The Lay of Our Land, non-fiction by Mark Phillips

In the lumpy region I call home, a study deter­mined to the sur­prise of few that tooth dis­ease is our most seri­ous health prob­lem. If you’re work­ing three low-pay­ing jobs just to get by—as one of my neigh­bors did until he had a stroke while cut­ting his firewood—who has time for the den­tist even if you do have the mon­ey?

I knew one guy who had extract­ed all of his teeth him­self, except for those punched or stomped out. He would sit against a smooth tree, usu­al­ly a wide beech, and after suf­fi­cient­ly low­er­ing a bot­tle of whiskey would clamp onto the gray aching tooth with pli­ers and yank. Yet here in the Alleghe­nies of south­west­ern New York, our own teeth are the least of our wor­ries.

The banks have their incisors into most of the homes, but fore­clo­sure is only one fear. Peo­ple have a thou­sand lit­tle fears that amount to a giant gnaw­ing worry—like the spread­ing for­est that has been grad­u­al­ly swal­low­ing pas­ture for six­ty years because the fam­i­ly dairy farms can’t com­pete with the cor­po­rate farms out west. House trail­ers now far out­num­ber farm­hous­es.

Argu­ing that they depress the val­ue of all sur­round­ing prop­er­ty, a pre­vi­ous super­vi­sor of my town pro­posed a ban on trail­ers, as if the work­ing-poor should just scam­per up the moun­tains and move into hol­low trees. The trail­er dwellers—the jan­i­tors and sales clerks and recep­tion­ists and log­gers and hos­pi­tal aides and high­way labor­ers and the line work­ers at the fac­to­ries that have been cut­ting shifts, some of these folks limp­ing on dam­aged hips or backs or knees—crowded into the next town meet­ing and heat­ed the hall with so much angry hurt that I thought I might get to see the super­vi­sor mod­el an out­fit of sticky feath­ers.

The land­scape can seem to be emp­ty­ing of char­i­ty, as if the peo­ple are chased by preda­tors and must defend them­selves with sticks and stones and their remain­ing teeth.

As I hike the Alleghe­nies, I often come upon the remains of homesteads—the col­laps­ing shale and sand­stone ring of a hand-dug well, a dry­wall cel­lar wall still hold­ing back the earth although two white ash have risen from the leafy floor, a knurled and dead apple tree mossy in the shade of a young for­est, the scene of decay sug­gest­ing that a farm or any oth­er busi­ness has lit­tle more sub­stance than an Amer­i­can dream.

Active fac­to­ries are dis­ap­pear­ing almost as fast as the farms. A man­u­fac­tur­er of elec­tri­cal com­po­nents had con­struct­ed a new plant on the out­skirts of a small town near my home but aban­doned it a few years after pro­duc­tion began. Set back from the high­way on a large expanse of grass at the foot of a forest­ed moun­tain, the cav­ernous plant is still vacant.

Like an end zone.

The home team score­less for four long sea­sons.

Trees thrive, though. Dri­ve Inter­state 86 from Hor­nell to Jamestown dur­ing the lush months and you will see one of the more beau­ti­ful land­scapes in the coun­try. Some peo­ple cross­ing the state make a six­ty-mile detour to take 86 instead of the New York State Thruway, just to view the steep moun­tains and hills and nar­row, pas­tured val­leys. In places you can believe you are dri­ving along the coast of a stormy green sea.

Trees and wildlife didn’t always have it this good.

Despite the unwel­com­ing nature of the place—much of the soil is acidic hard­pan, and peo­ple up in Buf­fa­lo refer to this region as “the snow belt”—80 per­cent of the land would be cleared for farm­ing by 1910. The white pines, some of them four feet thick and 200 feet tall, were the first to be felled, dri­ven down the Alleghe­ny Riv­er to mills in Pitts­burgh; then the hem­lock for the tan­nin-rich bark. The hard­woods were too heavy to float far and were chopped down and burned for potash, crop-seed sowed around the stumps until the pio­neers had time to dig and pull them out with the aid of oxen.

The wolves, moun­tain lions, bob­cats and bears were shot, trapped and poi­soned; the white­tail deer—and the now extinct east­ern elk—were com­modi­tized by mar­ket hunters.

