Things are worse than many of us are admitting. I’m a brassbound optimist by habit—I’m an optimist in the same way that I am righthanded, and will always be. It’s simpler to be an optimist and it’s a sensible defense against the uncertainties and abysses which otherwise confront us prematurely—we can die a dozen deaths and then usually we find that the outcome is not one we predicted, neither so “bad” nor “good,” but one we hadn’t taken into consideration at all. In an election, though, for instance, where it’s only a question of #1 or #2, I confidently assume that whoever seems to be the better fellow is going to win. When sometimes he doesn’t, I begin to feel quite sure that perhaps the other man, now in a position of responsibility, will shift around to views much closer to my own. If this doesn’t occur either, then I fall back on my fuzzy but rooted belief that people of opposed opinions at least do share the quality of good-heartedness, of wanting good things to happen, and so events finally will work out for the best.
The trouble is that they’re not working out for the best. Even the cheerfully inveterate sardonicists, whose chirpy pessimism is an affirmation of sorts, are growing dispirited and alarmed. And it’s not just the liberals; the unease emanates from everybody, Republicans and Christian Scientists—the lapel buttons and bumper stickers and decal figures imply a kind of general clamming-up, a sense of being beleaguered, maybe a panic at the great numbers of people we each pass in a single day—this with the hardening of sects of opinion which have despaired of conversing with one another but only holler out code words and threats. Many people think about finding some peaceful holing-up spot, which may be in the suburbs, or if the individual has already opted for the suburbs, may be up toward Mount Katahdin. As soon as he can afford it he starts wanting a second home, a place to recuperate from the place where he lives while he works, and though it used to be that such a home was frankly a luxury, now nearly everybody who makes a middleclass living starts to think about buying a cottage in the woods or a boat at the shore, if just for the sake of his health. The thirty-hour week, so heralded, may mean three hard ten-hour days of work in the city and then a fast retreat for everybody (in shifts) to what will pass for “the country” in twenty years, there to lead the leisure life, building canoes and greenhouses and picket fences.
I grew up in the suburbs. My father left for New York City every weekday morning and got home about seven P.M. The commuting was grueling and he liked a change of scene on his vacations in later years, but we didn’t need to have a country cottage, since we saw deer in the evening and grew a Victory Garden during the war; there was a feed store in town, painted with checkerboards, where the local farmers talked about chicken diseases and trapping weasels. A man named Frank Weed trained pheasant dogs professionally, and my sister when she was growing up went across the road and watched a calf born every spring. Both she and I spent part of our childhoods developing a special sympathy for the animal personality. There was a magical fullness to my perceptions when I was with my dogs, a heat-lightning shiver and speed, quicker than words. Of course to rule is a pleasure, and yet as happiness, as intimacy, these interludes are not to be dismissed, and the experience of sensing other wave lengths in the world besides the human gabble needs woods and fields and isn’t found as easily now.
The out-of-doors was everything to me. I spent the summer mornings on Miss Walker’s big estate, vaulting the brooks, climbing the pines, creeping along the rabbit paths. Then I made lemonade for the afternoon heat wave and lay on the screen porch listening to Mel Allen broadcast the Yankee game. There’d be a thunderstorm and I would lie in the backyard for that, watching the black clouds brew, feeling the wind. Soaked, grinning, I’d go and sit inside the chickencoop for the clubbiness of the chickens, whose pecking order I knew all about. And later I traveled to prep school carrying my alligators wrapped in a blanket to protect them from the cold. But I loved Tommy Henrich too; I was a hero-worshiper. And at night, when I was jittery, I returned to the city, where I’d lived earlier—I jumped off the Empire State Building in the most frequent dream and flew with uneven success between the skyscrapers by flapping my arms. Winters were spent in galoshes, fooling on the schoolbus. Those bus rides were the best part of the day; we had no teacher accompanying us and the driver put up with anything. There was a boy who kept a Model A to tinker with when he got home; another was the quarterback who won our football games; another the school mathematician or “brain.” The mechanic has since turned into a clergyman, the quarterback works humbly for General Electric, the mathematician is mad. One nondescript goof-off has made a million dollars, and his chum of the period is a social worker with addicts. Of my own friends, the precocious radical has become a stockbroker and the knockabout juvenile delinquent journeys now in Africa. The same sea changes seem to have affected even the houses that I knew. Mrs. Holcomb’s, where I took piano lessons, is now the Red Cross Headquarters; Dr. Ludlow’s, where I went for inoculations, has become the town museum. Miss Walker’s woodsy acres are the Nature Study Center, and the farm where my sister watched the calves born—Mr. Hulendorf’s—has been subdivided into a deluxe set of hutches called “Historic Homes.”
