All posts tagged: Essays

Lost Farm

By CHELSEA STEINAUER-SCUDDER

 

I.

Before the arrival, there was a departure. A view of an airport gate through an airplane window.

I was eleven years old; my brother Nathan was eight. We had just completed the drive from our home in Norman, Oklahoma to Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. I was eager to board the plane and get to my seat so that I could look out the window, back toward the gate. My best friend Rachel had come to the airport with us, back when you could hug someone goodbye right up to the boarding doors. She had promised that if I looked out the plane window, she’d make sure I saw her waving to me, and she promised to keep waving until after the plane had pulled away from the gate and Nathan and I were far above the place where we’d grown up, in between two very different homes, two parents, two lives. I held onto this promise tightly, as if looking back to see Rachel waving was as far as I was going that day: boarding a plane just for this small moment.

I don’t recall many details leading up to the move—packing, saying goodbye to our friends, hearing about our new school. I don’t remember when it was decided that my dad would have full custody of us, though I remember why. The why was our stepfather, someone who had become inexplicably stuck in our lives like the strips of tar that melted on the sidewalks and fastened to our shoes in the southern summer, someone who was angry, and violent.

I remember knowing that my dad needed to find a new job, and that meant he needed to leave. He left for Massachusetts a few months before us, and I can imagine that we spent the summer anticipating the day my mom would drive us to the airport.

When it was time to board, Nathan and I hugged our mom once more. I was too bewildered to cry. And then we walked, for the first time, onto an airplane without an adult. Nathan, with his bowl-cut hair and red backpack, walked ahead of me. I stayed close behind him, feeling both protective and inadequate—at once grown-up and very, very small. From my seat, I turned toward the airport windows and squinted my eyes. The glare of the late afternoon sun against the building was strong. Too strong—I couldn’t see inside. I couldn’t see Rachel waving. All at once the panic hit me and it was as though we were truly leaving, on our way to somewhere utterly unknown, from somewhere deeply embodied; Oklahoma was the only home I could remember, it felt as though it was inextricable from myself. I didn’t know how to leave.

But then, there was Rachel, pressing her whole body against the bottom section of the floor-to-ceiling window. She must have realized this was the only way it would work. Both of her arms extended straight out, sweeping up and down along the glass in huge arcs: a full-body wave, an upright snow angel in an Oklahoma summer. I watched her and watched her, craning my neck to hold her in view until the plane backed away, and turned, and lifted into the sky. 

II.

Lost Farm was waiting for us.

My father—a botanist and grasslands ecologist with an always-beard and a worse-for-wear baseball cap—learned his trade amongst the shushing, windswept prairies of Nebraska. He never intended to voluntarily cast himself twenty-five miles out to sea, but in 1998, after completing his PhD at the University of Oklahoma and staying on for several years as a botany professor, he moved to Nantucket to take a job with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Lost Farm, a small, one-bedroom converted hunter’s cabin surrounded by seventy acres of conserved land, served as staff housing for the island’s sole Audubon employee. A few months before we were scheduled to arrive, Dad and our shaggy dog Bear had driven a U-Haul to Cape Cod where they boarded the freight ferry in Hyannis and, after two hours of rough waters, navigated the first unfamiliar, winding miles of a new island.

We arrived in August. Dad drove Nathan and I down the dirt driveway with the pitch pines running down either side, and when at last the long forest broke onto a sloping meadow, there was the gray shingled house with red trim. Bear ran to the car to meet us, yipping excitedly at our heels in an all-body wag. Dad walked us through the house and then to the pond and along the trails that meandered beneath the trees. He began to give us names for what we saw and heard around us—catbird, Hummock Pond, scrub oak.

Here was our new home: seventy acres of pitch-pine woodland and maritime shrubland, brackish pond and grasslands, chattering crows and rustling stands of tupelos, the sharp scent of salt and the gentle touch of mist, the osprey nest and the house with red trim.

