Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Idea of Farmhouse: Roadside Trees


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It was an early Colonial tradition for a farmer to plant trees along the road that passed through his farm. I'm amazed that so many people fail to notice when the trees begin to march in even steps on both sides of the road, or if they notice they think that the thinning forest fell that way naturally or through a bit of pruning. Jane and I always look forward to finding these in our travels, and it has become one of our games to comment about the farmer who perhaps 200 years earlier had put them there knowing that he would be an old man before they provided much shade.

The tradition was not confined to gentleman farmers but was common among country farmers who lived off the land. It began before there were front yards, when the front yard emulating town was nothing more than a hill of bush beans, but the dirt road beside those bush beans was lined with saplings, most often maples, in evenly measured spaces. They would be nurtured so that some day when the farmer or his children drove their buggy back from town or returned from church on Sunday, long before he reached the door of the house he entered an arched, shadowed space like a cathedral nave where in spring and summer nesting birds sang and welcomed him.

The farmer planted these trees not just for himself but for his children. Was he also thinking about his relationship to that piece of earth and its importance as a legacy and as a stake in a new land? As Jane and I discover and pass such roadside rows, we always look for the farmhouse and to see what is left of the barns. There were always barns. We also notice how the power lines have cut their channel to bring light and heat and television and email. We count how many trees are split fragments, how many are carcasses rotting, how many are just double-width gaps.

This is what time does. Today most of us drive by at thirty miles an hour with windows shut tight, but it's a privilege sometimes to walk beneath the boughs and think about where the road has taken us and where it seems to lead.