Thursday, December 12, 2019

Wedded to the Land on the Solstice

Published in the Concord Monitor 12/19/19
This gnarled apple tree still stands in what remains 
of the orchard once owned by my grandparents

Wedded to the Land on the Solstice

My father purchased 21 acres across from our home when I was about five. Before the neighbor sold it, she clear-cut the land to maximize her profit. The logger, as was the custom in those times, set up a portable sawmill and reduced the mature pine forest to rough-cut boards, which were then neatly stacked next to the road.

The forest was gone. I built forts out of the stickings⁠1 and slabs that were left.

 My mother and I would walk diagonally across the road and through an opening in the stonewall to pick blueberries, which spouted around the stumps of what had been majestic trees. 

Once we saw a bear.

When I was little, I loved being outside, chopping down dead trees with my hatchet and building dams on the little seasonal brook beside our house. 

I could never shake that formative experience of living an outside life, working with my hands. It haunted me wherever I went.

 When I was attending St Paul’s advanced summer sessions, I envied the groundkeepers outside the window trimming the hedges; when I was heading off to start college at Columbia, I envied the fishermen unloading their catch outside Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant where we had stopped for lunch.

Perhaps it was inevitable I would return to the land: that I would drop out of Columbia and volunteer for Vietnam and, afterward, reject graduate school twice; and gravitate home, in the aftermath of the tumultuous 60s, to build stonewalls for a living and erect a house on that very land my parents had purchased when I was five.

I built my driveway for my new house up through that opening in the stonewall my mother and I had entered to pick berries. With a $14,000 construction loan, and a lot of sweat equity, we moved into that house, but it was only half-done.  

At our housewarming party, Bud Carpenter, local horseshoer, welded brackets and cut a stovepipe hole in a 20 ft steel culvert which we erected for the chimney, like soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

 Raising the culvert to get heat was a top priority because it was Winter Solstice time – and freezing! 

 The denuded land my father bought, the blueberry patch we picked berries in, is now a registered Tree Farm, a respectable forest of pine and oak. I still cut my own firewood and burn it, but the smoke now flows through a stone chimney.

Vietnam turned me off to the frenetic hustle and bustle of the holidays. That feeling intensified after becoming a stonemason with its demands of physical exertion and distant jobs. 

When the work stopped after the frost set in and the land went to sleep, all I wanted to do was hibernate like a bear. 

Each year, as the darkness deepens and the cold strengthens, I found myself entering a primal cave beyond words, a sacred space Gunilla Norris has been able to poetically illustrate:

Our souls can dive into the biting cold, into darkness, 
into bare being. The unknown is there…
Winter is a womb in which we grow.⁠2

Due to occupational infirmities, as I approached the age of 50, I went back to school to learn an inside profession, dealing with the trauma we inflict on each other and the world. 

Since then, my solstice reveries have been increasingly buffeted by sadness and grief at the state of our world, steeped in suffering, injustice, and climate crisis – caused not by some alien devil but our own selfish and small-minded actions.

My feelings resonate with those of the Episcopal Priest, Tish Harrison Warren: looking honestly at the darkness connects us to an “almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.”⁠3

As I sit musing by my woodstove this solstice, I have no magic wand to awaken the world – and each one of us – to a higher standard of ethics, justice, and good behavior.

I am left with only what I’ve always had: my sense of place and the changing of the seasons.


Stacked green lumber must be separated by narrow strips of wood called “stickings” for ventilation to allow proper drying of the wood.
Gunilla Norris A Mystic Garden:  Working with Soil, Attending to Soul