A Tangle of the Forgotten, the Long-Dead and the Abandoned.
The question in last week’s Letter—How does the Story of Goose Landing begin?—was actually a trick question. How so? Underlying our hearing of the question we find our assumption of time’s direction of travel—past, present, future. But this place—in its wildness and abandonment, in the simple fact that the last human who lived here, Henry Schermerhorn, never married and left no descendants—mischievously and mysteriously upends the stepping stones on that familiar, linear path. Just yesterday, as my neighbor Marion and I led Trevor and Angus around the old Farmhouse—their daily training routine—the calves paused at a flat, rectangular stone set carefully atop smaller stones, creating a platform about eight inches off the ground. Marion says, “This looks to me like it was for arriving guests to step down out of their carriages.” And then I notice that this flat stone sits directly in line with the house’s front door, the one that nowadays often sits unused on old farmhouses because it faces the busy road rather than the driveway. In this case the “busy road” amounts to a grass track, lined on both sides by stone walls as it climbs the gentle hill to the farmhouse and barns with their grand old Maples and Black Walnuts before heading, still lined by stone walls, down into the woods. On the survey map handed to me at the closing a couple weeks back this partially-grown over grass track that bisects the 115-acre Farm is labeled “Vanornum Road—Qualified Abandonment, Sec. 234 of Hwy Law, 30 Oct. 1931.” Apparently the road was one of the main routes from Keeseville down to Lake Champlain and the village of Port Kent.
On the back side of the old farmhouse, covered by a dense tangle of vines, sits an inconspicuous wooden box, about six foot square and waist high. Opening the lid, as I did for the first time back in October, you find yourself looking down a 40-ft deep hand-dug, stone-lined well, complete with a bucket and a rope. Apparently, the old man was not inclined towards wholesale modernization, and continued to draw his drinking water by hand. The water that feeds the house’s one bathroom and kitchen was pumped from a cistern filled by gutters, now half fallen down. These glimpses of Henry’s life I have gleaned mostly from many hours of looking around the place. The realtors had very little information to share. The property was being sold “as is.” With the help of visiting friends, we’ve just cut back the vines, dropped a water line into the old well and siphoned the water down the hill to my tiny house—for dishwashing and, once filtered, for drinking.
So you can begin to see that the human Story of this place—or at least the recent chapters that we might call “his story,” or “Henry’s Story”—amounts to a seemingly impenetrable tangle of the forgotten, the long-dead and the abandoned. Seventeen years the Farm has been unoccupied by humans. Walking the old Vanornum Road, listening for Stories, begins to sound like walking into the past. This is what I meant by this place upending our assumptions about a Story’s beginning and time’s direction of travel. But here at Goose Landing—the old Farm at the crest of the hill above the lazy bend in Big Sandy River where Geese stop over on their travels—tracking stories has felt more like travelling in the circular path of Hawk, or, dare I say, Vulture. I have always wondered how it is for those birds to focus their listening, their seeing and their smelling so intensely, to push their awareness into a landscape in search of nourishment. Just yesterday, Vulture drew circles in the Sky above the hayfield where the Ewes grazed with the first born Lamb—Betty with the black spot under her right eye, daughter of Beatrice.
