This Hill, This Valley, p.1Hal Borland
This Hill, This Valley
drawings by Peter Marks
To my Barbara
About the Author
MOST OF US KNOW the world around us rather intimately during our growing-up years; then we lose sight of it in the haste of a busy life, now and then catching a quick glance from a superhighway or a coast-to-coast plane. We urbanize, or we make a tentative and nostalgic compromise and suburbanize and try to recapture a lost sense of belonging. And occasionally we get a second chance to see and try to know exactly where we live.
Five years ago I was taken to a hospital and partook of a miracle. I went there dying of a ruptured appendix and advanced peritonitis, and I came back alive. I went there while Winter was passing, but I was not aware of that for in a hospital there is neither wind nor weather, sunrise nor moonset, but only a strange intermediate stage between life and death.
I came back to March, and even its gusts and gales, its snow and slush and rain, were full of wonder. Its gray skies were pussy-willow gray, not leaden. Its chickadee song was as gay, if not quite so loud, as that of a May oriole. The sound of March melt, trickling down the hillsides, was full of laughter and Spring just offstage. March and I were alive, getting acquainted with each other all over again. To see daffodils budding was to know, as for the first time, a magnificent wonder. To see buds open into new leaves was to see, suddenly, a marvelous facet of that big miracle which each Spring stirs the earth and all things thereon.
I saw and felt, and it was like feeling my own strong pulse again, sensing my own growing strength. I was a part of some universal magnificence, as I had not been for a long time.
March passed, Spring strengthened, and I knew that I, too, had come to a new season in my life. Almost half my life had been spent in a daily job, a good part of it at a desk in a city. Because of some urgency in myself, I lived most of those years at the edge of the country, near woods and open fields. I spent evenings and weekends there. Then I quit the city job and moved to the edge of the country for good, to write what and when and where I might. But for eight years I was coming and going, to California, to Michigan, to Colorado, to Florida, to Mississippi, wherever an editor sent me, making a living at my typewriter.
All that time I had made occasion, at least once a week, to renew my acquaintance with the trees and flowers, the weather and the wind. However, I felt the need to remain close to the city, never more than an hour away. The habit was deeply ingrained, and though I compromised by owning a few acres of hillside and brook and coming to know them intimately, I was being trapped by suburbanization, which in its own way is worse than urbanization.
Then I went to the hospital and came back, and it all seemed more of a compromise than a man should make. Reappraisal was inevitable. Barbara, who is my wife and who had known that I would come back when others doubted, agreed that there were things more important than an assignment in Maine or Tennessee. She, too, felt that a self-chosen assignment on a hillside of my own choosing was the important thing now. So we sold our suburban acres and moved to Weatogue, to live, to write, to see and feel and understand a hillside, a river bank, a woodland and a valley pasture.
We came here, not to a cabin in the wilderness but to a farmhouse beside a river. So far as the legalities are concerned, we bought and own a hundred acres, one whole side of a mountain and half a mile of river bank. I have spent the months and years since, living with this small fraction of the universe and trying to know its meaning—to own it, that is, in terms of observation and understanding. There is no other way to own a piece of land. We have been away briefly, on one errand and another, some of them a continent’s span away; but this is home, this is the source, this is where I live and work the year around. I have written of many things during my years here, but the continuing topic has been here in my own dooryard, six miles from the village, a hundred miles from the city. I was granted a second chance to know this earth of my origins, and I have found here in Weatogue a good vantage point from which to examine it.
Weatogue is a strange word to the unaccustomed tongue. It is of Indian origin. In the Mahican tongue it meant “The Place of the Wigwam.” Or, more simply, “Home.” As late as 1740, when the first white settlers had come here, there was an Indian village of 70 wigwams not far from where my house now stands. Not a trace of that Weatogue remains, though flint arrowheads and other stone implements were found for years in a field just down the road. There is a post office called Weatogue forty miles from here, but locally the name means only the valley where I live, a valley less than four miles long. We pronounce the name we-a-tog.
This book is not the story of this valley, of Weatogue, specifically. Rather, it is an account of one man’s seeing and thinking and his attempts at understanding. It follows the pattern of the year, Spring to Spring, because that is the nature of time, all the time man has known. It is the story of a man and the universe he knows best; and perhaps in that sense it is the story of Man and his World. The same sun rises here as in Miami or Chicago or Seattle, and the same moon, and the same star patterns. My river, like all rivers, flows from an upland to the sea. My mountain was once a new upthrust on the surface of a restless land. My valley, like all valleys, has a hill on either side. Mine are global winds, and my rains and snows come from remote sources. My rabbits and squirrels and deer and porcupines are no strange, antipodean creatures; my robins and orioles and wood thrushes and mourning doves are known in the Carolinas and in Ohio and in Arkansas. The equinoxes and the solstices are as faithful in coming here as elsewhere. I came here to live with these verities and to search for understanding of them. I shall never know all there is to know about them, but what I have set down here is an interim report.
