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This Hill, This Valley
By Hal Borland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Barbara Dodge Borland
All rights reserved.
I welcome the vernal equinox as a signpost, but nothing more. It says that Spring lies ahead, the Spring we know and recognize in rising sap, opening buds, returning birds. A Spring day in March is as rare as the proverbial day in June, but today I seem to sense the cleanliness of change. Winter's debris still litters the roadside and murks the river, but the brightness of new growth is not far away. Already there is a touch of green beside Millstone Brook and Springhouse Brook in the pastures, where flowing water has leached the frost away, and here in the dooryard I find tentative daffodil tips showing and the white-veined lancets of crocuses.
But the equinox is a matter of celestial mechanics, and terrestrial seasons follow it only approximately. One year the equinox found us with two feet of snow on the ground and the river still iced in. Another year it found me tapping the maples on a day so mild I shucked my coat and sweated in shirt sleeves as I carried pails of sap and fed the fire under the syrup tub. This year it is somewhere in between, remnants of drifts in the woods on the mountain and the temperature in the low 40s.
If there is integrity in the soul of man it must reveal itself when Spring turns the year. I may fuss and delude myself all Winter, but come Spring and I must face my own truth if there is truth in me. I must know that there is faith that transcends creed. I must believe in eternal things. I understand something of the flow of life and time.
The big issues of this world are between man and man, not between man and his environment. If man could only live at peace with his own kind he would have no reason to quarrel with the world around him. I find no vindictiveness in nature, and I am as aware as anyone of hurricane, tornado, flood, drought and earthquake. Man's morality and man's codes have no more application to the sun and the seasons, the rain and the earth's fertility, than do his esthetic concepts to the pattern of a sunset.
I went out tonight to stand and watch the stars, and a sense of peace came over me. I felt a part of the universe, a sentient but lesser part; and that feeling is fundamental to the dignity of man. I am, somehow, a part of the great rhythm that flows through this universe. There is my source, my origin. My own pulse is such a rhythm, and quite probably the rhythmic impulses in my brain, which constitute thought, are also a part of something far greater than the individual. I am not sure of the purpose of man, any more than I am sure of the purpose of the stars; but here we are, and there they are, and among us there is discernible order, a continuity. Recognition of that is perhaps enough for me during my tenure here.
A flock of robins has come to the valley, as they come each year within a few days of this date. This morning the whole flock is in the pasture behind the house; I counted fifty-two, and quite likely that is a conservative count, for they were too busy for an accurate census.
The life of a robin, or of any early migrating bird, must be full of adventure and surprise. The things that can happen to a bird that comes north with the best of expectations while Spring is only a promise would make most of us humans turn and run in panic.
Worse things can happen to a robin, of course, than to come north through balmy skies and get caught in a snowstorm or a sleety rain. But to a non-robin such an experience would be the ultimate of frustration. What does a robin do about it? He gets wet, he gets cold, he takes shelter under a pine or a hemlock, and he pokes around for something to eat. Food is scarce, but if the sun comes out the next day he fluffs his feathers and begins to sing.
Robins seem able to take March on its own terms, possibly because some race memory or instinct says that after March comes April, which may be worth knowing intimately. Robins make out pretty well in April, and by May they are doing very well indeed. March is simply the price they pay for May.
There are benefits, of course, for the early arrivals, such as robins. Firstcomers get first choice of nesting places and feeding range, so it must even out. If it didn't even out, the robins wouldn't keep on coming north so early. They know what they are doing, whether non-robins know or not.
I live beside a river. It is my nearest neighbor, just there beyond the dooryard. According to the scientists, such water as this was the womb of mankind. In some primordial time of development and elemental curiosity, evolving creatures of the water crept up on oozy banks and grew lungs to replace their original gills. Eventually one of these creatures also grew legs and arms and eyes that see better in the air than in the water. He even developed a brain that was more than a node of ganglia. He became a man.
Millions of years passed. Man became a creature of family, of tribe, then of race. He went through a centripetal stage of social development, during which he built massed cities; and from that stage he at last entered a centrifugal stage of redistribution, migration from the cities back to the open country, to the mountains, the valleys, the woodlands. What he did with that environment is another matter, but I have a haunting wonder if man will ever learn to live with the world on its own terms rather than try to impose his own narrow terms upon the world. In any case, here am I, once more dwelling on a river bank, a modern throwback to the company of frogs and salamanders and fish.
Whether it is an antediluvian instinct or not which brought me here, I have not yet decided. But I know that my river is a comfort and a satisfaction. It is movement and change in a primal sense, and that movement gives me a sense of permanence. Here I live, planting and harvesting, and there flows the river, fecund and ever changing. Long ago my kind came out of such water to stand erect and stride the land. I have come back to contemplate myself and my beginnings.
