Holes and Walls

New England Review - - Observations - Alexandria Peary

It took me thirty years of liv­ing in New Eng­land and eight years of mar­riage to no­tice rock walls and cel­lar holes, and now I can’t help but see them ev­ery­where. The walls run along­side my car—like a ter­rier rac­ing its owner’s ve­hi­cle—through back roads and main roads, to the day­care cen­ter or gro­cery store, and on a high­way com­mute. The walls are a code of dashes that con­tinue un­til in­ter­rupted by a big-box store park­ing lot, an exit ramp, or the fed­er­ally pre­served wet­land be­fore the big box. In south­ern New Hamp­shire, rock walls crisscross colo­nials and ranches, con­tem­po­raries and Capes; they walk past our baby showers and birth­day par­ties (bal­loons tied to the mail­box, Ma­son Is Six!!!), our bar­be­cues and open-house tours led by the real es­tate agent, the prop­erty asses­sor with his notepad and cal­cu­la­tor, the grad­u­a­tion par­ties. A bit of a rock wall here, some more over there, like a par­lor game of Ex­quis­ite Corpse or a half-erased tic-tac-toe board that ap­pears both across Mcman­sions with their out­sourced lawn care and in the dan­de­lion patches of trailer parks.

It’s as though horse and bug­gies were par­al­lel parked be­side our mini­vans and Subarus, yet no one seems to think any­thing strange about this con­stant ar­chae­ol­ogy, this in­ces­sant his­tor­i­cal reen­act­ment. The pres­ence of rock walls should be a star­tling anachro­nism—like look­ing out one’s win­dow and see­ing the pol­ished tools of hus­bandry scat­tered across the lawn, the leather straps and wooden han­dles still warm from use, or find­ing a pet­ti­coat with bone but­tons among your dry-clean­ing bags, the smell of wood smoke curl­ing in­side your mi­crowave.

In­ward-slanted, dou­ble-face, sin­gle-stack, dis­posal wall, cannonball wall, lace wall, tri­an­gu­lar wall, re­turns, curves, sym­met­ri­cal and asym­met­ri­cal, dumped, stacked, and laid. These are the styles of walls. The con­di­tion of the same stone wall varies from house lot to house lot: in one, the wall looks tight­ened and re­paired, in another the stones have left each other’s side but still form a thick mark, in another, a drib­ble of gran­ite.

To be around these signs of erased lives and erased ef­forts is sim­ply part of the scenery here, part of the New Eng­land mythos, although Robert M. Thor­son, au­thor of two good books on rock walls ( Ex­plor­ing Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New Eng­land’s Stone Walls and Stone by Stone) says that the vis­i­bil­ity of rock walls has var­ied over the years ac­cord­ing to peo­ple’s pur­pose, some­times aes­thetic. Stone walls have been sub­ject to ma­nip­u­la­tion well be­yond the handto-hand pass be­tween farm­ers dur­ing their orig­i­nal con­struc­tion. The Hud­son River school of pain­ters pre­ferred to ig­nore stone walls in their cel­e­bra­tion

of the wilder­ness, but the Im­pres­sion­ists “couldn’t paint enough field­stones” and some­times man­u­fac­tured new walls for the sake of ap­pear­ances. Then with Cur­rier and Ives and with Wal­lace Nut­ting (who had the early twen­ti­ethcen­tury brand­ing power of Martha Stewart) oc­curred the real mar­ket­ing of New Eng­land, not with real but with imag­ined walls: “Old stone walls, de­lib­er­ately left out of ear­lier paint­ings, were now be­ing painted into scenes, whether they ex­isted in the ac­tual land­scape or not.”

