Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Celebrating the First Anniversary of Looking Toward Portugal

It was a year ago today that I launched the Looking Toward Portugal blogspot series. Since then I have posted 41 weekly "Random Thoughts From the Edge of America." Thanks to everyone who has supported this labor of love. Check out Miles David Moore's very generous and kind tribute at
I hope you will continue to read my future postings.

To celebrate this occasion, I am also launching Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret, a new blogspot series featuring literary commentary on a host of topics that strike my fancy. I trust you will find these of some interest.

Finally, as we approach the end of another year (and the first decade of the 21st century), let me take this opportunity to wish you and yours and very festive holiday season.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Evening Among Gentlemen

After four days of almost constant rain and wind - the results of a gargantuan nor’easter off the Mid-Atlantic coast that developed when the remnants of Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Ida passed through the Washington, DC area, the weekend finally brought a break in the bad weather. Well, at least it stopped raining, but what persisted in the storm’s wake was a boggy and muddy landscape. These otherwise potentially inimical conditions did not deter a hearty group of gentlemen from gathering around a lucullan fire pit to partake of a potpourri of wild game dishes. This was a very select group indeed - "No Women, Children or Green Vegetables" - although our number included a couple of rather young gentlemen. We faced no time limits and had nowhere else to go, and so when it was all over I thought I may have just died and gone to heaven. So allow me some moments of ambrosial reflection. The names and places have been changed, redacted, or otherwise obscured to protect the satiated and bleary eyed.

Upon invitation to join this blue-ribbon event, I began to contemplate how best to comport myself in such refined company and I was immediately reminded of the father of this great nation of ours. During his early teen years, George Washington undertook to compose a list of hard and fast "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." I figured, if these rules, which are based on similar caveats coined by French Jesuits, were good enough to guide young Washington to the acme of our national consciousness, then they should stead me well during this evening among gentlemen. As it turned out, Rule #56 would be key to my overall success in this endeavor. Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company. Although I knew one of these gentlemen before that evening, I was quickly reminded that everyone in attendance was of the highest caliber. These were gentlemen with discriminating palates and a yen to savor the finest food and spirits.

Rule #93: Entertaining anyone at the table it is decent to present him with meat; undertake not to help others undesired by the master. This was the chief purpose of our carnal communion; to present and partake of various meats and their natural accouterment. The evening began with a very buttery textured paté d' foie gras. I know this is not the most politically correct culinary offering these days, but when you consider the rest of the evening’s menu, you can easily understand why it made its way to this company of gentlemen. While various dishes were cooking over open flame and glowing embers of the fire pit – roasted wild Muscovy duck and pheasants skewered on Argentinian meat forks, "French Rack" of wild boar, elk steaks, a troika of freshly slaughtered venison dishes (the "Fish" removed from the back-strap and cooked in a cherry reduction sauce, venison sausages, and, finally, sliced tenderloin wrapped with side meat and lanced with fresh rosemary) - we enjoyed other offerings simmering on the pit’s perimeter – bona fide Cowboy Chili, "Must-Have French Fries," risotto with porcini mushrooms, and artisanal garlic bread. It was hard not to hover, but I was reminded of Rule #91: Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals; feed not with greediness; cut your bread with a knife; lean not on the table; neither find fault with what you eat. No problem with the latter; who could find fault with anything being served up for our enjoyment? But the rest of his rule offered some gray area as it proved difficult not to devour the dishes as quickly as they were offered. Rule #92 was equally problematic: Take no salt, nor cut your bread with your knife greasy. What is wrong with salt in reasonable measure? And seldom did I bother with a knife, greasy or otherwise, to cut my bread. Rule #97: Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big. OK, I guess this one makes sense. "One cannot savor what one eats too fast." George did not come up with that rule; that is one of my own, but I think it fits right in with the others. After all, there was plenty of food to go around . . . and then some! Rule #104: It belongs to the chiefest in company to unfold his napkin and fall to meat first, but he ought then to begin in time & to dispatch with dexterity that the slowest may have time allowed him. I think we respected that rule pretty well.

