Chapter Twenty-Seven: A Clearing In The Woods

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at symbios@condortales.com and I'll email you a copy.

Of all the places on our 92 acres of land, or on the adjacent lands that we frequented, our field may in some ways be my favorite spot. It seems to figure in most of my best memories of Camp.

I don't know its origin. Maybe there was already some type of clearing in the forest that, in the late 1850s, enticed the first human occupants to settle. Surely, Willie Forbush considerably enlarged whatever opening was present when he built his house there in about 1900. By the time Sally's family bought Camp in 1947, Willie's "field" had been cleared and expanded into a sizeable potato and timothy hay growing area. Having it the setting for the little cabin that became "Camp" likely added to the appeal of the property when the Harrises made their purchase offer to Edgar Bacon.

In the North Country, openings don't stay openings, unless they get some help. When, a year or two after the Harrises bought Camp, haying ceased, the forest began to reclaim the field. Every tree species from the adjacent forest contributed pioneer seedlings, various brushy shrubs gained a foothold, and the transition was underway. With a bush scythe, a push mower, and later an electric lawn mower, an area nearest the cabin was maintained as "lawn." That kept the bug numbers down, kept feet drier when carrying water down from the spring, and made it easier to maintain some garden space. The main portion of the field was left pretty much on its own. When I first visited Camp in 1969, nearly half the field was well on its way to become woods. The far northern end, what we call "The Glades," was already a maturing coniferous forest. Farther out into the sunlight, trees and shrubs completely covered the former open ground, with some of the individual trees six feet tall. Closer to the house, it still looked like a field - in fact, it looked like an open, more or less level field. Looks were deceiving, however. For some reason to do with light, shade, moisture, soil type, or whatever, dense stands of meadowsweet (Spirea) had grown up along the lower edge of the field, its eventual three and four feet of height bringing it level with the short grasses and herbs on the upper area. Our flat-appearing field actually had a substantial drop from west to east.

The Scyther in action, 1975

In the 1970s and 1980s, I only had a few weeks each year to be at Camp, so I couldn't undertake any big field rehabilitation project. I used the bush scythe and lawn mowers to maintain "the lawn," and gradually extended it northward to include a little more of the old homestead area. The lawn mowers were not ideal for cutting into the heavy growth in the field, but I managed to clear paths from the cabin to The Glades, extending our easy walking options considerably. The field was still lovely, but it was clear who was winning the Field vs. Forest battle. It wasn't us.

Sara and Sally in The Field, 1977

* * *

I retired from the Federal Government in 1994, and we planned to be living at Camp half of each year, so I decided we now had the time to even up the fight. I bought myself a retirement present: a DR brush mower.

I'm not sure how I settled on a DR. All I knew is that I needed something that could cut some pretty heavy brush, that I could get into our isolated Camp, and that I could handle by myself with my minimum of mechanical "smarts." The fact that the DRs were being built and sold in western Vermont, only a couple hours from us, may have helped me decide. In any event, on 29 June 1994, we drove to Vergennes, Vermont, bought the mower, loaded it in the back of our little Nissan pickup truck, and returned with it to Camp the same day.

Thursday 30 June 1994 - Low temperature 62F. Sunny, clouds coming and going; some threat of showers and thunderstorms. I spent about an hour mowing the "lawn" (with the lawn mower), didn't get heat prostration, but could have. I went out again for another hour at 1630. I got finished just in time for a major thunder shower; a neat one, because the thunder claps were "close" to the south, the rain was heavy, but it was sunny all through it and most of the sky was blue. High temperature 83F. We had another storm from 1920 to 1950, not as much fun as the earlier one - much closer, with lots of noise and flashes, and heavy rain (0.40" in the two storms).

We got the new mower (the DR) unloaded and uncrated and into the woodshed - needs some assembly and preparation, but doesn't look like too much of a job.

Thursday 7 July 1994 - Low 65F. Clear, calm morning. Humidity pretty high, and clouds built during the day. Heard the first distant thunder (to the south) about 1430. Rain started 1730, was pretty light until about 1930, then heavy for a short time with electrical activity off to the southwest. Storm never got close to us, and was pretty well over by 2030. High 85F.

We got the new mower ready to use. It started right up, but wouldn't keep going. Too hot and humid to fiddle with it, so put it back in the woodshed for the time being.

Saturday 9 July 1994 - Low 66F. High overcast in the morning, cleared somewhat mid-morning, but very humid and the clouds re-formed. High 81F. We heard distant thunder about 1930; it started to sprinkle about 2000, then quickly intensified as the storm approached. The next hour was very active, but mainly to the west and north of us, with only a couple of lightning strikes within 1 to 3 miles of us. By 2100, the storm was still active to the northeast, but well past us. Rain had been pretty intense - about 0.8" between 2000 and 2100. This was kind of an eerie storm, in that the sky was still fairly light, and we got kind of a "sunset-y" feel. The sky was dull orange-pink all the time the lightning was flashing. 2245, no more noise, but regular flashes still lighting the sky, and still raining lightly. Fireflies were still good after the storm passed.

