Learning the lore of my rugged land

Knowing my 21 acres on paper is different from hiking its muddy trails or jumping its icy stream.

The ruckus outside was just the dogs giving their welcome bark to Mr. Cyr, my neighbor in the white farmhouse to our west. He was standing in my dooryard, on this day of frozen ground on the cusp of spring, waiting to see who might be home.

"I've just come from your corner property marker," he said. "I thought you might like to see exactly where it is."

He had traipsed through the muddy woods to make his first visit to our land since we purchased it. I went for my boots, eager to walk our common property line with the man who knew more about my woods than I. It was the perfect day for it: cool, but not cold; bright, but not sunny; the air moving softly through branches preparing for buds; the sap flowing.

A week before and the snow would have been too high; now the snow was gone, but the frost had not yet lifted and the bugs were not out - just right for an afternoon walk.

When we met up in town some weeks before, Mr. Cyr had started to acquaint me with the historical contours of this land. I was full of questions about our 21 acres, its ownership, and care prior to our time on it.

The land itself tells some of the obvious story - vestigial orchards, stone walls, rusty fencing, a rusted bucket, and ancient wagon traces, to say nothing of deer antlers, owl pellets, bird nests, and various burrows left by its critter denizens.

The approximate tree age gives a rough timeline for some of its prior use - the fact that some acres were plowed, some used as pasture, some as orchard - and the approximate time at which an owner stopped clearing the incoming forest.

Trees are wont to resume forestation, and have waited patiently for a chance during a few hundred years of human effort at keeping the land cleared for farming. Stand by any stone wall and you're standing in a former field, regardless of the current thicket of fir, cedar, birch, or pine that has moved in. These rocks nicked someone's plow and were then dropped on the boundary line to stay out of the way once and for all.

My oldest trees are 70 years old, except for a few ancient pines up on the knoll, something Mr. Cyr confirmed from living memory.

"My wife Lois's father stopped clearing these pastures in about 1930," he said, as we walked along our common property line. I could make out an old farm lane, and wire fencing and posts lapsing into the ground. He is all cedar and I am all alder now, at this spot where a pasture used to be and is now thick with 70-year-old trees.

I imagine my field with his father-in-law's cows on it, turning through the gate and heading home to the milking barn. I have already cleared out the young alder and have spent the winter taking down bigger trees to enlarge the clearing. We want more open land for gardening; but it also feels as if we are resuming where an old farmer left off.

In the past 300 years, this Maine peninsula in general has never been as forested as it is now. Cleared land was valuable: more useful and productive. And no one wanted property on the shore! How things change. Everyone wants a water view. I want to look at trees.

"Lois's father put in this fence," said Mr. Cyr. "Unrolled it from a cart drawn by oxen." Lois had grown up on this land, and remembered when there was a corn field in the big level area on the other side of our knoll. It's alder and cedar now, with a few wild apple trees, but that explains the old milk cans rusting into the ground at the bottom of the hill, where the stream outlet runs.

"Beavers dammed this up and that ruined the corn field," said Mr. Cyr. We tiptoed across a log to cross the stream and trudged up a small hill covered with birch and fir trees, and then along another stone wall I had never seen before. Behold: there was the iron stake and orange blaze of our back corner.

"I never thought to look for my back line over this way," I told Mr. Cyr. "I was looking in the wrong place." My bearings were off, and I discovered that we owned more land than I had known.

Or rather, knowing your 21 acres on paper is quite different from walking an actual boundary line with a neighbor. Neat lines on a survey map gives a sense of volume and shape; walking over muddy, frozen cedar roots and jumping an icy stream restore its full and proper texture and dimension. There are birch trees and white pines that became mine, that day, and clearings on a hillside overlooking the old corn field that will make a pleasant spot for a summer picnic.

And there is lore. Through Mr. Cyr, I can envision the farmer whose cows used to graze the woods that I will soon call pasture once again.

Mr. Cyr and I parted, and he returned to his woodlot while I walked back to our house down the old farm road in the center of our lot.

As I walked over the knoll, I wondered about the story of our eastern boundary, where another stone wall, with a rusted bucket poking through, runs from the Castine Road back to the alder thicket that I can now call the corn field.

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