Along with the wonderful food, we enjoyed spiced, mulled wines heated with blazing pokers along with an offer of "Everything in the World to Drink." Well, we did not have quite everything, but surely more than enough to keep folks as well greased as they chose to be. There was plenty of beer and wine and a fine bourbon to take the nip out of the evening air. Rule # 99: Drink not too leisurely nor yet too hastily; before and after drinking wipe your lips; breath not then or ever with too great a noise, for it is uncivil. Looks good on paper, but it doesn’t always work that way. "If you gotta ‘breathe,’ you gotta breath." That’s another one of my own rules. How can one sit around a fire after good food and drink and not "breathe" occasionally?

As the evening progressed and we moved from one dish to the next, it suddenly became quite clear to me that these rules of civility and decent behavior did not fully apply to the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Rule #95: Put not your meat in your mouth with your knife in your hand; neither spit forth the stones of any fruit pie upon a dish nor cast anything under the table. Oh, come on! We were not even sitting at a table. One need not be so positioned in order to comport one’s self as a gentleman. Rule #96: It is unbecoming to stoop too much to one’s meat. Keep your fingers clean & when foul, wipe them on a corner of your table napkin. Nope, no napkins either. And why, within a community of gentleman, should one not eat his meat with a knife in hand? And is a napkin really necessary when one has a perfectly fine shirt and/or jacket sleeve or pant leg to remove any fouling of fingers? I don’t need no stinkin’ napkin! So, as we sat around the fire conversing and otherwise sharing in the delights of a cool autumn evening, I decided that other rules were clearly not applicable. Rule #9: Spit not in the fire, nor stoop low before it. Neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it. Rule #90: Being set at meat, scratch not; neither spit, cough, or blow your nose, except if there is a necessity for it. I think George was getting just a little too high on his horse. I recall what Josiah Bartlet, my favorite, albeit fictional, president once commented upon reading young Washington’s rules. "What a tight-assed little priss he must have been."

Perhaps this is not fair. Perhaps I should cut George a little slack and take his Rule #105 to heart: Be not angry at table [even though we didn’t have one] whatever happens, and if you have reason to be so, show it not; put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humour makes one dish of meat a feast. We laughed through the evening so perhaps George had most of it right. We certainly had more than one meat dish to savor, and the humor and good conversation among this company of respectable gentlemen made our communal feast all the more enjoyable. We finished off the evening with good Cuban cigars. Luckily, Washington had no particular rules for the civil and decent enjoyment of a good smoke. "Smoke em, if you got em" has always been my own rule of thumb.

The bewitching hour approached as the glowing embers of our once blazing pyre were graying to ash at the perimeter stones. My boots were caked with caramel-colored mud and my clothes were permeated with the sweet perfume of wood smoke and the heady aroma of a good cigar. It was finally time to think of home. I bid this company of gentlemen a fond farewell for I had miles to go before I slept.

NEXT: Wishing everyone a festive and happy Thanksgiving holiday!!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Have All the Corn Dogs Gone?

Back in May and June I used this forum to expatiate on my love of various cheeses, including curds which are a key ingredient for "une maudite poutine," yet there is still another favorite delicacy deserving of special tribute. It goes by different names depending where you encounter it, but growing up in the upper Midwest I have always known it simply as the corn dog (or corndog). My wife, a native Floridian, also recognizes it by this rather definitive sobriquet. A corn dog is, after all, nothing more than a hot dog (wiener, weenie, frankfurter, or frank) impaled on a sharp stick and then plunged into cornbread batter and deep fried to a golden brown. There are some that are satisfied with factory-prepared, frozen, and ready to eat corn dogs after you warm them up. I guess, if that’s all you have, then this will do. But nothing tastes better than a freshly-cooked hot dog dipped into freshly-made cornbread batter, and then fried in freshly-heated oil. That’s a corn dog in my book!

