Raised in a Barn: Green Acres
As best I can figure it, my parents bought the Barn when I was not-quite 5. What they bought was a sturdy, shabby Victorian farmhouse, a double barn (two barns built together, one old enough to have pegged joints, the other somewhat newer), several ramshackle outbuildings, and 180 acres of land–about 60 of it meadow, the rest on the mountain behind the barn.
All my father really wanted was the Barn to play with, as he put it.
The farmhouse was handy for the first three or four years, in that way that functioning indoor plumbing and a place to sleep are handy. Once the barn had reliable floors and indoor plumbing, the farmhouse was abandoned except as an extra guest space and hidey-hole for objects no one wanted to deal with. The woodshed continued to be ramshackle to the point that my brother and I were warned never to go into it for fear of imminent collapse, wild animals, boa constrictors, and possibly black holes. Eventually the woodshed slid into its own ramshacklosity until the structure became indistinguishable from the wood piled in it.
As for all those acres? My childhood was spent exploring them. The meadow was farmed by a local farmer, but we had access to it; the pasture spilled from the road down to the (then) murky waters of the Housatonic River. In the summer we didn’t go down there much because the river was horribly polluted and a breeding ground for mosquitos, but in winter, once I got ice skates, I used to go down to skate on the frozen bits. As a parent I wonder if this was part of my parents’ plan to get rid of me: I skated by myself, using my own 9-year-own-judgement as to whether the ice would hold me, on a piece of river that was at least half a mile from the house. If I’d erred, that would have been it. But no one else in my family was remotely interested in ice skating, so by myself it was, and fortune was on my side.
But the mountain–Oh, the mountain behind the Barn rose up invitingly, and once we were old enough to be trusted out of sight, my father established what he called “camps” — distinct locations on the hills to be used as landmarks. The first camp was just north of the spectacularly dense thickets of blackberry. When the berries were ripening it was delicious torture to make your way through that part of the hill, eating and bleeding as you went (I was a teenager before I had the sense to wear long jeans and a long-sleeve shirt when going through the berry patch). In the spring the berry patch was dark green chaos with pink edged flowers waiting to turn into fruit; in autumn it was a grey-brown tangle of brambles to be got through as quickly and carefully as possible. In the winter no one went up the hill except my father, in his unsuccessful attempts to shoot deer with a bow and arrow.
Once past the berries you had to climb a steep hill littered with rocks–by which I mean massive chunks of stone large enough to make walls or floors of. Camp #2 was on one of these, a nice flat rock cantilevered from the hillside above the berries, looking west down the mountain over the barn, the meadow, the river, to Route 7 in the distance, and far away another set of mountains. This was often where we stopped to picnic in the summer, and when I was younger and less ambitious, it was the terminus for exploring. But really, the best part of the mountain was beyond that.
If you persevered up that steep climb eventually the land flattened out into what I suspect had once been a pasture. The area was ringed round by fences fashioned from stones; some of the walls were four or five feet tall and sturdy enough to be clambered over; others were a foot or so tall and had clearly been knocked down from their former glory. The western wall ran along the edge of the plateau, and maybe twenty feet inside its confines there were the rusted remains of a couple of very old trucks–there had been a logging route up there perhaps 40 years before. There were walls to the north, south, and east, too, and inside those confines it was so thickly forested with fir trees that you couldn’t see the sky. Sunlight filtered down in discrete beams, and the floor of the forest was a rich mulch of pine needles of the ages. If you headed south and climbed over the stone fence there, there was a long-abandoned apple orchard filled with Baba Yaga apple trees–so old and twisted they looked like crones hunched over secrets.
Beyond the eastern fence there was a stand of birches, which was the official end-point of most of our rambles until I was in my later teens. My father did not establish any “camps” this far from the Barn, and the land on the far side of that eastern stone fence had a “here be dragons” rep–for no good reason I can think of, except that my father probably figured this was as far as he could trust us to go without getting lost and needing rescuing.
Over the years, after my brother and I were long departed, my father sold off parcels of land–mostly to a Land Conservancy, or to neighbors who would undertake not to develop the property. That land turned out to be my father’s retirement nest egg: he had loved and nurtured the Barn and its land, and it wound up returning the favor.
I am not one of those people who needs contact with nature, who goes on hikes in the wild, or camping. Maybe that’s because I got so much nature, and so much near-camping, as a kid. I am a city girl, and a little nature goes a long way. Still, if I close my eyes and think about it, I can smell the green scent of the Berkshire hillside warmed by July sunshine, and it’s gorgeous.
I remember those glorious hours of outside (and mostly unsupervised) fun when I was a kid. I am convinced that I am a better person for it, but I don’t long to repeat those dirty, insect-ridden hours. But it’s a nice memory, or should I say memories.
Madeleine, is that Sarah Tolerance book still coming? I still long to read it.
It’s coming. I did the Clarion Write-a-Thon this year and put up a sentence or two every day on Facebook. I promise I will announce it to the sky when it’s ready!
Oh, good, I will be patient a while longer. That series is always worth a wait. I wish there was something that could make it catch on with the public more than it has. It is a fabulous, feminist text! What shall we do about that? It deserves a bigger audience, Madeleine.