Friday, December 26, 2008

Back to the Land

During this past Thanksgiving, an aunt told me that there had been a "back to the land" movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that my grandmother, unhappy in her role as a mother and housewife
in the Texas community where my grandfather was teaching, caught the fever and convinced my grandfather to pick up the family, move back to New England and buy a farm.

There was nothing romantic about the reality of farm living for my grandparents or their children. They did not have a lot of money, and the farm was old and needed lots of work. It was drafty and poorly heated in the wintertime, and in the summer, a small pond would form in the back if the stream that runs through the cellar was not kept clear of debris.

Still, preserving the farm and the land around it became my grandmother's passion after my grandfather died. She was a reader and must have been very well-informed about not only the geological history of the land and the non-human life forms that thrive there, but the story of the people and the land, as well.

Products of the Land

William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, his decades-long account of the Pilgrims in New England, described the land the Pilgrims encountered as "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men." In fact, however, the Indians of coastal New England, though decimated in population by European diseases by the time the Pilgrims arrived, had built numerous villages surrounded by cultivated fields and had burned the forests and fields elsewhere to make game hunting easier. In addition, "wild strawberries carpeted many of the burned-over glades. In the spring, 'herrings come up in such abundance into their brooks and fords to spawn that it is almost impossible to ride through without treading on them.' Huge turkeys ran in flocks of four and five hundred. Migrating ducks blotted out the sun when they rose from a pond ..."* Recent settlers would have also found abundant wood for construction and heat -- the forests in England, by this time, had been largely felled to build ships (2,500 per vessel) and to turn into charcoal to stoke furnaces.

I have never found wild strawberries growing on the farm, but blueberries, elderberries, and wild grapes are common. My grandmother gathered all of those and turned them into jams, or, in the case of the grapes, wine as well.

Every February, my grandmother also tapped the silver maples on the land for maple syrup -- a tradition that my aunt continues. It's easy to tap maple syrup -- just hammer a nail into the trunk of tree and hang an empty plastic milk carton from the nail. But the process of rendering the thin, clear sap into a dark, viscous, and flavorful syrup is time consuming and requires lots of stove-top space and ongoing heat. Above, you can see a bottle of my aunt's maple syrup (and the winter stockpile of wood in the garage, with a clearing for the trap door to the cellar through which the stream runs).

As to wild game birds, I see few ducks on the farm, but there are plenty of geese. In the photograph to the right, my aunt had wandered off to get a stick for her dog during a walk this past summer. But her dog had his own idea. The second my aunt's back was turned, he stepped right into the water of this artificial pond -- two fields over from the farm -- in hot pursuit of fun. The Canada geese stayed in the water, swimming away from him as much as they could, and then finally took off and flew over to the next pond. In the photograph to the left, you can see a roasted goose. My hosts on December 25, back here in San Francisco, served this goose. Geese were traditionally served for Christmas dinner until replaced in popularity by domesticated turkeys, according to my Joy of Cooking. Presumably my grandfather would have hunted wild geese during his years growing up on a Maine farm and during his years on the Massachusetts farm, but I don't know.

* Everyday Life in Early America, by David Freeman Hawke, 1988, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, p. 13

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