Ancient roads etch the landscape of the Harrington property. Stonewalls bound acres once planted. The ruins of a house rest quietly in the brambles. In the brief walk from my childhood home through the marsh, over a well-worn esker and down to these old roads, I would seek treasures. Treasures included the rusted carcass of an automobile from the 1920s, springs, footprints of raccoon and pheasant tail feathers.
One early discovery still brings awe. At the first ages of my education, I saw, I felt connected to distant people of our history. Boundaries between then and now fade on these walks. Those names and words of history live. They breathed in these woods, and they breathe still. Just as their boots, wagon wheels, tractors and horseshoes compacted the roads I see below me; their ideas can be heard in the rustle of oak leaves, sniffed in the warm smell of decay, felt by fingers playing in the lichen growing on the granite at my thigh.
Here, I became a swinger of birch, a neighbor to many over a good wall. I became the self-appointed steward to all that surrounds. I am not Longfellow, Frost, Thoreau. I owned these thoughts. I say this not with hubris, not with a sense of property but with an understanding of the mystery of thought. A thought, like an old sweater of a loved one or the baseball cap of a local team can transform the wearer. Yet, I am free to say their words, think their thoughts, walk their very steps. I can argue with Jefferson as Adams did. I chuckle with Old Man Flint at the odd-fellow Thoreau come once to speak of an experiment. I can hold the head of an injured farmer in my lap as his hand relaxes on the hunting musket. A musket taken in haste from the mantle as the English soldiers fled to Boston. I can hear the greetings our militia shouted to Concord militia when they met behind a stone wall very like the one my hand touches. Thought can pass on action as genes pass on traits. I have come to understand that a thought is not a lone entity; cold and set as sepulchral stone. Not a votive note on a page making commentary of one who passed by.
I am not the first to burst a puff-ball beneath my foot, not the first to break early ice on a muddy puddle. I am not the first to elect a path by its wear. Old worn thoughts haunt these now treed fields; thoughts awaiting the next generation to live anew.
History lives. At the youngest age, kings, barons, and knights were stuff of stories and play-things upon our parlor floor. Soldiers were plastic forms. Science was the stuff of men who revealed truths. Presidents were distant gray men drawn in cross-hatched lines. Industry was far, far away.
And yet on the school grounds were the heirs to land granted by kings, the off-spring of long dead nobles. School mates I now know to be the children of children of children of an early president. The son of the former police chief told his father’s stories of a world war in Europe. The son of a photographer told his father’s stories of revolution in Chile. Another child told the story of his parent’s flight from China during a war never mentioned in our school books. I heard stories from a family who viewed the stars through a radio telescope, measured the distances of space, and the age of our universe. I met parents who were pioneers of technology. There was no first family among us; certainly, no stratification in our kickball games nor on the jungle-gym. Stories of humble homes told with the bravado of eight-year olds—nothing more.
Later, as I came to learn of the Great Depression, I see my rusted automobile with a new understanding. I tell myself it is a Model T. My story of this car is simple. I know that one of the people who touched that car in the 1920s was a child in the previous century. He drank local milk, harvested local eggs, picked peas from a nearby kitchen garden. As a youth, my unknown hero sat on the lap of an elder, listening to the stories of one who lived while Grant was president. Two hands bind two centuries.
A thought is incapable of leaving a footprint, incapable of returning a rock to its niche. Yet, a single thought may cleave a nation. Like the conundrums of modern physics, a thought is an object without mass; a force that can not be measured in its native form. Thought doesn’t obey temporal rules. Thoughts may be given, received, and held captive. A thought can remain tied to land, travel with generations, be visited with a soft smell or the feel of an acorn held on a fall afternoon.
This acorn, a small treasure of warmth and texture, will shade another on this path in the next century. I can not imagine what hand will touch that future oak. Across the pond to my right works a man who holds the deed to this soil, to this rock, to this acorn. This deed has been passed through generations beyond my counting.
In these woods, walking along the path, I can live in each age from the 1700s through today: from ox to tractor, from horse to car, from woodland to farm land and back to woodland. Each of us who walk here, who borrow freely from the thoughts of those before us, leave something indelible. No one could have known that to my left, across the road from the ruin of the house lays the very spot my mother first showed me a lady slipper. In another season, another orchid will appear. Another will find it. Similar words of respect will be said. Another will see the path cradled peacefully in the wider colonial roadbed abandoned decades ago.
I believe I leave these woods without a print. Resting again, I spy well above my head a metal disk nailed to a tree. Too high for most to note, too rusted to contrast against the tree, I recognize a once-new red marker that guided my nocturnal skiing adventures of thirty-years ago.
The pheasant may be gone, future treasures unknown. Another child will come to this intersection and hide behind the rock wall. He or she will hold an imaginary musket and blast away at the evil tyranny that the Red Coats represented. Later as steward, the welfare of squirrels will be paramount. A birch will be climbed and that young birch will ease earthward with a youth’s dangling toes inches above the ground just as I did. Old thoughts woven from rock and branch, woven between the dewy moss of June to the crusty snow of February, invisible threads of an ancient web. One can not escape the caress of frayed ends. Each touch transferring distant joys, fears, and hopes—a touch on a cheek where a tear will drop and a smile will break. A touch on a hand where a lost mitten will appear, only to fade again—the touch of the land.
##dated: November 2003 (c) Six Pines##
After my mother’s death, I inherited 200 years of photographs and genealogical efforts. I’ve spent seven years exploring and investigating her New England roots. She had no idea.