Ours is a rural valley and our neighbors are farmers who have lived on the land all their lives. Of the eight houses on this four-mile stretch of valley road, only one belongs to Summer people. The rest of us live here, work here, the year around, intent on weather, crops, markets.
The first white settlers came here in the 1730s and found parts of this valley even then being cultivated, primitively, by the Indians, who harvested corn on the silted bottomlands. To the west rose the ridge now known as Tom's Mountain and Miles Mountain, and five miles away to the east rose the long, rugged ridge of what we know as Canaan Mountain. The valley itself was at least as old as the retreat of the last glaciers, perhaps 25,000 years ago. The river, a mountain stream both above and below here, was and still is a placid stretch of wide, deep water.
Over Tom's Mountain, to the west, lie two lakes, Washining and Washinee on some old maps, simply Twin Lakes to most people now. From up on the shoulder of Tom's Mountain I can see a clustering of mountains ten to fifteen miles away which rise 2,600 feet, Bear Mountain, Mount Everett, Mount Ashley, Mount Race. And to the north our valley widens as it reaches up into Massachusetts, to Great Harrington, to Pittsfield and beyond, flanked always by high hills and low mountains.
This is old land, peaceful land. In Summer it is full of corn and alfalfa and pasturage, and dairy cows. In Winter it is often full of snow, and the river is a winding band of ice. Spring comes slowly here, and Fall lingers, often until Christmas. It is a quiet valley and, in miles, it is remote from the city, three hours by rail or car. But what place is remote now? One can achieve a degree of peace and privacy, but even those who try cannot escape the world. The highway, three miles from our door, is jammed on holidays and many weekends; fortunately, ours is a back road, leading nowhere in particular and little trafficked.
Two villages, full of friendly folk and convenient services, lie six miles away in opposite directions. Both are venerable villages, dating back to the days of first settlement here. Albert and Ruth, our nearest neighbors, live half a mile down the road. A mile in the other direction are Charley and Elitha. Both are farm families and the best of neighbors, which is to say they are always there when you need them, with help and friendship and understanding. Albert and Charley are dairy farmers and wise in the ways of living with the land.
Our farm is still known as "the Proper place" (pronounced with a long o), after the farmer who owned it twenty years ago, though we are the third owners since that time. A few of the older people in the village speak of it as "the Barnum place." It was owned by a Barnum about fifty years ago. Thus slowly do things change in this valley. I am glad for the persistence of the past in such matters. Some things should not be forgotten or easily discarded. The name of a farm, after all, is of little consequence. Everyone who has ever lived here has been a tenant, in a sense, and a transient, for the valley was already old when the first Indians saw it. I am only the latest in a long line of settlers on this land.
I doubt that anyone denies the wonders and magnificence of astronomy, one of the great sciences which endure as monuments to man's powers of reason and observation. But at this season of the year I am always aware of hidden forces so accurate and so sensitive to time and the astral sequence that any human science seems to pale at least a little by contrast.
Man has known for a long time the fixed sequence of star and planet, earth, sun, moon and tides. But how can a seed "know" when to begin to sprout? How can sap at the roots of a tree "know" when comes the proper time to start that mysterious upward movement toward twig and waiting leaf-bud? What moves a bulb to send up shoots to catch the sunlight and begin to manufacture food for the plant? What mysterious force prompts one seed to wait in its sprouting until all danger of frost is past, while another sprouts at that exact moment its stem and leaf can survive ten degrees of frost but not twelve or fifteen?
We have answers, of a sort, in terms of warmth and length of daylight; but those are, in final examination, observations of response, not of ultimate cause. We have elaborate apparatus to measure sun warmth and soil moisture and even sap pressure; but how does a grass seed measure such critical conditions? Somehow they are measured by all living things which spread leaves and manufacture chlorophyll. They "know" when they should respond to the arrival of Spring. Man doesn't know until he has watched a clock and studied a star, and even then his knowledge is approximate at best.
Surely it is no accident that the chlorophyll of the leaf and the hemoglobin of the blood are chemically akin. Man is more than a vegetable, but he lives under the same sun as the tree and the vine, and he responds to the seasons, senses them in the very depth of his being, in his blood stream, in his emotions, in the seat of his understanding when he takes time to understand.
Man's quest for the meaning of his place in the universe has deeper roots than we usually admit. We all need, physically need, a sufficient link with our environment to be at ease in it. Extend and substantiate that ease and you approach the state we should call civilization. Automatic furnaces, automobiles, television, and vitrified plumbing no doubt have a purpose in some of the processes of civilization, but only insofar as they provide ease from the vicissitudes of existence and thus give man time to wonder and speculate and explore his own mind and his habitat—to achieve ease and acceptance in his environment.
