The Hill Mowing and a Refuge in Books

Given the sheer weight of mundane horrors that bear on us so intolerably now, and the banal stupidity and darker motives in so many minds, as well as the cacophony of their voices, the need for respite and renewal is greater than ever. It is in our nature to be dissatisfied. It is what makes us human, I think, though others might have a different idea. Whatever it is, we are an unhappy lot. The good that we have known is too often buried beneath our worries and distractions. Finding some balance and equanimity at home can be difficult, but that is what a good book can do. And the added perspective of a memoir can be the best salve for the soul. 

Raised into the common middle-class luxury of 20th century America suburbs, with all the hubbub and chrome, I had often spent the glory of summers on my grandparent’s farm and early on developed a taste for something less proscribed, something unpolished, something more clearly unfinished—something more human than Naugahyde. At least as often as my vicarious adventures in the Wild West or on the high seas, I loved to read accounts of a simpler but to me more civilized life. The bravery and daring of others was great fun, but even if only subconsciously, a boy has to know his limitations. 

The first of those memoirs that I can recall was Henry Beston’s Northern Farm, a 1920 chronicle of a pre-electrified world near the coast of Maine. That personal narrative had few pretensions, such as:

It has always been our custom to take a little stroll before we put the house to bed, merely going to the gate and back when the nights are hostile with bitterness and cold . . . Tonight, under a faintly hazy sky and through a light wind one can feel but not hear, the winter is flowing downhill towards the still frozen and imprisoned pond.

Beston, a self-trained naturalist, had already won me over with his masterpiece, The Outermost House, about his time in a shack on Cape Cod, perched on a bit of thin coast facing the Atlantic. His magic was not in drama, or theatrics, or scientific detail, but in the tactile sense of being there with him. By then, I must have already discovered the secret of being able to live another life in such books, though I did not yet appreciate just how good and plain and simply beautiful his writing was. 

The name of the illustrator of The Northern Farm, Thoreau Macdonald, led me to Henry David Thoreau and thence to Walden, which I have read and read again in an admittedly unfair battle of wits. Maybe I will get the better of him next time. But Thoreau’s rural neighborhood was dense with speculations about nature and the nature of man, and I was still a bit too young for that. Much as I loved the ocean, and Beston’s outpost at the edge of forever, it was his Northern Farm that became the template to hold against my own dissatisfactions.

As an adult, I sold many a copy of poet Donald Hall’s memoir, String Too Short to be Saved, in my shop, and life on a New Hampshire farm was burnished yet again. This wonderfully written collection of vignettes, centered on one boy’s summer visits to his grandparent’s farm, recaptured all my adolescent daydreams. Hall’s focus was as much on the characters as the surroundings, and his sense of human nature is an enlightenment. But I was by then already a prisoner of compromises and tied to an urban life. He writes:

We lingered at night in the kitchen while I had a glass of milk and my grandfather a bowl of bread and milk and my grandmother a glass of Moxie before going to bed . . . My grandfather told a story that Thursday night about some young cattle of John Peabody’s that had stayed out all winter. People had seen them in February with icicles hanging from their nostrils and ice shining from their leather sides but blowing forth in white steam a proof of life. In April, when the snow melted John had to shoot them then like deer and use the carcasses for meat and shoes . . .

Cornelius Weygandt, one of the finest and yet most neglected of American authors, caught me up in his deep portrait of a rural world and the characters who inhabited The White Hills, about a small summer farm near Sandwich, New Hampshire. This naturally fed into my middle-aged fantasies as I followed Weygandt’s adventures each year in his escapes from urban Philadelphia, where he taught literature at the University of Pennsylvania. 

It is not of these [stone] walls in woodland, however, that I have had great joy in New Hampshire, but of walls in country yet tillage of hayfield or pasture. There has been so much more labor expended on many of these than was needed for the mere dispersal of the stones, such a show of pride in their substantiality, such finish in instances, that they still express to every passerby of understanding the pleasure that their pilers had in constructing them.

Noel Perrin was a cynic in paradise. This vantage made him one of the best essayists in America for 30 years. A professor then at Dartmouth, he bought a farm in 1963 that would serve as his second education and a foil for his writing. What made him better than just another urbane purveyor of rural slapstick was a wry wit, the sharp eye for detail that was still often found in The New Yorker back in the day, and a fine sense of the small tragedies of country life that was likely refined by his teaching of Robert Frost. First Person Rural found readers wanting more. There soon came Second Person Rural and then the Third

Over the years I’ve probably put up two dozen fences of one sort or another. And since I started from a state of ignorance which farmers’ sons usually pass beyond between the ages of five and six, I have made every mistake but one that it’s possible to make. I have put up a fence without bracing the corners. Strung barbed wire from the bottom strand up instead of the top strand down. Put the small end of the post in the ground instead of the large. The one thing I haven’t done is to use white or gray birch for posts. And there, it was poetry that saved me, not common sense. Long before I thought of being a farmer, I had read most of Robert Frost, and could quote from ‘Home Burial’: ‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’

I have read many other and better-known accounts, but one that took me by surprise was privately published, and thus never promoted much beyond an audience of friends and neighbors. I have a natural affection for such memoirs and often bring them in to read as far as I can get. Most are interesting but lack an appeal beyond the vicarious. Too often I am reminded again of my own petty interests and my mind wanders. Few are as artfully written. 

The Hill Mowing refers to a high patch of hayfields near Tolman Pond in Nelson, New Hampshire, bought by a couple from Milton, Massachusetts before World War I, who appear to have been possessed with the same impulses I have known. They built their family summer home there, I think, to raise their boys a little closer to heaven than most of us get: 

Now when the rain is driven by a high east wind across the face of the mountain, when the trees are lashed by storm, when the windows rattle and the gutters run full, we look out into the drenching rain and we see in imagination as we saw in reality long ago, two little figures clad in yellow raincoats and helmets . . . They are going down the hill, hand in hand, to bring up the milk from the farm, and in half an hour they will return each with a bottle of milk swinging from his hand . . .

The Reverend Roderick Stebbins’ simple essays in The Hill Mowing were written in the last two summers of his life and published by his wife and sons at the Riverside Press in Cambridge in 1928. But he might have known his reminiscence would inspire others. Preachers are like that, and often aware of longer shadows—including their own. 

The need here is not to be overwhelmed, and not to lose sight of what is better or best in life. You must already know that perspective can be everything, and objects that are too close can obscure your vision. Not coincidentally, Robert Frost was a friend to several of these authors, and a recurring reference to all. If time is short, at least pick up a collection of his poems and find yourself. 

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

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