The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Clearing wildflowers of overgrowth, an unexpected perk: a box turtle encounter.
The work around the homestead has the double result of clearing the present and revealing the past.
On the 28th of February,1952, an article appeared on the local newspaper’s front page. Even in rural counties like mine, such articles no longer get front-page billing. The article noted that Marsh and Etta Putnam, who married when she was 15, had marked the 69th anniversary of their long life together “with a family dinner at their home.” They were “in the best of health,” as the accompanying photograph of the smiling couple suggested. “She does her own housework, he saws up their wood in the timber. They raise a garden which is the pride of the neighborhood.”
Someone gave me this article because I own the house where that celebratory dinner was held. By the time I bought “the Marsh Putt place,” as many of my neighbors still call it, the land had changed hands several times. The garden so well maintained by the Putnams was completely overgrown by 1976; a neighbor chopped a path around the house through briars that waved in front of my windows. Since then, I’ve repeatedly fought back the wilderness, a task more onerous now that Japanese stiltgrass, Chinese yam and hog peanut have joined forces with the honeysuckle, wisteria and briars there from the outset.
Last year, the electric cooperative that serves our area began using herbicides on its power line rights-of-way, making a lot of people, including me, unhappy. The electric line runs right along the edge of my organic garden, and the thought of spraying occurring anywhere near it made me sick. Since opting out of the spraying program was possible if you maintained their ROW for them, I spent most of the month of March removing debris from a long, wide swath, not only on my land, but, with the adjacent landowner’s permission, farther down the ridge, on his. The co-op’s ROW maintenance head came out, inspected my work and pronounced it adequate.
I hadn’t done it all myself. Friends helped me reduce to manageable size the slash the co-op’s maintenance crew had left behind a year earlier; we sawed the larger branches to lengths we could carry to the house and cut into firewood. Still, I’d done the followup work myself – hauling brush, pruning away new growth sprouting from stumps, raking. It was work that exhausted – but also empowered – me. Looking over the newly cleared land, I understood I could transform other areas on my land that I’d thought were beyond my ability to make attractive.
I started with the wisteria thicket that had swallowed the bank on the south side of my house. Clipping the sprouts before they leafed out and pulling out as many lateral roots as I could took many days, but I stuck to it. Then I turned my attention to the land that slopes into a ravine on the other side of the house. The winter before, a neighbor I’d hired to fell two trees growing too close to the house had dragged side limbs and brush part way down the slope. Now I wanted it farther away, down at the edge of the woods. To clear the way to its final destination, I took my mattock to multiflora rose I’d allowed to gain more than a toehold in the periwinkle carpet that grew there.
Below where the trees begin, my land descends steeply to a trickling stream that marks my northern boundary. An old road once ran down the ravine to the railroad and river. When Marsh and Etta Putnam lived in my house, he rode his horse down the road to carry the mail between the railroad and the Bandana community post office. After I moved in I’d followed what remained of the road down to “Whale Rock,” at the river’s edge, where Bandana’s youth once were baptized. Water and multiflora rose have almost erased the road; and my taste for bushwhacking is now pretty limited. Still, on one of my brush-dragging afternoons, I got a sudden urge, if not to fight my way to the river, at least to explore the wooded part of my land. In particular, I wanted to find a rock outcrop part way down the ravine where wild ginger and my only patch of hepatica once grew. But how to get down there? My attention focused then on a deer trail through the periwinkle, a narrow brown track where last year’s leaves, blown about by winter winds, had snagged and been trampled. The trail traversed the slope gently downhill.
That trail fed into another – and another. The hillside was netted with them. I might have abandoned the lower half of my acre, but the deer hadn’t. Following the trails I switchbacked down to the outcrop. There, tucked between the sheltering roots of a beech tree, was a little clump of hepatica. Hepatica blooming – as this clump was – was one of my mother’s favorite signs of spring; she always looked for it, the way I look for trout lilies. I hadn’t realized how sure I’d been that – like so much else I’ve treasured in my lifetime – it would be gone. But it wasn’t.