Friday, January 11, 2008

scratch flat


The place is a square mile of anomalous land, characterized in the main by farmlands and woodlots and a long snake-like, slow moving stream that winds lazily through wide cattail marshes. Sometime in the early nineteenth century, for reasons that are recorded only in local folklore, the tract came to be known as Scratch Flat, although in our time, if you ask anyone about its location you will draw blank stares.

Scratch Flat lies thirty-five miles west of Boston, Massachusetts and is set down in a vast region of low, rolling hills east of the Appalachians known to geologists as the Nashoba Terrane. If you care to look it up you can also find it on the US Department of the Interior Geological Survey map of 1966 in the Westford Quadrangle for Massachusetts, Middlesex County, 7.5 series. Or you can experience the place in person by following the state highway known locally as the Great Road, which runs northwest from Concord, Massachusetts through the Nashobah valley and thence northwest to southern New Hampshire and the rising ground known as Monadnock. You can also see it, or part of it at least, if you are driving north or south along the great ring road that circles Boston known as Route 495. Look west after you pass the exit for Groton and you will see there a low hill, very like a whale. That hill lies more or less on the eastern edge of the square mile.

Superficially, at least, from a driver’s point of view, the landscape here is generally pleasing. If you follow the Great Road west and you will cross over the winding cattail marshes of Beaver Brook. West of the brook you will pass over the low rise of a wooded drumlin and drop down into a flat of cultivated lands. There were six working farms in this section thirty years ago, but now only two remain, although lined up one after the other, like the fast food joints of less fortunate communities, you will see three farmstands selling --- in season --- local produce. North of the Great Road the land rolls up to a wooded ridge where the last bear in this region was killed in a hemlock grove in 1811. Northwest of this woods, behind a working dairy farm is a lake that was the site of one of the best Indian fishing weirs in the region for as many as ten thousand years and which now demarcates, roughly speaking, the northern end of the tract. The western end is marked by a stand of larch trees, the south, by a ring of low hills, and the east is bounded by the winding marshes of Beaver Brook.

Until l995, Beaver Brook was a wild country of reed canary grass, cattails, and unhoused, wooded banks. Development has now invaded the uplands along some sections, but if you the canoe the interior of the marshes in mid June when the grass are high, you can still get a sense of the wilderness that characterized Scratch Flat over its fifteen thousand year history. Somewhere along Beaver Brook the old Pawtucket man known as Tom Doublet maintained a fish weir. He inherited the weir from his father, who, according to the local histories, was killed at the spot by a party raiding Mohawks sometime around 1632. Tom Doublet was a major player in the King Philips War in 1675, but after the war, as a result of an insult from the General Court, he reportedly cursed the land just east of the brook. The farms in that section, and plans for three major economic ventures, two of them backed by international funding, have failed at the site. The farms of Scratch Flat, by contrast, survived well into the 20th century. Some have been continuously cultivated since agriculture first moved to the region.

I came into this country in 1974 and began walking the square mile tract the day I moved in. It was all farms and fields then, and woodlots where you could find ironic beds of daffodils, old peonies, foundations, stone walls, cairns, and the skeletons of model T Fords. The hay fields were ill-tended, the woods were littered with the remnants of time and it was clear that this was a country that had once been lived in, had once been cultivated, perhaps loved, or more likely, simply used, first to grow food for the Puritan families who settled here in 1676, then to grow food to sell to those Puritan families who had settled so densely that they no longer had land to grow their own food. In fact, the land had already been cultivated, as I learned, for some three or four thousand years before the Puritans arrived. The original natives of the place had developed a primitive form of agriculture that required only that trees be felled on a given plot of suitable land. The brush and trunks were burned or used for wickiups, and the land between the stumps was broken with clamshell hoes, planted to corn, beans, and squash and then and watched over by women and children posted to keep the crows and raccoons away.

