The epic snow storm that buried Minnesota has combined with a warm flow of air racing up the east coast and is drowning New England. Cold, hard rains have fallen for twenty four hours. Soils, frozen solid from ten days of twenty degree day time temperatures with single digits at night, are unthawing vertically raising crusts of ice pinnacles above the soil line. The leaves on the forest floor, frost bitten and crunchy only the day before yesterday, are soft and shiny. They slip beneath my feet as I walk slowly up this steep hillside. My camouflage rain gear covers a layer of berber clothing; warmth for the cold that is supposed to pull in by mid afternoon. I am seeking shelter underneath a hemlock stand along an old stone wall. Red oaks grace the forest on the other side of this rock edifice. On this day I will sit and watch time slip away, hoping to get a deer sin my sights while it is seeking sustenance from acorns.
Stone walls serve as one of the foundations of the modern New England forest. The lichen covered wall in front of me is no different. Assorted rocks wedged artfully together two hundred years ago to contain sheep and the occasional cow are now relegated to historical artifacts. The enormous energy that took to build all of the 240,000 miles of rock walls in New England without modern machinery is unfathomable. Strong backs, rippled torsos, steady oxen in a yoke, and determination beyond comprehension laid enough stone to circle the globe ten times at the equator in the short period between 1760 and the civil war, roughly 100 years. And this was not the only work accomplished by the industrious rural New Englanders of the time. Thousands of square miles of forest were converted to pasture and field. Two man crosscut saws, the strong will of a man or woman behind an axe, and the teaming of humans and beast cleared over 20,000 square miles of New England forest in an effort to support subsistence farming. Much of the land was only suitable for poor pasture. But that was good enough for the men and women who built these walls with blistered hands and aching backs. That was good enough for their children who only knew this life of hard work. Life was short in years in those days but long on honesty and integrity.
I have placed a foam pad on the old wall. I will sit here and lean against a hemlock tree that masks my silhouette. As I look in either direction I can see a long line of well placed stone. Some of the rocks must weigh 500 pounds, others only a few pounds. They are fit together like a mortise and tenon to form a tight wall, the main reason it has held up for a couple of centuries. The blond and green lichen contrasts sharply to the old weathered gray stone, mostly chunks of schist bedrock tilled up by the last glaciers some twelve thousand years ago. As I gaze out over the stone wall my mind begins to wander. I wonder exactly who built this particular wall. Not far away, perhaps 200 yards uphill, there is a curious and quirky break in the wall. The wall is perfectly straight, that is from the north end, and from the south end, but the two walls do not meet head on. It is as if the wall to the east was built by one property owner, and the wall the west by another property owner. The two walls, most likely creating a boundary for one property line, are misaligned and a twenty foot gap is found where they should join. The two nonadjoining walls were never tied together by stone of fencing. I imagine the two property owners might never have come to agreement on who had the correct placement. It makes no difference now, other than that it is curious. At least ten generations of humans have come to own these properties over the last 250 years. The answer to this mystery was buried with one or more property owners a long time ago.
There is a fairly large oak tree, perhaps 45 inches in diameter about twenty feet off the west side of this rock structure. Based on past experience I’m guessing this tree is about 200 years old. Possibly it was a sapling about the time that this wall was being laid, one rock at a time. The tree is fairly healthy, save a few major limbs that were torn off in a severe ice storm two years ago. About three quarters of the crown of the tree is still in tact. It is a good bet the tree will flourish after a couple of rough years recovering from this wound. This thought reminds me of why I am sitting here rather than walking miles and miles in the woods in pursuit of venison. About two weeks ago I injured my back while splitting wood by hand (oak oddly enough) with a maul. It wasn’t really the wood splitting that caused the injury. Rather the wood splitting was the insult to the injury. Two weeks previous to that I had helped a friend move a 400 pound woodstove. My friend is a wonderful fellow, but no longer the strong chap he once was. It is fair to say that I carried three quarters or more of the load in and out of a pick up truck and into his house. I have no trouble moving 300 pounds around in a gym. But moving a woodstove with no good place to grip and with an unbalanced design is a different matter. If this was not enough gritty work we had to move the old wood stove that was being replaced, a scant 300 pounds, to the original location of the newer stove. This required moving this old contraption back down to my friend’s cellar. We managed to stretch this entire episode out into a six or seven hour endeavor, at the end of which resulted in very sore back. I then drove six hours to western NY State for a week of hunting, and six hours back to be with my family for Thanksgiving weekend. It was on Thanksgiving that I was splitting wood with my two sons who came home to celebrate with my wife and me. Everything seemed fine while throwing the maul until I felt a twinge. I spent the next two days flat on my back unable to move. Soon thereafter I learned that I had damaged a disc in my lower back. They tell me with physical therapy twice a week it may be better in three months.
So here I sit, adjusting my position every few minutes to relieve the pain. I look up at the old tree and I understand that we have something in common. Here the tree is at two hundred years of age. Not a young tree by any stretch of the imagination. Over the last two hundred years it had survived drought, hurricanes, ice storms, heavy winter snow, and the plague of gypsy moths. More recently it had suffered an injury during a historical ice storm from which it was trying to recover. The odds are good. A couple of warm, sunny summers and it should be back in the full swing of forest life. On the other hand, here I am working on my 60th year. Not a young man by any stretch of the imagination. Over the years I have survived a leg broken in two places, a broken arm, a fractured skull, dislocated shoulders, a dislocated knee, a very bad wound to my left hand that took over 50 stitches caused by a cable snapping off a come-along hand winch, and a long bout with Lyme disease. More recently I have suffered a back injury mostly caused by my own foolish actions, but a formidable injury nevertheless. Like the oak, the odds of recovery are good. A few months of relaxation, maybe some gentle ice fishing, and a lot of physical therapy and I should be back in the full swing of human life. Not too shabby. There is still a future for that oak tree and me.
Before too long dark fills the void between tree trunk and branches, the shrubs and the forest floor, and even in every crack of this stone wall. I can no longer see through the sights on my black powder rifle. I stand up slowly. I lean my gun against the hemlock and use my hands pushing downward against my hips to straighten out my back. It hurts. I grimace. Once straight I take the first step. A smile comes to my face as I hoist my rifle and place the sling over my shoulder. I am walking and I’m going to enjoy every last step on my way down this wooded hill as I journey back to the comfort of a warm wood stove and a good conversation with my ever loving wife.
Every moment precious.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in December of 2010.