Winter in Bucks County

Author, and disciple of Henry Thoreau, WALTER TELLER has done most of his writing about the sea, his bestknown book being THE VOYAGES OF JOSHUA SLOCUM. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the setting for his new volume, published by Atheneum, AREA CODE 215: A PRIVATE LINE IN BUCKS COUNTY,from which, these engaging passages have been drawn.

IF A man cannot tell where he is going, he may be able to say where he has been. He can live in the desert and say to himself, I ought to go live by the shore. He thinks about that a while; then he says, well, maybe it’s all right where I am. And so he stays — twenty or thirty years, or perhaps the rest of his life.

Life is chancy; it hangs by threads. Once I thought I might make my home in Calcutta. I settled for Lahaska, Bucks County, instead. Is it simply an accident that I dwell here? Everyone wants to find the good place. In spite of the map of the world in my head, I know the good place can be where I am as well as anywhere else.

Established in 1683 by William Penn, the founder and the proprietor, Bucks County once included most of the eastern third of Pennsylvania. Seventy years later, an act of the Provincial Assembly cut it down to its present size: a tract approximately forty miles long by fifteen wide, lying in a bend of the Delaware River and defining the southeast corner of the state. The county was named after Buckinghamshire, England.

Topographically speaking, lower Bucks belongs to the coastal plain. It is level. Much of the upper county is rocky and steep. Rolling hills and pleasant valleys distinguish the central portion.

Of land buyers, speculators, and homesteaders, William Penn demanded that “in clearing the ground, care be taken to leave one acre of trees for every five cleared.” That proviso, as well as others pertaining to Indian customs and laws, was not always held binding by subsequent assigns. Nevertheless, the founder’s injunction concerning the trees did not go entirely unheeded. Thanks to his vision, we later arrivals enjoy our acres of trees. Today we reckon an acre of woodland remains to every ten pastured and plowed.

First seriously colonized by English Quakers, members of the Society of Friends, Buckingham township still knows families working the lands the proprietor deeded their fathers. The meetinghouse on the hill is two hundred years old. Built of earth-colored local stone, trimmed in white, and superbly proportioned — the work of Mathias Hutchinson, mason, and Edward Good, carpenter — it is indeed the real Colonial thing. Those men deserve our remembrance and thanks. Their steepleless house continues to grace the township, and the influence of the meeting remains, not only here but in many parts of the county.

The township is big, but contains no big town or factory or country club and nothing famous, though it was at the General Greene Inn, in 1776, that General Nathanael Greene wrote the order to round up Durham boats for a Delaware River crossing. We are zoned, but not well, nor wisely for future free patterns of living. No hunting is allowed here without written permission of the landowner (Local Ordinance No. 16). Nightclubs and bars, yes; and, thankfully, draft beer. We have our Township Civic Association, annual dues, five dollars. Where the dump is to be located for the next twenty years has not been decided.

Our village lacks common, park, town forest, town pasture, fountain, and lake. But then, most villages do — more’s the pity. So far no drugstore has set up shop here, no branch bank. What we have is the freedom of the highway. Doylestown is seven miles to the west. Five miles to eastward lie New Hope and Lambertville, twin cities astride the Delaware.

As for myself, some years ago I came into the area young with my young wife; drifted in, you might say, out of curiosity and because I was seeking something I had not yet found. We came and did not ask if or how long we might stay. Looking around us, Jane and I saw beautiful indigenous architecture, native stone farmhouses, red barns, covered bridges, dirt roads, plenty of elbowroom, and low taxes — all in all a clay we thought we could rethumb into a way of life we believed we wanted. So we dug in, feathered a nest, produced young, and, as the seasons passed, raised them. Our four sons we named Raphael, Joseph, David, Walter. Now Rafe and Joe have left for other areas. Dave and Walt have gone off to college and to school. Traveling the middle years, Jane and I continue on courses charted when we were young.

Some local historians say Lahaska means “place of the treaty” (more literally, “of the big writing”), a pronouncement which displeases rival sages who are certain the word means “trailing arbutus.” When, in 1874, Lahaska became a postal address, it comprised, in addition to fifteen houses clustered around the intersections, a store, hotel, coach factory, and scythe and ax works. Of the two lastnamed enterprises I have found no trace, not so much as a worm-eaten wheel spoke, a moldering ax head, or rusted blade. While perhaps a greater number of persons live here now than ever before, there are those who find the village becomes increasingly lonesome. “People used to stay home more,” Robert Johnson, clerk of the general store, explained, “sort of stick together more and helpeach other out, but now it’s everybody off for himself in his car. They come in here and almost knock you down to get a loaf of bread and run right out to the car again. To hook up a horse and go to Doylestown or New Hope or one of those places used to take half a day. It was quite an undertaking. Now they ride down in six or seven minutes and don’t think nothing of it. When people came here they generally stayed and chewed the rag a while.” Robert Johnson stepped from behind the counter. “Say,” he said, his face brightening, “about that dog those Russians sent up — would you say that’s the highest that anyone’s ever been?”

WINTERS are different from what they used to be. Whether they bring more or less snow than in former times I leave to the meteorologists. What they do bring, however, is a new anxiety, and also a new kind of helplessness.