I WELCOME THE VERNAL EQUINOX as a signpost, but nothing more. It says that Spring lies ahead, the Spring we know and recognize in rising sap, opening buds, returning birds. A Spring day in March is as rare as the proverbial day in June, but today I seem to sense the cleanliness of change. Winter’s debris still litters the roadside and murks the river, but the brightness of new growth is not far away. Already there is a touch of green beside Millstone Brook and Springhouse Brook in the pastures, where flowing water has leached the frost away, and here in the dooryard I find tentative daffodil tips showing and the white-veined lancets of crocuses.
But the equinox is a matter of celestial mechanics, and terrestrial seasons follow it only approximately. One year the equinox found us with two feet of snow on the ground and the river still iced in. Another year it found me tapping the maples on a day so mild I shucked my coat and sweated in shirt sleeves as I carried pails of sap and fed the fire under the syrup tub. This year it is somewhere in between, remnants of drifts in the woods on the mountain and the temperature in the low 40s.
If there is integrity in the soul of man it must reveal itself when Spring turns the year. I may fuss and delude myself all Winter, but come Spring and I must face my own truth if there is truth in me. I must know that there is faith that transcends creed. I must believe in eternal things. I understand something of the flow of life and time.
The big issues of this world are between man and man, not between man an
I went out tonight to stand and watch the stars, and a sense of peace came over me. I felt a part of the universe, a sentient but lesser part; and that feeling is fundamental to the dignity of man. I am, somehow, a part of the great rhythm that flows through this universe. There is my source, my origin. My own pulse is such a rhythm, and quite probably the rhythmic impulses in my brain, which constitute thought, are also a part of something far greater than the individual. I am not sure of the purpose of man, any more than I am sure of the purpose of the stars; but here we are, and there they are, and among us there is discernible order, a continuity. Recognition of that is perhaps enough for me during my tenure here.
A flock of robins has come to the valley, as they come each year within a few days of this date. This morning the whole flock is in the pasture behind the house; I counted fifty-two, and quite likely that is a conservative count, for they were too busy for an accurate census.
The life of a robin, or of any early migrating bird, must be full of adventure and surprise. The things that can happen to a bird that comes north with the best of expectations while Spring is only a promise would make most of us humans turn and run in panic.
Worse things can happen to a robin, of course, than to come north through balmy skies and get caught in a snowstorm or a sleety rain. But to a non-robin such an experience would be the ultimate of frustration. What does a robin do about it? He gets wet, he gets cold, he takes shelter under a pine or a hemlock, and he pokes around for something to eat. Food is scarce, but if the sun comes out the next day he fluffs his feathers and begins to sing.
Robins seem able to take March on its own terms, possibly because some race memory or instinct says that after March comes April, which may be worth knowing intimately. Robins make out pretty well in April, and by May they are doing very well indeed. March is simply the price they pay for May.
There are benefits, of course, for the early arrivals, such as robins. Firstcomers get first choice of nesting places and feeding range, so it must even out. If it didn’t even out, the robins wouldn’t keep on coming north so early. They know what they are doing, whether non-robins know or not.
I live beside a river. It is my nearest neighbor, just there beyond the dooryard. According to the scientists, such water as this was the womb of mankind. In some primordial time of development and elemental curiosity, evolving creatures of the water crept up on oozy banks and grew lungs to replace their original gills. Eventually one of these creatures also grew legs and arms and eyes that see better in the air than in the water. He even developed a brain that was more than a node of ganglia. He became a man.
Millions of years passed. Man became a creature of family, of tribe, then of race. He went through a centripetal stage of social development, during which he built massed cities; and from that stage he at last entered a centrifugal stage of redistribution, migration from the cities back to the open country, to the mountains, the valleys, the woodlands. What he did with that environment is another matter, but I have a haunting wonder if man will ever learn to live with the world on its own terms rather than try to impose his own narrow terms upon the world. In any case, here am I, once more dwelling on a river bank, a modern throwback to the company of frogs and salamanders and fish.
Whether it is an antediluvian instinct or not which brought me here, I have not yet decided. But I know that my river is a comfort and a satisfaction. It is movement and change in a primal sense, and that movement gives me a sense of permanence. Here I live, planting and harvesting, and there flows the river, fecund and ever changing. Long ago my kind came out of such water to stand erect and stride the land. I have come back to contemplate myself and my beginnings.
