A New England Portrait

SET among wooded hills and slowflowing streams, some fifty miles back from the coast, is an old New England farm. One hundred and twenty acres are called for in its deeds, sixty of which are magnificent woodland. Long ago, generations of sons and daughters were born and reared upon this homestead, but the region is thinly populated now. Where, forty years ago, its little district schoolhouses were always filled to capacity, now less than a dozen children are to be found in them. Heavy teams and stout farm-horses furnish the means of travel. At very long intervals, a modest car may be owned by some ambitious individual; and occasionally a big touring car from the coast sweeps over the long hills, waking their echoes with its siren wail as it speeds away to the strange world from which it came. But virtually it is still a land of the horse and wagon.

But the fate which has overtaken so many New England farms has not befallen this one — at least, not wholly. It is not deserted. One member of its family still remains — a woman who lives alone upon it. Its old buildings are snug and up-standing. The loweaved dwelling house is kept painted and repaired. Tall hollyhocks and cinnamon roses bloom beside the old stone doorstep. Of the two barns, one is gray and weather-worn by the storms of more than a hundred years, but is still sound and in use; the other, a later structure connected with the house, is snug and comfortable for the creatures which it houses. These are a strong good-looking horse, which the woman bought as a three-year-old and trained and steadied with her own hands, three cows, pigs, and a hundred hens.

Indoors, there is the plain simplicity of the old-fashioned country home — the braided rugs, the soft-cushioned chairs, the old gothic-faced clock which has been running more than sixty-five years, the Franklin fireplace, flanked by its great box of old-growth birch and rock-maple — burned in lavish and unmeasured abundance; for there are fifteen cords of it piled in the woodshed and many more on the owner’s land.

It was a mellow autumn morning when I first saw this spot. The scent of sage and mint and rose-red apples spiced the air. Looking away over steadily sloping fields and pastures, across miles of the wooded river-valley to the far hills beyond, it was a scene of exceeding beauty. Every shade of purple and mauve, of green and dunrose and blue, lay upon it, with here and there glimpses of the little river, moving its amber waters unhurried toward the sea. Nearer showed rich green squares of late clover, loaded orchards, and the rusty gold of cornfields; and marking boundaries still, in places, the gray old stone-walls of early New England.

And over all hung the tinted softness of September. I could but think of the old Scotch peasant, whom a traveler had noticed in a bit of the Highlands, standing humbly with bared head, as if in an attitude of devotion. Approaching him at last, the stranger said, ‘I did not know, Sandy, but you were at your prayers?’ ‘No,’ answered the old man, ‘ I will tell you — for forty years I have come here every morning to take off my bonnet to the beauty of the world.’

Now, this woman has lived alone in her house for ten years. Her nearest neighbor is not within call. During these years she has carried on her farm solely herself, literally by her own personal labor and supervision — in fact, practically, much longer, having, for one item alone, done all the machinework of summer-time and harvest, for twenty-four years, barring one year when she was ill.

For example, in 1916 she raised fifteen tons of hay, all of which she herself mowed and raked by machine, or by hand if the ground was rough. She pitched on all of these loads in the field, and did all the stowing in the barn. The same year she raised seventy-five bushels of oats (four tons of straw). She mowed, raked, and turned all of this grain, ready to haul in, and put in two loads of it alone. She hired a man and a team to put in the rest. She ploughed and harrowed the land and sowed the oats herself in the spring. The year before, she raised seventy-five bushels of potatoes, all of which she dug by hand, picked up, and carried into her cellar alone. Sometimes, if the weather is good and it is desirable for the crops to go in rapidly, she hires a few days’ help in the spring planting. But, aside from this, she does it herself. In midsummer, the haying season, her general rule is to hire a man for three or four continuous weeks. Also when land for crops is ploughed—‘broken up’ — for the first time, as well as when she is clearing up a bit of new land, with rocks and stumps to be drilled and blasted. This comprises practically all the hired labor employed on the farm proper during the year.

The garden, or where the smaller crops — vegetables, berries, and ‘summer green stuff’ — are raised, she plants and harvests with special care. Nobody ever touches this but herself. In 1916, the yield from it was over forty-two bushels, consisting of peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, turnips, cabbage, cauliflower, parsnips, carrots, sweet corn, cultivated blackberries, besides a great heap of squash, pumpkin, and citron. These, with fortyseven bushels of potatoes, sixty bushels of apples, seventy-five bushels of oats, and fifteen tons of hay, comprised her crops for that year. She also made forty gallons of cider for vinegar. The apple crop some years is over three hundred bushels. Keeping her year’s supply of these things, she sells the rest, her nearest market being seventeen miles away.

