(HOST) Commentator Vic Henningsen says there’s a lot to see on a spring walk – and we don’t even have to look that carefully.
(HENNINGSEN) Twice a year it’s easy to see the history of the land laid out in front of you. Once is in the late fall, after the leaves go but before the snow sticks. The other is right around now, after the snow but before the leaves.
At these times we see the bones of the land: the true crests of hills; the small ridges and hollows that get lost in summer’s green density or winter’s blinding white. We also see the marks we’ve made: old roadways through the woods; stone walls running up distant hillsides, squaring off pastures long grown-in. Walking the woods, we encounter cellar holes and foundations bearing witness to an older Vermont: mute testament to a time when a family could make a living – barely – on a hill farm, before modern realities drove farming to the valleys to stay. Perhaps they go all the way back to the days when sheep grazed the hills clear to the ridgeline.
Town records say that our house in the hills goes back to 1785. Looking at the foundation, I believe it. Certainly, there are gravestones in the cemetery down the road that date back to the late 1700’s. Of all the veterans buried there, most served in the War of 1812.
I don’t have to walk far to find large foundations built into the sides of two different brooks. They’re each within spitting distance of well-traveled roads, and easy to see right now, but I’ll bet that not one in a hundred passersby know they’re there. These were mills two hundred years ago: a gristmill and a sawmill. To encourage settlement, towns offered reduced taxes or land grants to those who would build mills. Farmers didn’t want to travel long distances to grind their corn or wheat into flour or to turn their trees into boards for barrels, barns, or houses. Mills became centers of communities now long gone.
Looking out from my dooryard, it seems odd to think that there were more people living in our neighborhood two hundred years ago than there are now. But the cellar holes, the graves, and the old mill sites all tell us it was so.
The past, they say, is all around us, but that’s never more true than at this time of the year. Without the leaves, we see – almost literally – beneath the surface. And what we see speaks to us of the lives of those gone before. They sought these hills for different purposes, used them in different ways, and lived different lives from ours. But, if we’re observant enough to find the clues they left on the ground we share, we can imagine them and the lives they led. Like us, they thought they were here to stay. And like us, they were only here for a moment.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.