This summer, we took some visiting friends on a hike along the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail, a short drive up the mountain behind our house. The trail begins with a boardwalk spanning a beaver pond, crosses the Middlebury River, continues on through the woods, and then loops back through an old field. Although I’ve hiked the trail several times before, this time one of the wooden signs that stands at the border of the field caught my attention.
Here’s how it began: Fields are only temporary.
As I sit to write this, I’ve been turning those simple, beautiful words around in my head for over 24 hours. Fields are only temporary. I can’t quite get at what those words mean to me, why they’ve stirred my heart for the past day — but you can probably guess that I’m going to try.
What the sign meant was that fields, left to their own devices, never remain fields. At least, not in Vermont. Fields have to be created, cleared by either human or natural effort. If left untended, pioneer plants will take root: tall grasses and wildflowers and bushes. And before long, the trees will move in, quickly overshadow the lower plants, and a forest will be born. It’s a growth pattern that’s beautifully captured in Robert Frost’s poem “The Last Mowing” (the text of which is also on a sign along the trail).
A brief history of Vermont land use:
Throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, settlers descended upon Vermont’s fertile Champlain and Connecticut River Valleys, seeking agricultural land that was in increasingly short supply throughout the rest of New England. In order to create fields for planting and pasture, they had to clear the land of trees and rocks; no small task, as the Vermont landscape had been dominated by six million acres of dense woodlands for roughly 12,000 years. But these were hardy, determined folk; between farming and the booming logging industry, settlers had removed more than half of Vermont’s forest by the late 1800s. It wasn’t until the effects of this deforestation became visible — nutrient-deprived soil, altered drainage patterns, and endangered and extinct wildlife — that conservation efforts began. Those efforts, along with the decline of Vermont’s agricultural industry, resulted in the reforestation of 77 percent of Vermont’s landscape. In other words, there are more trees in Vermont now than there were a century ago.
Fields are only temporary.
I live in the woods, and whenever I have anything to do with our “yard,” I’m awestruck by those early settlers. The trees grow thick together, and taking them down is backbreaking work — as my father’s four broken ribs and two fractured vertebrae will attest. We have a small area of grassy “yard” and several flowerbeds, and throughout most of the year I spend at least one day a week pulling up or chopping down the small saplings that are constantly trying to turn all of our yard to forest. Then there are the rocks: wonderful to play on, but try digging a hole anywhere around our house and you’ll quickly be frustrated. My husband and father-in-law broke a metal post driver while attempting to put some fence posts a few inches into the ground for our chicken coop. We are no match for these woods.
Fields are only temporary might sound like bad news if you’re trying to create a farm — or even just a yard. It’s a poignant reminder of the futility of our labor; no matter how much we chop and dig and pull, the woods will always win in the end.
But looking at it another way, maybe this means we don’t have to try so hard to change things. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t need as much field or yard as we think we do. Maybe we can be okay with the pioneer plants and the trees growing up; we can stop fighting and let the woods be the woods.
Woods, you know, are very beautiful.
Fields are beautiful, too. And useful: the kids and dogs need places to run, or perhaps your livelihood is farming and you need fields in order to feed others — and your own family. It can be a very worthwhile thing to clear a field, while remembering that fields are only temporary.
I’m talking in metaphors now, of course. Not just about fields, but about relationships and possessions and vocations and life. Just like fields, our lives have growth stages. And I’m learning that the important thing is to see the particular beauty of the growth stage we’re in, be it field or grassland or forest. To know when to stop pulling up the seedlings and digging up the rocks. To realize that, after a while, if you insist on a field remaining a field, you don’t even have a very good field anymore, just parched, denuded dirt.
Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to stop weeding my flowerbeds….