Rock wall preser­va­tion so­ci­eties are grow­ing in New Eng­land to pre­vent more re­cent era­sures of the walls, many in Con­necti­cut, the home state of Thor­son, in­clud­ing the Guil­ford Preser­va­tion Al­liance and the Foster Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety. The Stone Wall Ini­tia­tive, founded by Robert Thor­son and his wife Kristine, iden­ti­fies five threats to rock walls: strip min­ing, theft, in­sen­si­tiv­ity, new walls, and over­growth. Thor­son might also count bad gram­mar among the of­fenses against walls, as he fin­gers one wall de­stroyer from a 2009 Craigslist post­ing and pro­vides its “orig­i­nal bad gram­mar and spell­ing”: “take­ing apart a peace of a 2 hun­dred year old wall ex­ce­lant stones 800$ truck load will delver about 9 tons.” Or­di­nances and fines have been es­tab­lished of late to pro­tect walls. In 2009, the gover­nor of New Hamp­shire signed a bill that in­creased the fine for rock-wall theft from fif­teen dol­lars to the cost of re­plac­ing the wall along with the lawyer’s bill. A citizen of Fram­ing­ham, Mas­sachusetts, has pro­posed an amend­ment to that state’s law, up­ping the ante for wall theft from a ten-dol­lar fine to im­pris­on­ment for up to six months, and other de­fend­ers of old walls in Mas­sachusetts have asked for the re­vok­ing of the of­fender’s driver’s li­cense for a year. Ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial at the town of­fices of Lon­don­derry, New Hamp­shire, statute RSA 539:4 de­crees that the re­moval of rock walls shared be­tween two neigh­bors with­out con­sent of both par­ties be­comes a civil mat­ter, but you are free to do as you wish with a wall in the cen­ter of your prop­erty. The wall in Robert Frost’s fa­mous poem is only a few miles from the town of­fices in neigh­bor­ing Derry. A half mile down from the Frost House in one di­rec­tion is Clam Haven, with a school-bus–sized pink and pur­ple spot­ted ele­phant next to a bro­ken-down back­hoe; in the other di­rec­tion, a weld­ing shop stands where Napoleon Guay lived—the man with a han­dle­bar mous­tache who tells Frost in “Mend­ing Walls” that “Good fences make good neigh­bors.”

A rock wall is a tat­too on the land, a prop­erty line is part of a henna de­sign on the palm of a hand. These rock strips are usu­ally par­al­lel to the cur­rent road but not al­ways. Many of them served a real pur­pose but are now most likely spo­radic and lead to noth­ing. If they man­age to in­di­cate a limit, the rules they point to may no longer be rel­e­vant. Do not fol­low a rock wall into the woods think­ing it will pro­vide you a tour be­cause it may be speak­ing non­sense, a bab­ble rather than the guid­ance of GPS. You might fol­low it for a half mile, but then it runs off hel­ter-skel­ter with no pre­tense of stay­ing by your side. The walls are like the road into the woods de­scribed by Robert Frost, not one of the two roads that di­verged in a yel­low wood, but the one in “Di­rec­tive,” Frost’s walk right straight to a cel­lar hole: “The road there, if you’ll let a guide di­rect you / Who

Alexandria Peary

only has at heart your get­ting lost . . .” Some walls are not agri­cul­tural at all but were built by Na­tive Amer­i­cans and are more cairn and ef­figy—spirit walls. And even the colonists’ walls weren’t al­ways en­tirely prac­ti­cal. While they seem like de­mar­ca­tions of fields now re­duced to half- or one-acre sub­di­vi­sion lots, these walls have been chas­tised as a bit ex­ces­sive. Thor­son says that “New Eng­land had far more ‘fences’ than it needed.” He cites Ge­orge Washington who also “had spot­ted the prob­lem” and who had noted that in New Eng­land “landed prop­erty is more di­vided than it is in the states south of them.” Thor­son con­cludes that some fences were built as a way of dis­pens­ing of ex­tra stone—which ice­bergs and gla­cial changes had kicked up a lot of—that they were in fact “lin­ear land­fills.”