In his mem­oir Pio­neer Life, Philip Tome recounts an 1823 trip in a bateau that leaves to our imag­i­na­tion the nat­ur­al beau­ty lin­ing the Alleghe­ny as he and two oth­er mar­ket hunters haul in seines glut­ted with flop­ping fish and peer down the bar­rels of their flint­locks: Tome lim­its his descrip­tion to busi­ness, the prof­itable killing of thou­sands of fish and 67 deer on a sin­gle trip.

Before long, a per­son was far more like­ly to encounter a hog than a deer in what lit­tle woods remained.

Yet today wildlife thrives and two-thirds of the land is forest­ed.

There are even places where you can fan­cy that the ax and saw were nev­er invent­ed. In 1998, an 82-year-old man drove here from Cal­i­for­nia to unearth a can of coins he had buried as a boy in a farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty known as Lit­tle Ireland—and learned that Lit­tle Ire­land has become a ghost town of dry­wall foun­da­tions in the bel­ly of a large and wild state park.

Charles Sheets entered the woods car­ry­ing a met­al detec­tor and shov­el, and before he lost his bear­ings on land that was once cul­ti­vat­ed, he must have recalled the white­washed planks of his cramped rough home, his mother’s metic­u­lous veg­etable gar­den, the laun­dry on the line, the boast­ing roost­er and mut­ter­ing hens, his father in the dusty dis­tance strid­ing behind a one-bot­tom plow and two draft hors­es cir­cled by birds dip­ping to pluck up earth­worms, the lit­tle boy with a shiny can of rat­tling coins.

More than a hun­dred rangers and police and vol­un­teers searched the for­est for a week before they found the body.

One might sup­pose the beau­ti­ful land­scape that my neigh­bors and I share or the long and deep reces­sion in our local econ­o­my would encour­age kin­ship, a warm dif­fu­sion of the com­mu­ni­ty val­ues which sup­pos­ed­ly exist in rur­al Amer­i­ca. It hasn’t hap­pened. Two of my young neigh­bors have done prison time for get­ting wast­ed on booze and who knows what else, hot-wiring the pick­up of the town jus­tice and set­ting it aflame at an aban­doned coun­ty land­fill. Could have inspired a heck of a Nor­man Rock­well paint­ing: Boys Roast­ing Wee­nies Up at the Dump.

Instead we’re unit­ed by our awe and fear of moun­tain lions.

As we peer out at the increas­ing­ly wild land rolling through the decades and cen­turies, we per­ceive that, by God, a damn big moun­tain lion is out there. We’re eat­ing a fried break­fast or down­ing a beer after a shift at the cheese plant or chang­ing the baby’s dia­per green with Gerber’s peas when we spot it on the back hill­side: a lanky and long-toothed and curve-clawed and man-eat­ing feline that can leap near­ly 40 feet and run 45 miles per hour. We quick call in the pets, rush to the phone, spread the alarm to even the drunks and felons among us.

The strange thing is that unlike the arson­ists and bankers, the big cats leave behind no sign. No tracks in the snow and zilch deer-kills, even­though a moun­tain lion will take a deer every few days. And our lions nev­er get hit by cars or cap­tured by the auto­mat­ic trail cam­eras which are now so ubiq­ui­tous that I look around before pee­ing in the woods —wor­ried I’ll end up on YouTube.

What’s more, state wildlife biol­o­gists assert that despite the many calls they receive about sightings—each caller insist­ing on the verac­i­ty of his vision and mak­ing pas­sion­ate avowals of sobriety—no moun­tain lion has roamed here for a cen­tu­ry and a half.

Yet it’s not that our lions aren’t real or there’s some high­ly con­ta­gious insan­i­ty in these parts. It’s just that, unlike the bald eagle and osprey and wild turkey and wood duck and black bear and bob­cat and beaver and fish­er and riv­er otter and brook trout that have indeed returned to our lop­ing for­est and clear­ing waters, our moun­tain lions are not phys­i­cal.

Our lions are spir­its: dis­guised ban­shees haunt­ing us from the past, warn­ing of the future, yowl­ing at now.

As Archibald MacLeish read it, “The map of Amer­i­ca is a map of end­less­ness, of open­ing out, of for­ev­er and ever.”

I was remind­ed of the poet’s car­tog­ra­phy of an infi­nite and sacred nation when a neigh­bor bris­tled at the news that I had spent my week­end plant­i­ng 1,000 spruce seedlings on my prop­er­ty, the first of 8,000 conifers I would set out in five years. “All you peo­ple plant­i­ng trees,” the farmer barked, “soon there won’t be any­place left for farm­ing.”

