Foundations in the brush

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 10:30am
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The sun is shining. There are Canada geese to the east, sitting in the beaten grass of the pond lot behind my house. Their goslings have grown, already the size of small ducks, their baby feathers a fluffy gold, backlit by the new morning spreading across the land.

I have not yet seen them down the lane where the old deeply rooted grass is lush and green even in the height of summer, rivaling any planted, fertilized, watered lawn. It shows as a part of a road on the old maps, coming from the north where now there is only land long gone wild, part of a tract my dad called by the name of a family, also gone. It was an amorphous “pasture” he would reference with a grand sweep of his big workman’s hand, which he insisted a more than adequate description. 

My grandmother owned a part of it, or so she thought. It was my first lesson in the strange machinations of tax sales, back when land on Block Island had no value and professional buyers did not swoop in like characters from old movies in which everything is black and white, figuratively and literally. It was a lesson in voting rights as well; my grandfather had purchased it for his wife who, lacking property in her own name, could vote only by paying a poll tax, a levy since declared unconstitutional.

The very big “why?” he did not simply put my grandmother’s name on the farm was never acknowledged, much less answered. The whole scheme fell apart years later, after she had moved to town, to her own house, away from her grown children, and a title clearing effort uncovered the fact there had never been any land up for taxes, only the buildings thereon, gone before my memory. There were great maple trees there, diminished but with enough life yet to briefly mark the site in spring with leaves unfurled, brighter than the last-greening bayberry. There is a path now, in the old-fashioned way, through the middle of the lot, the part of the Clay Head Trail that runs down along the shore of the pond on its way to the ocean.

At first glance, the obvious fact of older maps, detailed with buildings as well as roads, is land wide and open from two centuries of farming. Then a layer of oddity becomes apparent in representations of houses — and barns and orchards — in locales where today there is nothing. They seem to be misplaced, especially on the earlier, hand-drawn documents, but often they are sites of farmsteads since vanished.

  There do remain, despite the land clearing and new construction of the last few decades, foundations in the brush, as I was reminded yesterday seeing one newly opened on my way to fetch a parcel delivered to the wrong house on another road east of Corn Neck.

It was like so many, on flat ground, the back incorporated into an existing stone wall, and two sides built out like spurs. The front is open to the ground and it is easy to imagine that was where the doors were set, and windows, if there were any.

My brother remarks upon the specificity of my memory, and I never bother telling him the pristine snapshots I relate merely punctuate great blank spaces. He is six years older than I and will say “you remember that?!” He was in school, I am sure, the day my mother and I walked north, by one of these empty foundations which I remain certain had in it a wooden kitchen chair painted red.

I know it existed, but where has been a mystery almost as old as the memory, although I do think I found it a few winters back, walking the same way I had for months, one day noticing pieces of mortar between the stones of the wall a few feet from my path.

It is not so odd a possibility, a leftover chair. There were houses here, abandoned, when I was a child, places with tattered curtains at broken windows, sad images speaking a harsh reality, turned romantic in photographs and paintings.

Not only foundations but all manner of stuff would be uncovered were all the brush on Block Island to vanish. I think of the water tank out by the barn wall, a great painted-a-dull-orange tank my father and one of his brothers salvaged from the Searles Mansion, half dragging, half hauling it home with some sort of Ford. It is an absurdity but I could not send it and its history to the dump. The neighbor and I may be the only people sure of its location. And that of the harrow in the front lot. And a millstone and a set of cement steps.

The road, that is now evidenced only by the section that is the walled lane where the geese will come to feast, came across the north lot, through a barway, between the barn and my house, around a pond that was lower as long as an old drain to the sea was kept open. The traveled way snaked over and through more barways and gates, to another farm yard, between another house and barn.

Many of these old roads have been abandoned or redirected but a few remain in use, where barns have withstood time or empty foundations have been built upon, the latter with results sometimes odd, sometimes exquisite, always a reminder of the arbitrary nature of modern zoning regulations.

The geese, a few hours later, are paddling across the pond, one adult leading, the other following the youngsters. Perhaps they are just being protective parents, staying away from the lane where a big golden dog bounds in friendly anticipation.

Earlier this week I thought how many years I have written of shadblow in the fog and the perennial damp quickly forgotten when the shad flowers and the lilacs in the dooryard — and down the lane — edge toward bloom.