Spring cleanup on the farm is a fine thing, full of energy and anticipation, but I prefer the fall, mellowed by reflection and slowed by caution for that undiscovered yellow jacket nest and the snake looking for a place to soak up the morning sun. Autumn cleanup is subject to the welcome interruption of having to stand perfectly still while the wind catches falling leaves, plays with them like a cat with a string and discards them just as abruptly.
Fall is a favorite book in a series. We read it more slowly and savor it because we don’t want the story to end. Some passages we read over and over until they are committed to memory: Coffee on the front porch on a crisp morning; crunching leaves under deep blue skies in crystalline air; stars, more visible at night, and unlike the winter skies, you can enjoy the view without shivering.
September ripens and Joe Pye, jewel weed and iron weed are slowly replaced by goldenrod and aster. We pause to watch hummingbirds jousting around the feeder as they tank up for their long journey south. We don’t want them to leave, but the nights grow colder, the flowers fade, and one day soon our valiant little friends will hover one last time by the window as if to say, “Thank you,” and “See you next year.”
Fall cleanup this year began with a neglected little corner of the farm which had collected brambles and dead branches, a half wild area at the bottom of our driveway with cherry trees, sumac and locust. Memories gathered there also.
It was there long ago that my dad an I setup a bee yard. He said that the hives would catch the morning sun there, and the bees would discourage curiosity seekers from entering the barn just beyond. In his later years he would bring a chair and sit near the entrance to the hives to watch the bees coming and going. He could gauge the health of the hive by the traffic, and determine what plants they were working by the color of the pollen on their hind legs.
Dad and I had many conversations in that bee yard. Some pieces of land just seem to be conducive to conversation. Under a big maple tree at the edge of that space Dad would visit with his friend, Jack Dayton, our long time county commissioner, when Jack was in the valley. In the late afternoon the cool breeze from the mountain would flow down an old woods road, through the mountain laurel and under the tree where the two old friends met to revisit their younger days.
Years ago when the road bank at the edge of this plot was bare, I would occasionally find an arrowhead after a rain. Finding an arrowhead gives one pause, especially in the fall, when the signs of change and decay are inexorable. Thousands of years ago someone spent hours to fashion a tool to feed a family, most likely with no thought at all that someday far into the future his creation would be someone’s curiosity or trinket.
What, if anything, will remain of our creations of plastic and particle board, even 20 years from now? Every year there is less of the Americana of the southern Appalachians. The old houses and barns, personal creations of oak and chestnut and heart pine, more durable than what we build today, sink slowly to the ground to disappear forever.
I’ve been asked on occasion why “you people” don’t clear away your crumbling old barns and buildings. The simplest answer is that “it’s none of your business.” But if anyone really wants to know: Old things hold memories. If we’re lucky enough to stay on the land, there comes a day when the calendar and the ache in the joints tells us that it isn’t prudent to climb a ladder to nail the tin back on the roof. We would pay someone to do it, but money is tight on a fixed income.
It doesn’t bother us much, though we sometimes long for the old days when the old barn was new. There is a kind of quiet dignity in decay. It is as natural as the falling leaves, and the old things that make way for and nourish the new. This will happen without any effort on our part to hurry it along.
Yes, old things and old places hold memories, and not every corner needs to be cleaned up right away, and not every piece of ground has to look like a golf course. The modern world wants everything to be neatly cropped and categorized, and so effective is our masking of the real with the virtual that we have forgotten that chaos and decay are as natural as the changing seasons.
Leaves fall; barns fall more slowly. Trees grow where there were once fields and the bulldozer of modern life turns the forest to field once again. Time turns the bulldozer to rust.
These thoughts all occurred in the time it took the sun to move beyond the limb that was shading me, and I had to smile, remembering my grandfather who would interrupt his morning routine to simply stand and look at the mountain. The old hive stands got cleared away, the brush was piled and the grass mowed. All traces of the old bee yard are gone now, but the memories remain.