I look out my slid­ing glass door at the scrag­gly woods in the back of my house, built in 1987, at the mounds of ex­tra fill the con­trac­tors dumped out back twenty-five years ago, mak­ing no ef­fort to hide or smooth them over. Now the fern-cov­ered mounds—ser­pen­tine, like prim­i­tive burial mounds—are thick with fallen leaves, and out of them have grown birch and swamp maple, trees with lit­tle solid foun­da­tion be­neath them, so that many have snapped in half or fallen over. One did so last sum­mer just as I was look­ing at it.

Cel­lar holes are dif­fer­ent in that they are not con­tin­u­ous, not line but square, a mo­men­tary dip in the land­scape, the dust mark left when the Washington Mon­u­ment or the St. Louis Arch is picked up and moved to another lo­ca­tion. Thoreau ap­par­ently called them “dents” on a land­scape. Thoreau did not think highly of walls ei­ther; they in­ter­rupted his walks in the woods. A fence builder was a “worldly miser with a surveyor look­ing af­ter his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him.” (A friend of mine lives in a raised ranch in Nashua, New Hamp­shire, two streets back from a four-lane strip of car deal­er­ships, Mex­i­can restau­rants, and big-box book­stores, though her back deck over­looks a lit­tle twist in the Mer­ri­mack River where Thoreau once floated past.) Thoreau, in his walk­ing, may have en­coun­tered these cel­lar holes when they hefted the weight of large houses like chil­dren on their shoul­ders, house lights he would have avoided for he felt there were quite enough “cham­pi­ons of civ­i­liza­tion: the min­is­ter and the school-com­mit­tee,” and not enough fields and woods. They are like rock walls gone un­der­ground, though they once held up a whole house.

The holes are also mod­els for the way house foun­da­tions should still be built, if con­trac­tors and home­own­ers had the time and fund­ing. Kevin Gard­ner in The Gran­ite Kiss asks us to con­sider the crafts­man­ship of cel­lar holes—of­ten su­pe­rior to that of their col­league walls, those who make a big­ger show of it above ground: “The best of the old foun­da­tions ex­hibit lev­els of care and cre­ativ­ity few walls can match.” In the mat­ter of walls, he says, you want to avoid the cheap se­ducer, “a stone that ap­pears at first glance to be ideal for pre­sen­ta­tion as part of your wall’s face. Cheap se­duc­ers oc­cur in a va­ri­ety of guises. They can be too round or too shal­low, or an­gu­larly mis­shapen in any num­ber of un­help­ful ways. All at­tempts to place a cheap se­ducer, then, are doomed by struc­tural de­fects that pre­vent its sta­ble in­stal­la­tion on pre­vi­ous work or the lay­ing of later stones upon or around it. Once iden­ti­fied, they should be con­signed to obliv­ion as

back­ers or dis­carded al­to­gether.”

In Lon­don­derry, New Hamp­shire, just a few miles away from that Frost farm­house where visi­tors give pause be­fore a length of rock wall, there’s hardly an old house in sight. It’s all ex­ca­va­tion and the new growth of shop­ping plazas for pizza-dol­lar-store-pay­less-planet-fit­ness. The red land­mark of an eigh­teen­th­cen­tury tav­ern was de­mol­ished the week we moved to Lon­don­derry, to make way for a Pan­era and a pet sup­ply store. The cit­i­zenry has voted to tear down one of the old ap­ple or­chards to re­verse time and con­struct a New Eng­land–style town cen­ter. What can be fig­ured out in the green, green woods? The woods was our So­ci­ol­ogy and Psy­chol­ogy, our Women’s Stud­ies, our Literature, and for my brother, per­haps cel­lar holes were his En­gi­neer­ing. One sum­mer va­ca­tion for a stretch of sev­eral weeks, my brother, sis­ter, and I spent nearly all our day­light hours in­side a cel­lar hole a street cor­ner up from our par­ents’ coun­try store in cen­tral Maine. Climb down into a cel­lar hole and hear the creak of floor­boards over­head in the sky, the tap­ping of shoes, a flour sack be­ing dragged, wood be­ing dumped into the fire­place; wait among the peren­ni­als (lady’s slip­pers, daf­fodils) that still ap­pear here.

