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

No comments:

Post a Comment