In the morning, I got the new mower (DR) started without any more problems; apparently just needed a little more priming for its maiden voyage. Shawn and I took turns, and in 45 minutes had mowed a pretty good chunk of the field. Mostly we cut grass and tall forbs, which it handled niftily. The first bit of meadowsweet didn't go well, but we had started with a very dense clump with no preparation and without knowing much about the machine. It (the machine) isn't real easy to use: heavy, and the "dead man" grip that starts and stops the wheels is left-handed and a very long reach. We will probably have sore hands for awhile.

Sunday 10 July 1994 - Low 63F. After the thunderstorm last evening, we also had a period of heavy showers after midnight. Total rain from both periods was 1.12". Morning, blue skies except for a few high clouds. The clouds built during the day, sometimes to some pretty impressive cumulus, but the air was pretty dry and they moved past pretty fast. High 77F, which is pretty close to "average" for the month so far, but quite a bit less humid, it seems.

I built a tarpaulin shelter on the east side of the woodshed for lawn mowers, ladder, and shutters - not beautiful, but should keep them out of the weather. I mowed some with the new DR. It is quite impressive on tall, dense forbs and small trees, but meadow-sweet is a little much for it. There are too many stems in one place, so it really overworks. It will do it, but probably cutting first by hand is going to be easier.

I mowed with the DR on and off all through the summer, and made pretty good headway. Because the meadowsweet growth was so thick and tough, I spent a lot of time with scythe and clippers, cutting into the clumps, before the DR was really effective. Still, by Fall of 1994, the field section closest to Camp was looking more like a meadow.

The DR resting for a minute

Saturday 8 July 1995 - The night started feeling like it would cool off, but it didn't - low only 65F. Morning cloudy bright, clouds increasing through the morning hours, until we had showers and thunder (nothing close) about 1400. Temp reached 81F early, but was back down to 66F by 1430. Stayed that temp the rest of the day - plenty of clouds but no more rain after 1500 until well into the night.

The upper clump of daylilies (the ones Sally brought from the "Copp" homestead ca 10 years ago) bloomed yesterday. Fireweed blooming on the logging road.

I got the DR going and mowed for about 2 hours, got 2/3 of the field done. It is a great machine, but has trouble with the tall, thick grass. The grass winds around the blade shaft, and I needed to stop to clean it three times. Still, a minor problem, considering!

Wednesday 23 August 1995 - Breezy in the night, low 52F. Partly cloudy a.m., increasing through the day until pretty much complete overcast by 1700. A few drops (literally; you could see each one in the dust!) of rain fell around 1830, then clearing started. High for the day only 71F.

I worked several hours in the morning, and pretty much eradicated "the triangle" of vegetation above the woods path. Because of the size and location of the hawthorn, it's hard to see past it to see much difference looking from Camp, but the view from the end of the field back to Camp is amazing!

I really enjoyed working with the DR. Its gas engine was louder than I like my sounds at Camp, but I bought high quality ear protectors that deadened the noise considerably. Following the mower up and down the field, I could think about anything I wanted to, or nothing at all. And there was quite a bit to see. Some days, the mower might scare up a dozen or more wood frogs, the same number of meadow voles, a few spring peepers, a toad or two, and a few garter snakes. The numbers and variety of wildflowers were sometimes remarkable.

As I moved farther down the field toward the Glades, I had to spend considerable time cutting small trees and clearing brush that had grown too high or too dense for the DR to handle. I also had to worry about rocks. Although the entire field had once been cleared to grow crops, New Hampshire "grows rocks." Dig anywhere in the field, and you'll soon find your shovel hitting a granite boulder. Freezing and thawing of the ground moves these boulders around and up, until they reach the surface. In the nearly fifty years since the field was last cultivated, a number of new rocks had appeared, and were ready to damage the blade of an unsuspecting mower. After a few years of mowing, I had pretty well memorized the most dangerous locations. Just to be certain, however, I took some of our common orange, homesteader daylilies, and planted clumps of them by each rock. It helped remind me.

In general, I liked what mowing was accomplishing, but I was learning that there was a "when" and a "how often" involved. I wanted to keep the field open, but...

Friday 31 May 1996 - Overnight low 42F. Yesterday's showers produced only 0.08" of ppt, but Mt. Washington had 2.5" of snow! Lovely day, only a few fair weather clouds, some breeze. High 77F fairly early in the afternoon. We got up late, and then I spent several hours off the hill getting mail, shopping, and buying kerosene and lawn mower gas. When I got back, we got the composter (that we bought last fall) set up, and got the red lawnmower started, and mowed a little around the cellar hole. I'm not in a hurry to mow because the violets and bluets are still great.