Wherever, whoever we were, we’ve been squeezed out of the haunts of our childhood, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t have been. The question is only whether we are gradually being squeezed out of all possible homes. To the fear of dying of the ailments that killed our fathers, of angina or driving badly, we have an added, overlying trepidation that life may be shortened anyway for all of us. Old age seems not to exist as a possibility culturally, and the generalized future seems incomprehensible—exploding, crazily variant developments to be fitted together. The more successful and propulsive a man of affairs is, the more freckled and browned he usually looks, so that when he finally folds up in exhaustion, he must correspond to a tree which has turned to punk inside the bark invisibly and which suddenly crumbles. Aging used to be a slow process involving wasting less and less of one’s energy as well as having less energy, and so, for a long while at least, the pleasure in one’s increased effectiveness just about balanced the sadness of winding down. And as a man lost some of his youthful idealism, he lost, too, some of the brutality that goes along with being young: a balance was maintained there also. Now he’s either young or on the shelf, and if he’s on the shelf he’s savage.
When my father was dying I had a dream which amounts to a first memory, brought up intact like some frozen fossil which the ice has preserved. I was diapered, lying on my back in his hands, well before I could talk. From comparing my size in his hands to my daughter’s size right now I would guess I was about ten months old. I was struggling, kicking, and he was dandling me, blowing in my ear, a sensation too ticklish, too delicious to bear. Squealing, powerless to prevent his doing it, I loved it, though at the same time I was dependent upon him to stop before it became excruciating—I was waving my arms in the air trying to protect my ears. But the best, vividest piece of the memory is the whirring, vital presence of my father, with deep eyes and a humming voice, at a peak of life; I remember his strong hands. Even his early baldness seemed to add to his vigor because it made for more area of skin. He was several years younger than I am now, and so the continuity of seeing him then and myself now, and seeing him die, is startling.
This memory feeds on to the pinpoint events of a train wreck in Nebraska a year later, and to the familiar jumble of childhood. During the Depression we lived in the city; there were singers in the air shaft whom the maid and I threw dimes down to, wrapped in toilet paper so that they wouldn’t bounce too far. I pulled the bow of her apron to tease her twenty times a day and she took me to Catholic church, whose mysteries I remember better than the inside of our church, though once recently when I was hurrying along Lexington Avenue I was brought up short by the sight of a mnemonic, worn brick wall that shook me—Sunday School. My parents reappeared in youthful roles, and I could remember something about that whole extraordinary masquerade which one plays as a child—pretending to learn to read, as if we didn’t know already, pretending to learn to tell the time, as if we hadn’t known all about clocks for years and years.
My father was a financial lawyer. I went at first to an English-type school called St. Bernard’s and to birthday parties at the St. Regis Hotel. I remember too watching King George pass in a cavalcade on Fifth Avenue from a dowager’s wide windows. But Eisenhower, another wartime eminence whom I saw feted from those windows, represents much better my father’s style. The side of Eisenhower that wasn’t glamorous like Clark Gable resembled my father—the grin, the Kansas accent, the Middlewestern forehead, the levelheaded calmness or caution, the sanguine and good-tempered informality. Each was a poor-boy democrat and a Republican; each stood out for rural, old-time values, though personally preferring to hang out at the golf club with industrialists; each was softer in manner than the average soldier or lawyer; and each had a Chinese face lurking behind the prosaic American bones which materialized inchmeal as he aged and died.