Riding one of the back roads to New Hope, I came to a school bus stalled in snow. It was mired athwart the road, with only its rear wheels still on the snow-covered school-grounds driveway. The time, early evening. Gathered around the yellow monster stood a dozen or more adolescent boys — nicely dressed, quiet, waiting, and helpless — and a couple of helpless male teachers. Nice school, probably all nice boys, and no doubt all on their way to some event of cultural refinement, such as a concert played on recorders and ancient strings.

Very politely it was explained to me that it might be fifteen minutes or so till the tow truck could come, that perhaps I should backtrack a couple of miles and pick up another road. And yet there was nothing in the situation that the manpower present could not have solved. No one, however, shoveled; no one pushed; they had been told to wait for the tow truck. So this flock of discreet and polite young men, shepherded by soft-spoken teachers, huddled in helplessness. There was plenty of strength and initiative, but they lay in somebody else’s tow truck, and that was fifteen minutes away. I backed up, turned around, ran down a five-mile detour, and could feel the adrenaline pumping.

No, the difference is not in the snowfall but in the way one feels about it. Nothing in winter could be more natural. Snowstorms have always bound people in, separated them from one another, and for the time being cut them off from the towns. Sometimes, in the past, it has been all a man could do to make his way to the barn and back. However, snow was expected, taken for granted, was part of the scheme of things, and prepared for. A snowstorm might cut you off from your everyday world, but it did not deprive you of your accustomed outlook.

But who can be philosophical when power fails? Or when roads drift shut? We inhabitants have staked our lives on the electric company’s lines and on the department of highways. Not many now have a woodshed with wood, a bin filled with coal, or oil for the lamps. Very few boast a horse. As for automobiles, they don’t have the clearance the higher-wheeled jobs of thirty or more years ago had. The snow is the same, but the people are not, and we become afraid of the snow. To make a clearing is brutal, destructive work. As I shovel, I sometimes think of Wilson Bentley. He did not fight the snow. Instead, he loved it truly.

Wilson Alwyn Bentley — the “snowflake man,” he was called — was born February 9, 1865, on the family farm at Jericho, Vermont, not far from Burlington. There he grew to manhood, in time accomplished his desire, and when his work was done, died.

His father was a farmer, his mother a schoolteacher. Wilson obtained his formal education at the Jericho public school. After completing that course, he continued to study at home, encouraged and helped by his mother. It was she who, with a small, inexpensive microscope, showed him what snowflakes looked like. Enchanted by what he saw through the eye of the lens, the boy began to draw pen-and-ink sketches, but could not work fast enough; snowflakes are fleeting. At the mother’s request, the father bought Wilson a camera, and to that simple contrivance, for cameras were then in their early stages, young Bentley added his own device for making enlargements. In later years he tried many a so-called improvement, but always went back to his homemade contraption. What he really could find no substitute for was skill and patience and judgment.

To make ends meet, Wilson Bentley worked on his father’s farm, and one year he taught. By slow degrees his photographs of snow crystals, frost on windowpanes, and dew began to appear in newspapers and magazines. A number were published in the Monthly Weather of the United States Department of Agriculture. Scientists and artists came to know of the work produced in the Jericho farmhouse. Through the long Vermont winters, after each snowstorm, Bentley would search for new crystals. As fast as he found them, he photographed, and added the prints to his growing collection. Until February, 1928, the largest number of prizes brought him by any one storm had been fifty-three. That year, however, a snowfall came which brought him one hundred new crystal formations. “A birthday gift from kind winter,” he called them, for the snow began on his birthday. In a lifetime committed to snow he showed that nearly all snowflakes are of hexagonal shape and that no two are alike.

Poor and a solitary — Bentley never married — he lived his last twenty years alone on the farm, taking his pictures and dreaming that someday they might be made into a book. This came to pass. With a subsidy from the American Meteorological Society, Snow Crystals by W. A. Bentley was published in 1931. The book in his hands, he saw that his fifty-year task was finished. A few days after Snow Crystals appeared, Wilson Bentley died.

IN FEBRUARY comes Groundhog Day, the same, of course, being Candlemas. In Scotland it is one of the quarter days — that is, one of the days on which the quarterly rent falls due. In New England it is time to replenish the family supply of candles. In Lahaska, if you have figured right, you have by now consumed half your meat and hay. And here, as in many another part of the world, this is the day when the groundhog, the woodchuck, is looked for. So you try to remember that if the sun shines, the groundhog, seeing his shadow, will return to his berth below to sleep through another six weeks of cold weather. On the other hand, should the day be sunless, then winter is virtually over.

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will take another plight.
But if it shall be cloudy with rain,
Winter will not return again.

Well, a brighter February 2, or a colder one, would be hard to imagine. Wind-packed and frozen snow stoppered all exits. I do not have figures, but despite depredations by automobiles and dogs, the local groundhog population is not inconsiderable. Several are joint tenants on the home tract, and yet nowhere on this particular Groundhog Day did I discern one of these animal heroes of folklore on the qui vive for shadows. Alas, it was every man his own groundhog; certainly I saw a shadow.

