The Laurel Highlands. If you could lift yourself up above and fly, you would soar over the Allegheny Mountain range and orient yourself over Southwestern Pennsylvania. Look for the highest peak, Mount Davis, then begin your downward descent. We are rolling hills and valleys here in the Highlands. We are crests of winking lights and rivers that bend and sigh into easiness. We are little towns of chipped facades and cracked sidewalk pavement, church suppers and streetlights, cattails and black-eyed susans.
Come down further into the hollow between two ridges and find yourself on a little used road. There’s a yellow farmhouse with an old stone retaining wall in front. Pine trees guard the path of a spring fed stream that ends in a profusion of watercress. Follow a winding flagstone path up the yard and there you are, in the middle of it. But realize, too, that you can follow any path to get here.
This place is where I live, but it’s where you live, too—that’s tough to reconcile, but you can’t think about rooms, at this point. I don’t want to show you my living room or any room, really.
I want you to see outside.
So forget the yellow farmhouse. There’s another place to see; it’s where another farmhouse used to be.
You’ll have to walk up along the tall pines, but the slope isn’t too steep. Look down, and your eyes will be drawn to the water: there’s a ravine here, and the water from the spring mazes around down there along moss covered stones. No matter where you walk, you can hear the water splashing like a pocketful of coins. It’s a bright sound; you like to hear it.
At the top, you’ll have to step onto stones to cross the stream and trust that they won’t move. They won’t. They’ll hold you as you cross.
Look now, towards the top edge of the field; this is where we found the stacked stones that marked an old foundation. The foundation forms a rustic bench, handy for resting and thinking. To your right is the ravine, with the pines beyond. One lonely apple tree is behind you, and then the land moves upward and into the woods proper.
But straight on is the loveliest. Sitting on the stacked stones, you look across the road to a magnificent old barn. At one time, the barn belonged with the house—the remains of the house whose foundation we use as a bench. I like to imagine the owners, stepping out onto their porch in the early morning, looking over to the barn and seeing the ridge rise behind it and the sun coming up over the ridge. The air has the peppery scent of spring growth, and I can imagine the lists of chores running through their minds as they started their days. I can imagine their tiredness, too, and their satisfaction, as they climbed back up those porch steps in the evening, turning their faces upwards to the stars shining in the black silk of Pennsylvania night sky.
And then, there is the Maple Line. It’s only my name for it, but it marks what once must have been the road up to the house. Nine mature and healthy Maples come straight up the yard; your eye follows them from the foundation to the barn.
The Maple Line is a man-made natural demarcation that has survived, even after the people, their home, their chores, their wants and desires, have passed.
And that demarcation is my reminder of the world that most people have lost. This sturdy row of Maples—at once a border and an invitation-- has served to get me thinking about the importance of the call and response we should engage in with our natural world. When one is living in it, as the folks who planted those trees must have, there’s a desire to interact with it. Gardens show us this desire, as do farms, flower borders, walking trails, even compost heaps.
The Maple Line shows me: someone engaged with the world here, and that engagement had meaning.
But people forget, and in forgetting, people lose out on some significant connections, benefits, and realizations.
I honestly don’t think they should.