The Lay of Our Land

Author: Mark Phillips

Photo by G Steve Jordan

In the lumpy region I call home, a study determined to the surprise of few that tooth disease is our most serious health problem. If you’re working three low-paying jobs just to get by — as one of my neighbors did until he had a stroke while cutting his firewood — who has time for the dentist even if you do have the money?

I knew one guy who had extracted all of his teeth himself, except for those punched or stomped out. He would sit against a smooth tree, usually a wide beech, and after sufficiently lowering a bottle of whiskey would clamp onto the gray aching tooth with pliers and yank.

Yet here in the Alleghenies of southwestern New York, our own teeth are the least of our worries.

The banks have their incisors into most of the homes, but foreclosure is only one fear. People have a thousand little fears that amount to a giant gnawing worry — like the spreading forest that has been gradually swallowing pasture for 60 years because the family dairy farms can’t compete with the corporate farms out west. House trailers now far outnumber farmhouses.

Arguing that they depress the value of all surrounding property, a previous supervisor of my town proposed a ban on trailers, as if the working-poor should just scamper up the mountains and move into hollow trees. The trailer dwellers — the janitors and sales clerks and receptionists and loggers and hospital aides and highway laborers and the line workers at the factories that have been cutting shifts, some of these folks limping on damaged hips or backs or knees — crowded into the next town meeting and heated the hall with so much angry hurt that I thought I might get to see the supervisor model an outfit of sticky feathers.

The landscape can seem to be emptying of charity, as if the people are chased by predators and must defend themselves with sticks and stones and their remaining teeth.

As I hike the Alleghenies, I often come upon the remains of homesteads — the collapsing shale and sandstone ring of a hand-dug well, a drywall cellar wall still holding back the earth although two white ash have risen from the leafy floor, a knurled and dead apple tree mossy in the shade of a young forest, the scene of decay suggesting that a farm or any other business has little more substance than an American dream.

Active factories are disappearing almost as fast as the farms. A manufacturer of electrical components had constructed a new plant on the outskirts of a small town near my home but abandoned it a few years after production began. Set back from the highway on a large expanse of grass at the foot of a forested mountain, the cavernous plant is still vacant.

Like an end zone.

The home team scoreless for four long seasons.

Trees thrive, though. Drive Interstate 86 from Hornell to Jamestown during the lush months and you will see one of the more beautiful landscapes in the country. Some people crossing the state make a 60-mile detour to take 86 instead of the New York State Thruway, just to view the steep mountains and hills and narrow, pastured valleys. In places you can believe you are driving along the coast of a stormy green sea.

Trees and wildlife didn’t always have it this good.

Despite the unwelcoming nature of the place — much of the soil is acidic hardpan, and people up in Buffalo refer to this region as “the snow belt” — 80 percent of the land would be cleared for farming by 1910. The white pines, some of them 4 feet thick and 200 feet tall, were the first to be felled, driven down the Allegheny River to mills in Pittsburgh; then the hemlock for the tannin-rich bark. The hardwoods were too heavy to float far and were chopped down and burned for potash, crop-seed sowed around the stumps until the pioneers had time to dig and pull them out with the aid of oxen.

The wolves, mountain lions, bobcats and bears were shot, trapped and poisoned; the whitetail deer — and the now extinct eastern elk — were commoditized by market hunters.

In his memoir Pioneer Life, Philip Tome recounts an 1823 trip in a bateau that leaves to our imagination the natural beauty lining the Allegheny as he and two other market hunters haul in seines glutted with flopping fish and peer down the barrels of their flintlocks: Tome limits his description to business, the profitable killing of thousands of fish and 67 deer on a single trip.

Before long, a person was far more likely to encounter a hog than a deer in what little woods remained.

Yet today wildlife thrives and two-thirds of the land is forested.

There are even places where you can fancy that the ax and saw were never invented. In 1998, an 82-year-old man drove here from California to unearth a can of coins he had buried as a boy in a farming community known as Little Ireland — and learned that Little Ireland has become a ghost town of drywall foundations in the belly of a large and wild state park.

Charles Sheets entered the woods carrying a metal detector and shovel, and before he lost his bearings on land that was once cultivated, he must have recalled the whitewashed planks of his cramped rough home, his mother’s meticulous vegetable garden, the laundry on the line, the boasting rooster and muttering hens, his father in the dusty distance striding behind a one-bottom plow and two draft horses circled by birds dipping to pluck up earthworms, the little boy with a shiny can of rattling coins.

More than 100 rangers and police and volunteers searched the forest for a week before they found the body.