I learned too that this area had once been the site of a village of Indians who, under the tutelage and protection of one John Eliot, the so-called prophet of the Indians, had converted to Christianity. They cut their hair, stopped sending their women out to menstrual huts each month, began to wear shoes and learned to sing hymns in Algonquian. In exchange, they were granted – outright – a tract of land some sixteen miles square, the northwest portion of which included the aforesaid Scratch Flat. The grant, as with so many later treaties, was temporary. In 1675, with the advent of the uprising of King Philip, the Puritans went to war, and the presence of Indians, even Christian Indians, was unnerving. One morning, the peaceable Indians, believing themselves under the protection of Christ and his vested associate, John Eliot, were rounded up, roped by the neck and taken to a stockade in Concord. After that they were deported to Deer Island in Boston Harbor for the duration of the war. It was February, they were ill-supplied with food and eked out their days digging clams and plucking mussels from the rocky shores. Very few of them returned to Scratch Flat after the war save for a powerful woman named Sarah Doublet, the purported Saunk, or female chief, of her remnant people. Sarah lived to a very old age and died in 1735, whereupon she turned the land over to a pair of cousins form Concord, thus ending the eight to ten thousand year sojourn of Asian people in that section of the northeastern coast of the land now known of as North America.

Following Sarah’s death, even before actually, Puritan families from nearby Concord, Groton, and the coastal town of Ipswich began to settle in the area west of the Beaver Brook. The glacier had left behind a deep layer of alluvial soil in that section of the community, and in time the place acquired the sobriquet, Scratch Flat. There are two theories on the origin of the name. One is that the soils and the farming was good and the settlers there were forever scratching the soils with the plow. The second is that for a few years in the eighteenth century a strange cutaneous itch affected those living on the flat and they would appear in the town, constantly scratching themselves. I dug all this out from a popular history of the town written in the late nineteenth century. In my time, I only met one old farmer who even remembered the name: “They don’t call it that no more” he said .

By the turn of the nineteenth century, there were some six working farms on Scratch Flat plus a working poor farm, an early version of a town supported social program that cared for wanderers and homeless. The farmers were Yankees of English origin, most of them having come over from Kent in the early seventeenth century, and having some familiarity with fruit cultivation, established apple orchards in the region. By the turn of the 20th century, immigrant farmers from Greece and Italy began buy up some of the farms. By the turn of the twenty-first century there were only two of these farms left, one run by one of the oldest Yankee families in the town and the other held by a hard working Greek family. The last in the Greek line was a ninety –two year old man from Sparta named Tasso who ran the place with his grandniece. In general, by the late twentieth century, the fields had languished, had grown up to birch and red osier dogwood and alder and eventually, one by one, lot by lot, had been sold off for housing. Now some of the thousand year old farms support immense palazzos with faux Palladian windows and two to three floors of rooms, most of them empty, most of the time. Scratch Flat for all intents and purposes had disappeared.

But who cares, really? Why bother to spend twenty five years digging for the deep and singular history of this otherwise unremarkable stretch of farmland and woods?

I came up to New England out of family that had very deep roots on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I spent summers there, dragged “down home” as my exiled parents referred to the region even after thirty years absence. My strongest memories of that section of the world were of summer nights on old front porches, the hooting of owls, and the slow, languorous conversation of the family and friends who would gather every evening, to rock and smoke and chat. Stories would begin like a small stream and then head for the sea, gathering many tributaries and asides and counter stories until they came to the shores. When the tale was told there would be a silence, except for the creak of the rocking chairs, followed, after decent interval, by the beginning of another story. All this was tedious business for a restless ten year old, but it had its effect. Looking back I realize now that there was not one story recounted on those summer nights whose action was played out independent of land. Nothing was free from the bonds of setting. Stories would take place in a given section of named territory, an intimate, known part of their world, which, having been named, carried with it a full burden of associations, of history, of other stories and events. Nothing that lived, neither dog, nor horse, nor human existed independent of place.

