this about him when we first met? That he had these essential skills that would fulfill my secret most unspoken hidden dream? These matching gifts that would make it possible? Did little things he said on that first date clue my subconscious in on this key to fulfillment? Maybe.

Maybe I’ve just been one hell of a lucky girl.

Friday, May 21, 2004

In the beginning

This tale begins so long ago when, at 8, a quick witted, careful listening, but struggling dyslexic girl first snapped the bonds of illiteracy that, for 3 years, had shut her out of main stream suburban public education. I went from a shaky Dick and Jane immediately to that magical land of Laura Ingalls and her Little House, in the Big Woods.

Nothing had prepared me for the hunger and longing those books would engender in that romantic heart of mine. How I longed to be a pioneer girl. How I wanted to be Laura’s sister; to make cheese in the early June sunshine; to braid straw into long strips and sew them into hats; to wear nightgowns instead of pajamas. To knit!! I yearned to snuggle down on winter evenings in a cozy house, golden with yellow lamplight, and listen to sweet music instead of loud TV. I wanted a life that would sustain me by the work of my hands.

But I was born in 1952, not 1852, to thoroughly modern and suburban parents. There were no more wildernesses. There was no more homestead act. Nobody in my family had farmed since my Great grandmother on Mama’s side. Oh, Mama was flexible enough to let me have “an old fashioned Christmas where we make our own gifts”. I’m not sure how my sisters felt about that – I don’t suppose we ever talked about it. I do know that I grew up with the conviction that it’s not a real gift unless I made it myself.

Through my teens and college years the little flicker of pioneer yearning never completely died. On nights I couldn’t sleep, I could still go back in my mind to Wisconsin and write more adventures of Laura and Bess, best friends, heading west, after we eat our lunch of bread and honey from Pa’s honey tree.

I met BD in college and we almost immediately twined our lives together – musicians with careers ahead, giving our lives to our muse, our Art. We were living just outside of D.C. while BD finished up his degree. He was writing pieces for his graduate recital, I was working on an audition tape for the National Symphony and on a meander around the neighborhood, we stopped off at our local Head Shop. These were stores that sold incense, and hookah pipes, Indian bedspreads and alternative lifestyle books. It was the books that grabbed us. Wild food books. Edible mushrooms. Euell Gibbons books. Stalking the Blue Eyed Scallop.

We grabbed them up. We took them home. We softly, quietly, almost furtively, read them, individually, alone, undiscussed. The impact was so vivid, neither of us remembers (and mind now, I have what is known in my family as the MiracleMemory) who broached the subject, but the other seconded the idea whole heartedly. Let’s run away and live in the woods. Let’s go BackToTheLand.

Of course, I’d never actually been to any land to go back to. The closest I’d ever been to the country was a summer visit to some Pennsylvania cousins when I was 5, to someplace that at least seemed out in the back of beyond. Perhaps all of 5 miles outside of Johnstown, PA. But BD had spent a childhood of blissful freedom in the country at his grandmother’s farm, his cousin Meme’s house in town, and at the cottage at Wares Wharf. Tales of his perfect summer play are rife in the family and would make another volume – but the role they played for me was as a sort of promise I made to my as yet to be children. If they had nothing else, they would have the country childhood BD had.

At first we were influenced a bit by the aging hippie back to the land movement. Mother Earth News was our journal of choice. Friends were moving to West Virginia Where Land Is Cheap. We thought. We talked. We let our dreams take flight. But at some time I did mention to BD that he always seemed to relax, to sort of blossom, whenever we went back to EssexTheLandWhereHeWasBorn. Didn’t he want to live there instead?

What! You don’t want to live there. Everybody will talk about you!”

To which I replied “Well, of course they will. I’m interesting.”

And so in the summer of 1974, Cousin Peter put us up at his parents place in Dunnsville and lent us his canoe and we took a trip up every estuary in the county, looking for something we didn’t realize didn’t exist: Cheap waterfront property. It didn’t then. It doesn’t now. It never will. But we didn’t know that and, supplied with a skillet, 2 forks, our wild food identifying manuals, 2 hooks, two lead weights and 2 pieces of string, and a bottle of Coppertone Suntan Oil (an essential fish bait), we paddled off. In 6 days I lost 8 lbs. But we never found that Shangri La. In the end, we decided to ask his mother if we could live on the farm she owned at Champlain. The idea was that we wouldn’t have to invest in property and if it turned out we didn’t like living in the country we wouldn’t be out much. And she said yes.

BD still had another year at school. This was his second time at bat, and he had no intention of striking out this time, but I put by all thoughts of Carnage Hall or even the Kennedy Center. I found a high paying job at a mortgage company and put every penny I could scrape together in the bank. From August to June we waited, and we worked, and we dreamed. We found another cousin who would store our furniture for us. We loaded stuff in boxes, sold a lot of things I regretted later, and headed down the highway. On June 12, 1975, we spent our first night in the country, in the same tent my father-in-law landed on Normandy Beach with. If it is possible for a person to have two birthdays, then that is mine.