Hot dogs in their many local variations have been served throughout the United States since the late 19th century, and now they have adapted to the tastes of other countries as well. Corn dogs, however, did not emerge until the late 1930s and early 1940s - the Texas State Fair claims to be the first place to serve corn dogs - and from what I can tell, they seem to be found almost exclusively in this country (although I have eaten a Canadian variant known as a "Pogo Stick" and have heard of sausage dipped in batter containing large chunks of fried potato served as Korean fast food). Processed corn dogs are found in grocery stores just about anywhere in the USA, and I have been known to eat them, but their consumption has not produced in lasting memories. I will order a freshly prepared one whenever I can, but they seem few and far between. I am not sure why this is, but take my word, they are not easy to find.

My earliest encounters with corn dogs were limited to the store-bought kind. I don’t really recall eating a made-from-scratch corn dog until my days as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Just outside of the campus’ Main Gate, at the corner of East University Boulevard and North Park Avenue, was a tiny hole-in-the-wall corn dog shop. You would place your order at a small service window and then the individual working inside the cramped quarters would cook the corn dog to order. They also served cheese on a stick dipped into the same batter, and a tall cup of soda with ice made for a perfect three-course lunch. Once Sally Ann, who worked at the campus library across the street, and I discovered this place, we frequently gravitated to its beck and call at lunchtime. Add to this the fact that the food was cheap - less than a buck for a quality corn dog - and we were poor made the draw even more attractive.

These corn dogs were such a hit that we began to prepare them at home in our tiny apartment. We did away with the necessity (and expense) of serving sticks and instead cut the hotdogs into small, bite size servinsg which we then dipped into the batter using long fondue forks before submerging them into the fondue pot for cooking. That pot, which we still have and use occasionally, turned out to be a favorite wedding present as we quickly discovered that we could have corn dogs - or in this case, corn puppies - any time we wanted. What fond memories. Life was good!

Perhaps I was a bit hasty when I stated that I have no lasting memories of the ready-to-eat corn dogs I have eaten over the years. These were found rotating on those ubiquitous roller grills found in gas stations, quick-stop markets, movie theaters and sports arenas across this great country of ours. Usually what you find there are your standard hot dogs, bratwursts, Polish sausages, kielbasas . . . but every once in awhile you are lucky enough to stumble across a golden brown corn dog. The only problem with these, however, is that the breaded coating is sizzling hot, yet the dog inside is still stone cold, a fact you don’t discover until you have taken your first bite. But that’s another matter. The consumption of these parvenu corn dogs can evoke strong memories, but these are usually associated more with the circumstances in which said corn dog is consumed and not the corn dog in and of itself. Perhaps it was eaten while on a memorable road trip, or while watching a favorite movie, or during a game in which the home team took it to the visitors. In Gainesville, Florida we discovered a place that prepared a half-way decent processed corn dog at a food court and we would order a couple before going to see a movie. Again, memories in which a corn dog played a key role.

A couple years ago Sally Ann and I were on an extended road trip exploring the Great Plains. We had spent a night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and the next morning we drove westward past miles of dormant cornfields to Mitchell, SD, the home of the Corn Palace, formerly known as the Corn Belt Exposition when the original building was constructed in 1892. This place - the current Corn Palace was erect in 1921 and expanded in 1937 covering almost an entire city block - must be seen to be believed. Each autumn over a quarter million ears of corn in various colors are used to create a thematic mural on the entire exterior facade of the building. Much of the interior decoration also consists of ears of corn. Even though it was only mid-morning and nothing was going on when we arrived and toured the place, we were pleasantly surprised to find the "Corncessions" stand open. There, on the top of the menu, were corn dogs served using homemade cornbread batter! Breakfast was only a couple hours behind us, and lunch time seemed far off, yet we ordered a couple corn dogs - real honest-to-goodness corn dogs from the heart of America’s Corn Belt - which we savored there is the bowels of the Corn Palace. Big, fat corn dogs at $1.50 each! Hmmmmmm. I can still taste them.