By the time I got to the town in which Scratch Flat is located, the vicissitudes of the mid twentieth century had wreaked havoc. A major highway Route 495, had sliced through the town; small tracts of housing had been built in the forested lands, good fields had been lost, the orchards, which were once the mainstay of the economic life of the community, had been plowed under. Only on Scratch Flat was there any active agriculture. In town, at a small shopping plazas wherein lay a grocery store selling produce from Florida and California, the local people were not certain where Beaver Brook was, were not aware of the fact that there were still otters there, let alone sora rails, let alone the deep Indian heritage that was at the foundation of the town. No one sat on front porches in the evening --- there were no front porches. No one told stories. No one had stories to tell save, perhaps of accounts of places they had come from, The older farm families whom I later met, did have some tales. But to find out about them I had to make phone calls, go to their houses and, at an appointed hour, sit in an enclosed living rooms --- sometimes with the counter stories of the omnipresent television competing. I had to work to draw out their tales. They still farmed, still had perhaps a love for the land, but the were in effect a displaced people --- not displaced by war, as with the Indians, or the immigrant families who were moving in. They had been displaced by their own culture, by our own culture. American mobility got the better of their psyches, and they felt, they were living as aftereffects.

I was too, of course. So were my parents. Faced with the economic realities of the Depression and the opportunity of work, my father sold his family farm and fled to New Jersey and spoke of “down home” for the rest of his life. I was set free after a certain amount of requisite education and began wandering – in the American style --- living abroad, living in the cauldron of New York City, living in the remnants of wilderness in the 1960s, and then finally in the 1970s, living on Scratch Flat.

Ultimately, Scratch Flat was an invention. A creation, or recreation of my own version of the mythic center. In time this singular tract of land, with its deep historical shadows, its farms, and its resident wildlife became for me a metaphorical hunting ground. One book was not enough to explore the hollows and empty quarters and people that seemed to characterize the place. I spent two years living in an unheated cottage sans electricity to get closer to the story of the land. I wrote a book about the natural history of my own back yard while I was living there. I used to the old Christian Indian village that was located on Scratch Flat to explore the question of the meaning, origin, and uses of the curious Western concept of private property. I used Scratch Flat as the jumping off point for a pilgrimage to Concord in which I undertook an exploration of the whole idea of place, of whether who we are has anything to do with where we are, or where we are from. I even explored the curious interconnection between the Renaissance Italian gardens and the invention of the American wilderness by constructing a pseudo Italian garden, complete with hedge maze, on land, which, according to twenty-first century American law I am told that I actually “own” (whatever that means).

In short, I became a traveler on my own land and I never got very far beyond my own square mile myth. But at least I found a place.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Indian Summer

An excerpt from Indian Summer, a novel in progress.

The characters in this story live outside of the constraints of linear time. In this scene, Mary Louise Dudley, an accused witch who lived in the 18th century, tells a folk tale to Bulkley Emerson (1818-1861), the retarded brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Journal Entry, November 27, l96l

Bulkley's favorite story: Mary-Louise has told it to him maybe twenty-five times. He knows it by heart but insists on hearing it tirelessly.

"It was a long time ago on a Sabbath morn and all the people were to church save a little herd boy and his sister. And as they were tending their flock in the green hills didn't they catch sight of something moving in the shadows of the ravine and then while they two did watch, out flowed a long cavalcade a' fairies. They wound through the wooded hollow and snaked among the knolls and disappeared all to the north. And weren't they all in antique jerkins and long gray cloaks and little red caps and some in bright waistcoats with polished brass buttons and all with their wild untamed locks shooting out and they had spindly legs and long little noses and eyes that glimmed like water jewels. And didn't they sing an ancient music and some did walk and some did hobble and some did go upon the backs of tiny shaggy horses, all spackled and dun. And didn't the little herd boy call out and say:

`Where are ye ga'n, little mannie? and who be ye?'

And wasn't there an old glinty-eyed one among them all dressed in harlequin, and he didn't he turn and say

`Not of the race of Adam be we. And no more shall the people of peace be seen in all Angleland.'"