Ours is a rural valley and our neighbors are farmers who have lived on the land all their lives. Of the eight houses on this four-mile stretch of valley road, only one belongs to Summer people. The rest of us live here, work here, the year around, intent on weather, crops, markets.
The first white settlers came here in the 1730s and found parts of this valley even then being cultivated, primitively, by the Indians, who harvested corn on the silted bottomlands. To the west rose the ridge now known as Tom’s Mountain and Miles Mountain, and five miles away to the east rose the long, rugged ridge of what we know as Canaan Mountain. The valley itself was at least as old as the retreat of the last glaciers, perhaps 25,000 years ago. The river, a mountain stream both above and below here, was and still is a placid stretch of wide, deep water.
Over Tom’s Mountain, to the west, lie two lakes, Washining and Washinee on some old maps, simply Twin Lakes to most people now. From up on the shoulder of Tom’s Mountain I can see a clustering of mountains ten to fifteen miles away which rise 2,600 feet, Bear Mountain, Mount Everett, Mount Ashley, Mount Race. And to the north our valley widens as it reaches up into Massachusetts, to Great Harrington, to Pittsfield and beyond, flanked always by high hills and low mountains.
This is old land, peaceful land. In Summer it is full of corn and alfalfa and pasturage, and dairy cows. In Winter it is often full of snow, and the river is a winding band of ice. Spring comes slowly here, and Fall lingers, often until Christmas. It is a quiet valley and, in miles, it is remote from the city, three hours by rail or car. But what place is remote now? One can achieve a degree of peace and privacy, but even those who try cannot escape the world. The highway, three miles from our door, is jammed on holidays and many weekends; fortunately, ours is a back road, leading nowhere in particular and little trafficked.
Two villages, full of friendly folk and convenient services, lie six miles away in opposite directions. Both are venerable villages, dating back to the days of first settlement here. Albert and Ruth, our nearest neighbors, live half a mile down the road. A mile in the other direction are Charley and Elitha. Both are farm families and the best of neighbors, which is to say they are always there when you need them, with help and friendship and understanding. Albert and Charley are dairy farmers and wise in the ways of living with the land.
Our farm is still known as “the Proper place” (pronounced with a long o), after the farmer who owned it twenty years ago, though we are the third owners since that time. A few of the older people in the village speak of it as “the Barnum place.” It was owned by a Barnum about fifty years ago. Thus slowly do things change in this valley. I am glad for the persistence of the past in such matters. Some things should not be forgotten or easily discarded. The name of a farm, after all, is of little consequence. Everyone who has ever lived here has been a tenant, in a sense, and a transient, for the valley was already old when the first Indians saw it. I am only the latest in a long line of settlers on this land.
I doubt that anyone denies the wonders and magnificence of astronomy, one of the great sciences which endure as monuments to man’s powers of reason and observation. But at this season of the year I am always aware of hidden forces so accurate and so sensitive to time and the astral sequence that any human science seems to pale at least a little by contrast.
Man has known for a long time the fixed sequence of star and planet, earth, sun, moon and tides. But how can a seed “know” when to begin to sprout? How can sap at the roots of a tree “know” when comes the proper time to start that mysterious upward movement toward twig and waiting leaf-bud? What moves a bulb to send up shoots to catch the sunlight and begin to manufacture food for the plant? What mysterious force prompts one seed to wait in its sprouting until all danger of frost is past, while another sprouts at that exact moment its stem and leaf can survive ten degrees of frost but not twelve or fifteen?
We have answers,
Surely it is no accident that the chlorophyll of the leaf and the hemoglobin of the blood are chemically akin. Man is more than a vegetable, but he lives under the same sun as the tree and the vine, and he responds to the seasons, senses them in the very depth of his being, in his blood stream, in his emotions, in the seat of his understanding when he takes time to understand.
Man’s quest for the meaning of his place in the universe has deeper roots than we usually admit. We all need, physically need, a sufficient link with our environment to be at ease in it. Extend and substantiate that ease and you approach the state we should call civilization. Automatic furnaces, automobiles, television, and vitrified plumbing no doubt have a purpose in some of the processes of civilization, but only insofar as they provide ease from the vicissitudes of existence and thus give man time to wonder and speculate and explore his own mind and his habitat—to achieve ease and acceptance in his environment.
Perhaps that is one reason we all look forward so eagerly to the end of Winter, because nature herself then eases the vicissitudes. I know that I need the renewal of Spring as much as the trees need it. My mind requires the quickening, the replenishing, the photosynthesis in whatever form it manifests itself in the human body. Besides, it is much easier to be friends with one’s environment in temperate weather.
This Hill, This Valley by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes