Over the course of the last week or so, my two youngest children have been pouring over my collection of Indian artifacts. I have thousands of them each one picked up out of the soil, dropped between 300 and 12,000 years ago on the same land we have all inhabited. Occasionally I will find a relic of our own time- last year I found a silver tablespoon with a monogram of the guy who owned the land back at the turn of the century and I returned it to his great granddaughter, my current neighbor and she was thrilled to put it back with the rest of her family silverware. She shares with me photos of the farm the way it looked 110 years ago. The guy who owned it in between used to come up to the farm to visit. He had Alzheimer’s pretty bad, but the woman who brought him said that the moment they drove up the driveway he would light up and start talking about the farm, and when we walked around and talked I never noticed anything in him but love for this place and a trove of memories.
His last visit before he passed away we sat on the edge of the hill overlooking the pond and ate egg salad sandwiches from the chickens we raise and just talked about the land. Both of us have hunted it and fished it. We’ve logged and hayed and planted and disced, burned brush fire, tapped maples, raised chickens and geese and ducks and pigs and sheep and cattle and goats on it. Our children have grown up in it’s fields and pastures, woodlots and streams. We’ve taken dips in the ponds, slept out under the spray of stars above it, endured the losses through fire and predator, disease and drought. We had good years and great years, hard years and brutal Winters. Down in the basement of the milk house on an old post there is a record of every deer that my old friend ever took written in dark pencil with a steady hand.
Every day of my life I do something that improves the quality of the life on this farm; yesterday we delivered the last calf of the 2014 season and tomorrow we start tapping the maple orchard, some three thousand taps over seventy five acres and by Town Meeting Day we will probably start boiling our first syrup which we will do every single day, 10-12 hours a day until the leaves bud out and we start to get the fields gardens ready for Summer. My wife and children work with me every day, but only as much as they care to because I want them to love work, not dread it. When we have had enough of fences or weeding we go fish for brookies in the stream, or harvest fiddlehead ferns in Spring and gather mushrooms in the Fall.
We make plans often and revise them constantly to fit the land rather than our own desires. Pretty much every day someone comes up to buy some hamburger or eggs or to hunt the back part of the property in season, or snowmobile the wide open meadows on the southern flank of the mountain. At th end of every visit the people always linger by their cars looking out at the fields and forests and trying to get their kids to hop in with them- always hard to do when there are piglets chasing the chickens or we’re pressing apples and the juice is free to whoever wants a taste- and they tell me how lucky we are to live like this. Most times when people pay me for whatever it is they buy and I reach into my pocket for change they stop me and tell me no, no change, please keep it and I know it isn’t because they like me, but because of what we are doing for this property.
A few years ago when I was rebuilding a loading dock on the front of the sugarhouse to the same scale and style as one that was there back in the 1890′s (I’ve seen the photographs of the old men standing on it, wearing worn out suit coats and floppy hats, standing stock still for the camera and grinning like little boys). I would work on it in the evenings when the Sun had gone behind the mountain and cut and nail the boards by myself in the cooler air and I had during that entire time the oddest feeling that I was being watched, intently, by someone I could never quite catch a glimpse of standing in the open door of the sugarhouse. It got to the point where I would make sure to open the door before I commenced my work just in case there really was someone there watching and after I had completed that job, I never got that feeling again.
I think, but maybe with a different perspective than the woman in the video, that we never really do “own the land”. In truth, we don’t, the local government does because even though I have no mortgage, should I fail to pay my taxes on time, as much as we are respected and thought of in this community, they would begin the process of taking this land away from us, prefering to let it sit abandoned and to fall into disrepair than to allow us to continue our stewardship of it. That’s just how govrnments roll, nothing personal, but someone has to run the rackets and keep the flow of money going.
I have given up on the belief that I really own anything. Everything we have, starting with our families, are nothing more than a temporary arrangement. When my old friend died last Winter I went to his funeral and spent a lot of time talking with his children- he had 10- and to a one they have all made a point to stop by to visit. I show them all the pencilled record of their father’s deer hunts and to the oldest son I even returned his old Daisy BB gun that I found under a boulder not far from the sugarhouse where his littel brother, a jealous six year old in 1949, had concealed it.
We all leave relics of our time here and in some distant future someone inevitably picks them up and wonders, if only briefly, what relics they will leave behind to be found by others.
So no, we never really own the land, but if we are careful stewards and treat it well, we can know that for a brief moment, the land has owned us. And owns us still.