Lost Farm

Every night, the world closed in with nightfall and I felt far away from everything, an island on an island. The place I had left behind filled the space around me in the silent dark: the tire swing on the juniper tree in our front yard on Eufaula Street, friends I had known since I was three years old, quaking thunder and pelting hail, the blessed smell of rain rising off of hot pavement. On these nights I was ensnared in that other life and unable to make the transition into this new, unfamiliar one. I lay there suspended between two places, caught between being a child and a teenager, in a body that felt awkward and unsure. Mostly though, I lay in the dark and thought of my mother who was now alone with our stepfather. I missed her with a blend of love and fear for her safety, and I would silently recite prayers for her until I fell asleep, though we had never been taught to pray.

Lost Farm was patient. In the morning, dawn’s exhale of fog lifted over Hummock Pond and dispersed into a hazy blue sky. The trees were steady as if waiting for the day to start. Everything was damp and soft. We had neither TV nor high speed internet, so if we wanted something to do, outside we went. With the sun up, I couldn’t help feeling carefree again—and there was exploring to do. Our old neighborhood had been a series of sidewalks and lawns, pocket parks, and streets to cross; our routes to school and to play were a well-defined and well-repeated series of right-angle turns and traffic signals. Lost Farm defied careful mapping and preordained routes. There were several winding miles of maintained trails through the trees, but we were not beholden to them.

Nathan and I would set off, Bear trotting ahead of us, on an adventure that could only begin with getting purposefully lost. We’d turn off the trail to crawl beneath the knotted, snagging scrub oak or build forts made of branches leaning against the pine trees. Once we really did get lost and, after one too many turns, were both truly scared. Nathan looked to me with wide eyes and I looked to the member of our cohort who seemed the closest thing to an adult: Bear. “Go home! Go home, Bear!” we shouted. He seemed to shrug, not understanding this sudden outburst, and then turned and trotted beneath the trees. We ran after him, all the way home.

III.

Here is Lost Farm: the place I first walked beneath a canopy of Hawthorn trees in bloom, white petals falling brightly in the shade. The place where painted turtles made their way from the murky waters of Hummock Pond to the sand that lined the driveway to lay their eggs. The place where we threw frisbees and baseballs; where my knees got sunburned in kayaks; where crows held their noisy council in the pine trees. I mean to say, Lost Farm is where I first began to consciously develop a vocabulary of place.

Hummock Pond

“Human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery,” writes Scott Russell Sanders in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. “Let sunlight flame in a blade of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself.”

And so it was. The more we looked, the more there was to see. Time and presence did their work of transforming a foreign, faraway place into a home through a slow accumulation of recognition and care. Dad taught us the names of things and took us hunting for edible mushrooms. Nathan and I biked home from friends’ houses or orchestra camp or summer jobs, turning right on the rough sandy road just ahead of the faded blue mailbox which, when not taking on water, was home to a winding line of ants that had to be brushed off the mail.

The dirt driveway—a half mile long—was always slow-going. In daylight, the ragged pine forest rose on either side from a floor of rust-colored needles. Branches were draped with silver-green tangles of bearded lichen. If it was summertime, frogs arced every-which-way out of the shallow brown puddles. At night, the forest disappeared, apart from what the lights on our handlebars could catch—enough visibility to ward off the fear that was waiting on the edge of our vision, a blackness beyond the silver outline of reaching trees. From our bicycle seats, we prayed that the narrow beam shining from our handlebars wouldn’t reveal the yellow back of an orb spider that had started weaving her web between the trees, spanning our path.

I was always relieved when I could make out the porch light, a beacon through the trees.

IV.

Even now, two decades later, every time I visit Lost Farm the moment of coming down the driveway and emerging out of the trees still carries the weight of arrival. I remember an endless succession of homecomings, though the years changed the circumstance: Nathan and I arrive at Lost Farm to gray late-December skies and golden grass after our mother has divorced and is safe again, and we have moved back to Oklahoma full-time. We arrive to Bear jumping up from his favorite place, beneath the pitch pine closest to the house. Then to Bear running alongside our second dog, Jewels. Then, one summer, to a notable quiet, when Bear’s collar is growing moss on the low branch of a tree, marking the place where he is buried. We arrive one Christmas after Dad has had a brain aneurysm burst and then a massive stroke, and we celebrate the holiday in deep gratitude for his survival and in grief for what was taken from him. The house changes shape as new rooms are added on, the kitchen made larger, an outdoor shower now in one corner. The red trim chipping. The pitch pines taller.

