by CB Bassity
Beginning in 1973 Marcia and
I honeymooned for six years in a hundred-year-old farmhouse in upstate
New York, about six miles from the St. Lawrence river and Ontario, Canada
beyond. To say that we were part of the back-to-the-land movement
is hopeless shorthand oversimplification, yet it will have to do.
We lived two and a half miles out on a dirt road, at virtual road’s-end
for almost half the year. When the town snowplow finally got around
to us (usually two to three days after any snow), it backed into our driveway,
turned around, and returned to civilization. You could drive the
remaining six torturous miles past our home to the next county only between
April and November when the snows cleared. Our nearest neighbors,
the Fricks, lived a half mile to the north. But in the other directions
wilderness stretched for several miles, acres and acres of abandoned farms
and forest-land; ponds, creeks, and marshy lowlands that the beaver and
other wildlife were reclaiming.
We lived in our hundred-year-old home under a caretaker arrangement. For the grand sum of one dollar a year, to validate the lease, we had the use of that house, the carriage shed, and a log-walled barn out back where I kept goats, a cow, some hogs, chickens, and other stock including a horse and a mule. Our landlord’s holding totaled nearly seven hundred acres. We were free to live as wild as the ducks and the beaver that surrounded us. Even my livestock roamed free of fences since we had no neighbors or field crops they might intrude on.
Our home was the “Baldwin place”; Florence Baldwin, a spinster school teacher, had lived there in horse and buggy days. It was a good, tight, two-bedroom, two-story, plain, white house of plank construction, like so many others of its vintage. The old plank houses were built in the mid- to late-eighteen hundreds, when land was being cleared for farming and timber was plentiful. (Timber was so plentiful, even beyond the needs of loggers, that in order to clear fields huge piles of timber were burned partially, converted to charcoal, and hauled to urban centers like Syracuse for fuel.) Unlike today's frame homes, whose construction is more conservative of lumber, the plank houses were framed like barns, with eight-by-eight-inch beams in the corners and for floor sills. The walls were solidly faced with two-by-twelve-inch hemlock planks covered with lath and plaster within and lapped siding without.
During our six years on the county line we didn’t see our landlord more than twice. He was a New Jersey industrial chemist (he worked in plastics); he had bought the land as an investment. Shortly after Marcia and I married in 1975, he stopped by one morning; he warmly and sincerely wished us the best, and left us a bottle of Chivas Regal. (Our marriage: We had arranged it for July twelfth, the midst of haying season—I took the day off. Bill Molloy, justice of the peace, came in from haying, showered, couldn’t find his shoes, and then asked demurely, “Is this your first wedding?” It was. “Mine, too,” he said—“I mean, the first one I’ve done.” Driving away afterward, we found his kids had tied a string of cans to our back bumper—we thought the muffler had fallen off.) Our landlord had bought the place for $100 an acre and meant to sell it for twice that; but it wasn’t meant to be. Last I heard he still owned it. Marcia and I once considered buying the 80 acre tract our home sat on, but the terms of sale were all or nothing. The value of that property surely appreciated some, but not much; so while our landlord had a reasonable hope of gain in the future, he realized little or no tangible use of the property. Much of the area surrounding us was similarly dormant, economically speaking. So, although Marcia and I didn’t own the place where we lived, we might as well have. The land was ours to the extent that for six years only God was better acquainted with it than we were.
During the long nights of December the ice of the beaverpond across the road cracked like a rifle shot and echoed through the frozen silence, a sound that never traveled to New Jersey. When the Northern lights played a visual symphony across the night sky, it was for our benefit. One January night when the temperature was 28 degrees below zero and the north wind howled its threats at every living thing not protected by fur or snow or four tight walls, we sat inches from the roaring fire in the wood stove and still felt the cold reaching for us; the thundering breath of mortality that shook our walls was unavailable in New Jersey. When flocks of Canadian geese flew so low over the house that we could hear the rustling of their feathers along with the plaintive ha-ronks, where was the profit in New Jersey?
I wandered many a mile, sometimes on snowshoes in the winter, mostly just observing. I grew familiar with the neighborhood, and I still recall certain trees, certain stands of oaks, maples, hemlocks; and the ridges, the meadows, and the cedar swamp. I remember the beaver ponds where I hunted ducks in (and sometimes out of) season; and the red maple swamp that I roamed in winter on its frozen surface, and in summer would canoe or wade through. Each winter I cut a year’s firewood and one Christmas-tree. There was a sugar maple grove where I gathered sap and boiled it down to syrup, and I remember one tree in particular, a three-bucket tree, that out-yielded all others due to its size and favorable location in a hollow between two hills. I can still feel the first warm breeze of sugaring season that signaled the beginning of the end of winter, late in February and into March. I can even smell that breeze, when all fecundity held frozen through the long winter breaks out and sails free.