Tracking Stories: Meeting Dave Lessard
A few weeks back I needed to find someone with equipment large enough to pull my tiny house a quarter mile or so from its winter home at the North Country Creamery—the Farm run by my dear friends Ashlee and Steven—down the road to Goose Landing. Steven suggested I call Dave Lessard. Within a few hours, Dave arrived to take a look. With a large white truck, long white beard, and a gas-station coffee cup in hand, he looked to be a proper old-timer. Just the man for the job. Plus, he was downright enthusiastic about the adventure, in a predictably reserved old-timer kind of way. I jumped into the passenger seat of his truck to ride down to Goose Landing to look at the spot the house would be headed. He called it the old Schermerhorn place. As it turned out, he knew the Farm very well, and our fifteen-minute site visit turned into an hour and a half walk around the Farm. Dave told Stories the whole time. The Rhubarb patch is here buried in the tall grass. Asparagus as well. Henry used to boil his maple syrup here on the backside of the chicken coop, where firewood is still stacked and covered. The sugaring arch has been removed. After sugaring season, he used to bake cakes and pies and drop them off to people around town. “He was an odd fellow, and a bit of a loner. And very particular.” I have since benefitted from the old man’s particularity. The various workshops and garage are still filled with many of his tools and well-organized hardware. Each time I think of a tool that would help me complete a project, I usually find it within an hour’s time. Dave continued, “Every night before going to bed, Henry would set the table for breakfast and lay out his clothes for the next day, neatly folded. One night, he laid down his head and never woke up. When they found him dead his clothes were neatly folded and the table was set for breakfast.” At one point Dave broke from storytelling, looked me right in the eyes and said, with a wink, “If I’d been twenty years younger you wouldn’t have gotten this place.” It seemed too complicated to try to describe how the Farm might be “owned” going forward, so I let that one be for the moment.
Several days later, the appointed hour arrived to move the tiny house. Dave drove his tractor two miles from his place on a sixteen-degree morning, dressed for adventure. We planned to take advantage of the last bit of firmly frozen ground. A dusting of Snow had fallen overnight, which greatly reduced the traction, and that frost layer proved shallower than we’d hoped for. What might have taken an hour and a half turned into an all-day ordeal, including a broken lift arm on Dave’s tractor. And he kept a smile on his face the whole time. Just sixty feet from the house’s destination the ground finally gave way and the wheels of the house’s trailer sunk nearly axle-deep into the mud. Unfazed, Dave gathered ratcheting winches, called come-alongs, and chains from his house and helped Evan and I to begin inching the house through the mud. Ten feet in three hours and two snapped chain links and it was finally time to quit. Before he left, I asked Dave, “Does you wife think you’re crazy?”
“No, she knows I am,” Dave replied.
A couple days later I drove to Dave’s house to pay him. I’d packed a box of frozen beef, which I planned to give him after he’d told me how much I owed him. Seven or eight hours plus his tractor time and repairs—the bill might be justifiably steep. We hadn’t talked price at the outset at all. After an hour-long tour of his junkyard—five acres of his collected treasures—I pushed him to tell me how much to write a check for. “How about a couple hundred dollars?” He replied. “Does that seem fair? I didn’t want to charge you anything, but fuel is mighty high.”
“That’s extremely generous,” I replied. I wrote the check and then pulled out the box of steaks and hamburger. He was clearly pleased, and then told me to hold on a minute. He disappeared into the house and returned with a quart basket overflowing with fresh Eggs.
Dave stops by the Farm often, and his visits rarely last less than an hour. The other day he showed up with a huge roll of heavy black plastic. Apparently, I’d expressed some enthusiasm as we wandered past the stack of black rolls on our treasure-yard tour. “You said you might be able to use it to mulch your garden,” Dave said proudly.
“I sure could. Thank you for bringing it by. How much would you like for it?” I asked
“Oh no, it’s for you. I’ll be glad if it’s useful to you,” says Dave.
“Dave, I am really grateful to have met you. I’d love to hear more of the Stories of this place. Would you be willing to share them with me?” I asked.
“You should really talk with my mother. She’s ninety-four and has lived in the neighborhood her whole life. But I will warn you she’s quite a talker. You’d better not be in a rush when you go to visit her.”
Quite a talker, eh? “You’re not too bad yourself, Dave,” I considered saying. Instead, I told him, “I’ll set aside half a day for it. Please let your mother know of my interest.”
And the quilting of past and present begins.
Over the next couple of weeks, with the help of some friends, I will circle ‘round the Story of Goose Landing, how it came to be that the old Barn once again echoes with the songs of Ewes calling to their Lambs and Calves balling to be fed. How it came to be that I have been given the immense privilege of waking each morning in this place of wild vine tangle. Each morning taking hold of the day’s thread. And following it toward something that looks like trying to be useful in the time of the great unravelling. The lambs are coming fast now. Three born today, all healthy. Many blessings to you on the sing-song cusp of the greening.
With great care,