Lost and Found
In 1786, Daniel Shays, a poor Massachusetts farmer and a courageous officer during the Revolution, found himself at odds with the state government and is now famous for inciting Shays’ Rebellion. Taxes were to be paid in “hard money” at a time when legal tender was scarce and the governor could imprison anyone who was “dangerous to the safety of the Commonwealth” without the right of habeas corpus. This rebellion soon turned to armed conflict, and a few of the participants fled to our remote town in Vermont, hiding on Egg Mountain, where their community was secluded and they were protected by the reputation of Vermonters as the “most cantankerous people on earth.”
Back in the early 1960s, my mother, sister, and I made a daylong trip up Egg Mountain and, thanks to a local guide, found the site of the main encampment (it is still there today) along with the foundation for a schoolhouse and a small cemetery. In recent years, I have made half a dozen trips there and looked for that cemetery, but it is long lost. Half a century ago, the top of Egg Mountain was still mostly fields; today, it is heavily wooded, and the small collection of black and white photos my mother took of the excursion are useless in terms of identifying landmarks. The mounds and swales of the underlying landscape are well hidden by poplars, maples, ashes, and oaks.
Looking through the box of old Shays’ Rebellion photos, I also found a snapshot of a Woodcock headstone from our town’s main cemetery that was decorated with two small plastic toys (a doe and a chicken); a shot of our four kids sitting in the back of my 1981 red Ford pickup; a recipe for Nancy Mittendorfer’s meatloaf (it calls for one can of tomato soup); and a ledger from the long-closed Sheldon Store, formerly the Farmer’s Exchange Store, that detailed the account of Isaac Beal in March of 1825: He owed payment for 5 pounds of butter (65 cents), a bushel of wheat, 6 pounds of wool ($2), and half bushels of rye and corn. I also came across a neighboring town report that showed a 1920 photo of the Sunday school picnic (over 100 well-dressed townspeople photographed in front of the stone-built Church of Christ); a snapshot of Charles Hopkins, the local blacksmith who died at age 89 in 1948; and a shot of a work gang at the local Ester sawmill wearing an assortment of hats, from Irish wool caps to sea captain’s headgear, wide-brimmed farmhand hats, and a pointed cap that would look right at home on the Tin Woodman. There was also a photo of a wood-burning Delaware and Hudson Canal Company engine; the railroad ran through town back then, before the Hood Creamery or the Lewis Brothers Mill was constructed.
I am confident that every civilization has a schizophrenic relationship with the past, a mixture of nostalgia overridden by the conviction that modern society is clearly superior, marching onward to the future. (For my part, I am not convinced of the inherent benefits of progress. After the inestimable glories of Rome, Europe was plunged into 700 years of dark ages; the technologically advanced Roman aqueducts fell into disrepair, flooding flat ground and breeding disease; and civilization was saved only by Irish monks through the safekeeping of illuminating manuscripts.) Looking at old photos of our firstborn, Whitney, I remembered the first time she saw a mounted buck—the head was hung on the wall of Tom and Nancy’s front porch, so Whitney immediately went inside the house, where she expected to see the animal’s rear end. That leads, of course, to other memories of when our children were young: catching fireflies in Ball canning jars with punctured metal tops; telling stories on the front porch in summer twilight; walking down the road after dinner to see Jean’s goats; or the summer Charlie dressed up in cast-off women’s things, wearing a gauzy sunhat to boot. (Yes, I do have the photo and am waiting to show it on the day he brings home his first serious girlfriend.)
Most religions offer the panacea “What we have lost will be found again.” In the early Middle Ages, Christians sang an ecstatic song on Christmas Eve that began, “Tomorrow will be my dancing day,” referring to the Incarnation and, I think, also to recovering what sin had made unattainable: spirituality, innocence, and the path to salvation. Yet I might comment that once a snapshot is taken, the moment has passed and can never be regained. What was once young is now older, the past is now freighted by experience, and so each time I glance at that photo of our kids in the back of the pickup, I see something different. That moment never existed as truth, something immutable and pure.
At our annual Pig Roast party in August, I spent a good deal of time with a neighbor and local character who has many hobbies, including making crow decoys out of Budweiser cans spray-painted black with golf balls for eyes, and who protects his bird feeder from black bears with a homemade, industrial-strength electric fence. He can put the treads back on a bulldozer, make venison jerky, construct his own stainless-steel rotisserie smoker, restore an old Model T, or fashion a potato gun out of PVC pipe and a gas-grill sparker.
My guess is that whatever we think we’ve lost we never had, that waiting to find it again is as stupid as expecting trout to rise to the same dry fly two days in a row, and that life is best lived between the lost and the found, just this side of hope and on the other side of nostalgia. This life, the one we are living today, is a damn interesting place to be, a town where my neighbors lie awake at night thinking of a better way to make a crow decoy out of a beer can. This may be a far cry from the reign of Caesar Augustus, but to my way of thinking, nothing is ever really lost, even an old cemetery. We just have to learn to stop looking for it.