On all points of the compass, sixteen barns over one hundred years of age are laid out within easy two mile walks of my home. One hundred years ago there were only sixteen stone houses, two of them tiny tenant houses, along the curves of the two roads which intersect at our corner.
A few of the barns are enormous – 35 feet or more to the peaks of the stone walls that form their sides; over 70 feet in length. They were built with sandstone and chestnut, fir and oak. Big horses, Percherons and Morgans, were strapped into halters and linked to pulley systems and lifted up hundred pound locking stones that were heaved into place on corners.
In the 1950’s a local farmer, one of a family who once worked one whole side of the ridge, hung himself in his barn.
There are ghosts at all points of the compass here.
One neighbor is the third generation of his family to live on my road. His grandfather bought the family farm in the early 1920’s. They left Coatesville where he had been paymaster at Lukens Steel. His grandmother witnessed the lynching of a black man in 1911 (Zachariah Walker). She saw him burned alive in a field. She told her son that it had been “awful, terrible, something a person never forgets.”
On most mornings, her son, Chris*, walks an L route from his home, takes a left at ours and down along a road once flanked by fields where on one afternoon when he was a young man he shot three cock birds in one morning – “the best hunting morning I ever had.” We’ll talk about what a good year it looks to be for rabbit. He loves rabbit pot pie and a deer loin simmered in a crock pot until it falls apart under a fork.
In late September of 1777 Washington and his battered army of about 7500 men, bloodied at Brandywine and having lost Philadelphia so that they could protect Reading and their munitions’ makers in Coventry and Warwick, marched up the same hill Chris approaches each day and down to the Ridge Road and then east to meet the British again at Germantown.
Rick*, a master woodworker and carpenter nine years my junior, also a former student and a neighbor, is building a wall for us in our living room. I’ve lost track of how many jobs he’s done for us.
He lives a half mile away in a log cabin he built over the course of three years.
Rick had been told by a guidance counselor that he would never amount to anything. At my HS he was part of a crew that had little interest in traditional subjects and learning. They drank during school hours, cut classes when they wanted and generally raised hell. Thirty two years ago we averaged three or four serious fights a week. Members of his graduating class threw tennis balls at the speakers and guests on the dais during graduation ceremonies. The balls bounced off the back wall and hit some of the administrators a second time on the rebound.
Dozens of the boys drove ancient pick-up trucks to school and parked them in a line at the edge of the lot facing the school. They called it “Hick Row.” Each of those trucks carried a gun mount behind the seat. During deer season those mounts were stacked with 30.06 Winchesters and Marlins topped by telescopic sights. The boys were physically big. Many of them headed straight for farm or manual labor jobs when the last bell sounded.
Now he lives as close to a self-reliant life as might be possible. His wife homeschools their children, they raise vegetables and gather fruit from their orchards and eat all winter from their canned stock. He hunts. He can do magic things to wood. He can rebuild transmissions and engines. He can fix anything.
He said that if he had the money he would open a school on his land where children could come to learn all the practical skills to make their way independently – how to identify trees and flowers, how to raise vegetables and fruit, how to skin out a deer, how to build a foundation and plumb a corner so that everything in the house would be straight and true.
On all points of the compass along the two roads that comprise my most immediate life, I count maybe 22 horses, a small van of goats, many chickens, black vultures that form up in kettles of two dozen or more over our ridge line, several big red tailed hawks, and at least a pair of pileated woodpeckers. There is ample water, red foxes everywhere including the head of one in our freezer, its mouth formed into a rictus grin. My wife and I collect such things. There is a loon buried in our backyard.
There are more walkers and more stories.
*I have changed their names.