"Not of the race of Adam be we," Bulkely echoed. "And no more shall the people of peace be seen in all England."

"But one stayed back in the shadows of the ravine," said Mary-Louise. "A large thing in ivy clothed."

"And all hairy with fur."

"All furry and shaggy. And he lived all alone in the wildwood and dells, all alone by himself, an 'e was ni man ni beastie."

"The Wild Man of Greenwood..."

"The Wild Man of Greenwood, and he ga'ed all in green..."

"And he fed little lost children..."

"And he spake to all saints and to spirits and ghosties..."

"And he danced by the moon?"

"Na Bulk, he did na dance, and thou
knowest' it well."

She tousled his shaggy head and kissed his forehead.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The MIll

The year the war began we were living in an old grist mill with a stonework dam and a big pond behind it where mink patrolled the banks and frogs kept me awake at night. It was one of the noisiest places I ever lived. You were never out of earshot of the sound of rushing water there --- a heavy and roaring in the spring freshets when a great fall of brown and silver pond washed over the dam, and a thin, icy trickle at the end of January when nothing but a narrow stream of water spilled through the rocks.

I moved there in late February when the ice was rough and one of my first introductions to the nature of the place occurred when I fell through the ice one afternoon skating on the stream above the pond. It was shallow and muddy and there was no harm done, and I skated home with wet socks. But this minor adventure marked the beginning of the spring breakup.

By early March the ice loosened and the waters of the dam began to roar, a sound which reached full crescendo by mid April, about the same time that the frogs began to call. The duck-like quack of the wood frogs calling from the surrounding forest was always the first, but spring peepers made up the bulk of the early spring chorus. This was followed in April by the long trill of toads, and then the twang of green frogs or pickerel frogs, and then the bird like call of the gray tree frogs in June, and then, finally, in July, the full chorus of jug-of-rum calls from the resident bullfrog population. These carried on for the whole summer, and their nightly calling filled the sultry air; there was not a room in the mill that you could escape them.

This was an obscure little mill at the bottom of a dead end road on an obscure little stream that fed into and unrecognized river whose only claim to history was that the American Impressionist painter Child Hassam once did an oil of its only bridge. I lived there with my brother, who was the one who had rented the place, and as soon as the weather warmed, I began poking around the stream bed and the pond shores. One day on one of these outings, I found a leghold trap, which, somewhat ungraciously, I sprung. I had seen the little darting forms of mink along the pond shores and hated to think of them struggling bravely there so close to the water's edge. Green herons used to stalk the shores as well, once an osprey dove down into the middle of the pond, and came up empty, and shaking its feathers, and one evening I heard the distinct, pumping call of an American bittern. Barn swallows nested in an old unused section of the mill building, and every evening in summer they would skim over the pond waters along with tree swallows and bank swallows.

Summer was the season of the turtles as well as swallows. I'd see many painted turtles; once in winter I saw a wood turtle swimming under the ice, and periodically I would spot the great primordial head of a huge snapper who lived there and whose children, presumably, I found later in the year in September, dashing along down the middle of the little dead end road. Fat bodied water snakes patrolled the shallow waters, and periodically I was able to catch the fine tuned little ribbon snakes that hunted along the pond shores.

But always in the background of these little discoveries there was the sound of running water. By mid September the flow dwindled to a steady, narrow stream that cut through the race and barely arched over the stonework. But with the coming of the autumn rains, the waters increased. Leaves drifted over the dam, the swallows had long flown south, and one by one the other birds disappeared from the pond and the dam. Last to go was a little phoebe that nested in the mill under some eves. It hung around until December, snatching insects on the sunny side of the building.

The frogs were long quiet by then, and nightlong now we heard only the rush of the waters, and the occasional night call of a goose, or the caterwauling of barred owls from the swampy woodlands beyond the pond.

There was a late northeaster that autumn that broke off a new passage in the dam so that the waters ran out with more force than ever and by winter, the pond used this breach as it main course. With January, everything stilled down into silent ice, and before the spring break up, I moved on.