As much as the corn dog is primarily an American innovation, I am somewhat perplexed and saddened that I am unable to find a good corn dog in our Nation’s Capital . . . my home for the past 30+ years. Sure, there are the dirty water hot dogs and half smokes sold by downtown street corner vendors. And there is Ben’s Chili Bowl, that venerable institution up on U Street, which offers fantastic half-smokes served with a generous helping of chili and cheese. But no corn dogs! I did score a couple of factory-produced corn dogs at the Washington Nationals’ new stadium when Boston was in town earlier this summer. They were soggy and lukewarm and like everything else there highly over-priced. I did get to see my Red Sox play, but it would have been nice to have better tasting corn dog to go with the game! So the search continues for a good local corn dog; I will let you know if I ever find it.

NEXT WEEK: An Evening Among Gentlemen

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ever Faithful and True: A Dog Named Sideways

A couple of weeks ago I paid tribute here to my dad who had recently passed away. In my brief recollection of his life, I noted that he began his college career at the University of Michigan, in 1942, only to be drafted into the army the following year. He served in Patton’s 3rd Army as it fought its way across Europe, from Cherbourg, France, to the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, to near Pilzen, Czechoslovakia by the time VE Day finally rolled around. After seeing a lifetime’s worth of death and destruction, he was only 22 years old when he was able to resume his studies, this time at the Michigan Institute of Technology, during the fall term of 1946. He and my mom moved to Houghton, at the northern tip of the Keweenaw - that small finger of land pointed into the heart of Lake Superior - on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they lived in a small house trailer along the banks of Portage River. Perhaps this would have been an ideal out-of-the-way place to live after surviving combat during World War II. But the Keweenaw is perhaps the snowiest place in the continental United States, where temperatures well below zero are common throughout the winter with annual snowfall upwards of 300 inches and lake-effect storms off Superior can last for days. So, after a winter scraping frost off the walls of their snow-bound trailer, my mom decided four years of this was above and beyond the call of duty, even for native Michiganders. Dad agreed to seek out warmer climes and applied to Georgia Tech and the University of Alabama. Tech won out and my folks moved to Atlanta in the late summer of 1947 and remained there while Dad earned his bachelor and master degrees in industrial engineering. After graduating, Dad took a job in Chicago and my folks moved there in the autumn of 1950. I was born the following spring.

Fast forward to October 1960. I recall it being a cool, crisp autumn weekend in Atlanta. My family had traveled down from our home in Asheville, North Carolina to attend Dad’s 10th college reunion at Georgia Tech. We spent most of that weekend on the Tech campus, and I recollect my folks talking with lots of people they seemed to know. None of this interested me. But then there was the big homecoming parade which included what appeared to me a myriad collection of "Ramblin’ Wrecks" - old cars and trucks redesigned and reconfigured by the engineering students. I was intrigued. Of course, the intended highlight of that weekend was the big homecoming game at which the Tech Yellow Jackets (5-5 that season) routed the Green Wave of Tulane (3-6-1) with a score of 14-6 (nothing like the 1916 game again Cumberland College which Tech won 222-0, scoring nine touchdowns in each of the first two quarters alone. At least Tech beat Tulane; that was important.

The game, and the parade that preceded it, certainly made an impression on me as a nine year old kid, but the thing I remember most about that weekend in Atlanta is the story of Sideways, the small dog that for a short time in the late 1940s was the beloved mascot of Tech’s students. As we were walking across the campus to Grant Stadium before the game, my dad took me by the hand and led me to a small grassy patch near the Tech Tower, probably the most prominent campus landmark, where he showed me Sideways’ well-tended grave marked by a small memorial bearing a black and white photograph.

Ever Faithful and True
Companion of Student Body of Ga.Tech.

