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When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd...

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…“   My apologies…I’m no Walt Whitman. He was writing about the death of Abraham Lincoln almost 150 years ago. One hundred fifty years is a long time but some of those lilacs or roses or daffodils are still out there long after the dooryard fell into decay. The folks who lived behind the door and planted the roses were laid to rest many years ago…generations ago. They were pioneers. They moved into a new land and tried to put down roots. Some survived and prospered…or at least made a go of it. Others tried and failed.

If you are a rambler out in the world you sometimes come across what remains of an old homestead. Maybe there will be a stone foundation. Maybe there will only be telltale corner stone blocks. The wood is gone. It might have fallen into decay or carried away by fire or storms or by people who needed an extra couple of of boards because that new baby or grandma needed a room.  Maybe there is a chimney. Often the garden remains.



I am fascinated by these old places. I once stumbled upon a relic of an old homestead totally overgrown in the Missouri woods.  What caught my eye was the large patch of daffodils blooming out where they don’t belong.  On further inspection there was an ancient scrubby lilac budding out nearby. The daffodils had gone back to nature and spread well beyond their original allotted space. The old Lilac was struggling in the shade but this was spring and it was doing its best. Most of it was dead but it had good roots. It was obediently standing guard where it was planted.  There was a rough stone foundation nearby.  A few yards away there was a small pile of logs and boards and rusted parts of a wagon wheel. The wagon was inside the barn when it collapsed. I always wonder what the story was. Maybe it’s a simple tale of boom and bust. People pick up and move to better places. But why leave the wagon in the barn?  Maybe it was disease…like the Spanish Flu or cholera or something else. I wonder how long ago the place was deserted. The nails were square…hand made. That puts it back a long way.  Maybe someone lived here during the Civil War era. Maybe he didn’t come home and she moved away. It is an unknown story.



I’ve hiked a few trails in the Missouri Ozarks and come across other lone chimneys standing out in the forest. Sometimes there are rose bushes overgrown into large thickets nearby. I wonder about the farm wife who took the trouble to plant the roses. Did she bring them with her? My mom would have done that. Whenever she moved she would take cuttings and have the same roses at her new place. It brought a sense of continuity.  Some of those old fireplaces are roughly made but others are made of cut stone and are nicely constructed. Somewhere there was a stone cutter and a stone mason close by.






In Big Bend National Park there is a ruined house sitting in a slope over the Rio Grande River. This was the home of a cotton farmer who chopped out a living in the heat and sand, blessed by the river water. This family had one of the southern-most homes in the country. Mexico literally loomed over them from the cliffs across the river.  They made a living there for a while but eventually they moved away. lt was a long way to market.  Only the ruined walls and some broken glass shards remain.




 I’ve seen some others out here in the desert where I live now. Some of these are old tumble down adobe structures. Here they are not overgrown…they just melt away. There are ruins of buildings made of stone. I’m not talking about the Pueblo ruins that are scattered across the southwest. They have their own stories and mysteries. Sometimes you will find something, maybe an old shepherd’s shelter or an abandoned farmstead. I recall seeing stagecoach stations sitting roofless and with gaping windows and doors. Somebody made a life out of those places.




Sometimes you might find something you don’t understand.  Some of those people of past generations left a message behind for someone to find. Maybe we can figure it out, like this one: a religious sign left by a Spanish shepherd.




The Indian stone markings are harder to fathom. The ancient Pueblo people kept Macaws that they obtained through trade with people in Mexico. Sometimes you will see an engraved image of an odd looking bird. Other images are not so easily identifiable.




On my most recent ramble, out among the volcanoes just west of Albuquerque, I came across an unusual man-made assembly of stones. These were purposefully collected and laid out in a certain way. It looked like a grave, except it was too small, only about thirty inches long. Maybe it was a grave for a small child or infant. I didn’t disturb it – I didn’t want to know if that was what it was. But it seemed more like a marker for something else: An attempt to mark the spot for some reason. This place is so remote that people don’t often come this way and I was way off the usual trail. This is part of Petroglyph National Monument, a place where local Indians left hundreds of engraved drawings on the volcanic blocks of basalt. There is a long tradition of leaving messages at this place. The stone marker was not recently made; these stones have been here for a long while, maybe centuries. I took a couple pictures and sent them to the local National Park office that has jurisdiction over the volcanoes. They responded that they were unaware of it or what it could be and would have a resource person go out and investigate. I haven’t heard back. I’m still wondering and maybe they won’t have an answer. I’m really hoping it’s not a child’s grave.

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East of the Sun and West of the Moon

As a small child, I lived in a poky cottage opposite a tall red brick wall which formed the curtilage of Georgian rectory, a classical house of pale stone, abandoned and fallen into ruin. The bricks glowed fire-red at sunset and, though pitted here and there, had a sheen you never see in modern buildings. Years of unlit hearths had saplings sprouting from the chimney-pots, as though from the noses of trolls in Norwegian fairy tales. Tattered rooks swooped about them, their cawing a coarse counterpoint to the lazy cooing of pigeons from the nearby woods.

