Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Under Pinnacle Mountain


Sunshine and I went for a long walk today. I had much to think about. I thought about the very weird malcontents in Washington dueling with each other. I thought of being run over by the dump truck of big government and left to die in a snowbank. If I am to die like road kill, let state and local government murder me. The scale has changed; the chaos maker and slayer of the common man used to be the dark colossus, Darth Vader in the assemblage of war and judgment; now he is a snub nosed, harried businessman from unclear where. His eyes are over worked; his suit is crumpled, as if he has slept in it. He appears perpetually in a hurry to get to a power lunch. He disapproves that we are in the road. What can he do?

But on the other hand the sky in Maine’s western foothills is high and bright and the foliage is at peak. There used to be big, beautiful dairy farms in my neighborhood. The farmers and early settlers struggled with the thick woods to turn them back in order to provide grazing for their cows. They were just common men, but very proud, and they worshiped stability. All around are fields that are beautiful to me, traces of an energy and hardihood that is no more. You wonder how hard the men must have worked to clear enough land to farm. Every field has in it an archeology, a web of mans’ works. I expect ancient farmers to rise from their clayey substratum as I walk through. They wear bib overalls, soft round caps. They smile at us as we pass, nod briefly, hello. In one field a family of white tails grazes along the edge. Their tails are pure white, fuzzy white, and when they run, as they do today, disappearing instantly, their tails stand up like little sails over a throbbing sea. In autumn at the time of peak foliage is the time for long walks. I will eventually visit every field and every stone wall and farm pond.

The farmer who cleared this field, his soul is buried here.

I have heard stories about how the men were often in a bad mood when they were clearing land. The women folk knew from experience to stay away. Haying without machinery, logging without skidders…swinging a scythe for a few hours on a hot day was as much as I could do…and these men did it all day. Day after day. No chain saws, no brush cutters. I admit, in the case of the scythe, there is a mildly pleasureable delirium that transpires, as the blood surges through the shoulders to the head. The work must have gone slowly – I don’t know how they did it. As I walk through these fields, I am always vaguely astonished.

Farm Pond in cow field in the middle of nowhere.

I remember clearing my own land. I did not have a 4wd truck. I had an old wheel barrow to drive out the logs I could not carry on my shoulder. I did have a chain saw. I wanted to stay as close as I could to how the original settlers did it. It seemed to me that if I persisted with just an axe, I’d never get anywhere, at least not in my time on earth. The thought of passing the torch to future generations did not seem to me relevant. My admiration at the ever increasing strength in my arms and shoulders was a guy thing.  Took me ten years or so, and the help of a herd of goats but eventually there were three acres cleared. But once all the brush was gone, the goats lost interest and nibbled desultorily. An early century dairy farmer would have laughed.

John Brett, who lived on Tueltown all his life, told me that at one time his father grazed cows on the hillside behind my house. I thought today I might walk up on that hillside first. Sunshine and I began our walk by turning down Kittridge Brook toward the Rocky Hill. At the Rocky Hill the road becomes steep and narrow. Autumn comes early in the hollow at the bottom of the Rocky Hill beside the stream; Spring comes late. When you walk down there the air is decidedly different, especially cooler. Today we will end up down there at the end of our walk. Now just before the hill we turn off here at the logging road. The town one day put up a sign Klondike Hill Road, but it is just a skidder trail. I don’t know where they got the name. Every so often the town has extra money for signs and they then proceed to put a name on everything. The road leads past where we spotted the two bears this summer and ascends Pinnacle Mountain. (Why not Pinnacle Mountain road?) A little farther up, what had been an old 4-wheeler trail goes off to the right and we turn onto it.

When there were kids in the neighborhood, they used to drive their 4-wheelers and trailbikes up through here all day. Eventually one of them got killed. I used to listen to his trail bike scream through the trees. It was obvious to me the young boy was not long for this world. I don’t know what his parents were thinking. This racing is so much a part of the rural Maine culture that they probably thought nothing till he failed to show up for supper any more. There have been other kids riding through here, but they were never in a big hurry. Another young boy slid off the trail going too fast on his snowmobile and crashed into a tree. He was much more careful after that. They have grown up, and are now busy with work and paycheck, and nobody uses this trail any more, so by our passing through and occasional stopping to break off branches, Sunshine and I have kept it open.

