On a train journey out west, we saw countless abandoned farms slumbering. Forgotten. only remnants of fences and battered Barns remain, succumbing to Mother Nature’s ceaseless push to tidy up now that no one is using that old barn.

For the Birds

i’ve been swinging for the fences — and the birdhouses – – most of the day today, going through old photos favorite places around Bennington county in Vermont.

This is from a photo I took earlier this Spring before the manure wagons came by to plow and fertilize the field. I’m always amazed how, in the winter light, naked trees and Fields can glow with red and gold. I always slow down at this spot because I love the fence-which looks like it’s about to fall down even though it’s still very much in use — and the birdhouse inviting the birds to come on to sit a spell and enjoy the view.

A Joint Effort

there are still quite a few farms in Vermont, albeit smaller than the ones you may find out in the Midwest or western plains. A quick look at the census data shows that while farms are becoming more plentiful again in Vermont, they’re getting smaller as the next generation becomes more creative about keeping farming as a viable career choice.
Vermont’s history as a farming state has generated hundreds of miles of fences of all kinds, and even when land changes hands or purposes, the fences often remain as memorials to the The efforts of the farmers who have come and gone. The split rail fences are, for me, some of the most picturesque of these testaments. 

 The weatherworn, unpainted variety are my favorite. In the summer and fall, they complement the foliage perfectly. On rainy days in mud season, however, they and the stark lines of the still naked trees seem to combine perfectly the creative efforts of man and mother nature.

Old Things

 I started thinking about fingerprints A few months ago when we were in Washington state and marveling at the massive wheat fields. They are monuments to how humans have Learned to control the land, and yet, for all the bounty mother nature yields, she also seems a bit annoyed at us – sending wildfires to even her most fertile fields – for imposing our lines on her curves and, in some cases, for not picking up our stuff when we’re done.
No place inspires that supposition like Lake Michigan. our family has been congregating along southeastern Shores sense that early part of the last century, and even in my lifetime, mother nature has seen our family and neighbors devise ingenious and herculean devices and walls to slow down the erosion of the dunes and preserve our beaches. 

as you walk along the beach, you can see the relics of previous generations’ attempts to control her. There are massive concrete blocks almost buried by sand and, more frequently, decaying wooden breakwaters jutting out from the dunes to the beaches and occasionally to the water. some breakwater seem to be more successful than others, but, since we have not seen many new installations in the last two decades, it would appear that more people have decided to work with mother nature rather than against her.
About 20 years ago and our family and neighbors, taking a hint from mother nature, begin planting dune grass up-and-down the bluffs at the edge of the beach. We had seen dune grass control the erosion beautifully in other places, and over the years it is been infinitely more effective than any engineered solution we’ve tried.
I think mother nature likes it, and she has let the beaches recover. The breakwaters are still there in some places, leaving a human fingerprint that will last for some time, And, judging by the amount of sand that mother nature tries to dump on them, I think she’s trying to get us to pick up our stuff now that we’re done with it. 

A Beaten Path

There are two ways to get to the top of Mount Equinox in Manchester Vermont. You can pay your money to take the Skyline drive to the summit, or you can find your way to the no-traffic light town of Sandgate and go up the back.

You can’t drive the whole way (Sandgate’s dirt road eventually turns into a wide leaf-covered path). Once on foot, you’ll eventually get to the gate of a monastery run by the Carthusian monks (who also, incidentally, govern access  to the skyline Drive). There’s a sign warning away trespassers, so we’ve never actually made it to the top of the Equinox without paying our money down, but along with that once-beaten path on the backside of the mountain, we’ve discovered something equally interesting.

When we first hiked that road, we wondered about its origins. There were easier ways to get to the monks and  the top of the Equinox, but it was clear the road had once been in use frequently enough to leave its mark on the mountain.  Shortly after the ‘real’ dirt road ended, we found our answer.

Thing1 was our distractor-in-chief at the time, occasionally luring us away from the path, and about a mile and a half past the end of the town road, he discovered an abandoned barn we HAD to see.

The barn roof was disintegrating, and we saw no other evidence (save for a few headstones that we almost tripped over) that a farm or homestead had ever existed. The carving on the headstones was so worn down we  couldn’t read the names on them.  As I was wondering what catastrophe that had driven surviving family members away from the farm, I realized this almost abandoned road had been made by and for hooves and feet, not rubber and steel.

At first I had thought these languishing headstones in this isolated part of the mountain were a sad statement about precarious nature of rural life (then and now).  However, as we walked to and from the monastery gate with its no trespassing sign, passing the old homestead again, the late afternoon sun dipped low enough to bathe the woods in gold. I remember the branches were naked on that hike, but the forest, guarding its little cemetery, was warm and absolutely peaceful in the sun.

Modern rural life can be very hard, and I don’t cling to any romantic notions that life on the back of a mountain in Vermont was any easier a 100 years ago, but this quiet resting place was a testament to more than just hardship. It reminded me that people still come to these hard-to-live-in places because a life away from the madding crowd brings with it freedom and (in spite of the long winters and minimal economic opportunities) peace.