I grew up in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania one hour north of Philadelphia. I was close enough to the city to be able to regularly go to great museums or concerts or the zoo. But I seldom did. I was a country girl through and through. This is not to say I was a hick. No, I was a nature lover. Probably from the day I was born — on a warm April day with cherry trees in full blossom.
I am home right now visiting the land of my birth. I am visiting my family and friends and I am reacquainting myself with the land. Fortunately, there are still pockets of land — large fields (mostly cultivated,) patches of woods, ponds and streams, and some old farmhouses hundreds of years old.
I am feeling appreciative of those farms today. It is largely due to these farms that there is any land left to enjoy at all. So much has been gobbled up in the name of development.
Blech. I hate that word. Thanks to “development,” hundreds of family farms have bitten the dust. Cookie cutter McMansions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each spread like a cancer across this land I have loved. If people built their own homes on an as-needed basis, or hired a contractor to build them, this land I love would not be too different from that of my childhood. But no, instead wealthy companies offer farmers millions of dollars to build hundreds of homes which then attract new residents eager to live in such a lovely pastoral place. Only of course it becomes less and less lovely the more people who arrive.
I am so grateful for the farms that hold out. How much courage it must take to say no to an offer of a million or more dollars! How tempting it must be to give up the hard backbreaking days that begin every day at dawn and continue on till dusk, day after day with never a vacation day in sight. For who can find someone who even knows how to milk cows, let alone someone who is dependable and willing to get up in the wee hours of a cold morning to begin the job and then repeat it all again twelve hours later?
Sadly, most farmers can no longer afford to pay the taxes on the land they own. Or their children are no longer interested in living such a challenging and unappreciated lifestyle once their parents are ready to retire. When I was growing up here, many of my friends and even my own cousins were farmers. But now this area is largely Yuppy Heaven. This area yells wealth. People with simple lifestyles and un-fancy clothes and cars are a definite minority here. Or at least they are certainly more hidden than they once were.
So I am grateful for the farmers who find a way to eke out a living. I am grateful for the food they grow. I’m grateful for those who sell it to us at local markets. I love buying food from real people instead of these huge agribusiness corporations who are all in bed with Monsanto, spraying horrible poisons on our land and then planting seeds genetically modified to grow in that poisoned land.
I am even grateful for the “gentleman farmers” — those New Yorkers who come down to Bucks County on weekends to live in their beautifully restored historic farmhouses with their beautiful woods, beautiful deer, beautiful ponds. If it weren’t for these New Yorkers, there would probably be little land or pastoral places of beauty left.
I used to live in one of those beautiful old farmhouses. It had been owned by the Clothiers — the Clothiers of Strawbridges and Clothier, the once famous Philadelphia department store. It was a grand old house with huge original wooden plank floorboards, thick stone walls with 12″ deep windowsills, beautiful old carved moldings around the doorways. There was a large pony barn, an original springhouse, and a wonderful wraparound porch complete with porch swing and the rocking chair I’d hinted at wanting for my birthday.
There were beautifully manicured flower gardens along lovely low stone walls, there were tall stately tulip poplar trees, one of which bore the quintessential tire swing. There was a lovely spreading copper beech tree, a sloping lawn, a creek complete with lots of frogs which squealed and jumped no matter how quietly you tried to sneak up on them. Perhaps best of all, there was a 55-year-old Olympic sized swimming pool.
We — my not-yet husband, his sweet young son, and the three housemates we had so that we could (barely) afford this beautiful estate — used to throw the most amazing parties in the summer. They were multi-generational parties. The kids would usually play in the barn or swim, the elders would play cards near the cool stream, and everyone in between would swim or play volleyball, frisbee, or guitar while drinking beer or rootbeer from kegs. Two or three times a summer, more than a hundred people would revel in the bounty of food and friends, music and nature, warm sun and fresh air.
I used to love watching the fireflies come out in the evening, listening to the bullfrogs and the owls, and watching the clouds float by while lazing on a raft or inner tube in that pool. In many ways, it was an idyllic time in my life. Sadly, life’s simple pleasures were interspersed with many discouraging township meetings where I and a few of my neighbors valiantly fought the development that was supposed to be built around us and the neighboring reservoir.
I miss the land of my youth. I miss the acres of corn I used to walk through on balmy summer nights with my boyfriend. All that land is now filled with four-bedroom homes. The wetlands I used to walk through as a young married woman is now also developed. I used to love to straggle through the overgrown fields, gazing at the butterflies, listening to the cry of the hawks, looking for the heron nest high in the trees at the edge of the water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the babies.
Sometimes I imagine what this land must have looked like hundreds of years ago, before the arrival of the Europeans and their conquering of both the land and the people who had once lived in such close harmony with it. It must have been magnificent, filled with thousands and thousands of square miles of woodlands and streams.
My great grandmother was Helen Keen Jamison. I’m guessing way, way back I had some keeners among my ancestors — those women who learned the fine art of mourning the dead. Many times I have wished to hold a memorial service for the land which is buried beneath the houses, the roads, and the stores. I have longed to cry and keen the loss of all that wild and wonderful beauty.
Meanwhile, whenever I am privileged to see some of that beauty, I give thanks. I think the land hears me deep inside its silent heart.