One might suppose the beautiful landscape that my neighbors and I share or the long and deep recession in our local economy would encourage kinship, a warm diffusion of the community values which supposedly exist in rural America. It hasn’t happened. Two of my young neighbors have done prison time for getting wasted on booze and who knows what else, hot-wiring the pickup of the town justice and setting it aflame at an abandoned county landfill. Could have inspired a heck of a Norman Rockwell painting: Boys Roasting Weenies Up at the Dump.

Instead we’re united by our awe and fear of mountain lions.

As we peer out at the increasingly wild land rolling through the decades and centuries, we perceive that, by God, a damn big mountain lion is out there. We’re eating a fried breakfast or downing a beer after a shift at the cheese plant or changing the baby’s diaper green with Gerber’s peas when we spot it on the back hillside: a lanky and long-toothed and curve-clawed and man-eating feline that can leap nearly 40 feet and run 45 miles per hour. We quick call in the pets, rush to the phone, spread the alarm to even the drunks and felons among us.

The strange thing is that unlike the arsonists and bankers, the big cats leave behind no sign. No tracks in the snow and zilch deer-kills, even though a mountain lion will take a deer every few days. And our lions never get hit by cars or captured by the automatic trail cameras which are now so ubiquitous that I look around before peeing in the woods — worried I’ll end up on YouTube.

What’s more, state wildlife biologists assert that despite the many calls they receive about sightings — each caller insisting on the veracity of his vision and making passionate avowals of sobriety — no mountain lion has roamed here for a century and a half.

Yet it’s not that our lions aren’t real or there’s some highly contagious insanity in these parts. It’s just that, unlike the bald eagle and osprey and wild turkey and wood duck and black bear and bobcat and beaver and fisher and river otter and brook trout that have indeed returned to our loping forest and clearing waters, our mountain lions are not physical.

Our lions are spirits: disguised banshees haunting us from the past, warning of the future, yowling at now.

As Archibald MacLeish read it, “The map of America is a map of endlessness, of opening out, of forever and ever.”

I was reminded of the poet’s cartography of an infinite and sacred nation when a neighbor bristled at the news that I had spent my weekend planting 1,000 spruce seedlings on my property, the first of 8,000 conifers I would set out in five years. “All you people planting trees,” the farmer barked, “soon there won’t be anyplace left for farming.”

American dreams of forever — our totemic notion that the New World graces us with eternal economic and cultural growth — can lift and dissipate like fog when I hike the land.

I step over the stone-polishing freshwater spring that offers my drinking water as it did to Horace Guild, the pioneer who kept corporeal mountain lions at bay while he cleared what are now my 40 acres with a double bit ax; cross the oily hard-road that until recent years was gravel; pass the overgrown foundation of the Mallory place, home to a pioneer family that eventually lost a son in the Civil War. And I make the long climb up Seward Hill, which was forest and then pasture and now — several wars later — is becoming forest again.

Resting against a lightning-burnt sugar maple that shaded heifers when the Seward brothers still farmed, I see, beneath the shaggy green of the glacier-sculpted mountains and hills, the winding valleys threaded black with narrow macadam roads and the house trailers and satellite dishes and junked cars winking in the sunlight and the splotched brown and gray of barns in various states of collapse.

I can also see that I needn’t have planted those spruce and fir on my acres. Plenty of native hardwoods have come up of their own accord, already choking the aliens. If I could rest long and still enough against the scarred maple, it would heal and grow around my flesh, sealing Rip Van Winkle in a mausoleum. In the bright breeze atop Seward Hill — even though I love the woods, even though my soul would dry up and blow away like an old leaf if I had to live in a city — I can sympathize with the hardscrabble farmer I angered by planting trees.

Sometimes when I hike the conifer stand I planted in sunshine and youth, each of my steps now in shade and a bit arthritic, I can even understand why the Puritans believed the dim forest floor to be the haunt of the Devil, the calls of lions and wolves to be demonic.

And why to a lot of struggling Americans, trees are meant to be cut — not planted.

And yet with its 23 million acres of new forest on land abandoned by agriculture, the Northeast is now wilder than when Thoreau lived on Walden Pond. Isn’t that verdant fact a cause for celebration in a time of unprecedented worldwide environmental damage and destruction?

Yes — but if the land your pioneer ancestor cleared tree by tree and your granddad and dad farmed by the sweat of their brows from sunrise to sunset is now home to the wolf-coyote hybrid known as the eastern coyote, the howling is seriously haunting.

Even worse is the feline yowling.

