Picking up sticks, looking through notches

I picked up a woodpile this morning (not all at once). I had smashed it with a falling maple on Sunday, with the help of my son Freedom (old family name, by the way, though he tells people his parents were hippies). There was nowhere else to fell the tree. In fact, we had to drop the tree in a slot between the cabin and the outhouse. With the help of a long rope (and Freedom on the other end of it), we put the tree where we wanted it, which was right across a single stack of firewood eight feet long by three or four feet high piled between two stumps and full of rounders (smaller unsplit logs). When the trunk of the maple smashed into it, it made a sound like a strike to the pocket at a ten-pin alley, or rather simultaneous strikes across all the lanes. We cut off the limbs and diced up the logs and dragged the brush away. The tree was a red maple, which splits well. Freedom whacked up some of the pieces – and then went back to Boston.

So I had to rebuild the pile myself. Picking up sticks, playing with blocks – “oh, just another game,” as Frost says of wall mending. Why should children have all the fun? Age is second childhood. Last week in the woods in back of the house I cleared a nave between two maples to show off a glacial erratic (a car-sized boulder) sitting right under the middle of the vault. The boulder reminded me of the big rock at the edge of the field that was the physical end of the world I inhabited for the first six years of my life in Cheshire, Connecticut. This one is like a massive dark altar in a natural cathedral. Standing on top of it, you are higher than the top of the house and can see the gentle summit of Bald Mountain rising above the trees farther down the mountainside.

We had cut the maple down to improve the view from the top of a slope from which we had already cleared the small trees. I had cleared the same slope 25 years ago, but it had grown up to young forest while I was away in Greece. The view was better then, as the forest lower down the mountainside was younger. We had a hammock and a picnic table at the top of the slope near another rock, under a large pine. When I returned to this house after an absence of twenty years I walked up to the spot and found some relic or other of the children’s among the leaves. I don’t remember what it was exactly, Frost’s line from “Directive,” “Some shattered dishes underneath a pine” (it never fails to go right through me) having subsumed it in my memory. I piled the remains of the picnic table in the woods after removing the bolts (it had been a cast-off from Shaftsbury State Park – Holly and I carried it up the hill together). The maple Freedom and I had just cut had been left on the edge of the lawn behind the chicken coop (the only truly flat extent of land in our twenty-three and a half acres and the site of our badminton court), and it had grown tall and bushy. When we brought it down, we trooped up to test the view, which is south-south-east down to where the valley opens and spreads out around the town of Bennington. Sure enough, there was Mount Greylock, looking very like a whale – as it also does from the south, notably from the room where Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick at Arrowhead. We enjoyed the view (I seem to be fond of that phrase) and returned to work.

Later in the day our neighbors the Ketterers paid us a woods-walking visit, and we invited them up to have a look. Bill got there first and stood a few feet above me. “The Monument!” he exclaimed. I jumped up beside him: sure enough, the whole of the limestone obelisk of the 306-foot-tall Bennington Monument seven miles away and 500 feet below was clearly visible tucked into the V-shaped notch between the tops of some lower trees. “The Monument! I whooped. It looked like a tiny crystal set in leaves, and because of nearer branches from a maple and an ash framing the notch from above, it was as if we were peering through a diamond-shaped hole at a distant, miniature landscape with a needle of stone at the center. Foveal vision, the ability of the human eye to concentrate sight on a point, and the tendency of the brain to detect edges, vividly etched the obelisk despite the minute portion of the total field of vision that it occupied. Of course, I know what it looks like from many angles and distances, and I have been to the top several times. But this is the furthest distance and highest vantage point I have known, and it must have been part of our view when I first cleared these woods.

I had visited my friends in Norwich, Vermont in August and had seen their view to Mt. Moosilauke 30 miles to the Northeast. It too is visible only through a small opening in the trees, but it shines like a jewel in both the morning and evening sun. I grew up with a distant view due north to Mt. Monadnock framed by the trunks of elms along a wall.

Later, I told Freedom the story of the vista. The vista is what it was called by my Maine grandparents. It was a cut in the line of trees that would otherwise have blocked a view of the ocean half a mile or so away from my grandparents’ house. It was just a rectangular notch, but the thin blue line of the Atlantic was visible through it. So were the ships that suddenly appeared and passed across the notch – that is, the vista – on their way to or from Portland harbor. I used to watch them through my grandmother’s heavy binoculars when I was a boy and we were visiting for vacation. I don’t know if the cut was on my grandparents’ property or maintained by an obliging neighbor, but after my grandfather’s death it grew up to brush and small trees and we lost the view of the sea.

The clearing I have done here (and done before), I know that it is temporary. The woods will win in the end. I may be able to keep up for a while with the surge of vegetation that will respond to the sunlight I have let in, but how long will I be able to handle my DR field mower, and wield saw, scythe, loppers to keep my slopes and vistas open?

Robert Frost wrote a couple of poems about what happens when the subduing of nature is over with (he wrote them just down the road at his home in South Shaftsbury). One is “The Last Mowing,” with its line of perfect music “The meadow is finished with men.” The other, the narrative of which does not correspond to Frost’s own life, despite the first person pronouns, is:

The Birthplace

Here further up the mountain slope

Than there was every any hope,

My father built, enclosed a spring,

Strung chains of wall round everything,

Subdued the growth of earth to grass,

And brought our various lives to pass.

A dozen girls and boys we were.

The mountain seemed to like the stir,

And made of us a little while —

With always something in her smile.

Today she wouldn’t know our name.

(No girl’s, of course, has stayed the same.)

The mountain pushed us off her knees.

And now her lap is full of trees.

I myself live rather far up the mountain slope. That last line…

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