Amer­i­can dreams of forever—our totemic notion that the New World graces us with eter­nal eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al growth—can lift and dis­si­pate like fog when I hike the land.

I step over the stone-pol­ish­ing fresh­wa­ter spring that offers my drink­ing water as it did to Horace Guild, the pio­neer who kept cor­po­re­al moun­tain lions at bay while he cleared what are now my forty acres with a dou­ble bit ax; cross the oily hard-road that until recent years was grav­el; pass the over­grown foun­da­tion of the Mal­lo­ry place, home to a pio­neer fam­i­ly that even­tu­al­ly lost a son in the Civ­il War.

And I make the long climb up Seward Hill, which was for­est and then pas­ture and now—several wars later—is becom­ing for­est again.

Rest­ing against a light­ning-burnt sug­ar maple that shad­ed heifers when the Seward broth­ers still farmed, I see, beneath the shag­gy green of the glac­i­er-sculpt­ed moun­tains and hills, the wind­ing val­leys thread­ed black with nar­row macadam roads and the house trail­ers and satel­lite dish­es and junked cars wink­ing in the sun­light and the splotched brown and gray of barns in var­i­ous states of col­lapse.

I can also see that I needn’t have plant­ed those spruce and fir on my acres. Plen­ty of native hard­woods have come up of their own accord, already chok­ing the aliens. If I could rest long and still enough against the scarred maple, it would heal and grow around my flesh, seal­ing Rip Van Win­kle in a mau­soleum. In the bright breeze atop Seward Hill —even though I love the woods, even though my soul would dry up and blow away like an old leaf if I had to live in a city—I can sym­pa­thize with the hard­scrab­ble farmer I angered by plant­i­ng trees.

Some­times when I hike the conifer stand I plant­ed in sun­shine and youth, each of my steps now in shade and a bit arthrit­ic, I can even under­stand why the Puri­tans believed the dim for­est floor to be the haunt of the Dev­il, the calls of lions and wolves to be demon­ic.

And why to a lot of strug­gling Amer­i­cans, trees are meant to be cut —not plant­ed.

And yet with its 23 mil­lion acres of new for­est on land aban­doned by agri­cul­ture, the North­east is now wilder than when Thore­au lived on Walden Pond. Isn’t that ver­dant fact a cause for cel­e­bra­tion in a time of unprece­dent­ed world­wide envi­ron­men­tal dam­age and destruc­tion?

Yes—but if the land your pio­neer ances­tor cleared tree by tree and your grand­dad and dad farmed by the sweat of their brows from sun­rise to sun­set is now home to the wolf-coy­ote hybrid known as the east­ern coy­ote, the howl­ing is seri­ous­ly haunt­ing.

Even worse is the feline yowl­ing.

They say the lions lie in wait out on a tree limb, tails twitch­ing, and with long claws and glint­ing teeth spring down on their prey. A friend tells me he hears them call­ing to each oth­er in the woods up beyond a lit­tle ceme­tery where the chis­eled names of pio­neers have been weath­ered clear off some of the gravestones—and that the sound caus­es the hair on the back of his neck to stand up.

I’ve seen nei­ther hide nor hair of a moun­tain lion, but last win­ter, snow­shoe­ing up behind the house, I came upon the frozen and dimin­ished car­cass of a small deer. I could see from the tracks that three east­ern coy­otes had caught it in an open­ing in the spruce stand the pre­vi­ous night, one of them prob­a­bly clamp­ing its jaws on the deer’s neck as is their wont, stran­gling it.

Can you imag­ine its ter­ror as it suf­fo­cat­ed in the snowy dark­ness?

They evis­cer­at­ed their kill, gulped down the liv­er and heart and lungs and left the stom­ach and intestines behind as they dragged the light­ened car­cass into thick cov­er, where they con­sumed all of the

flesh except for that of one hindquar­ter. They fin­ished eat­ing their kill the next night, leav­ing a scat­ter­ing of hair and dis­joint­ed bones and the hol­low rib cage and the frozen gut pile that remained until it dis­in­te­grat­ed with the spring thaw.

They must have been very hun­gry.

Late­ly, walk­ing my land, I find myself won­der­ing as I pass the weath­ered rib cage of that unfor­tu­nate deer.

Do the unem­ployed of Detroit hear the sirens as howls?