When it was possible to procrastinate my father did, being a dreamy man, but he was decisive at the end. He went for a sail solo overnight in his little sloop before turning himself in, exhausted, to the doctor with cancer signals, and while he was waiting to die, still ambulatory, he journeyed to Sarasota with my mother. She could scarcely get him to leave before it was too late for him to go under his own power, but then he settled into the house in Connecticut for the last siege with gallantry and gaiety, so that the big busty hard nurse, accustomed as she was to seeing men die, actually fell in love with him and became inconsolable. He enjoyed the ripening spring weather, the phonograph, the house he loved, and kept hold of his self-command (what, after all, can one do with one’s time in those last weeks except to be friendly?). He talked on the telephone, blinked in the brightening sun—to overhear him in the final conversations he had with friends was piercing. And he did want the Church to fulfill its appointed duties, so when a cub minister was sent to visit him he wasn’t satisfied with the small talk they were able to muster. Then an old senior minister, a tippler with a crumpled face, came and told him that he faced “a great adventure,” which he accepted as being probably about as good a construction as anybody was going to be able to put on it. My mother saw horses with blowing manes climbing the sky for weeks after he died.
If we are to contrive to lead two lives now, one in the city and one near Katahdin, we can draw some quick assurance from the fact that our backgrounds individually are even more diverse than that. I’ve got millers, tailors, and outdoorsmen in mine, real outdoorsmen to whom the summer soldiers’ Mount Katahdin would be a tasty canapé. Though the two names, Morley and Hoagland, fit together neatly for me because I’m so used to them, the families—my mother’s and father’s—stretch back in complicated, quite disparate fashion, the Hoaglands to early Brooklyn; later they lived in New Jersey. They came out badly in the Revolutionary War—the branch of them I know about. A skirmish with the British a few minutes’ walk from their farm put several of them out of commission for the rest of their lives. The ones who weren’t too demoralized moved West and South shortly afterward to Lexington, Kentucky, where they did fairly well, except that again my own ancestors after a generation or so migrated on by boat and wagon to the farming country of Bardolph, Illinois, where they spent the Civil War. One who had marched with Sherman, however, creaked on from Bardolph by wagon to Hutchinson, Kansas, where he farmed a Soldier’s Land Claim, and kept a hotel, and worked with team and wagon on the construction of the Santa Fe, and wound up as the County Agricultural Agent and a Freemason. Though there were proud Eastern Hoaglands who belonged to the upper crust all along, and though other Hoaglands split away to seek lonelier, unknown destinies, most of my branch of the family were farmers consistently for two or three hundred years, right back to Brooklyn, and they appear to have filtered away into the soil finally, or else to have gone to Los Angeles with the rest of the prairie farmers who scraped together a few thousand dollars, there joining the middling middle class.
One early, pale fellow loyally fought cholera in the Kentucky epidemic of 1823, dying at his post, and my grandfather, who was a doctor too, died abruptly of meningitis in the 1930’s after a somewhat bumpy career, mostly practicing obstetrics in Kansas City. He was a husky-faced, square-set man with a red complexion, certainly a kindly doctor, but he found it hard to make a living and for several interludes went down to the bayou lumber camps in Louisiana to work as a company physician. His oldest child died of a fever on one of these trips; his youngest died in his arms after being hit by a trolley a little bit later. And his wife, too, died young. I have the impression his happiest years were while he was in the Medical Corps during the First World War. He and my father got along quite well and my father, despite his coups and travels later on, would have gone to the state university and presumably stayed in Kansas City if he hadn’t at the last minute noticed a scholarship competition for Yale on his school’s bulletin board. Being a lawyer, and the son of a doctor, he thought we had become a family of professionals and hoped that I would enter one of the professions—if not either of those then what he called “the cloth”—rather than be a businessman. When I wound up a writer he was utterly taken by surprise.
The Morleys, by contrast, were merchants instead of farmers for as far back as I am aware. They arrived in the New World after the Hoaglands did, and whatever matters they applied themselves to when they first got off the boat, they were in upstate New York for a while, before settling in Painesville, Ohio in the 19th century. The Morley burial plot is still in Painesville, along with a rambling white house with long porches and a poppy and gentian field in the rear—a sort of American “seat,” in other words, which the Hoaglands lack. It was partly the Morleys’ clannishness that put me off them when I was a boy. By 1900 they were worthy people with fat family businesses, big family weddings—the marriages were patriarchal; none of your warlike American ladies there—and they kept right on flourishing until by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned through town, they wouldn’t even walk down to the railroad depot just to set eyes on the man. Since I’d been brought up among the comforts my father’s breadwinning had earned, these shrewd breadwinning businessmen from Painesville, and Saginaw, Michigan, and Aberdeen, Washington, seemed like vaguely unsavory bores to me. The family dinners, occurring whenever there was a visit, intimidated me; the questioning was bluff, immediate, and intimate, as if blood were thicker than water. Yet I remember that when my great-uncle Ralph came East for the last time, knowing he was soon to die, he rented his suite at the Biltmore and invited my father up, and spent that last interview with us reading aloud with relish the notebook notations he kept in an inside pocket of what his stockmarket portfolio was. My father, who had nothing to do with handling the Morleys’ money, was astonished. This stingy or mercenary quality afflicting many of the Morleys is in me also, but they were a varied, florid crew whom a less Protestant person than myself would have found fascinating from the start, and next to whom we of the present tribe are insipid fellows—the Morleys are following the Hoaglands into modest extinction, part of the Johnny Carson family.
