By Tracy Gulliver, Becketwood Member
When I wrote "Family Spirit" years ago, I couldn't fathom ever selling our house or moving away from my lifelong community. Like my great-great-grandparents, I have become a pioneer, of sorts, resettling less than an hour away from my family home. Todd and I no longer own the property, but part of my soul will always remain there.
Like the elusive deer that wander through these woods and wetlands, the spirit of my family weaves its path through this land. The century-old oak outside our living room window is probably the same canopy grandparents and their children picnicked under on the Fourth of July in 1938, when they were quarantined for scarlet fever.
The tamaracks one hundred feet from our yard are descendants of those my father, aunt and uncles played among. Aging birch trees to the east gave up their bark for children as they launched mini canoes across the scattered pools of water that had slowly returned after the drought of 1930. A half-mile from the farmhouse, my father and his siblings played in these woods. No one thought to come after them. They’d be home by mealtime.
In the field to the west of our house, my cousin and his sons plant rye one year and hay the next. When she was five years old, our daughter Jennifer claimed the field as her future home. One year she stomped through the hay, marking her floor plan and laying out her kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and porch. She hasn’t played in the field for years. Like the ghost farms around us, someday this field will yield its final cash crop: houses planted in neat rows.
The windrow standing between our house and the field has sheltered us from winter’s blustery winds for thirty years. Each spring, for years after we planted the saplings, I’d walk along the staggered rows of Colorado Spruce, measuring their growth against my shin, thigh, waist, then shoulders. They’re over twenty feet high now, their boughs knit together as if standing arm in arm. Alone, any one of them could snap. Like my family, together they brace each other against the strongest winds.
Tan and gray nuthatches gather at the feeders outside our living room window, then pepper the ground below, picking up fallen seeds, chirping between bites. Their feathers reflect the gray sky that melts into gray oak branches and dingy snow. As they scavenge for food during this season of scarcity, they take their turn at the bird buffet line, fly from the old oak tree, perch at the deck’s feeder to feast, then descend to perch on the fieldstones below for dessert.
My father teased me for dragging rocks home that my great-grandfather worked so hard to eliminate from the field. Years later, I learned that my grandmother had used discarded plow-breakers to define her own flowerbeds.
Birds take off from stones to trees, their chatter muffled by the solid white floor insulating the earth and hiding signs of the life that lies dormant below. Clumps of snow lose their footing on the branches, scattering as they hit the ice-crusted ground. Dry crystals skitter across the snow surface.
Oak limbs look as if they’d break under the weight of ice and snow. Winds tear at clusters of brown leaves still stubbornly clinging to that tree long after the maple, birch, and ash have released theirs. Each year the hundred-year-old oak survives. Season after season it gives up its leaves in the spring. Each year it sprouts new buds, provides a home for the birds, food for the squirrels and shade from the summer sun.
A doe stands, paralyzed at the edge of the yard, making herself an extension of the branch on the nearby basswood. I stiffen, not wanting to spook her. One ear flicks, then the other.
A blue jay dives to the feeder, scaring away the small birds. It sweeps its beak from side to side in the trough, scattering seeds to the ground. A cardinal perched in the maple waits for the jay to leave. I tap on the window. The jay flies off. The cardinal comes to eat. The deer bolts at the slight sound, and bounds through the brittle brush. With white tail bobbing, it heads east toward my sister’s house, until it vanishes into the woods. We share a view of the twenty-five-acre back yard of woods and wetlands that was once a section of our great-grandparents’ farm.
Every morning for thirty years I have stood at this window, taking in the beauty of each season, grateful to be able to enjoy it. My family has planted, harvested, lived and died on this land for a century. The names change as one generation gives way to the next, but the spirit of my family remains here, on this land.