Folklore is one thing, natural history another. No well-adjusted woodchuck leaves its underground home until invited to do so by signs of spring, specifically a renewal of grass, for the groundhog is vegetarian. Indeed, one of the signs is the creature’s emergence. But wait, for spring is not yet.

Picture the groundhog now in winter encampment. Dug into hillside or excavated into the plain, its quarters consist of a tunnel which for three or four feet inclines steeply down, then levels off for twenty or thirty feet and terminates in a round room. In this space the female gives birth, usually four or five to a litter, and to that same space, when the season comes, old and young will retire. It is a deep sleep room and not a storeroom. Nothing is stored, for nothing is wanted. Groundhogs simply bank their fires and, fueled by the fat on their bones, hibernate through winter.

Within twenty-four hours after I saw my shadow, snow began falling. When night came, a northeast wind rattled hard, grainy snow against windows. I supposed that not far from where I enjoyed my home a couple of groundhogs lay snugly asleep, nesting in dried grass, each rolled up and comfortably close to the other.

Some years ago a certain Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, Connecticut, told John James Audubon and John Bachmann that he took a large woodchuck into his ménage, which at the time consisted of, besides himself, a cook, a dog, and a cat. At first the woodchuck was “wild, cross and mischievous,” but after several months it learned to lie down with the dog before an open fire and to accept food from the cook. When cold weather came, Daniel Wadsworth filled a box with hay and set it in a corner of the kitchen. Presently the groundhog climbed in, made a bed, lay down, and closed its eyes. Six weeks went by. Then, with curiosity, Daniel Wadsworth picked up the woodchuck, carried it into the living room, and set it down in front of the fire. The woodchuck, he said, “was inanimate and as round as a ball, its nose being buried as it were in the lower part of its abdomen, and covered by its tail — it was rolled over the carpet many times, but without effecting any apparent change in its lethargic condition.” Placing the woodchuck close to the fire, Daniel Wadsworth ordered the dog to lie down beside it. “In about half an hour,” he reported, “my pet slowly unrolled itself, raised its nose from the carpet, looked around for a few minutes, and then slowly crawled away from the dog, moving about the room as if in search of its own bed!” Whereupon Daniel Wadsworth carried it back to the box in the kitchen, and there “it went to sleep as soundly as ever, until spring.” Concerning which incident Audubon and Bachmann write: “Thus this and several other species . . . may be said to have no winter in their years.”

FIRE. There are reasons why a boy wants to grow up to be a fireman. One is that fighting fires is manly work. Any adventurous boy can see that, and also that much of what men call work has no real use in the world, or meaning, and, most disappointing of all, is not manly. Ingenuity is what the civilization machine needs and values. But the need of a man is not to surrender, not to give up his personal strength, initiative, manhood, and power to love and be loved. To pit your own skill and will against wild and mysterious forces, to do acts of daring — rescue women and children first, and the cat, smash down doors, climb ladders, send forth godlike streams of water — at such times you do not ask what you are living for.

It was four thirty in the morning when the siren began to warble. Instantly, David, who happened to be at home—his room is above Jane’s and mine — left his bed, hit the floor in a kind of crash landing, 170 pounds of him and the pine boards 100 years old. We heard him claw his way into his clothes, barrel down two flights of stairs, and out. As the entry door settled against its jamb, this old dwelling shuddered from jack post to ridgepole. Dave was on his way to the firehouse.

Two below when the firemen answered the call at Centre Bridge, where the fire occurred, three miles upriver from New Hope. The volunteers, using chain saws, cut the ice in the frozen canal. Pumpers then sent the water cascading. But in spite of all efforts, the Centre Bridge Inn, opposite Al’s Cre-Me Freeze, burned in a blaze you could see to the other end of the sky. Even its stone walls went down. At the breakfast hour our man came home, very red in the face and ears, cold and wet, shivering, smiling and happy. He said that at dawn the Second Alarmers from Willow Grove, twenty-five miles away, had appeared with what looked like a hundred gallons of coffee. Also, that if they had brought hot dogs, the firemen could have enjoyed a cookout, for the thousands of gallons of water turned to ice before reaching the fire. So, while it had been a time of misfortune, possibly ruinous loss for some, others had found it a vivid night, the kind that rouses the blood.

Signs of spring coming from behind: a deep yellow nimbus around the willows, a lavender radiation from locust trees. Birds singing, starlings trying to. Pussy-willow catkins swelling. Squashy ground under stepping-stones; water squirting from between them and into your shoes. Snow settling, corn stubble reappearing. A funnylooking little phallic thing pushing through on the southern side of the house and in the lee of the steps.

Also, the hills of bulldozed snow by the lone gas pump at the post office sank down to where George Davis’ wallet lay. While plowing snow two weeks before, George had, unaware, let it slip from his pocket. And there it had lain, deep-frozen and just off the edge of York Road; his fire chief’s cards, social security number, driver’s license, owner’s registration, not to mention some foldingmoney, went missing during a hard frozen stretch. But now, in the thaw, all is restored again, dry and in good condition. As for the eighteen dollars also thought lost, it was found with the rest, as pretty and green as a package of Birds Eye spinach.