Perhaps that is one reason we all look forward so eagerly to the end of Winter, because nature herself then eases the vicissitudes. I know that I need the renewal of Spring as much as the trees need it. My mind requires the quickening, the replenishing, the photosynthesis in whatever form it manifests itself in the human body. Besides, it is much easier to be friends with one's environment in temperate weather.
There is a succession in the days, now, that quickens the heart. Whether they are gusty days or days of calm, chill days or days of deepening warmth, they have the air of change. Today is gusty. Yesterday was calm. I await tomorrow.
The weeping willow beside the old milk barn has an amber glow, as though golden sap were pulsing just beneath the thin outer bark. Beside the river the red osiers are ruddy as though blood were just beneath their cambium layer. The daffodils are well up. Hyacinths and early tulips have broken ground. Crocuses begin to spread their color to the temperamental winds. Flower buds are fat on the forsythia. Iris sends up its green bayonets.
I walked through the garden, still bare as Winter itself, and I saw these things, and I walked along the river bank and I noted them. I looked up Tom's Mountain, which rises just beyond the pastures, and I felt the same slow but certain pressure of succession, the slow, certain urge of change. Growth is there in the earth, at the grass roots, at the twig-ends. The green world is in the making, already waiting where the mysterious chemistry of sap and chlorophyll has its origins. April whispers from the hilltops even as March goes whistling down the valley.
Barbara, my collaborator not only in much writing but also in marriage and living, is a vegetable gardener. She was out in the garden plot today, poking in the soil with her hands. And up the road our neighbor, Charley, who is a farmer, was out in his fields, walking, pausing now and then to take up a handful of soil. Gardeners and farmers must feel the soil, literally feel it, now. They know full well that you must plant in season, but they also know that you plant in the earth; and they must touch the soil, feel its grit and strength and thus renew contact with the source of all good and growing things.
I watched Charley as he strode across the field this sunny afternoon. He scuffed the soil with his heel. He crouched down and picked up a handful, feeling the fine roots lacing through it. He made a ball of it, a miniature earth. There in his hand he held the stuff that nourishes corn and oats and grass. Out of such soil sprang the timbers of his house, the shirt upon his back. Out of it grew all the flowers that ever pleased an eye or nose.
It was no mere chance that inserted into primitive folklore the recurring tale of how the first man was created from the soil of the earth. The ancient people knew the soil intimately, even though they were hunters and herdsmen. From it sprang the substance of life. It was Mother Earth. And Mother Earth it remains, no matter how far we travel. When the time of planting comes we shall, as always, bow down to Mother Earth as we plant.
The chill has returned, a raw, windy chill that ripples the river and whistles and moans in the big Norway spruce outside my study window. It is a proper reminder that Spring takes its time, no matter how the human heart may long for its coming. But I still take comfort in the willows and the osiers, which are as vivid and as vital as they were a week ago. Even though I shiver in the wind, I see new life in them. There is no pulse in them, of course, beyond the mysterious processes by which sap moves from the deepest root to the highest twig; but I feel the larger pulse, the bigger rhythm, which is almost visible in them. I watch them, and I know that this chill wind will pass. But I put my faith not so much in the trees and shrubs as in the season itself, of which they are only a part, even as I am.
We went to the village today to do a couple of chores, and as I walked down the street and looked in the stores I had the feeling of mid-May. There wasn't a snow shovel in sight, and the coarse salt and wild-bird seed were hidden by racks of brand-new spades and hoes and rakes and weeders. And bags of patent fertilizer, and grass seed, and clover. And stands of bright new seed packets, pretty as a flower garden in full bloom. And work gloves.
I went on down the street and around the corner, past the implement store. There was the same thing, on a bigger scale. Tractors, big and little, plows, harrows, seeders, cultivators, hay balers. And busy men assembling, tuning, repairing such machinery. And at the siding near the railroad station were boxcars and farm trucks, men unloading lime and phosphate. Farmers saying, "Tomorrow," or "Next week," or "It's almost dry enough, except in that bottom land."
Then we came home and looked at the vegetable garden. And in five minutes we knew it was planting season only in the stores. Maybe we can plant a few peas next week, with luck, but that's all. I got a spade and tried to turn up some soil, and found it cold and frosty less than a spade-length down. I found two angleworms, tightly curled into pink balls, and they didn't give much encouragement to thoughts about fishing. It won't be fishing time till it's almost time to plant garden and mow the lawn and hang the screens and tend the early flowers.
Then I remembered that there wasn't a bottle of muscle liniment in sight at the stores, no sunburn lotion, no mosquito repellent. And I went in for a warmer jacket and decided to stay indoors a few more weeks.
Excerpted from This Hill, This Valley by Hal Borland. Copyright © 1985 Barbara Dodge Borland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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