I am sitting on the south-facing porch at the farm. The sun is rising, streaking cantaloupe peach strawberry runners through the valley. Water flows out of the south end of the pond, just near enough that there is the constant purr of water, but far enough that I can crisply hear other sounds: a 1-2-3 call of the crow making its morning rounds; the squeak of the sweet little gray birds warning each other that crow is up and about now. I saw four of them in the ancient butternut tree yesterday and am reminded to look them up in the bird book when I get home. Now other birds begin to sing too. It’s chilly. I’m bundled in a down parka with a hood over my two hats, winter boots, wrapped up in the wool blanket Tom gave me for my birthday this year. There is snow on the ground. Not a lot, but enough to cover everything. In the field, the blunt stub ends of grass poke through the top crust, freckling the otherwise unbroken snow. The purple martin bird house is still in the same spot. Now a small gray bird lands just a few feet from me, chirping and clicking and studying me sideways.
I can smell the wood smoke wafting down from above and behind me. I made a fire in the wood stove last night and have been feeding it since. Another bird scolds and chirps to my left as the mango streaks in the sky get wider and taller and fade into blue. The snow takes on a pink tinge, a faded more subtle version of what’s in the sky. The old farm road runs right through my view, slicing the canvas masterpiece laid out in front of me. Split rail fence. Swung open gates no longer serve a purpose. Sheep fencing. Greg’s rock. A barred owl calls from behind my right shoulder. Three times, now a fourth, and a fifth. The other birds go suddenly mute.
It warmed up in the 40s yesterday, softening the snow. Last night’s chill has set it again, crusting it over, making for noisy walking in the woods. The trails are calling, and the fingers of my writing hand sting uncomfortably, but I am hesitant to break this silence by crunching across the snow. I wait a little longer, still and watching. Now a raven. This is my favorite part: the light first emerging from darkness. Witnessing the world’s wake-up. The whole day of promise stretched out ahead like a clean slate. I want to slow it down, stretch it out, make it last as long as I can. The birds in the nearby tree must have forgotten me — as I shift my weight and rustling noises come from my jacket, they sound the alarm and lift into the air, now gone, and I am alone again.
Yesterday I arrived here early afternoon, wandering from room to room in the farmhouse, remembering. Kitchen cupboards left open, empty. Rooms mostly cleaned out except for a dresser here, a couple of wooden chairs there, a few side tables stacked and waiting for their next home. The farmhouse was built in 1788. My great grandfather acquired it when its previous owners went down on the Titanic. Our family's great luck out of another's worst misfortune. The living room looks smaller somehow. I haven’t been inside this house in 20 years. I can remember just how it was arranged. The breakfast table here by the window. The sofa placed at an angle with a dog bed on the floor behind it, just next to the entry into the kitchen. Grandy’s chair in that corner by the door that leads out to the screened porch where we gathered in summer to eat corn on the cob and heavily salted green beans with butter and birthday cakes in July and August. This here was Nene and Grandy’s bedroom. Standing flat-flooted, my fingertips can graze the ceiling. There is one tiny closet — evidence of a time when everyone had less stuff. This bathroom. Hundreds of times reaching into this medicine cabinet over the sink and squeezing toothpaste onto my toothbrush, then rinsing my mouth with the gray plastic sparkly cup that was forever resting in this holder. This room here had two beds. A lifetime ago I remember climbing into bed one afternoon with a headache, the fan blowing strong in my face. I woke late. Everyone had turned in for the night, but Nene was still up. She had saved me a plate of food and kept me company while I picked at it in silence. I realize now that the long-since painted over wallpaper in that bedroom was garish — every inch covered with woodland creatures — but I loved it as a kid. On the kitchen counter to the left of the stove sat four aluminum canisters with flour and sugar and such. The smallest one at the end always had ginger snaps.
Right in front of where I now sit is open ground, just lawn. But there used to be a pool here. A heated pool. An unbelievable thing as a kid. We would swim all day long, until our fingers and toes were raisined and our eyes were foggy. Nene would bring out cucumber and tomato sandwiches, forcing a break to eat and drink her iced tea with fresh mint. A rickety clothesline outside the kitchen window held our dripping suits.
There are two horse stalls in the tiny rectangular barn. Three, if you count the one that just always had stuff in it. The little tack room is gone now. What happened to that, I wonder? When did that get taken down? It smelled of leather. And there was always a box of sugar cubes. The horses would take a cube from my flattened palm, their lips soft and their breath warm. A sugar cube for each of them and one for me too.
My frozen fingers will hold out no longer, and I can resist the call of the woods not a minute more. Off to explore. I grew up walking these trails with Nene and her dogs. She taught me that wintergreen berries are a tasty treat and that moss and lichen always grow on the north side of a tree and that if you ever get lost in the woods just find a stream and follow it because around here eventually water will always lead you to a road or to people. We would throw sticks and trail debris into the woods, making one of her dogs bark. Moss covered rocks were my pillows. Nene never hurried me when I would stop walking to kneel down and put my head on them.
My mother inherited the wildest plot of land when my grandparents died. Her dream was to move back here one day and build a house. In the meantime it roils with wildlife and oak trees and mountain laurel. Ancient farm roads lead to a wild meadow with apple trees and an overgrown century-old foundation from when Doctor Beebe lived here. Crumbling stone walls. Trickling streams and abandoned beaver ponds and towering pines and birch stands. Winter exploration is the best: animal tracks are everywhere and when you climb this humble section of these 440-million year old Taconics, farmland views to the east and Tom Ball mountain are only possible through the leaf-bare trees. It's a tasty collection of winding narrow trails, woods roads, open meadow, tight, steep, flat, up, down, and water. Big beautiful hawk. Craggy old trees. Mountain laurel everywhere. Not a soul on the trails for three hours.
I return to the farmhouse and load up my car with family treasures: wool blankets, floor lamps, wooden end tables, two tiny pitchers, a hay fork, a basket, a hooked chair pad. Before I leave this place I want just one more tree climb. I haul myself up into the old butternut tree and look north across the old horse and cow pasture. My brothers and cousins and I scrabbled our way into this tree dozens if not hundreds of times. It has taken a beating in some recent winter storms. Haggard, but still it stands. I climb down and am on my way. Just past Seekonk Cross Road I see a bald eagle soaring and circling over a pine stand in a big field. A pair of inky corvids scold and chase. I put my hazards on and pull over to watch. As I step out of the car and close the door, I realize I have spooked another bald eagle perched in the tree right next to me. It screeches and takes off. I watch the two eagles rise and circle for awhile until they they are out of sight. Goodbye, Alford.