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Looking back on it, Howard was right

By Nancy Humphrey Case / May 8, 2002



Howard Parkhurst (pronounced "Howud Pockhust" in his native New Hampshire dialect) was not someone who would immediately appeal to you. He had a lot of missing teeth, and the way he grinned at me after telling some joke made me uncomfortable. His business practices, though honest, also failed to charm me.

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Howard made hay, cut firewood, dug up plants from his land, and sawed planks from trees he harvested selectively. From the sale of these products he made his modest living.

First I tried his plants. I was landscaping our new home, and Howard had said he had a nursery. It didn't look like a nursery to me as I drove up the sandy driveway.

On one side was a small house badly in need of paint. On the other side was a scruffy-looking horse corral and barn. Stacks of rough-cut lumber were drying in the sun, and scattered among the weeds were some potted plants. They weren't the kind I had in mind. I wanted rhododendrons and yews to plant in front of our foundation. Howard tried to talk me into some young hemlock trees.

He knelt beside his green charges. "You kin keep 'em pruned low," he assured me, "and they'll spread out, like so." Maybe it was true, but all I took home were some plugs of vinca minor in hacked-off plastic milk jugs.

Next we tried Howard's firewood. The price was right, but my husband had been spoiled by the splits-like-butter ash we had cleared from our house lot. He didn't think much of the punky pieces that Howard designated "cordwood" – meaning whatever was not fit for lumber. This made good enviro-economic sense, but it also required some effort to keep the fire going.

When I got a horse, Howard began making a pitch for his hay. He brought me a jalopy-load of it one gray afternoon in November, and it looked OK on the outside. But when I got to the middle of a bale one winter morning, moldy dust issued from it. I couldn't feed dusty hay to my china-doll Arabian mare, so the next time I needed a load of hay, I mentioned it to Howard.

"It's prett' near impossible to make hay without a little dust," he confided shamelessly. This was a no-nonsense horseman, who believed horses should pull wagons, not ride in them. That was the end of my business dealings with Parkhurst & Co.

What Howard lacked in charm, however, he made up for in uniqueness. He lent vivid color to the town conservation commission on which we both served. He would come into the town hall wearing neatly-pressed khaki work clothes over his lean frame, his gray hair combed carefully over his suntanned, bald crown.

He would limp across the worn hardwood floor in black work boots, his old dog walking stiffly by his side. No one else on the commission, comprised mostly of professional men, looked like that or walked in like that. Or talked like Howard.

It wasn't just his accent. It was the slowness of his speech that made him stand out from the rest of us. Like Tolkien's "ents" (tree people), Howard didn't believe in being hasty, but felt that if something was worth saying, it was worth taking a long time to say it.

For example, we'd be discussing a request for a dredge-and-fill permit. It would be, say, around 10:30 p.m. The meeting had started at 7. I'd have been yawning for an hour, and was silently imploring the chairman to wrap it up. After all, I had made up my mind on the question.

Then Howard would get a pensive look on his face. "I bin thinkin'," he'd begin. "Couple years ago, I was wookin' in the woods...." There would be a pause as Howard sized up his new idea. Then he'd cock his head and meter out a few more syllables.

I would lean back in my chair and wait helplessly for Howard to get to the point, much less finish his speech. He would tell, perhaps, of some plant that might indicate the presence of an underground stream, or some other such observation that he felt might have bearing on our decision. His voice would amble along, rising and falling in a rhythm as unhurried as the seasons, while his rough, gnarled hands would help tell the story. No one would rush him.

I hope the other members of the commission listened to him and credited what he said. I was too bent on going home – too impatient – perhaps too young.

When I began writing this essay, I thought of Howard as a quaint New England character, the likes of whom I've missed since moving west. But somewhere along the wooded paths of reflection, I came to a spot where a bright shaft of light broke through the forest canopy and revealed his character in fuller dimension.

Yes, the New Hampshire native was slow of speech – because his character was rooted in a time and place having a gentler pace than ours. Yes, his education was limited. But outdoors he had a keen eye and an inquiring mind. This, combined with his long years of experience, gave him a knowledge base and wisdom the rest of us on the commission lacked.

But here's what strikes me now: While my opinions were offshoots mainly of my emotional attachment to the land, Howard's judgments were arrived at through careful, thoughtful analysis of what he had learned from experience.

Neither emotional nor cold and abstract, Howard's thought processes sifted truth from observation and looked for science in the context of appreciation for the balanced workings of nature. Maybe his ideas about making hay, burning unsound timber, and using native plants for landscaping weren't so dumb, after all.

If I could sit the old-timer down next to me now, I'd savor his tales of the New Hampshire woods. Even the spaces between the words – if not the spaces between the teeth.

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