Karen is taking her first break since beginning to write in this space. She is offering some of her most remarked-upon columns for you to enjoy again.
(first published in August 2013)
For the first time since I was 18 years old, I have spent a month in the country.
And what a beautiful country it is. Fifty shades of green complimented by the bluest sky ever. Puffy clouds ranging from gray to bright white. Dozens of goldfinches, which my father-in-law called “cornfield canaries,” soar around with their undulating flight.
Grass won’t grow beneath the dense hemlocks, but their gray-green needles are still intact. The ash tree sprawls over the perennial beds, shading them, but not too much. Acorns fall on your head as you walk through an oak forest, but it is not yet clear that it will be a mast year. The maples are at least 100 years old, gnarled, rutted and pitted, their trunks sometimes looking like old faces. No one taps them for syrup, but a farmer down the road has lined his woods with bright blue plastic tubes that deliver sap from hundreds of trees. The pines tower over everything.
The town beach is Scobie Pond, sometimes called Haunted Lake. The water looks like tea and tastes like leaves when you swim in it. Sometimes minnows or snakes glide by, giving everyone a thrill.
This is not Disney World, a mall or anything that reeks of corporate, homogenized America. It’s called the simple life, but there is nothing simple about it.
Instead this is profound New England, much like “la France profonde,” the phrase that calls up a place’s truest, deepest culture. People have had to work hard to make the land the “simple” place it is. Dozens of stone walls, piled up by 18th or 19th century farmers, run deep into the woods, where ancient apple tree remains can be found. An old pine stands thick, reaching out with many large branches, signaling that this was once a cleared field, probably used for grazing. Out in the woods, sometimes an old cellar hole becomes obvious. The first Europeans who settled here endured a physically demanding life, not like me whose biggest exertion is hiking up a mountain or weeding the garden.
This is a land of my ancestors—some of them. This is the land they left to find a longer growing season, deeper soil, fewer rocks in the field, a better life. They ended up in the Midwest, as did so many other New England farmers, carrying with them New England names. The Peabody Coal Company was down the road from the farm I grew up on. Its founder lived in Chicago, but his mother and father came from Maine and New Hampshire. Now I’m back, grateful for the early settlers’ efforts.
Autumn is the season for which New England is known, but I’d argue that for New Englanders, summer is the high point. We increasingly have hot days, but many are cool and refreshing. We have enough rain most summers to keep the grass green and the gardens producing.
Painters from the gnarled ocean side of Maine to the green hills of the Berkshires have celebrated summer. Edith Wharton wrote a book with that season’s title, and she did not write books with titles of the other seasons. Summer is the season of Shakespeare’s plays performed outside, music played in tents and parks, of overdosing on sweet corn, pesto, and gazpacho because in a couple of months those treats that are at their best in August will be gone.
There are still blueberries at the top of mountains. Tiny wild dianthus grows among the grasses in the meadow, at times making it glow in vivid pink. Michaelmas daisies have popped out along the edges of the walls and the lanes.
Beavers are in the marsh. Leeches, bullfrogs and big snapping turtles are there too, scaring and delighting the children. Warblers, cedar waxwings and sparrows I have a hard time identifying lurk in the shrubs, making binoculars more important than a frying pan. Deer peek out of the forest. Flocks of turkeys strut across the lawn and balance on the stone walls. It’s as busy as a street in downtown Boston.
There are dangers here. Bears and fisher cats pose risks to pets. Global warming has caused the hemlocks to be vulnerable to the wooly adelgid. The ash borer is creeping up this way. The spruce budworm has again done in some of the spruce, and the maples and oaks have potential problems too.
But I know we are lucky to be able to spend this month in the country, and I don’t take it for granted. It’s not Syria or other fragile countries in Africa and the middle east, where the world has gone crazy. It is a place of beauty and peace. I hope it stays this way forever.