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.


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