At first thought, one might very naturally suppose that, with all this physical activity and work, and the great amount of time required for it, occupations related to the mental side of life would be a good deal obscured and subordinated. But this is not the case. Being a graduate of a good normal school, she teaches for more than half of every year in the schools of her town. These terms, which come in the autumn, early winter, and early spring, leave about the right part of the year — spring proper and summer — for her farm-work. If the schools open in midSeptember, as they often do, the remainder of the harvesting is sometimes a bit of a problem. But it gets done — usually without help, at most, with but little — on Saturdays, holidays, nights and mornings. When the potato and apple crops are in, however, the rest is an easy matter.

In 1916, she taught thirty weeks, eighteen of them with but one week’s vacation. She rose at half-past four in the morning, milked three cows, fed and watered them, fed and cared for her horse and the other stock, got her breakfast, put up her dinner and that of the horse, ‘harnessed up,’and drove five miles to her school. She performed the same tasks at night after getting home, and much else — including housework and cooking. She does this in all weathers, allowing a good hour for the trip; for the roads are rough and rocky, and her horse, though a good roader as farm-horses go, weighs eleven hundred, and is a characteristic farm-horse. She has taught more than twenty years.

In addition to this, she has been superintendent of the schools in her town for fourteen years, which calls for extra driving to visit them, and considerable time to look after them in various ways. She has also been superintendent of Sunday-schools, in all, eighteen years.

One of the vital and most active interests of her life has always been to further the christianizing of her fellow men in all possible and practical ways. Because of this, and because of being in a remote country region, where Sunday services of any sort would often have to be wholly dispensed with if dependent on a regular minister, she has come to be looked to and depended upon, in matters of this sort, and not infrequently, to render the last services for the dead. Earnest and sincere, she has performed these offices with the simplicity and readiness characterizing all her works — in the spirit to be expected from one whose life has taken all its simple sane philosophy from immediate essential conditions: if there was land, it was to be tilled; if there were men, their souls must be saved. It has been with her an intense personal application of the ancient counsel, ‘ Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might: for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.’

While this woman is very large and very strong, she is not always immune to the ills of the flesh. Most of them she utterly ignores; but sometimes a vital ailment has laid an importunate hand upon her, turning her unwilling steps aside from the big business of daily life, to seek the physician, and even the city hospital forty miles away.

One further item of her activities must not be overlooked. With two or three months of free time in winter, and with all her fine timber-land, and small lumbering operations the rule round about her, she does her own bit of lumbering each year. She hires a chopper or two and does the hauling herself. In 1916 (I have chosen this year merely as a sample year, throughout) she hauled over one hundred cords to the landing, unloading and piling it herself. On the trips home at night, she brings a load of firewood, hauling her year’s supply at this time.

It might not be an uncommon error to suppose that a life placed in such a setting is necessarily restricted — that there are few outlets leading to larger understandings, to higher thoughts and emotions, and the deeper happiness. But the possibilities in these things must always lie largely within the individual personality. Life is significant and happy much in proportion as it is interesting; and it is interesting exactly in proportion to personal capacity for laying hold upon it — to the finer con sciousness of its import and appeal. All this is eminently true and distinctive of this case. Though her feet follow the paths of plain duty and work, and her tasks are often those of homely necessity, yet these things do not constitute the boundaries of her vision or circumscribe her personality. Her spirit answers to the call of beauty in that enchanted land — the changing glory of the purple hills, the blazoned splendors of her autumn wood, the spring’s tender blooming in her fruitful fields. She meets the world face to face, where we know it not, — at the break of day,—

When fair above the seaward hill afar,
Flames the lone splendor of the morning star, —

in the peace and calm of wide fields when day is done, silvered under the moon, or wrapped in the velvet darkness of a starless night.

What do we know of that mystic hour when the heart is uplifted on ‘the wings of the morning’; renewed in the virgin glory of summer dawns? The singer of old had known its mystery, when he caught it up out of human experience into that immortal phrase, whose subtle poetry has lingered in the heart of the world three thousand years, and will linger for thousands more. There are sounds which we do not know, which hold the spirit of the seasons incarnate — of spring returned, when, with the falling night, comes the first ‘liquid-sweet’ chorus from the lowland marsh, or the lonely cadence of the whip-poor-will’s voice. To those who hear and understand, who listen with the heart, there is the word of inner meaning in all these things, and the heart’s response, of life, contentment, and joy renewed.

And this being the recital of an oldfashioned tale, there follows the right to draw the old-fashioned moral. But the tale is so plain, so strong in its suggestion, that the lesson need hardly be written. To one and all is brought so clear and personal a comprehension of this woman’s economic value to her country, that he who runs may read.

And as we ponder — what of ourselves? Are we still troubled with much serving of the old gods — self, home, municipality, with its recurrent problems of welfare, school, church, enterprise, and prospects? Have we made place for the new gods, the strange tutelaries of an unhappy era?

We buy, we consider and devise, but what among the essentials of daily life do we bring forth at first hand from basic sources? In the world’s great hour of elemental needs, what is our value? Judged by the new gods, which yet are old, are we or are we not, still ‘the lilies of the field’?