Keirstead Farm, as it was, 1977
An emerald is as green as grass,
A ruby red as blood,
A sapphire shines as blue as heaven,
But a flint lies in the mud.
A diamond is a brilliant stone
To catch the world's desire,
An opal holds a fiery light,
But a flint holds fire.
--Christina Rossetti, “Precious Stones”
Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It is early on a summer morning. I stand looking down the fields through a bedroom window at a day already well celebrated with birdsong and the arrival of the sun again over Sharps Hill on the far side of the valley.
This farm is long and narrow. The house and barn nestle into a slight fold in the rise of land on this side of the valley. Behind me, behind the house and the old drive shed and the vegetable garden, stands our big maple tree, overlooking the whole farm as though it were the echo in a later and lesser time of the cedar planted "in the mountain of the height of Israel" of Ezekiel 17. As Ezekiel says of his visionary cedar, we can say of our maple: "in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell."
Beyond the big maple the night pasture slopes up and then slips over the rise to fall quite steeply into the valley of the small stream that is our boundary there. Beyond the stream, Gibbon Mountain, which really was a mountain once, unimaginable millions of years ago when huge dragon flies and early reptiles lived here in what were then dense humid equatorial forests of huge ferns, now rises only a few hundred feet more to serve as the backdrop to our life here.
Below the house and barn, looking toward the valley in front of us, the home field stops at the road which was dirt for the first ten years we lived here. Below the road, our hayfield, bounded on either side by woods, slopes down to the same brook that rises behind the night pasture, the brook that holds this place in a long, affectionate s-shaped curve, crossing from left to right at the bottom of the first meadow and then running out of sight past the second meadow, now largely grown up in alder bushes, then, in a deepening valley, past the distant third meadow we call Babylon, in tribute to an English field name for ‘remote land beyond the river’ and to the nursery rhyme,
How many miles to Babylon?
Four-score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light
You can get there by candle-light.
Babylon is mostly grown up now, but for years after we came it was still open because it is a dome of sand left behind at the passing of the glaciers a mere ten thousand years or so ago.
Curling around the ruins of a huge elm tree which was still flourishing when we came but succumbed to the elm disease a few years later, the stream veers off at the foot of the woods beyond Babylon. We have found in that woods piles of rock which indicate that it too was once cleared for cultivation.
As our stream turns quietly to the south-east, not far from the traces of the cellar hole over which the first house on the property was raised, a double one, for two brothers and their families, it passes beyond our land to wander through the woods until it meets the Millstream some two and a half miles away as the crow flies.
It is the Millstream toward which I look this morning as I do most mornings in the summer. Although we can't see the stream itself because of the intervening woods, we know where it is. On a morning like this, when the sun gleams as if newly burnished in a cloudless sky, we look to see a fog cloud below us, over the Millstream, the sign of fair weather: "Fog in the holler brings horses to the collar," as the old-timers say hereabouts.
We have not always lived here. In fact, we never in our wildest dreams could have predicted that this country we had never visited would come to be our home.
Home is where the heart is
Home. I would be hard put to it to say which one of the many places we lived when I was growing up would qualify for that term. Certainly 440 Salem Drive, outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., was home for ten years, until I went away to college and my father took up a new position in up-state New York. Certainly we had lived in a number of small towns in south-western Pennsylvania for most of my childhood, and I spent part of each summer with a great aunt and uncle in the Lehigh Valley of south-eastern Pennsylvania. Which, of all those places, was "home"?
And then, after the rather rootless existence of college life, another aspect of home came into being with marriage and a family. My wife and I never thought of ourselves as very restless people and yet, in the course of 25 years of marriage we lived in two or three houses in Tidewater, Virginia, five places in Toronto, and now a small farm in southern New Brunswick, with a year out along the way to live in England. Can we call one of all those places home?
I suppose something of all those places goes to make up that elusive idea called home, just as our experience of all the people we have met goes to make up our understanding of that thing called "man." Sometimes a moment, or a room, or a tiny event comes flooding back through the gates of memory and makes you realize that part of your life which you had all but forgotten is in fact still somehow present, still living on, waiting for the right thing to set it free, to make it dance before you as if the years between had never been.
I was too young to have been directly involved in that terrible struggle called the Second World War, but one fragment of home that comes flooding back to me was of my father, just home from work, with his chair pulled up to the big radio in the livingroom (it must have been the winter, because I remember the windows as dark as the darkness gathering in the outside world) and the year may have been 1938 or 39, but I can still feel the strain and worry even though at the time I was only three or four. Home seemed a very peaceful and sheltered place, my parents' presence very comforting, and yet even then I think I sensed how terribly tenuous, how fragile, all that was.
How many things have faded into memory since those times, how many "homes" that one was "never going to forget" have somehow slipped away until they are only shadowy presences at best. "Home is where the heart is", as the the folk-saying has it. Are many of those places, shadowy or vivid, present or past or yet to come, any less "where the heart is" than where we find ourselves right now?
Maybe you remember the old riddle, which appears in the New Testament as well in ancient India, of the eldest of seven brothers who marries a wife but dies without having begotten any children. In the ancient way, the next brother then marries the wife so as to raise up children for his brother, but he too dies without issue. In like fashion, the other brothers in turn are married to the wife and all die. The wife herself at last is gathered to her ancestors. The question is, of course, given a special twist in the Bible, but the sense is the same wherever the story is told: when the brothers and the wife are miraculously restored to life whose wife is she?
Home is as hard to pin down, to extricate from all the experiences one has had in the course of a life, as is the legality of the wife of the seven brothers. And perhaps finally, it is not just home that is made up of many different places, but, even for those of us who have lived in one place all our lives, we are many different people, and what meant home to us as children, may not be the same thing as what means home to us just starting out in the world or when we come to have children or grandchildren of our own.
Most of us have never had to suffer the horrors of war and the dislocation forced upon many by war or natural disaster. We have been very fortunate indeed. And yet, from talking to people who have lived through such experiences, I know that such things only sharpen that sense of home. Home is where the heart is - yes - and who can set up barriers to shut in the heart?
28 August 1985