Their pride and principal vocation during the time between the two World Wars was Morley Bros., a department store and statewide hardware dealership located in Saginaw. Before opening that, my mother’s grandfather had had a saddlery business in Chicago, after leaving Painesville as a young man. While getting his Chicago operation going, he married a packinghouse heiress, a Kelley (the family had sold out to Armour and added the second “e”). Then, in Saginaw, he founded a bank as a kind of sideline. Banking intrigued him, but during the 1929 boom he sold the bank to a big Detroit bank that was looking for mergers. He happened to be in New York City on a business trip in October in the first black days of the Crash. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, realizing that the Detroit bank was overcommitted and might have to close, he hated to think of his own town’s bank collapsing along with it, and so he caught a Pullman home. The panic was spreading West, the officers in Detroit already saw the handwriting on the wall, and, hurrying to rally the help of a few other citizens of Saginaw, he was able to buy back the Saginaw bank and save it, in a fine hour.
There is much to the Morleys that I don’t know about and much to be said for them. Two women of Northern persuasion wrote action-filled, observant diaries during the Civil War, for instance—all about guerrillas and the battlefronts along the Mississippi. But for a long time, certainly throughout my teens, it was my wish to start from scratch and make my own way in the world without the help of relatives. The Morleys were always boosting each other, some were slightly Babbittlike, and they assumed, aggravatingly, that any relative was fair game for their gregariousness. Besides, my socialist sentiments leaned more toward the Hoaglands on their dirt farms—they were pleasingly faceless to me, the few I’d seen having just been the Los Angeles transplants. Of course I’d traveled through enough Kansas farming communities to know how little tolerance people there would show for an oddball like me if they perceived my true colors; so, glad to let them remain faceless, I simply liked to think of myself as anchored (in theory, at least) in the heartland, in the Wheat Belt.
Lately it’s become the rage to ridicule young radicals from middle-class backgrounds who pretend to themselves that they are black or are blue-collar, when actually all they need to do if things get tough is reach a telephone to raise bail money or be invited home. The ridicule has been a political weapon because what most bothers people about these young persons is their accomplishment in challenging the nation’s stance. I was in their shoes in the 1950’s, and we weren’t challenging anybody successfully; we kept our heads down, lived privately, and we were few and far between: perhaps the troubles of the present time may owe a little something to our ineffectuality. But, like these activists, I’m sure, I was aware of the inconsistencies in my own position—being only too eager to give my parents’ suburban address to officialdom, instead of my grubby Lower East Side street number, if I edged into a jam. Despite the inconsistencies, it seemed to me then that I had the choice of either going out in the world and seeing what was foreign and maybe wretched, having experiences which were not strictly necessary in my case, and caring, however uselessly, or else of spending my summer on the tennis courts and on the terrace at the country club, as some of my schoolmates were doing. The head start they supposed they had on people born into different surroundings has often proved illusory, and, anyway, the effort to make a beginning on independent lines, not piggyback on one’s father’s achievements, seemed admirable, even traditional in America until recently. It’s just lately, with the exasperated warfare between the generations, that attempting to make a new start for oneself is ridiculed.
Although I would have been willing to ignore most facets of the life of the town where I grew up, luckily it wasn’t possible for me to do that. So I have the many loose-leaf memories a hometown is supposed to provide—of the Kane children, whose father was a gardener and who threw jackknives at trees whenever they were mad, which, living as they did in other people’s garages, was a good deal of the time; of setter field trials and local football; of woebegone neighbors and abrupt marital puzzles—a wife who rejoiced when her husband died and buried him before his friends knew there was going to be a funeral. There were some advertising people so rich that they lived in one large house by themselves and kept their children in another house a hundred yards away. There was a young architect struck into stone with polio, and a lady who collected impoverished nobles in Italy after the war and whose husband, left sick at home, made the maid disrobe at gunpoint when he finally got lonely. On the dark roads after supper you’d see more than one commuter taking a determined-looking constitutional, walking fast for miles, as if to get his emotions under control.