It wasn’t ex­actly a hole any­more, as over the years it had been filled in with the refuse of farm­ers: the skele­tons of used-up dairy cows with enor­mous hip bones as yel­lowed as old pi­ano keys, mat­tress springs, oil cans shot through with rust and con­tain­ing frown­ing spi­ders on thrones of leaf-rot, soda bot­tles, beer bot­tles. (That our par­ents let us dig in the cel­lar hole with­out in­spect­ing it for them­selves is amaz­ing—per­haps they were count­ing on that mod­ern in­ven­tion of the tetanus shot. In gen­eral, the only warn­ing we were given about our wan­der­ings was to look out for aban­doned wells.) We moved from trash to col­lec­tor’s items to an­tiques to history. The deeper we dug, the more for­eign be­came the la­bels on con­tain­ers, no longer rec­og­niz­able from the shelves of our par­ents’ coun­try store but from older times, the 1940s and World War II, and lower, the 1920s of as­signed high school read­ing, that of The Great Gatsby, the Dust Bowl, and lower, lower, to the Vic­to­ri­ans, and still de­scend­ing. We felt like ar­chae­ol­o­gists on our multi-day pro­ject.

Ap­par­ently, that’s one sim­i­lar­ity walls and holes share—the ca­pac­ity to hold sur­prises from the past. I asked Kevin Fife, a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ma­son who lives in New Hamp­shire, if he dis­cov­ered sur­prises when restor­ing old stone walls. Fife said he some­times found trashed farm­ing equip­ment, parts of ploughs that broke and that the farmer threw into the mix to make the wall. When he worked at the Shaker Vil­lage in Can­ter­bury, New Hamp­shire, he would oc­ca­sion­ally find parts of head­stones—bits of names, dates, age—in­side walls. The Shakers orig­i­nally used head­stones in their grave­yard, but when they de­cided to re­move the in­di­vid­ual mark­ers in fa­vor of a sin­gle big stone, the bro­ken parts of the old

Alexandria Peary

grave mark­ers were dropped into the walls.

By the time we reached the near-bot­tom of our hole, my sib­lings and I found, among the bro­ken things, in­tact blue medicine bot­tles, vanilla bot­tles, and the more un­likely sliver of a bone but­ton, iri­des­cent, the size of a pinky fin­ger­nail. Had it slipped off a woman’s dress as she left the house when it was still a house or had the whole dress been thrown into the hole? Given the thrifti­ness of New Eng­lan­ders, more likely the for­mer. The bot­tles held the air of medicine be­fore it was or­ga­nized into a ca­reer—more quack­ery than pro­fes­sion—of spices mix­ing with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, cure-alls, vi­o­let ex­tracts by saw­bones. La­bels marked “Dr.” ended with car­ni­val-like sur­names—and the prom­ise of Pu­rity. In fact, we were dig­ging in the cel­lar hole of a for­mer pas­tor’s house. It was more hut than house, re­ally, and the hole was small by to­day’s stan­dards—or per­haps that’s what hap­pens with cel­lar holes: like the el­derly, they shrink with­out their wooden pur­pose over­head.