Even though Sideways had been dead for three years when Dad arrived on campus, he soon learned the story of this beloved terrier and he told it to me as if he and Sideways had been bosom buddies. I never had a dog when I was growing up and so I did not understand how important such a relationship can be for some people. Even on that crisp autumn day in 1960, ten years after Dad had left his college days behind him, the memory of Sideways was still very much alive for him, and now for me. Tech students still knew who he was and what he meant to those who came before them. The memory of Sideways was long even though his time on campus was short.

As the story goes, the little black and white dog with a distinctive black patch around one eye, had originally lived at a boardinghouse on North Avenue and for reasons unknown was thrown from a car in front of the nearby Varsity, the well-known student hang-out, on March 1, 1945. She was rescued by a group of students who took her back to the campus and nursed her back to health. Unfortunately, the injuries were serious enough that she would walk through the rest of her life at her own unique sideways gait. If she did not have a name before she came to Georgia Tech, she had one now, a name still spoken with reverence. Whether Sideways was always faithful and true may be debated. Dad told me how she would spend the night in different dormitory rooms, depending on who offered her the best food secreted out of the campus dining hall. Other times she would be "invited" to dine at one of the fraternity houses. During the day she would follow students to their classes; an interesting lecture would hold her attention while a boring class would quickly put her to sleep. No wonder the students grew to love her as she proved to be a reliable barometer for what classes to avoid, if at all possible. Sideways frequently led the Tech football team onto the field at Grant Stadium and was so beloved that she was once briefly kidnapped by some students from the arch rival University of Georgia ("To Hell With Georgia"). Despite the love and care shown to her on campus, Sideways managed to somehow ingest some rat poison and died on August 14, 1947. She was buried with honors in the shadow of Tech Tower.

A few years ago I happened to be in Atlanta on business. At the end of the day, and having no where else to go, I caught a cab to the Georgia Tech campus and headed directly over to Tech Tower. My memory of that autumn day in 1960 was still strong, but I had to walk around a bit before I found Sideway’s grave; it was pretty much where I remembered it from my visit four decades earlier. A professor walked up to me and asked me if I needed help finding where I was going, but I had found what I was looking for. He told me that more recently the grave marker had been realigned several degrees from when I first saw it in 1960 . . . to symbolize that little dog’s sideways cant through life. Today, over 60 years after her death, Sideways is still fondly remembered.

So how could such a little dog evoke such a strong memory for so many? And why did this story have such an impact on me? Perhaps because Sideways was like so many of us; maybe we are all going through life a few degrees off the courses we have set for ourselves. Dad’s life, while long and eventful, and ultimately successful, did not go the way he planned. There were victories and failures, peaks and valleys. Heaven only knows my own life has gone in directions I never intended or planned for. We can only hope that our time on this planet, however long or short it might be, will serve some bigger purpose. And we can hope that others, reflecting on that time, will in the final determination, recognize that we were faithful and true to the best of our intentions. Quite a lesson from a little dog that walked sideways into the hearts of so many.

NEXT WEEK: Where Have All the Corn Dogs Gone?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Walking the Line on Derry Farm: A Visit to the Mending Wall

Those of you who know me, or who have been reading these blog essays over the past year, know that I am a Frost afficionado who frequently quotes him in order to make a point. And my affinity for New England is no secret. So once again I return to my favorite New England bard as the subject for this week’s ruminations on rural rusticity.

A few years ago back Sally Ann and I made a springtime tour through New England which included visits to Robert Frost’s former home in Ripton, Vermont, as well as those located near Franconia and Derry, New Hampshire. This past spring we returned to the farm in Derry where Frost and his family lived and raised Wyandotte chickens from 1900 until 1911. It was here that Frost found his poetic voice. In a letter to Robert Chase in 1952, Frost wrote: "I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm down the road a mile or two from Derry village toward Lawrence. The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn't have figured on it in advance. I hadn't that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor's prescription." It was here he wrote, or received inspiration for, many of his best known poems, including one of my favorites, “Mending Wall,” which appeared in Frost’s second collection of poems, North of Boston (1915).

