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.