The back and front yards, I was sure, were made of peanut brittle; some kind of pebble-embedded concrete. The back garden was narrow, but long and open to the sky. It was raised above most of the village and looked out upon blue slate, pantile and thatched roofs, all higgledy-piggledy, beyond a walnut orchard. “Your wife, your dog and your walnut tree, the more you beat them the better they be,”maintained the owner, whose name I forget. He looked as though he would not have spared the rod on vociferous children. He wore a brown overall, the same colour as the paper bags shops used, and a battered felt hat, not unlike a Quaker's. I've written elsewhere how WWI and WWII set us back decades and the tenor of life in the country still belonged in the Edwardian era, albeit the effects of the Great Exhibition of 1951 were slowly ushering in a new style of living. Children were seen and not heard in company, unless addressed. But, oh, how much you learned from listening and taking stock! Books and the radio were our main indoor entertainment and we didn't think  ourselves deprived. More to the point, we still don't.

The cottage was one in a row of four which flanked a stony hill up to the church where children preferred not to linger but delighted in spinning scary yarns about the gravestones and the haunted vicarage. These were fuelled by the Brothers Grimm and Laboulaye's Fairy Tales. The churchyard path was a short cut to a back lane where the farm was situated which delivered our milk. They ladled it into our cans at the gate from a galvanized churn. On one occasion, when the delivery was late, I went with my Dad to the farm and on the way back through the churchyard meadow, he much impressed me by swinging the can in a circle over his head without spilling any milk. He worked in civil engineering and explained that this was something called centrifugal force. I had no idea what it meant. It seemed like a miracle. So, the far-fetched was a part of who we were.


One day, he and I stood on the back doorstep. You could see several miles distance, the horizon clearly showing a buff-gold peak. We lived near the Swithland slate quarries and not far from the Mountsorrel sand and gravel pits. My Dad pointed to the distance: “You see the mountain over there? You were born on the other side of that.” I had visions of being forsaken  naked on a heap of abrasive scree by angels instead of under a gooseberry bush, but it seemed evidence of a realm of wonder out there, where I might one day belong. The mountain is long gone now, dispersed in the building of motorways which radiate like wheel-spokes from the heart of the Midlands.

The vegetable patch at the far end of our garden seemed nothing but a white butterfly nursery and was approached by a mossy path, on one side apple, pear and damson trees, on the other, a clump of soft fruit bushes. I remember being fascinated by the veined peridot of whiskery gooseberries against the light, the redcurrants like bubbles of ruby and blackcurrants like Pooh Bear's eyes. I remember the drone of wasps sinking mandibles into the overripe plums and the thrushes dizzy with fermenting juice in the autumn. The birds loved our yew berries, too, which made the slate steps into the lane purple-stained and slippery with their viscous golden seeds popping from the red flesh like pimento-stuffed olives. The intricate, somehow prehistoric, design of a bright green grasshopper was fascinating when it landed on your arm. One of the earliest poems I learned to chant was by Ada Skinner from one of her books of Children's Verse, now revived by the Baldwin Project:


Grasshopper Green is a comical chap;


He lives on the best of fare.


Bright little trousers, jacket and cap,


These are his summer wear.


Out in the meadow he loves to go,


Playing away in the sun;


Its hopperty, skipperty, high and low—


Summer's the time for fun.



When I knee-high to aforesaid grasshopper, Dad would read from Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. Despite the illustrations being mostly only pen and ink, they were evocative of an underwater world and of the strange characteristic striated rock of the North Devon coast from where the author and many of our ancestors hailed.

My world was in miniature, a lot more so than a child's world today. But my destiny beckoned and I never doubted that there was a road out to the wide blue yonder. The children's literature of the day inspired an expectation of it. After all, a repeated phrase (usually referring to a man, it is true) was 'and set out to seek his fortune'. Even then, I grasped that fortune did not necessarily equate with money. There was a unique way of being to be discovered that would enlarge each of us and enrich the world. 

Laboulaye's Fairy Tales
(Of All Nations) whose illustrator was Arthur A Dixon, was spell-binding. If any should doubt that the timeless narrative tale is a lost art, take a look between these pages if you get a chance. Among those I liked best was The Twelve Months. It was the story of two sisters, Katinka and Dobrunka. Katinka determined upon a life of luxury and made demands upon her longsuffering sister to obtain from the twelve months, who manifest in human form, all her whims and wants. In the end, the hardworking Dobrunka gained happiness at the expense of her lazy sibling. It was a Russian tale. There was no notion of 'politically correct' in those days. Most stories were what we would now regard as propagandist, though it was sound enough everyday morality.


Other favourites were Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, The Magic Tinder Box, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. But, perhaps, the best-loved was Hans Andersen's The Ugly Duckling and I would get my Dad to read it over and over again. It made me cry and filled me with hope all at the same time. Justice was served and there was evidence of order and balance in the cosmos.


These books had the most wonderfully atmospheric drawings and I particularly loved the mythical world translated by the Art Nouveau era. I might mention Arthur Ransome, Kate Greenaway and Mabel Lucie Attwell as original illustrators, but my supreme favourite has to be the Danish artist, Kay Nielsen, whose images reign on this page. His artwork appeared in books of collected fables from a diverse range of cultures. One such is the volume of Norwegian folk tales entitled East of the Sun and West of the Moon, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1914 and revived in 1976. Nielsen's oeuvre is full of strange attenuated lines consistent with tall stories, and beguiling curlicues. The grotesque becomes pantomime and the masque a venue for hinting at clandestine truth. His fabulous dreamscape world describes what we cannot articulate in words and resonates deep in the psyche. It is an enchanted dominion where Good and Evil draw swords. It is tinctured with pain and resolution, warning and bliss, and fosters the Hope that is a prelude to renaissance.


Maybe, I have Viking ancestors. My Dad always said so. And the chances in these Isles are somewhat above odds on!

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