In Mon­son Cen­ter, a 1700s vil­lage strad­dling the New Hamp­shire towns of Mil­ford and Hol­lis but once be­long­ing to Mas­sachusetts, the cel­lar holes are all that re­main since the town was aban­doned in 1760 when the res­i­dents couldn’t af­ford the Mas­sachusetts taxes (some things never change) and dis­agreed about the lo­ca­tion of a meet­ing house that was in the works. If you visit, as my young fam­ily of four did one Mother’s Day, you can walk on the for­mer town roads. The cel­lar holes are la­beled with the type of plaques you’d ex­pect in an ur­ban set­ting, posted by some lo­cal his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety. But in­stead of the con­struc­tion date of the house or the name of a fa­mous per­son who once lived there, the plaques list the pro­fes­sion and birth and death dates of the des­ig­nated owner (male), and lists of prog­eny from sec­ond and third wives are pro­vided like a scroll of movie cred­its. In the cel­lar hole of the town physi­cian, Dr. John Brown, born in 1724 and died in 1776, stand two lady’s slip­pers and a stinky Ben­jamin. In Wil­liam Nevin’s cel­lar hole, there’s a floor of rain­wa­ter and leaves to a house where once eight chil­dren had been born—the first in 1746 and the last in 1770. (I duly noted the twenty-four-plus years of preg­nancy, nurs­ing, and tod­dler-rear­ing.) One son of Nevin, Phineas, joined sev­eral other chil­dren in the neigh­bor­hood to be­come a vet­eran of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. I glanced back at my strag­gling fiveyear-old, a tiny pale per­son stand­ing by her­self down the tun­nel of the road made by over­ar­ch­ing trees in May, feel­ing a twinge of fear. The care­taker of Mon­son Cen­ter—its mayor and in a way its sole re­main­ing res­i­dent—rus­sell Dick­er­man, stood in the door­way to the J. Gould House, a six­teen-by-forty–foot house built in 1756, orig­i­nally as one room. He lives else­where and comes sev­eral times a week to mow the eight-acre field and pick up lit­ter left by thought­less teenagers, pa­gans, and ghost hun­ters. His de­ceased wife used to tend the flower beds. That Mother’s Day, he dis­played the pho­to­graphs of rel­a­tives, who died of in­fluenza or of star­va­tion in Civil War mil­i­tary prison camps, while I kept an eye on my chil­dren and the open dis­plays of nine­teenth-cen­tury house­hold ob­jects. Mr. Dick­er­man wor­ries about the fu­ture of the town. With­out chil­dren and stand­ing among his an­ces­tors, he is the end of a line, like the end of this road.

The pas­tor’s hole from our child­hood was in a copse of beech and birch trees across from the house of the spin­ster Alice Ham­mond (whose sec­ond floor had once been a dance hall) and a third of a mile away from the set­tlers’ graves in the backyard of a large Catholic fam­ily’s house. The trees were like a pri­vacy screen at a hos­pi­tal or a tent set up around an ac­tual ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig—a con­trast to the largely open land­scape of the town of Sid­ney with its bot­tle-green rolling hills and pas­tures dot­ted by cir­cu­lar hay bales. It was on the prop­erty of an old white house, the first of many our par­ents would re­model to con­vert into rental units.

As chil­dren, we wan­dered freely through many prop­er­ties, though the pas­tor’s was the only fully deleted place. In all four sea­sons, we spent en­tire days walk­ing in tracts of woods, cross­ing pas­tures and ne­go­ti­at­ing half-ton live­stock, lift­ing pants legs above barbed wire and later avoid­ing elec­tric fences, step­ping into farm­ers’ barns to dive into hay lofts with twenty feet of straw. As Thoreau said, “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the great­est va­grant of all; but the saun­terer, in the good sense, is no more va­grant than the me­an­der­ing river.” There was the tower, a home­spun two-story con­struc­tion like one of Pablo Neruda’s houses, built by some farmer’s hippy daugh­ter or son, a mat­tress sprin­kled with the jimmies of mouse drop­pings, cor­roded elec­tric wires (though the struc­ture was off the grid), and a jar of rot­ting peanut but­ter in the cup­board. In the kitchen of the Quakers’ farm, where a widow lived and her son tended the live­stock, we took off our cross-coun­try skis and were in­vited to hang our mit­tens near the wood­stove, sit in a rock­ing chair, and pull an oat­meal cookie from a wooden box. In one of my par­ents’ first rental pur­chases, an aban­doned trailer in the lot next door, it seemed as though it had rained in­side, and we poked through sod­den stuffed an­i­mals and trash heaped in flimsy corners.