Frost and his family arrived in Derry in the autumn of 1900, settling on a small 30-acre farmstead known as the “Magoon Place” and located only twelve miles north of his boyhood home in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Derry farmstead is presently located on the Rockingham Road (New Hampshire Route 28) two miles southeast of Derry village and Webster’s Corner. By the time the Frost family had moved to the Derry farm, a rather substantial apple orchard , along with some pear and quince trees, was situated on the north side of the property while a large hayfield reached from behind the farmhouse and barn to the eastern property line where it ended in a hardwood grove of maple, beech and oak trees. The southern lawn ran to a stand of alders and a small brook flowing out of a nearby cranberry bog.

“Mending Wall” was written in 1913, when Frost and his family lived in the small parish town of Beaconsfield, in the Chiltern Hills some 25 miles northwest of London. The landscapes there made him homesick for the farm he sold to help underwrite his family’s move to England, as did the area of Kingsbarn, in Scotland, which caused him to write his young friend Sidney Cox to tell him how much he loved the old unmortared stone walls that coursed through the English and Scottish countryside. They were similar to those that demarcated the Derry property of the old farm in southern New Hampshire.

These walls are first mentioned in earlier poems written while Frost lived at Derry Farm. “October,” written in 1901 not long after he arrived in Derry, stresses the importance of fences and walls offering protection from nature’s raw elements.

For the grape’s sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost -
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

Nathaniel Head, who built the farmhouse situated on the Derry farm property in 1884, erected this particular wall, not to separate his property from that of his neighbors, but to keep his grapevines in check. In “Ghost House” (1901), Frost tells how these same elements can demolish man-made barriers allowing nature to fend off human invasion and reassert itself.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field . . . .

Nature reclaims the abandoned farmland just as it engulfs untended human structures.

Frost did not envision these walls as simple barriers employed to keep things in or out. In “A Time to Talk,” a neighboring fellow poultry farmer stops by to chat.

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

A wall becomes a meeting place. As Frost would later write in “Mending Wall” - “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The most prominent wall to appear in Frost’s poems, however, is the one that ran along the southern boundary of Derry Farm, separating his property from that of his neighbor, Napoleon Guay. Already in 1905, Frost refers to this area of the farm in “Going for Water.” Whenever the well adjacent to the farmhouse went dry, the family was forced to retrieve water from a small brook running adjacent to this boundary line. “And by the brook our woods were there.” In “Hyla Brook,” written a year or two later, the poet mourns the fact that the brook would also run dry during the height of summer.

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
It’s bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat -
A brook to none but who remember long.

And just beyond this brook, the low stone wall running through the woods. It is still there, as is the brook, and they appear much as Frost described them almost a century ago.

The wall separating the Derry farm from Guay’s property - “He is all pine and I am apple orchard - did not belong exclusively to either, and its existence was never meant to draw a distinct and sacrosanct physical boundary between the two properties. It was (and still is) a physical expression of an arbitrarily drawn property line. Neither owner constructed the original wall, yet both were responsible for maintaining it. The “mending” of the wall served two clear and separate purposes. Frost and Guay would meet in the spring to repair (mend) their shared wall, to reset in place the stones displaced by the frost heaves of winter or by hunters and others who sought passage through these woods. The wall itself also represents an allegorical mending, a bringing together of two individuals, as in “A Time to Talk,” to work together toward a common goal.

I let my neighbor beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

For others, however, the wall has become an unnecessary obstacle interrupting free movement through the woods, one to be demolished, or at the very least, breached without consideration for its original purpose.

Even from the outset, the poet questions the necessity of a wall - “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Or, perhaps, he is not questioning the wall’s existence, but rather the forces, either natural or human, intent on its destruction. It may only be nature attempting to restore its own sense of order.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

And then there is the human element. Frost would later confess that “we always have walls - have always had them. While some are being torn down, others are being built up. Whether you want ‘em or not you’ll always have ‘em.”