Do the fore­closed of Cal­i­for­nia hear the pro­nounce­ments of bankers as yowls?

Why did I seem to snort with mock­ery as I wrote about the boys who stole and burned the truck? What hun­gry rage caused them to destroy the hard-earned prop­er­ty of a good man and neigh­bor? What wild fear caused us to incar­cer­ate one of them, hard-bit­ten almost since birth, for eight years—longer than some invest­ment bankers and secu­ri­ties traders who stole the sav­ings and retire­ments of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans?

Why did one of my kin—while receiv­ing care in a Buf­fa­lo hos­pi­tal —become livid about pro­pos­als for nation­al health insur­ance that would cov­er the less for­tu­nate? It would make his tax­es go up, he howled.

He had earned his insur­ance through hard work, he snarled.

How did we become as hol­low as that gnawed rib cage?

As I set­tled here 30 years ago, I came to know my neigh­bors a mile around. We spent many win­ter evenings togeth­er in wood-heat­ed par­lors, snow scratch­ing at the win­dows, con­vers­ing about our fam­i­lies and jobs and oth­er neigh­bors and hunt­ing and the weath­er or what­ev­er was on the tele­vi­sion, but nev­er about moun­tain lions.

I don’t mean to sug­gest that we ever resided in the mid­dle of heaven’s acres: that we didn’t always have some hate and hard­ness and despair. A neigh­bor who had cus­tody of his grand­son reg­u­lar­ly lashed the boy with pro­fane vit­ri­ol that I could hear a quar­ter-mile away when they were out­side. And I recall well that each morn­ing a farmwife with an icy spouse would wait in the woods at the lone­ly top of my road until the milk truck stopped so she could spend some time up in the warm cab before hik­ing back home through the woods and fields.

But neigh­bors also shared cups of flour; neigh­bors fed the live­stock and poul­try of oth­er neigh­bors who man­aged to get away for a short­va­ca­tion; neigh­bors looked in on the sick and elder­ly.

That’s what it meant to be a neigh­bor.

Now that the farms have been parceled and sold, I have sev­er­al new neigh­bors I don’t know, in part because I’ve nev­er knocked on their doors to wel­come them to this neck of the woods and in part because if I did they prob­a­bly would won­der why I was both­er­ing them and what it was I want­ed from them. I don’t even know the names and faces of some.

I’m not sure why we’ve become a com­mu­ni­ty of strangers, but I do sense that some­thing in the greater civic and reli­gious mood has been chang­ing and drift­ing over even the most remote hills and hol­lows of Amer­i­ca.

The wind didn’t always blow in the direc­tion it does today. Two decades ago, 27 peo­ple gath­ered at the home of Fran­cis Brown after he was implod­ed by a stroke; a few were his rel­a­tives but most were his neigh­bors, some who lived miles away. We were there to fin­ish the job he had started—to pro­vide fire­wood for his wife, May.

Ter­ry Hurl­burt and I felled and limbed beech and ash, and with his green, cough­ing trac­tor he dragged the bolls from the for­est into a weedy field near the house where men with chain­saws cut 18-inch chunks or oper­at­ed hydraulic split­ters and swung wedges. Men and women heaved the pieces damp with sap into a dump trail­er and each time it was heaped full Ter­ry pulled the load with his John Deere and emp­tied it on May’s front yard where women and chil­dren were stack­ing a two-win­ter sup­ply of warmth in long rows.

At noon we took a break to meet on the Swift farm, where at two long fold­ing tables bor­rowed from a church and set up in the yard far below the black-and-white Hol­steins on an iri­des­cent­ly green hill­side, we passed around home­made cider, we broke bread.

The small pre­fab­ri­cat­ed house where Fran­cis and May lived is sev­er­al hun­dred yards above mine on a grave­ly bench, and just beyond the nar­row yard the land resumes its steep ascent into for­est. On a clear wind­less morn­ing sev­er­al weeks after the funer­al, the east­ern hori­zon spun grad­u­al­ly into orange and the sun began to float, the maples crim­son, a crunchy frost clutch­ing the grass, and I saw that the lights were on in May’s house and knew she had risen at the time when she used to cook him break­fast.

From her crum­bling chim­ney rose a steamy offer­ing of burnt wood.

copy­right 2010 by Mark Phillips
first pub­lished in Notre Dame Mag­a­zine

 

Mark Phillips, who lives near Cuba, NY, is the author of the mem­oir My Father's Cab­in.
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