Dur­ing the 1980s and early 1990s, as our par­ents re­mod­eled or built one apart­ment build­ing af­ter another, the three of us chil­dren were al­ways clam­ber­ing around rooms that peo­ple had va­cated quickly or on sched­ule, in the mid­dle of the night or shak­ing hands and in broad day­light—one-win­dow bed­rooms with land­lord-white walls, base­board heat­ing, Ber­ber car­pets. In the best of cir­cum­stances, for those who would get their full dam­age de­posit back, Formica and ap­pli­ances had been cleaned with san­i­tiz­ing agents to wipe away signs of oc­cu­pancy. In other cases, be­long­ings were cast off—stereo equip­ment, bro­ken toys, cheap cloth­ing—the last fast meals eaten in the apart­ment, rub­bish in the sink, de­cay­ing food in the fridge.

Each house in the town was set atop its own un­der­lin­ing. The var­i­ous in­sta­bil­i­ties that I knew of in­cluded spouse-swap­ping (though that ar­range­ment did seem to work out), the wife who poi­soned her hus­band with ar­senic a hun­dred years back, the man who came home to die (ru­mored) of AIDS in a squalid cabin with his fa­ther, crib deaths, drunk-driv­ing crashes into tele­phone poles, he­li­copter deaths in Viet­nam, the man who cheated on his wife and gave her syphilis that went un­treated, arm stubs from med­i­ca­tion taken for morn­ing sick­ness, the chain sui­cides of men in one fam­ily, the usual di­vorces.

Alexandria Peary

In my cur­rent neigh­bor­hood, an earth-toned con­tem­po­rary, all ge­om­e­try and glass and so­lar pan­els, has been aban­doned and is slowly fall­ing to the ground, a strange sight. Driv­ing around Maine or New Hamp­shire, you’ll surely en­counter great and small farm­houses fall­ing down, their boards long un­painted and more like planks than sid­ing. Or the derelict and vaguely sex­ual Vic­to­ri­ans, like parts of the un­con­scious fall­ing aside, the cupo­las of anal­y­sis, the death of a par­ent in another room, the sym­bol of the iron-work on the fence. But a con­tem­po­rary? A place where Tup­per­ware and large-screen TVS re­side? Its mail­box fell over the other day. My daugh­ters and I slipped onto its porch and peered in­side at rooms that had the same floor plan as our own: the Formica start­ing to curl in the sealed-up kitchen hu­mid­ity, mildew blos­som­ing on win­dows. Milk­weed on the front lawn. Branches are be­gin­ning to en­close the cracked drive like in a fairy­tale. An air­line pi­lot in the neigh­bor­hood—the one who had mowed the over­grown lawn to our house as it waited short-sale to us—tsk-tsks over this weedy dis­re­pair.

My child­hood best friend lived across from a once stately house that was cav­ing in be­cause of a fam­ily dis­pute. But what was the cause of the de­cline of the con­tem­po­rary? Was it in­fi­delity, di­vorce, or ill­ness? We made gen­tle in­quiries around the neigh­bor­hood, a group of peo­ple who keep to them­selves, and even­tu­ally learned it was a mat­ter of in­her­i­tance, a dis­pute be­tween sev­eral adult chil­dren liv­ing in another state.

At the time when Robert Frost wrote his heart­break­ing poem “Di­rec­tive,” in which he walks straight to the cel­lar hole with its bou­quet of lilacs and feels he is “be­ing watched from forty cel­lar holes,” his wife had turned him away from her hos­pi­tal bed—for of­fenses of the heart and mar­i­tal shad­ows we can only guess. His poem must have been writ­ten only a few decades af­ter the woods had re­turned in New Eng­land, fill­ing in the de­for­esta­tion (as much as 80 per­cent) wrought by the set­tlers.