Even in warm weather we had the area mostly to ourselves. Lilac bushes thrived along our front porch, and for weeks in the spring every breeze carried perfume through the screens and into the house from the purple and white flower clusters. And during the time when the lilacs were blooming, after any rain we could hunt around fallen dead elms or aspens and find morel mushrooms. In June we picked ripe wild strawberries, sometimes still wet with morning dew. Early summer evenings, as I left the barn from milking chores, the night-hawk would call, bzeeeep . . . bzeeeep, before its mating dance. Squinting into the damp, cool, dusky sky I could find—there, down in the meadow—the two dark forms flying straight up, high into the sky, where they would dart and flutter and then swoop to the ground again, bzeeep . . . bzeeep . . . . Through the summer, redwing blackbirds sang a chorus of chirdle-queeeeeez, and ducks and herons were our neighbors in the beaver pond across the road. Our German Shepherd, Rufus, our mighty protector, was scared of thunder, and after twice replacing our front door screen where he tore through it, eyes ablaze, we learned to either close the inside door or let him inside during summer thunder showers.
Weary from summer's heat and work, the cool Fall was welcome. Slashing rains, falling in windblown sheets, carried leaves to the ground and painted the landscape in browns and grays, dreary to the unappreciative eye. But these were duck-hunting days, and I loved the burnt smell of gunpowder and the chance of bringing dinner tumbling out of the sky. I came home to a stove-warmed house and hot coffee. Rufus waited wild-eyed outside the door, eager for my return but frightened of the shotgun.
It was a land of shotguns and hunting rifles. Traffic increased on our road to maybe two dozen vehicles a week in deer and duck seasons. Sometime during the twenty-some-odd years our house had stood vacant before we moved in, a bullet had drilled neatly through the front room window and lodged in the opposite wall: probably from one of the carloads of high-school kids who marked the coming of spring, like the first robins, by cruising the roads in cars or pickups bristling with rifle barrels, shooting woodchucks. Ruth Butler, Ben Butler’s wife, said a man had intended to move into our house one time but stayed only overnight; the next morning, shaving, he noticed, just to the side of the mirror he had hung on the wall, the bullet hole. He stopped by the Butlers’ long enough to explain that he sure as hell wouldn’t stay in a place like that. Ben, a retired miner (and assorted other trades), eighty-something and growing dotty, had a warm smile and lucid blue eyes—and lucid moments too. He often sat on his front step and shot chipmunks, picked them off with a .22 pistol. “Everybody thinks they’re cute,” he said. “Hell, they’re nothing but rodents, damn rodents.” Every year Ben renewed his blasting license, and every now and then the neighborhood would reverberate with a mighty boom when he blew up the beaver dam that threatened to flood our road. We saw quite a bit of the Butlers; our mailbox was out front of their house, along with theirs and our other two neighbors’.
We grew familiar with Robert and Thelma Frick, too, and especially their son Pete—and with old Joe Fauteaux (locally pronounced “Fodo”) who lived in unfathomable symbiosis in a closet-sized trailer just steps from the Fricks’ front door, closer than their barn, and who, nonetheless, hated Robert Frick with ungodly but inexplicable passion. Once, when we took Joe along with us to Gouverneur, a half hour away, for groceries, we returned to the Grand Union from another errand to find him waiting; his grocery bags were labeled “Frick”—“It’s a hell of a lot easier that way; nobody can spell Fauteaux.”
None of those people knew the man who owned the tracts Marcia and I lived on. They wouldn’t have recognized him at all. He was essentially a stranger in our neighborhood. He approached me once about building fence to enclose his land; he would supply the materials and I’d supply the labor. Someone had suggested that he could make money “running cattle.” He thought you just turn cattle loose on the place, and that was it—they’d make money.
And so an irony grew in my mind. Some people had paid thousands to own that land, yet lived removed from it. Even though we were only boarders, temporary residents, we profited from the land, more than they did, the outsiders who held legal title to it. I think much differently now about what it means to “own” land. Its value has little to do with owning, and everything to do with being there.
CB Bassity ©1993 All Rights Reserved