Always there is the long driveway, and always the house in the meadow.

When I think of Lost Farm, it’s the arrivals that first come to mind. And now, alongside them, the knowledge that I will soon have to learn how to depart.

Two decades is the blink of an eye to a pitch pine forest, but it’s been long enough for me to learn that arrivals do not get to be infinite. This knowledge has settled in uncomfortably. Though this was always the deal: staff housing from Audubon is available until retirement. Soon, my father will leave Nantucket and return to his first home in Nebraska. Someone new will turn down the driveway for the first time.

V.

I walk and silently recite: scrub oak, little bluestem, switchgrass, huckleberry, juniper, cedar, cherry, bolete. After twenty years of the same trails, I recognize much of what I see. And I recognize much of myself. In the years since that first turn down the driveway, I’ve lived in five states, three countries, a dozen houses and apartments. The 2008 housing crisis took our childhood home in Oklahoma where we had lived with our mom. Lost Farm has been my only anchor to a consistent sense of home.

So many moments here are with me, as present as the crows and the fog, and when I think of telling the story of this place, it is the small things that come to mind. Jewels eating blueberries straight off the bush while we collect them for a pie. Mowing the trails in the summer. Struggling to make friends in school and finding it perhaps too easy to be apart and alone here, hidden inside seventy acres. How the sheep we had for several years would stretch their necks to reach the leaves from the low-hanging branches of the cherry trees.

I can hardly take a step, can hardly open my eyes, or hear the catbird, or inhale the smell of sand and sap without the memories rushing in: fragments of time that rest on the ground like the deer beds pressing down the tall grass, marking what was here, an imprint. I wonder if this is part of what it means to know a place, to no longer be able to only experience it fully in the present because everywhere you look, there is your past. And with that comes the knowledge—both a wrench in your stomach and a glimpse of something uncomprehendingly beautiful—that your past is the smallest part of something bigger, vaster, and ever-more mysterious, no matter how many memories you create.

The damp air blows through the trees and I see it at once through the eyes of a child and a woman and a daughter and a wife, through an accumulation of years.

Today, I am walking and come to the place where the trail turns sandy. To my left is the blueberry patch and then the shrublands and then Hummock Pond where the heads of snapping turtles rise and descend. Here the trail splits and I can choose to continue onwards or to take a sharp right turn on a different trail home. This is the place where I once tripped over a root while out on a jog and scraped my knee. I remember thinking, “It’s been so long since I fell and scraped my knee. Maybe since Oklahoma and Eufaula street.” And then I thought, “Don’t cry, don’t run back home.” By then I knew it would be better to carry on, that I couldn’t always run home with wounds. That day, I took the forward trail and kept going.

I take that trail now, too.

These days, I find myself hoping that what Robin Wall Kimmerer writes is true: “Maybe there is no such thing as time; there are only moments, each with its own story.”

I look around and see so many moments that we made, and I sense so many, many more that we never did, and never will, witness.

VI.

Back home in Portland, Maine, I attend a talk in which someone in the audience asks a well-respected author a question I, too, want to ask: why had he chosen to set his book in the landscape of Montana, set ablaze by wildfire? “It could have been anywhere,” the author replied. “Landscape is just the backdrop for human drama to unfold.”

I cannot accept that this is true. Whether we choose to see it or not, our human bodies—bodies composed of and arising entirely from the body of this earth—are in deep, intimate relationship with the small areas of the planet that we call home.