Tuesday 18 June 1996 - Last night beginning about 2030 there were several light showers, accumulated 0.07" overnight. Low 54F. Day sunny, light breezes, high about 80F. Except for the mosquitoes, a delicious day. I got the DR started and mowed about a third of the field (lower portion). I also spent some time digging out and digging around rocks and roots to get rid of them or make them more visible when mowing. We also spent some time getting things ready for our trip off the hill tomorrow.

The field is lovely now, with aster and a yellow sanicula. I tried not to mow the parts of the field where they are most colorful. Hawkweed is coming up in some areas mowed previously (not blooming here yet, but it is out on the logging road and off the hill).

Thursday 20 June 1996 - Sally worked on the computer in the motel room, while I went to the post office, and bought some "hardware" (propane, weather stripping, keyhole saw. We left the motel at 1100 and grocery shopped, refilled propane tanks, bought geraniums, and got the mail on the way back to camp. We arrived about 1400, driving all the way in to camp for the first time this year. It was dry enough not to leave any appreciable new indentations even in the wettest area.

It was fairly sunny early, but clouds built steadily all day and the first light showers started about 1500. Low temp 57F, high 78F.

After we got back to camp, I spent about three-quarters of an hour mowing "the lawn". The asters are at their peak now, and there is a lot of hawkweed coming up in previously mowed areas, so I mowed in lines and patches to give us some dryer walking areas without doing in the color. The lemon lilies are about at their peak in both the upper and lower garden.

Camp2003-5

Orange hawkweed in the mowed strips

Sunday 23 June 1996 - The thunderstorm that we started hearing about 2000 last night intensified and got closer. From 2100 to 2145 was the heart of it for us, but it was still flashing and rumbling after midnight. It seemed centered south and west of us, with most lightning more than 15 miles away. We did have a few strikes within 4-5 miles, probably. The big feature was the RAIN. It started around 2100 and sounded like it came down in torrents most of the night. The morning total was slightly over 2.00", and all but the "slightly" was after 2100. Low overnight temp 52F. Stella d'oro day lily has about 7 flower stalks coming. There is lots of orange and yellow hawkweed coming. It appears that mowing early (like I did the "upper lawn" area) gives the hawkweed the best chance. The cellar hole is painted with it, or will be in the next day or so when it all opens.

Sunday 6 July 1997 - Great sleeping weather, low 48F and light breeze. Day sunny, low humidity, minimal bugs [although deer flies bad]. High 76F. Wonderful.

Sally inaugurated our new pressure clothes washer - seems to work pretty well. She genealogized the rest of the day. I spent virtually the entire day mowing with the DR - probably over two-thirds done, but still lots of nooks and crannies. The field had been getting away from me, but I really hated to cut it this time. The wildflowers were tremendous - daisies and orange hawkweed dominating from a distance, but close up lots of pink clover, self-heal, evening primrose, dogbane, bluets, etc. I kept putting off cutting the middle of the field and even when I started into it, I took several intermissions to take pictures.

Saturday 8 July 2000 - Lots of blue, lots of sun all day; light breezes until about 1730, then the sky darkened and a major wind roared through. No close thunder, and very little rain, but the strong winds came through in waves for a good half hour. It wasn’t as scary as if there had been a lot of trees close to the house, but I feel very nervous about any wind storm after the ones we’ve had the past several years. Low 44.6F, high 71.8F [but down into the 50s after the storm]. Bugs generally not too bad, because of the wind.

I continued to mow with the DR in the morning - did the area up behind the cellar hole for the first time this year, then the northern third of the field from the glades up to below the hawthorn. I saved the western midsection for later, because the white daisies are still so nice.

Wednesday 12 July 2000 - Clear, breezy, low humidity today. Some passing clouds, but less than on most recent days. Low 46.8F, high 75F. Not a lot of bugs, but midges and mosquitoes were evident in the evening.

I mowed a couple hours with the DR, pulled weeds in the gardens, and built the second of the park benches we bought this year. I also answered some correspondence. Sally knitted and worked on letters.

We had a whippoorwill this morning, early - first one in a week.

The only critter I have scared up with the DR this year is a wood frog. I often see voles, toads, and garter snakes. There are obviously plenty of voles around our dooryard, but the lack of herps fits with the general overall shortage of toads, frogs, and (to some extent) snakes, this year.

Parts of the field are still lovely with pink clover, daisies, vetch, the first black-eyed Susans, but there is getting to be a lot more grass and a lot fewer forbs. This year, the principal “missing” (i.e., scarce) forb is dogbane. Some years, it is knee-high and dense over large areas of the field. I don’t know if this is just a change for this year, or if the field really is progressing to a long-term grassier state. If the latter, it’s probably because of when I mowed and/or how much I mow, but I’m not smart enough to know the cause and effect.

I never did get "smart enough" to know exactly what I was doing, but in general I was pretty pleased.


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