They say the lions lie in wait out on a tree limb, tails twitching, and with long claws and glinting teeth spring down on their prey. A friend tells me he hears them calling to each other in the woods up beyond a little cemetery where the chiseled names of pioneers have been weathered clear off some of the gravestones — and that the sound causes the hair on the back of his neck to stand up.

I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of a mountain lion, but last winter, snowshoeing up behind the house, I came upon the frozen and diminished carcass of a small deer. I could see from the tracks that three eastern coyotes had caught it in an opening in the spruce stand the previous night, one of them probably clamping its jaws on the deer’s neck as is their wont, strangling it.

Can you imagine its terror as it suffocated in the snowy darkness?

They eviscerated their kill, gulped down the liver and heart and lungs and left the stomach and intestines behind as they dragged the lightened carcass into thick cover, where they consumed all of the flesh except for that of one hindquarter. They finished eating their kill the next night, leaving a scattering of hair and disjointed bones and the hollow rib cage and the frozen gut pile that remained until it disintegrated with the spring thaw.

They must have been very hungry.

Lately, walking my land, I find myself wondering as I pass the weathered rib cage of that unfortunate deer.

Do the unemployed of Detroit hear the sirens as howls?

Do the foreclosed of California hear the pronouncements of bankers as yowls?

Why did I seem to snort with mockery as I wrote about the boys who stole and burned the truck? What hungry rage caused them to destroy the hard-earned property of a good man and neighbor? What wild fear caused us to incarcerate one of them, hard-bitten almost since birth, for eight years — longer than some investment bankers and securities traders who stole the savings and retirements of thousands of Americans?

Why did one of my kin — while receiving care in a Buffalo hospital — become livid about proposals for national health insurance that would cover the less fortunate? It would make his taxes go up, he howled. He had earned his insurance through hard work, he snarled.

How did we become as hollow as that gnawed rib cage?

As I settled here 30 years ago, I came to know my neighbors a mile around. We spent many winter evenings together in wood-heated parlors, snow scratching at the windows, conversing about our families and jobs and other neighbors and hunting and the weather or whatever was on the television, but never about mountain lions.

I don’t mean to suggest that we ever resided in the middle of heaven’s acres: that we didn’t always have some hate and hardness and despair. A neighbor who had custody of his grandson regularly lashed the boy with profane vitriol that I could hear a quarter-mile away when they were outside. And I recall well that each morning a farmwife with an icy spouse would wait in the woods at the lonely top of my road until the milk truck stopped so she could spend some time up in the warm cab before hiking back home through the woods and fields.

But neighbors also shared cups of flour; neighbors fed the livestock and poultry of other neighbors who managed to get away for a short vacation; neighbors looked in on the sick and elderly.

That’s what it meant to be a neighbor.

Now that the farms have been parceled and sold, I have several new neighbors I don’t know, in part because I’ve never knocked on their doors to welcome them to this neck of the woods and in part because if I did they probably would wonder why I was bothering them and what it was I wanted from them. I don’t even know the names and faces of some.

I’m not sure why we’ve become a community of strangers, but I do sense that something in the greater civic and religious mood has been changing and drifting over even the most remote hills and hollows of America.

The wind didn’t always blow in the direction it does today. Two decades ago, 27 people gathered at the home of Francis Brown after he was imploded by a stroke; a few were his relatives but most were his neighbors, some who lived miles away. We were there to finish the job he had started — to provide firewood for his wife, May.

Terry Hurlburt and I felled and limbed beech and ash, and with his green, coughing tractor he dragged the bolls from the forest into a weedy field near the house where men with chainsaws cut 18-inch chunks or operated hydraulic splitters and swung wedges. Men and women heaved the pieces damp with sap into a dump trailer and each time it was heaped full Terry pulled the load with his John Deere and emptied it on May’s front yard where women and children were stacking a two-winter supply of warmth in long rows.

At noon we took a break to meet on the Swift farm, where at two long folding tables borrowed from a church and set up in the yard far below the black-and-white Holsteins on an iridescently green hillside, we passed around homemade cider, we broke bread.

The small prefabricated house where Francis and May lived is several hundred yards above mine on a gravely bench, and just beyond the narrow yard the land resumes its steep ascent into forest. On a clear windless morning several weeks after the funeral, the eastern horizon spun gradually into orange and the sun began to float, the maples crimson, a crunchy frost clutching the grass, and I saw that the lights were on in May’s house and knew she had risen at the time when she used to cook him breakfast.

From her crumbling chimney rose a steamy offering of burnt wood.

Mark Phillips, who lives near Cuba, New York, is the author of the memoir My Father’s Cabin.

Photo by G. Steve Jordan.