“Merely change houses and you will be disoriented;” writes Scott Russell Sanders, “change homes and you will bleed.” Losing a beloved place carries the pain of losing something that we have come to care for and to take care of, something that, in turn, has taken care of us. With my father rapidly approaching retirement age, I sometimes allow myself to feel the weight of saying goodbye to Lost Farm.

VII.

It’s late October when Nathan and I drive into Hyannis. Weather has canceled the faster ferry, so we take the slow boat, which bucks and heaves over the waves. When we reach Nantucket the wind and tide push the boat against the dock at the wrong angle and, though we are only a dozen feet from land, it takes half an hour to maneuver the boat into the right position. Dad and our stepmother are waiting for us in the parking lot.

Minutes later, we turn down the dirt driveway. This is our final arrival. The movers will be here in two days.

Lost Farm looks as it always does in late fall: the colors around the house have softened into golds and grays. Inside, the house is packed into boxes. We spend the next days cleaning and bringing old furniture to the take-it-or-leave-it. We find a stack of dusty photographs at the back of a drawer: Bear lying in the shade, Nathan and I on a swing set the first year we were here. We sort through Dad’s old notebooks, filled with lists of plants in smudged pencil, amounts of rainfall, species of mushrooms.

On our family’s last evening together at Lost Farm, Nathan suggests a ceremony. We pull half a dozen bricks out from a pile of leftover building materials and arrange them into a circle in the driveway. We place lichen, pine needles, a shell, sand, a blade of little bluestem, and a mushroom cap on the bricks and then build a small fire in the center. One by one, we offer our hand-written goodbyes to the flames. Dad, not much one for ceremony, tells us the wind is too strong for the fire and we need to put it out. He’s eager to leave and return to the prairie lands; after all these years, his first home has never stopped calling to him. But I feel my grip on these last moments here tightening until I’m white knuckled in an effort to drag time to a standstill. The few words I attempt to say aloud fumble and fall away.

The departure ceremony

The next morning, it’s time to return to the ferry. We load our bags into the car. As we pull away from the house, I turn for one last glimpse and, too quickly, Lost Farm has vanished behind the trees and then we have reached the end of the driveway and turned onto Hummock Pond road and we are on the ocean, the island receding.

VIII.

It was only as I said goodbye to Lost Farm that I remembered Rachel waving to me that day in the airport all those years ago. For nearly two decades the memory had been dormant, and then there it was, clear and vivid.

The image of her in the terminal window returned to me gently, like a singing bird suddenly visible on the branch of a tree. In the midst of childhood tumult and change, hers had been a goodbye that was, in fact, hardly a goodbye at all. Instead, this simple act of waving, of uncomplicated love, conveyed: I’m still here. I’ll be with you.

I’ve been thinking often of the poet W.S. Merwin and how he spent forty years planting thousands of palm trees on a piece of land in Maui that had been pronounced unusable. It is now a magnificent palm forest, lush and green, a home for the lilting song of the laughingthrush. Merwin wrote his final poetry collection, Garden Time, knowing that his life was nearing its end, that he would have to bid farewell to this beloved place. He closes his poem “No Twilight” with the lines:

when I look up after the light has gone
hearing a seed fall somewhere in the dark

We arrive and depart. We love and grieve. And perhaps what we can carry with us is the knowledge that, after we are gone, somewhere a friend is waving from a tall window, somewhere a seed is germinating in the soil.

Chelsea SteinauerScudder is a writer based in southern Maine. As a staff writer for Emergence Magazine, she explores the human relationship to place. Her work has been featured in Crannóg Magazine, Inhabiting the Anthropocene, and the EcoTheo Review.

Lost Farm
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Before I left to study abroad in Galway, Ireland, in the winter of 2020, I’d stumbled upon a lively online discussion amongst first-generation, Black Irish immigrants. From the comfort of my bedroom, I came upon a comment that stuck with me for quite some time: I have never experienced outright racism here, an anonymous poster said. It’s because the racists here are cowards. They will never say anything to your face.

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from The Journal I Did Not Keep 

 

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Translated by JULIA SANCHES

1.
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