On Excelsior there are the remains of an old paddock – it was almost intact, still, when I first saw it years ago but since then a few of the fence posts have fallen of their own volition, perhaps helped along by cattle looking for new ways to scratch their backs, and a few other, regrettably, were carelessly knocked over by my backhoe operator when we had some roadwork done. He could not understand why I did not have the old structure knocked altogether out of the way when I had the chance, he had the equipment right there and it would only have taken a moment, to have that old paddock permanently obliterated from the landscape.
Why did I not take him up on his offer? And why does each post that falls seem to take a little bit of me with it? I know it is just an old paddock, not Stonehenge or anything, but still – it holds the remnants of somebody’s story, and I want to know the story that old paddock has to tell. Someone struggled to dig postholes into that hard stony ground, and lugged up a truckload or cartload of lumber – perhaps the same someone who attempted to clear the stones from the field so it could be better grazed, creating a mountain of lichen-covered cobble, a truly Sisyphusian task, with new fields of cobble somehow rising to the surface as if they’d been unweighted by the previous clearing. Someone walked the same land I am walking now, and like me admired the fine view of the river falling away into the valley and the glint of a bluebird’s wings in the afternoon sun. I want to know something of who they were, and how they lived.
I believe that our experience of a landscape is much richer the more we know of its past. Perhaps that is why I have a sense we’ve been adrift here in America, where when we cleared the continent of its inconvenient inhabitants we also cleared it of the stories they had to tell, the stories which we need in order to connect to the landscapes that sustain us. So I have become a bit of a history buff – studying old maps, spending time in libraries, looking up old documents, and talking to old-timers who in their youth talked to old-timers as well, and still recall some of their stories. We cannot own the land, for we are only passing through and we can only hope it will sustain us on our journey. But somehow, if we can hear some of the stories the land beneath our feet has to tell, the stories of those who came before and shared this land with us, we might begin to understand that journey just a bit better.