Like many of the old houses scattered through the rural countryside, this house is situated in a way that is obviously the fruit of careful consideration. The original structure was timber-framed sometime in the nineteenth century. Placed so that it nestled in a bit of a fold in the hillside, it faces southeast down the valley before it, turning its shoulder to the east and its narrow sides to the northeast and southwest respectively. What a difference between those two sides! To the southwest, where the sun streams in all winter, were windows and a door. Here in the heart of winter was light and life, the image of Easter and the Resurrection.
The opposite side of the house, the side that faces northeast, though, was as if closed against winter and its storms, closed against the assault of all the life-threatening forces of the cold and of the dark, those accompaniments of Good Friday and the tomb.
As the years passed that original structure grew and changed, its life the reflection of the life of the family that grew up within it, generation after generation. What had been a single-storey cabin shed its roof and developed a new one, high enough now to allow two bedrooms and a hallway, with a proper set of stairs leading upwards. Then, during the early years of this century, the house sprouted a new wing, built toward the hill behind, with dining room and kitchen downstairs and a large bedroom upstairs with two tiny bedrooms behind it for the youngest children.
Through the changes as they came, there remained the orientation toward the light. With the new wing, the axis of the house changed. Now, the southwest became the long side. More windows and another door on the first floor and dormer windows on the second floor welcomed even more of winter’s precious sunlight in.
What seems so solid and enduring, even in a homestead, is in fact constantly coming into, and passing out of, being. What once were forests become fields, and then pass again, within a blink of cosmic time, into forests again. In the thick woods at the far end of this property we come upon piles of rocks, mute testimony to those who once cleared that land for fields.
In the space of a few generations, buildings rise and change, and wander about from place to place. What once was the summer kitchen, a separate building out behind the house, at some point moved eastward to become our woodshed, another baffle to foil the winter storms both by its contents and by its position. Between the kitchen and the woodshed, a breezeway grew. By the time we came, the breezeway was slowly returning to the earth upon which it rested, and we replaced it with a larger breezeway built up on posts.
Through all the changes it was as if winter and its storms were being shut away more and more firmly from the life of those who live here. If we wish to get to that side of the house, we must either go past the breezeway and woodshed and around or go past the front of the house and around. We appear once in the fall to put the banking in place and once in the spring to take it away. It is a dark corner with only early morning sun, and that only in the summer. It is damp and dreary, rocky and inhospitable, the domestic image of that wilderness into which the scapegoat was driven in the Old Testament.
And yet, what does this little desert bring forth but a sign, a Tree of Heaven, growing in the darkest corner of the waste. Not a lovely tree, the Tree of Heaven is named for its ability to grow rapidly and very tall. Yet even this tree which will grow in urban wastelands – where nothing else will grow – reminds us, if we will have it so, of the springing of the spirit and the grace of God which can bring life even in the desert where it seems none can dwell.
It is good that it is there. On a grey morning of drizzling rain, I happened to look out the small kitchen window that faces that way and saw its young leaves a pale chartreuse on the inelegant branches. If they did not work any cold-remedy TV commercial transformation (why should they?) they at least testified to possibilities beyond our seeing, be the prospect never so bleak and barren.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.