After my father’s death we sold our home and set about looking for new places to consider home, not an easy task. The memory was of twenty rooms, artesian water, a shady lawn, a little orchard and many majestic maples and spruce, all situated where an old crossroads stagecoach inn had stood. None of us came up with an arrangement to equal that, but my mother has an apartment in the city and a trim picturebook house on Martha’s Vineyard Island. My sister married and, with her husband, found a farmhouse in Connecticut near his work with five or six acres on which she put ten horses, in order to start a riding stable. These were snake-necked, branded horses that they’d brought in a van from California, right off the range, with a long winter’s growth of hair. The neighbors, who believed that life ought to have a dual, contemporary character, rushed to the Zoning Board to express dismay that in a fast-developing, year-round community the regulations hadn’t yet been revised to bar such activities, which seemed more appropriate to a summer home. They were right to think it surprising, and yet the Board was awfully reluctant to declare once and for all, officially, that the era of farms and barns had ended: A compromise was struck.
I married too and live in western Greenwich Village, which is an ungeometric district of architecture in a smorgasbord and little stores. There is a massive wholesale meat market in the neighborhood, a gypsy moving industry, many printing plants and bakeries, a trading center for antiques, a dozen ocean-oriented wharves, and four or five hundred mysterious-looking enterprises in lofts, each of which could either be a cover for the Federal Narcotics Bureau or house an inventor-at-work. I like the variety (the Mounted Police have a stable two blocks away, the spice industry’s warehouses are not far south)—I like the low, 19-century houses alongside bars with rock juke boxes and all the swoosh of à la mode. The pull or the necessity of living in the city seems only to grow stronger as every sort of development is telescoped into a briefer span of time. We can either live in our own period or decline to, and to decline would revoke many other choices we have. Mostly what we try to do is live with one foot in the 70’s and one foot in an earlier decade—the foot that doesn’t mind going to sleep and maybe missing something.
I’ve just bought a house of my own in Vermont, eight rooms with a steel roof, all painted a witching green. It’s two miles from the nearest light pole and it was cheap, but it’s got forty acres, extending in a diamond-shape, that back up to five thousand acres of state-owned land, and stands in a basin just underneath the western-style peak of a stiff little mountain that curves around in front, Wheeler Mountain. The Wheelers, our only neighbors, live next door on a three-hundred-acre farm, growing up in aspen, balsam, birch, and pine, just as our land is. Mr. Wheeler, who is in his eighties now, was a fireman on the Grand Trunk Railroad for much of his life but grew up here and returned during the Depression. His father had pioneered the land; the Butterfields pioneered mine. The Butterfields built a log house close to old Mr. Wheeler’s, for whom Mr. Butterfield worked. There was a sawmill, a sugar house, and even a granite quarry on Wheeler’s place. The log house was really more like a root house than living-quarters, to judge from the photographs we have, so in 1900 Mr. Butterfield and his three sons built this new home out of sawn spruce and big granite foundation blocks and plaster mixed from sand from the Boiling Spring over the hill. Their lame old horse did the hauling and pulled the scoop when they dug out the cellar hole, and young Wheeler, a schoolboy then, helped nail the laths.
Butterfield was a rough character, he says, “part Indian,” as the phrase goes, but you could depend on him to do a job. His mother-in-law lived with the family, constantly fighting with him. She called him dumb and crude because he couldn’t do sums; she wrote a column of numbers on the wall and watched him fail to add it. About 1909 he shot her, took his remaining relatives next door for refuge, and shot himself. There are bullet holes, stopped up with putty, and it is claimed that that nagging column of numbers on the parlor wall had finally been added correctly. Newspaper reporters buzzed around, the property soon passed to the Stanley family, and Burt Stanley, who was a stonemason, farmed it in his spare time until his death in the 1930’s. Then a tax bill of thirteen dollars came due. His widow, Delia, was unable to pay it (some say she paid it but got no receipt). The town tax collector, a fellow named Byron Bundy, foreclosed and sold her home to a crony of his named Gray, who quickly reconveyed the place to Bundy himself. Bundy died, the house stood empty through World War II (the porcupines chewing away like carpenters at the corners and edges), and his heirs sold it to our predecessors at a joke of a price.
