'Hands on the Plough'
Those of us of a certain age remember recipes that had real names: Marie's Nutmeg Doughnuts, Renny Powell's Blueberry Boy-Bait, Rena Scribner's Maple Fudge, and Mrs. Pope's Southern Pecan Bars, not to mention Clara Mae's Famous Pensacola Fried Chicken, Sweet Potatoes Georgian, and Dorothy's New England Cream Pie.
Looking at a map of our small Vermont town is a quick history lesson, each place named for a family or defining characteristic. Red Mountain, Egg Mountain, Bear Mountain, and Tate Mountain. Walnut Hill, Minister Hill, and then Swearing Hill right across from it. Our hollows: Skinner, Cook, Mears, Corbett, Kent, and Wilcox. The Green River runs through town, but there are also plenty of small brooks with names: Tidd, Baldwin, and Chunks. Plus names that appeal to a small boy's imagination: Snake Ridge, Pumpkin Hook, Chestnut Woods, The Notch, Goose Egg Ridge, and Eldridge Swamp.
People seem to have had better names back then, too. My favorites were Onie, Herbie, Cliff, Floyd, Harley, Willy, Sonny, and Mickey. Country stores were still called by their proper names: Wayside, Cullinan's, or Sherman's, for example. Decades after the original owners died or moved away, a house was still referred to as the Lomberg home and a farmhouse--like The Yellow Farmhouse--could never escape its color. Long after the Woodcocks moved out of their place up on the West Road (and their doghouse with the TV antenna on top had been bulldozed), everyone still called it the Woodcock place. That's just what it was.
When I walk up into our woods, I know where the old gravel pit used to be, where Harley Smith used to pasture his father's cows in the summer, where the sheep were kept up above the ledges, the place where Nate saw the bear coming by his tree stand during deer season, and the site of the old sugarhouse. I can see where the sheep fencing and barbed wire have grown into the tree trunks, becoming part of the historical record. I know where to look to see the "40 smokes," where as a kid on a cold morning, Floyd Bentley might have looked up the mountain to see smoke curling up from 40 chimneys. And the one-room schoolhouse is still across from the church, where on one cold morning the kids locked the outhouse door and the teacher had to make do behind a snowbank. The dance halls have all burned to the ground, but we know where they used to be. After all, it happened only 100 years ago.
In those days, a place earned its name by means of either hard work or sheer determination. Today, however, places sell their names, as in Boston's Fleet Center (it is still the "Garden" to locals). Fenway Park has yet to follow suit--an act of marketing infamy that would cause a week of rioting. I grew up, like many of us, with Moxie, Nehi, and Mallo Cups and was thrilled to discover packs of Teaberry and Black Jack chewing gum on a back shelf at Sherman's store. The gum, I am sad to report, had seen better days.
At a recent local gathering, we swapped stories about other lost traditions. One neighbor remembers the bleach man, who did in fact sell bleach door-to-door, along with 100-pound bags of soap. There was the ragman and, of course, the musical hurdy-gurdy man--the one with the monkey. (You paid the monkey, not the musician.) My father loved to tell stories about the ice man, who delivered large blocks of ice for the aptly named ice box.
Today, we seem to have lost our belief in constancy, the unwavering good sense to follow a single path in life. I spent last Sunday rabbit hunting with Tom, the local president of the Old Rabbit Hunters' Association, and Teddy, a local carpenter and stonemason who goes out every weekend during the season. He has a half dozen dogs--we hunted that day with Tubby--and on Father's Day, when his kids asked him what he wanted to do, he said he wanted to take a walk with his dogs to scout for rabbits--even though rabbit season was long over. That's constancy for you.
And life is full of smaller bits of constancy that are comforting: the sight of a crisp winter sky chock-full of stars as I trudge back from the barn after dinner; the announcement by our 6-year-old, Emily, that she just had another baby (she has more than two dozen store-bought "children" at this point); the first taste of hot biscuits slathered with butter and homemade plum jam; the radiating warmth of a wood cookstove on a dark, cold morning; and the feel of a horse resting his head on your shoulder. But, of course, constancy has a higher purpose. Ossie Davis, the late, great American actor, once said, "We can't float through life--we must fix our gaze on a guiding star [and keep] our hands on the plough. It is the consistency of the pursuit . . . that gives you the constancy, that gives you the encouragement, that gives you the way to understand . . . why it is important for you to do what you can do."
Finding that star on a cold winter's night, knee-deep in snow, wrapped in a tattered longcoat, is not easy. I can hear the horses shifting in their stalls, and I see our farmhouse on a hill, lit modestly, as if by candle, underneath a canopy so brightly decorated that not one star stands out. It is the choice of a lifetime, one that seems oddly tightfisted against the startling breadth of the heavens. But before I reach the sudden warmth of home, I do indeed choose a star. It is not the brightest perhaps, nor part of a well-sketched constellation, but it is the one I will follow. With an eye toward the horizon, I aim to plough a straight furrow, encouraged by the notion that hard work and constancy will someday bear the sweet fruit of a job well done.