A few years ago the hillside was logged over, and the owner, a land developer, built a long driveway and surveyed house lots. It would take a very fancy 4wd to live up here year round. But I love the lots for their isolation and solitude. Each would have a beautiful view of the northern foothills if some of the woods were cleared. In winter you might have to snowshoe in. The 4-wheeler trail meets this driveway and Sunshine and I walk on it awhile.

This pile of rocks snakes through the woods for two hundred yards.

The evidence up here that the hillside was once a big field, as Mr. Brett had told me, is obvious. Look at this stone wall! That free men would collect stones that way without the encouraging lashes of a despot was to me a sign that the future was not all dark. The grade on the hill leading up to this stone wall is very steep. They must have transported the stones up hill. The men had well-trained teams of horses and oxen to help out with the work. But still you have to wonder. There must have been a remarkable spirit of co-operation between the men and their families. They must have cared about their animals and their friends. I imagine teams of horses and oxen tricked out proudly. No wonder the farmers of generations past made such great politicians. Brett said everyone was “neighborly”; it did not make sense to act otherwise. Anyone would wonder how they would take the lack of co-operation, the lack of elemental trust that clouds and befuddles our times.

Then we descend on the steep dirt driveway toward Tueltown Road. Tueltown used to run on this hillside. You can see the old road bed still in the trees like the carcase of an extinct animal. I have always meant to walk on it, and I guess I might soon, if Sunshine is agreeable. She is thirteen and she prefers a good path. Along the driveway there are Blackberry bushes. It was not a good summer for Blackberries, which prefer hot, dry days, but I stop for a minute to gather and nibble. They are smallish and more bitter than sweet. The driveway comes out at the intersection of Kittridge Brook and Tueltown near the mailboxes.

Now for a quarter mile or so we have to walk on the road. I dislike walking on any road. I must be spoiled. But hardly any cars pass by. Finally we turn off Tueltown and walk up a private driveway. They are summer people, and I know they are not around now. I used to see them more often. They love Maine, but they were used to making money, and the adjustment is hard, so they moved back to Rhode Island. She was a nurse who found Maine hospitals to be turn of the century and he was a skilled machinist who got sick of running generations old machines. Getting up here is a lot longer than an easy drive. But so far they have not put the house up for sale. It is open and big and foreign looking, a definite down country looking house. They have a caretaker who is more likely to be around than they are. Sunshine and I cut in front of the house and cross into the field beside the house.

There are here beginning a string of fields with between them short rough trails for the tractors to pass through. On this day the fields are bright with somber slanting light and, though we have not had a frost yet, the leaves are near peak, a startling multitude of colors. In fact lately for several weeks the temperatures have been in the seventies. But the frost must come soon – I insist that the sky has changed, but it cannot have changed that much, I hope!, that frosty nights are no more –, then autumn preceeding winter will spur me on to quit my walking excursions and get ready for the coming cold.

For the old time farmers, Brett said, this was the time for clearing land. The hay was in, the crops were harvested. Maybe the families took in a fair or two to show off their farms, for as one farmer told me, “You must have some fun.” The clearing and logging would go on till December. The fields must be free of stones so the grass will grow abundantly. A field littered with boulders taints the milk, if it is used for grazing, and of course it can’t be worked. These fields Sunshine and I are walking through today have been in some distant past laboriously and thoroughly cleared. The grass is lush and thick. They used to belong to a large dairy farm, back in the days when a man could make some money farming milk. But the fields are downward sloping to the north, a much inferior arrangement to downward sloping to the south. In the foothills spring comes earlier to southward facing fields, and autumn comes later. Sometimes every day counts when you want an abundant corn crop, for instance, which can make the difference between a poor farmer and a well to do farmer. On the other hand, think how tasty apples picked early after a few chill nights tend to be. The true taste of fresh squeezed apple juice is forgotten. I wonder if Jack Roberts, whose family used to farm these fields, still has his apple press? His father’s dairy barn is prominent on Tueltown Road, but Jack of course like everyone must has turned his hand to other trades than farming.