So I’m getting a grip on the ground, in other words—gathering the stories of what went on and poking in the woods. It’s certainly not an onerous chore; I’ve explored so many woodlots which weren’t mine. Up among the mountain ledges is a cave as big as a band concert shell, and a narrow unexpected swamp with pitcher plants growing in it, very lush, a spring that springs out of a rock, and a huge ash sheltered in a hollow which has disguised its height and kept the loggers and the lightning off. Not far away is a whetstone ledge where a little businesslike mining used to be done. And there are ravens, bats, barred owls, a hawk or two, and tales of big bears in the pasture and somebody being cornered by a bull. Delphiniums, mint, lemon lilies, catnip, wild roses, and marigolds grow next to the house. Storer’s snakes live in the woodpile, as well as garter snakes, brick-colored and black. In the spring dogtooth violets come up, and trilliums, Dutchman’s-breeches, boxflowers, foamflowers, and lady’s-slippers. And in the fall the fields fill up with goldenrod and brown-eyed susans, aster, fireweed. Raspberries grow in masses; also blackberries, blueberries, wild cherries, and wild plums. The apple orchard is complicated in its plotting, because these farmers wanted apples in late summer—Dutch apples and Mcintosh—and then another set of trees which ripened in the autumn, perhaps Baldwins or Northern Spies, and lastly the hard winter apples, which weren’t sweet and which they canned or cooked as applesauce or “sulphured” to keep till spring. An orchard was a man’s bequest to his children, being something that they couldn’t promptly create for themselves when the land passed to them. I’ve got more going on on that hill slope of apple trees than I know about; and the fruit falls finally, the deer and bears eat it—the bears when they have grown impatient waiting have bashed down whole limbs.
In New York my home is New York; nothing less than the city itself is worth the abrasion of living there; the alterations go on so fast that favorite hangouts go by the boards in a month’s time; the stream of people and sensation is the thing. But in the country the one word is exactitude. If you don’t like the barn behind the house and the slant of the land and the trees that you face, then you’re not going to be happy. The Canadian climate of north Vermont makes for an ideal second home because in four months three seasons can be witnessed—June is spring, September already is autumn. The moonlight is wheat-colored in August, and the mountain rises with protean gradualism to a taciturn, round peak. On the east face is a wall which, if you walk around that way, can look to be nine thousand feet; the granite turns ice-white. The trees puff in the moonlight to swirling, steeplish shapes, or look like ferns. During the day sometimes a fog will effect the same exaggerated trick. High up, the wind blows harder, gnarling the spruce and bringing clouds swiftly across like clouds in the high Rockies; you seldom have a sense of just what altitude you’re at. Every winter the deer yard under the cliffs in a cedar copse, and on the opposite side, the valley behind the hill that lies behind the Wheeler’s house and mine has never been farmed and is so big it is called Big Valley. Vast and thick with trees, it’s like an inlet of the sea, sending off a sheen in midsummer as you look down on it.