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more.

The neighbor, on the other hand, does not share the poet’s whimsical response to the task the lies before them. The wall has been there longer than either of them. What has long served a purpose must be put in order and maintained; tradition over change even if no practical purpose is served. For the neighbor it is all very simple. “Good fences make good neighbors.” The poet questions this.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

The neighbor’s reply is simple. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

In “The Cow in Apple Time,” a poem written around the same time as “Mending Wall,” the poet makes reference the Derry Farm’s single cow which demonstrated a marked propensity for running away, often escaping over the wall separating the Frost and Guay properties.

Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.

Yet the cow is not an issue in “Mending Wall” as the poet questions the wall’s necessity.

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

I guess ole Bessie found the grass greener somewhere on the other side.

The Derry farm fell into disrepair in the years following the Frost family’s move to England. When they returned to the United States in 1915 they settled in Franconia, in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, and later in South Shaftsbury, in southwestern Vermont. But their years in Derry were strong in their memories as Frost writes in “On the Sale of My Farm.”

It shall be no trespassing
If I come again some spring
In the grey disguise of years,
Seeking ache of memory here.

His wife Elinor asked that her ashes be spread in Hyla Brook, and following her death in 1938, Frost returned to Derry to honor those wishes. But he found the farm in much disrepair and he could not bring himself to leave his beloved wife there, as he writes in “Directive” (1946).

There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.

And Elinor’s beloved brook?

A brook that was the water of the house
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

She is buried beside him in the cemetery behind the Old First Congressional parish church in Bennington, Vermont as are many of his children.

Frost returned to Derry again in the 1950s and 1960s only to find that the farm was now being used as an automobile graveyard known locally as “Frost Acres.” He sought to purchase the property to restore it to farmland, but he died in 1963 before anything could be arranged. The State of New Hampshire purchased the house and barn and 13 acres surrounding then, and in 1968 an additional 48 acres of adjoining parcels were purchased in an attempt to preserve and protect the original homestead. Restoration began in 1974 and today the Derry farm is a state historic site opened to the public.

We arrived at the Derry farm on a pleasant late spring morning. We had not been able to tour the place during our previous visit, and then it dawned on us that it was Memorial Day and our efforts might be thwarted once again. We parked our car and walked around to the front of the house just as the state ranger was raising Old Glory. We were in luck, and had the whole place to ourselves. After a very informative tour through the house and barn, and the hyphen that connects them, we walked the foot trail through a field of tall grass - gone is the apple orchard that once stood here. This old logger road was known as the Old South Road before the Frost family lived here. A few farmhouses were located along it but they were abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century and all that remains are a few crumbling cellar holes near Klein’s Hill on the far side of the brook and the stone wall that parallels it. Frost refers to these in “Ghost House.”

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.

This trail eventually leads to a small bridge crossing the intermittent stream Frost referred to as Hyla Brook, so named for the tiny tree frogs that inhabit it the spring, when the waters are flowing, yet disappear with the water once summer arrives.

(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of
snow) -

As we visit at the end of May the brook stills chuckles through the woods. Sweet ferns and skunk cabbage grow among the stands of white pine, beech and maples, and pine needles hush our footsteps as we wander through patches of sun and shadow along the brook to the low stone wall Frost and Guay put in order a century before.

It is no surprise that Robert Frost and his family found great solace wandering these woods surrounding their farm in Derry. It provided the poet a place where he could find the peace and solitude he required to reconnect with the natural world, a connection we find in so many of his earlier poems written at or inspired by his time on the farm. It was the place he dreamed of when he still lived among the factories down in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as evidenced in his poem “Reluctance” (1894).

Out through the fields and woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at he world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

NEXT WEEK: Ever Faithful and True: A Dog Named Sideways