When I drive back and forth to my parent’s house in North East, I pass an old homestead on the ridge. Now, all that remains are old trees, roughly in the shape of a square. When I was growing up there, a house and barn were part of the footprint. Now the trees stand stoically, alone, no longer providing shelter for the house from wind and sun. The house and barn were burned down, no longer valued or needed. The trees seem to be waiting, or maybe just biding their time, perhaps hoping that they might someday again have a home to watch over.
I know that trees don’t think about this. But I do. The remnants of times before are clearly found in the landscape once one knows how to see them. I just read an article in the newspaper about the trolley that used to run from Warren to Jamestown. I have often hiked around and investigated the old trolley bed, trying to puzzle out exactly how the remaining pieces connected and looking at the trees as they overtake the embankment. Once transporting people, the old trolley bed now serves as a relative highway for deer and other mammals seeking the high ground as they traverse the swamp.
Throughout the woods, I can see the stories, the history, the lives that once took place in that location. Giant trees are often in a line, marking long ago boundaries of fields or properties. They stand as witnesses to changing landscapes and changing times. Barbed wire is often embedded within their trunks, acting as a timekeeper for how many years have passed since they retired from their fenceline duties.
Chestnut and Locust fenceposts decades old, perhaps more, are still found in a line even on Audubon’s property. They camouflage into the bushes, only visible in the lean winter months when not obscured by newer growth seeking to take their places. Older still is the chestnut stumps tipped sideways, weather-beaten root skeletons reaching for the sky, whispering of the barrier they once were to the livestock.
Wandering through woodlands, along creeks and rivers, I often stumble upon groves of hundred-year-old apple trees. With those marking the location, I can usually find an old foundation in the vicinity. Rocks stacked together to form a wall that once supported a house. It makes a nice perch
Sometimes after rain, I can walk the farm road at home and find an arrowhead. Centuries prior to us working with this piece of land, there were people here, hunting, exploring, and building a life. That connection to the past is comforting.
When I see the sentinel trees that once protected a farmhouse now standing alone it makes me think about what was there. Did the family have strong roots to that place? Was there a barn and orchard once, too? What happened? How old is it all? Often the wildlife has reclaimed it with gusto. Snakes peek from old stone foundations, trees perch on the edges of old wagons, and birds tuck their nests into crevices for safekeeping. Squirrels and mice find sanctuary in the rubble that once was a wall, and insects hum in delight at the spread of wildflowers that carpet old farm fields.
Walking through the fields, I can sometimes feel the slight change in grade where the dead furrow was or the texture of the ground changes when I get to an old farm road, now obliterated visually, but still there underfoot. Other fields are older, grown-up thick with trees all the same age. I imagine they were pastures and the livestock ate all trees that tried to gain footholds, until one day the livestock left. Dormant seeds in the soil leaped at the sky and it has been a race ever since.
That the land was something else before, and will inevitably something else after, is a never-ending series of stories. I am connected to indigenous people through my connection with the land, with the farmers that came before through the stones that support my home, and the people that will come next by our gardening, planting, and general shaping of the land.
Let your mind wander the next time you see that big old apple tree. It has been there for a while, and nearby there might be an old foundation. Sit down and ponder what was here before you were – yesterday, a year ago, a decade, a century. What did the world look like? What do you want it to look like in the future? The story is yours, ours. Take the time to read it. If you have the opportunity, give the old trees, patiently waiting, something to once again look over, even if it is just for a while.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at ACNC.