There was a local man who could run down the deer and knife them, he had such endurance—he could keep up with their first dash and as they porpoised through the woods, could keep going longer than they could. He hung the meat in a tree by his cabin to freeze, and liked raccoons particularly also, so that by midwinter the tree was strung with upwards of thirty raccoons, skinned and dressed, suspended like white pineapples. Another character, whose complexion was silver-colored, made a regular business out of bountying porcupines. The town paid fifty cents per pair of ears, and sometimes he brought in a hundred pairs. He claimed he had a super-hunting-dog, but actually he was cutting out triangular snips of stomach skin to make a dozen “porcupines” for every one he killed. He didn’t do enough real work to break the Sabbath, as they say, and didn’t lay in hay enough to last his cattle through the winter, so that by the end of February he would be dragging birch trees to the barn for them to scrape a living from. For spending money, he gave boxing lessons at night in the waiting room of the old railroad station at the foot of the hill. Roy Lord, who lives across from where the station was, learned to box from him. Lord has shot seventy-three deer in his lifetime. He lives with a sneezing parrot, fifty-six-years-old, and a bull terrier who lost an eye in a fight in the driveway—he points out the spot where the eye fell. And he can recite the details of the murders and suicides in the neighborhood going back forty years—all the fights with fenceposts, all the dirty cheating deals and sullen, strange inheritances. He’s learned the secrets of more than one suspicious death because he’s made it a point over the years to get right to the scene, sometimes even before the police. Or they’d be gathering reinforcements, distributing riot guns and radioing for instructions in front of the house, while Lord would sneak around to the back door and pop inside and see the way the brains were sprayed and where the body lay and where the gun was propped, and damn well know it wasn’t suicide. There was a family of Indians here, who’d murdered somebody in Canada and buried him in their cellar and moved across the border. They slept on a pile of old buffalo robes laid on the floor. The daughter, a half-breed, went back into the woods in a fit of despondency and found a cliff and jumped. Then when the men had died as well, the last of them, a white-haired old woman, stretched out on the railroad tracks with her neck on a rail and ended it that way. (Lord tells these stories while watching the TV—sheriffs slugging baddies and bouncers punching drunks. His son was a sniper in the Pacific theater, stalking the Japanese like deer; is now a quiet bachelor who works in Massachusetts, driving home weekends.)
I’m transplanting some spruce and beginning to clear my upper field of striped maple and arctic birch. I’m also rehabilitating a chickencoop to serve as a playhouse when our baby is four or five. The barn is sturdy, moderate-sized, un-painted, built with used planking fifteen years ago. Although our place when I was a boy probably had a better barn, I took that one for granted. Now I stand in my own barn and look up at the joists and rafters, the beams under the hayloft, the king posts, struts, and studding, the slabs of wood nailed angularly for extra strength. It’s all on the same pattern as the other barns in town and yet I marvel at it. The junk inside consists of whiffle trees, neck yokes and harness, a tractor and a harrow, neither functional, and painters’ ladders, milking stools, and broken stanchions. In the attic of the house are smaller memorabilia, like fox and beaver traps, deer antlers and tobacco cans of clean deer lard, an old grindstone, an old bedpan, a pair of high green boots, a pile of Reader’s Digests, which when matched with our assorted miscellany and childhood books, stacked up, and different boxes of letters and snapshots (snapshots of the prairie Hoaglands seventy years ago, posed in joky insouciance—Hoaglands who would have felt at home here), will be the attic our daughter grows up to know.
Freight trains hoot through town; there is a busy blacksmith, a Ben Franklin store, and a rest home called Poole’s, whose telephone is the night number for all emergency facilities. People say “the forenoon” and say a man whose wife has left him “keeps bachelor’s hall.” Our predecessors in the house, the B’s, ate groundhogs on occasion, parboiled, and deer in season and out, and, though we’re easier on the game, we cook on their wood stove and light with kerosene, and, just as in the platitudes, it’s a source of ease and peace. Nothing hokum-yokum, just a sense of competence and self-sufficiency. Everything takes time—when it’s too dark to read we cook supper, hearing the calling of the owls; then maybe I take the dogs for a walk, playing the blind god. Of course I wouldn’t want to get along with wood and kerosene all winter. Nor do I want to turn the clock back. It’s simply doing what is necessary, because there is one kind of necessity in the city and another here.
The B.’s moved only around the mountain when we bought their farm. The stove is one Mr. B.’s father acquired in 1921—the salesman drove up with a team and wagon piled with iron stoves and told him that if he could break the lid of any of them he could have the whole stove free. The spring we pipe our water from Mr. B. found himself, using water-witching procedures. The first time that he dug a catch-hole, however, he tried enlarging it with dynamite. One stick worked all right (detonated with the tractor engine), but when he got greedy and wanted still a bigger source, he put in two more sticks and blew the spring away, tipping the base rock so that the water flowed by other routes. He had to go dowsing again, farther from the house, but found a new spot underground where three trickles joined together in front of a tree, and dug more modestly this time, although the overflow was sufficient for Mrs. B. to raise beds of celery there.
I might as well have begun this essay by saying that things are better than we think. In the public domain they’re not; and we can’t glance ahead with pleasure to the world our children will inhabit—more than us, perhaps, they will have to swim for dear life. But middle age is the time when we give more than we get—give love, give work, seek sites. And sites can still be found, at least. You may discover you need two houses, but you can find your homes and set to work, living for the decade.