Black Bears and Berries

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I come from Dutch Hill, from a farm in the township of Hume, near the village of Fillmore, in Allegany County. The county is named for the Allegheny River, which flows nowhere close to here, and which barely penetrates this Southern Tier of the western half of what most out-of-staters call “Upstate New York.” This part of the state is wild and agrarian, rugged and pastoral. It is the green, beating heart of Iroquois country, apple country, maple sugar country. Dairy country.

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I didn’t grow up here, never lived in the big white farmhouse with the green trim, wide open rooms, and front porch lined with rocking chairs. I never woke up before dawn to milk a barnful of cows, never learned the guts of a tractor, never touched the slick hide of a newborn calf. I was raised 80 miles to the northeast, downriver on the Genesee, closer to Rochester on the shores of Lake Ontario. Farming was never my life and this was never my home—still, it is the place and soil to which I trace my wildest roots.

My father with a cider press his family purchased when he was a kid, using proceeds from a bumper crop of potatoes.
Dad with his family’s cider press, which was purchased with the proceeds from a potato crop.

We visited the farm often while I was growing up. I’ll never forget its smells—sweet hay, summer heat, barn wood, and whatever grandma was cooking inside that big open kitchen. Hopping out of the car and into those smells was like being hugged, by a home and an airspace that were only ancestrally mine.

To a kid the farm was a paradise, with hay piles to jump in, hills to roll down, trees to climb, ghosts to be rattled from the attic. A day at the farm meant a lunch of “grandma cuisine”—meat and mashed potatoes, peas and beans from the garden, homemade pies and pickles, all passed counter-clockwise, family-style, around the big oak dining room table.

As I got older I visited less. My grandpa had passed away a few days into the new millennium; a few years later my aunt moved in to help my grandma, and the house took on a different set of smells—menthol and talc, the tell-tale scents of aging and infirmity. My visits became more intimate, more centered around household chores and long talks with my grandma.

My grandmother died in July, 2013, and my aunt followed a year and a half later. After my aunt’s passing, the family converged at the homestead and commenced a slow, steady pillage of the house, shed, barn, pump house and grain silo, setting aside heirlooms and flagging potential garage sale items. The farm, once it had been cleaned and emptied, was to be sold.

It occurred to me during one of these sorting sessions that in all those years of visiting the farm, I had rarely stayed the night. In spite of all those sunny afternoons running wild in its fields and valleys, I had never really lived the farm, and I was all but illiterate in its everyday rhythms. What I wanted to do—now, while I still had the chance—was to cook in its kitchen, sleep in its beds, shower in its bathroom. To sip coffee on the front porch, listen to the house’s creaks and yawns, and take note of what time each night the peepers started singing. I packed up two notebooks and a toothbrush and set off, alone, for a few days and nights at Dutch Hill.

**

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The best way to write about this place is with a belly full of blackcaps—wild, seedy little blackberries that grow along the barn edge of the driveway. By the time I got to them this morning they’d been picked over by the neighbors, birds, and maybe also by the black bear who’s been spotted recently prowling this neck of the woods.

From the front porch of the farmhouse I can spot, in all directions, the seams where what was once arable is sinking and blending into something more explicitly wild. Across the street, a neighbor’s barn disintegrates, its walls caving in under the weight of climbing weeds.

Straight ahead, a maple pours shade over the little white pump house with gingerbread trim. Past the pump house, my grandpa’s barn rises and sinks—still looming proudly over the property, despite its chipping paint and fallen rafters. When I walk inside I can see, smell, and remember what drew me in here as a kid—strange and wonderful tools, stalls which once held mighty Holsteins and calves named after each of the grandchildren. Up the single warped staircase stands the “hay mow” of my youth, site of epic tumbles and soft landings, now thick with mouse and bird droppings. I throw a leg over the railing and climb in anyway.

The barn’s south wall has been gone for almost four years. Light streams into the room, and there’s something so perfect about all of this wood and hay being opened back up to the elements. I climb back out and jump down out of the barn, landing soft in the bushes at the start of the old tractor road, which carves its way east to the back of the property. Old hayfields on either side grow thick with clover, milkweed, vetches, and Queen Anne’s lace.

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My pace is slow. I keep my eye on a pair of moths as they dance and dive in probable flitation. I stop, kneel, and lower my camera to the ground, trying to capture the deep magenta of a midsummer clover blossom.

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I pass a pair of haystacks, cylindrical bales piled twice and thrice my height, and I smell, again, that mix of hay, of youth, of grandpa.

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Currants, grasses, and chicory grow to shoulder-height. Milkweed towers over the surrounding vegetation.

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The road dead-ends in a field of clover. I cross it, soaking my sneakers, tiptoeing closer to the hemlocks at the edge of the property, where what was once so carefully wrought and tended and homesteaded gives way to the ever-mysterious forest.

This is the first time in 30 years of walking or riding on my dad’s shoulders along this path that I’ve carried a canister of bear spray. It’s a relic from my summers in Yellowstone, and it feels like an old friend, riding along at my hip. There’s a rustling in the shrubs, and for a second I think it might be the bear; instead, it’s two fawns of the year, still spotted, now bounding off into the woods in opposite directions.

I look at my feet. It occurs to me that I have no idea what’s living down there, at ankle-biting height where I can’t see, under the clover and weeds. Snakes, maybe. There’s nothing venomous here, but still. Mice? Nests? Bear cubs?

I’ve just graduated from a master’s program in the lofty-sounding, but actually quite accessible field of environmental humanities.  My cohort and I spent entire semesters digesting the sort of questions that are currently bubbling up through my wet feet, legs, guts, heart, senses, and animalian brain. What is wild, I ponder, and what is wilderness? What is natural, and what is virtual, cultured, altered, tamed, untrammeled? Where does the pastoral fit in? What about the sublime? The answer we always landed upon was this: that there is wildness, blessed wildness, in all of it.

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By this time next year, there’s a good chance that the farm won’t be ours, to the degree that it was, ever, really ours.

It breaks the heart of this grown-up, once-removed farm-kid to watch as the property gets parceled off, sold and subdivided. This place has always felt so timeless, so sturdy and impenetrable. I want to remember everything whole and thriving.

I feel a certain hope, though, in the spreading around of all the pieces. Each chair, each book, each bit of china, infused as it is with three or four generations of story, will find a new home with a new family, and there is something acutely wild in the act of letting go.

The berries are bursting, and the black bears are back. This is something my aunt and grandparents would have loved to see.

Pieced apart and scattered, our farm—our wild homestead—will grow up wilder yet.

**

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