Archive for the ‘land’ Category

Why I love New Hampshire (a companion piece)

March 6, 2008

My Eagle Pond post I meant, but thinking back now, the tone has a touch of New Hampshire curmudgeonly in it. In Hall’s dozenth essay, he’s asked to write about “why he hates Vermont”, and the essay is finally published under the title “Why I Love New Hampshire”. He felt curmudgeonly too.

So here, to go with my last wrestle with his book, is another response to it — here’s what I love about the state we’ve both lived in. Some of it is also what I love about western Massachusetts, and some of it is not. New Hampshire, even in the fast-growing coastal region where I lived, can feel farther from anywhere except Quebec than the Berkshires ever do.

When I woke in New Hampshire, I could look backwards out the window, up the undersides of white pines. Hemlocks grew all along my street, protected somehow from the southern blight. My landlord played the piano one floor up. He also tuned up the snow blower every fall and cleared the driveway all winter; he is in his eighties.

When he moved there, and Orchard Drive still grew an orchard, his children got to choose a special Christmas gift. They got moccasins and taught themselves to walk silently over all the stone walls. Coming into town, you drive by the stable to get to the University visitors’ center. They have one of the earliest agricultural schools in the country. When the wind sets right, you can smell the dairy barn, or the sea.

It has bizarre and beautiful kinds of open-heartedness. It is the only state I know of whose second language is French. Its coastal living history museum contains glassware from a brothel. Its sugar houses hold music jams to mark the start of maple season. I know a farm with a log cabin sauna, a church that held a group ceremony after Civil Unions came into effect, a community where people get together to paint each other’s houses.

I love the individual stubbornness of New Hampshire. People do things by hand, there. People repair old things and craft new ones. Ordinary people play the fiddles their grandparents’ left them: often fiddles their grandparents made. In the city on the coast, the houses have close set clapboards low down, as though the walls were sliding into themselves; they stand up against the weight of snow.

People don’t forget anything, there. The best people I know there are the kind of people you want with you when things fall apart. Hall, and a close friend of mind from grad school, call it a high tolerance for eccentricity. I would call it the kindness of people who have seen everything go wrong, deeply wrong, and don’t pretend about it. People who know what grief is, and don’t confuse it with anything less, and have gotten through it somehow… they aren’t afraid of someone else who is facing it.

People work hard. College freshmen from mountain towns may not know how to read a syllabus or take notes, and their parents may not know why they are trying, but they try hard. College may be only a practical step on the way to a job. Or not. For people with jobs, hours a week or health insurance may not matter. The people involved may matter, or the work that gets done, inside the day job or out of it.

New Hampshire doesn’t compromise well. New Hampshire values everything — including land — by its current use. New Hampshire has more young orchards than young people. People pick 50 pounds of peaches at a time and preserve them. New Hampshire was the first place outside New York to circulate the Moosewood Cookbook, when the Moosewood was xeroxed and even more outspoken than it is now. The vegan restaurant on route 4 serves locally grown kale 365 days a year. The college students run their own organic garden and sell five kinds of basil down by the science buildings.

It’s as hard to explain love for a place as for a person. I spent nearly four years there, eating its icecream and crossing its wide spans of bridges over the bay, admiring the conductors’ brass buttons in the old railway station, and learning to write in landscape dimensions, and playing its music. It will always be the place where I learned to write a novel, and to play dance tunes by ear. I like who I was when I was with New Hampshire. And some days I miss it powerful much.


Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

November 12, 2007

I wasn’t in Portugal — but I have seen a freshly dead pig. So has Tony Bourdain, it turns out. I’m reading A Cook’s Tour. When I’m finished, I’ll write a kicked back, going over the whole of it review, but right now, I’m struck with the opening. For the first time, at a family get-together on his boss’s farm, he watches his dinner die.

He slows down for it. If you’ve ever seen or read Tony, you know he delights in innards, butcher’s blocks and adrenaline. Here’s a guy who once tore headlong down a mined jungle road toward a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. He can anatomize a pig as easily as peeling a carrot. And yet a jovial working day on a Portugese farm knocks the sarcasm out of him.

He’s just kicked off the pilgrimage, and he’s in the hazy morningtime, still blinking around at the grass and shingles and beams and mountains that are impossibly not on the same ground he stood on yesterday. Hot soup sets him dreaming. Two locals gear up with a trestle and a knife and some of last season’s homemade wine (probably in an old milk jug). They wrestle with the pig as their wives wrestle with the stove.


This “all” feeling

November 6, 2007

You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.

Herman Melville wrote this postscript in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851, at the height of haying season. Melville’s “Whale” would go to press in a few months. He was in the grip of a blue devil and half turned away from the idea of this blending into the touch of growing things, but he turned back again to explain it further. I have felt it too, and I’ve been trying, tonight, to figure out how to explain it to someone who has not.

I have only ever found two of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, in the Berkshire Reader, and they make me wish for more. I love to think of one grown man saying to another, after a fourteen hour day of labor, “you know what it’s like when you lie on your back on the lawn….” It’s an open pleasure, like jumping into leaf piles and whistling on acorn caps, a child’s game in the woods.

Of course, Melville had just spent all day, and all the days and weeks before, pitching cut alfalfa and clover into a pine board wagon and stacking it in a barn, to keep his horse alive through the winter. No wonder he had grass on his mind. (Don’t laugh.) But if he had written this passage as carefree as a boy, or as a farm hand after a long day, I would not have remembered it today, four years after I first read it, and felt drawn to pull it off the shelf again. It means as much as it does because he wrote it as a man, with a nagging soreness in him like toothache, and still he remembered.