Then after the clearing the land, come winter, in this life under Pinnacle Mountain, the men would head for the logging camps. The long hours in the extreme cold, the snow, the dangerous conditions were a test, but the extra income was useful, as it kept the rather flat income of the farm under control and provided working capital for the spring plantings and any building, because there was always someone building. Brett said the food in the camps, you get a good camp, was always more than any man could eat, but no matter how they fed, you were always hungry, the work in the cold made you hungry, and you slept never waking on long benches side-by-side with the other men so close sometimes during the height of the season that when one turned over the whole line up turned over. Then you were up before dawn to gobble breakfast, and get the horses and sleds going around sun-up, and you worked pretty much straight through till the last light. Brett said at end of day the heat in the bunkhouse hitting your face knocked you out and you slept where you fell. “It wasn’t much of a life,” Brett admitted. “The women and children were at home during winter on the farm…” But Brett did think that some of the men liked that life, and they worked with a smile. Living and working that way brings up complicated feelings. The idea of sleeping dead to the world, wandering in a dreamless darkness, without worry, without reflection until awakened by the prescience of daylight appeals to most people, especially who don’t usually spend their nights that way. On the other hand, a life without leisure is hard, especially if you do not consider sleep to be leisure.

A farm pond under Pinnacle Mountain.

After awhile Sunshine and I came to the pond. Though I have lived in this neighborhood for twenty years now, I came out to see this pond for the first time only last year. My step daughter lived with us for awhile and her kids used to come out here quite often with numerous of the other neighborhood kids to do whatever kids do. I heard rumors of swimming. I heard lots of rumors, and I felt that I should respect their privacy. I know kids get in trouble but I felt inhibited. Somewhere in the northern shadow of Pinnacle Mountain the kids should have a place to carry out their rituals. There is nothing about this situation that anybody needed to worry about. Nobody taller than three feet could drown in it. No doubt the kids found snapping turtles, and tested each others daring with them. Animals mostly deer were attracted to the water. The generations of kids, and maybe an adult or two, though not me, had cleared a section of the shore of boulders, and the bottom had settled to make a beach. In the woods on the opposite bank of the pond there was a ramshackle hut. Sometimes, as we stood on the bank overlooking the pond, I could hear from the shadowy winds the echo of children’s voices. True experience did nothing to diminish my hopes for them.

But time now to move on as we had dawdled away almost two hours. Time now to head home for supper. We walked through the fields to the trail that comes out at the bottom of the Rocky Hill. The woods to the left alongside the trail had not been logged for at least fifty years. Mixed in with the tall spruce are numerous red and sugar maples, many broad beeches, ash and oak which shaded out the smaller alders. The rotted still standing hulks of poplar trees had been edged out of the sunlight. Poplar will grow huge and very tall if by some accident it runs into sun, but as the years pass, the larger and more prolific limbed trees edge it out, and it dies and rots standing, eventually toppling over a hulk on the forest floor. On the other side of the field is Patty Verril’s big commercial garden. I may stop to admire the fertile rows of plants, still green though now growing is over, and the transparent plastic covered hothouses, where some crops, especially tomatoes, are still producing. Maybe something of the old time strength has been passed on to her, for I have seen her hard at work in her gardens on 90 degree days. Even the old farmers went fishing for the day when the morning edged on 90.

After the downhill walk we return onto Kittridge Brook Road at the bottom of the Rocky Hill. This is where my friend Sunshine suffers through a delirium of smelling because a fat, boisterous little rat terrier lives down here and gets let out and walked every day alongside the road, where the dog does her thing, all of which is a great delight to Sunshine, who does her thing in return. Then we walk up the Rocky Hill, a steep climb, and when I reach the top I am always a little bit winded.

Now it is only a few steps to my driveway, and I can see the house trailer set back against the woods, and I always feel a minute of peace and gladness walking toward it. The foibles of the present and the greater tragedies of history fall away. I am always worried that I have come to understand nothing in my life, but suddenly I think perhaps I may understand something after all. This late afternoon is very still. By now the house is in the shadows as the sun has fallen into the trees under Pinnacle Mountain.

The trail up Pinnacle Mountain.


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