Even with their non se­quitur, rock walls can still be ser­vice­able, still be real de­mar­ca­tions of lim­its, but the cel­lar holes are truly de­mo­li­tion. We might hope that there were real lim­its, that the walls set the perime­ters of things, con­duct, of what you could and could not do with another per­son. We have laws for that kind of thing.

In the house I sit in right now, which lacks a cel­lar hole but does have a base­ment garage, there is yet another level be­low—one of fore­clo­sure and short­sale. We bought the house from the Al­lens, he the son of the owner of the car deal­er­ship in town, which meant that in dif­fer­ent fi­nan­cial times the house would have been be­yond our means. For months, we saw the criss­crosses of their lives. I’d walk into the up­stairs bath­room and en­vi­sion the se­nior Mrs. Allen, smok­ing, in her fash­ion­able clothes, perched on a beam dur­ing the con­struc­tion of that room, based on some im­age in the photo al­bum they gave us. Her hand­i­work is in the flower beds—the sur­prise per­for­mance of peren­ni­als week by week the first year we lived in the house. She made sure her son told us to look for the lady’s slip­pers she had planted in the woods down to the pond. The son and

his wife at the sign­ing—the sor­row and un­doubt­edly shame at los­ing the house and my boot­straps ar­ro­gance at ac­quir­ing it—with their mar­riage in­tact though not their bank ac­count. Hold­ing hands, they told us they had been high school sweet­hearts and had done their math home­work to­gether at the kitchen counter. In our ex­ca­va­tion and wan­der­ings, my sib­lings and I ex­plored oth­ers’ lives, but I can now de­scend into my own lower level just by walk­ing around in life, cross­ing a room to turn off the tea ket­tle or an­swer­ing the phone. An un­der­line pre­cedes me, ap­pear­ing al­most ty­po­graph­i­cally, like breaks in sun­light across the floor­boards. Each in­tact house, each happy fam­ily, is built on a sim­i­lar un­der­lin­ing. With each foot­step, I am closer to plung­ing into the cel­lar hole, but I al­ways move on at the last mo­ment. Un­der­lines are not just about sens­ing the past but sens­ing up­com­ing dele­tions of what is present now—the struc­tures and re­la­tion­ships. For one thing is surely true: if walls are not heeded, what you will end up with is a hole; the line dis­ap­pears and so does the home.

As I grow older, I no­tice that so much of what peo­ple say is un­der­lined, and these un­der­lined words go straight down to another mean­ing. Some­times it’s only one word per para­graph, like an ac­ci­den­tal break in the wall of the so­cial.

A Jan­uary day and I re­mem­ber rid­ing the school bus. The steamy heat of a bus full of kids in parkas and snow pants. Look­ing out at a win­ter af­ter­noon, not shar­ing the vinyl bench with any­one. Silent ex­cept the grind of the en­gine. Lines left by a ruler on the white­ness. Black trees in con­trast. Less of­ten, the dents in the snow.

Walls and holes are like a place set­ting: rock wall to the left of the cel­lar hole. Bound­aries and deep, deep plunges into loss (what has been and what could be lost). Cel­lars and the stone necks of wells, hope­fully sealed over and not just by leaves. Or some scrib­bles on a snowy land­scape: a bi­nary code of line in­dent, line in­dent, line line. Old ap­ple trees in an aban­doned or­chard are half­way be­ings, never to be cel­lar holes but just as re­proach­ful.

You think you are con­tem­po­rary, new, prop­erty taxes and rid­ing lawn mower, but there’s a mark on your land like some­one has bor­rowed your book and writ­ten in it.

In Wally Swist’s “Tone Poem for Sum­mer Sol­stice,” one word is stacked on another in even rows—“say ox­eye daisy tansy yar­row or­ange hawk­weed / pur­ple clover Say skip­per mourn­ing cloak sil­ver- / bor­dered frit­il­lary monarch clouded sul­fur”—and I’m out­side walk­ing again to the pur­ple sounds of field birds and the striped smell of clover.

When your past grows taller than your waist, pause. At age forty-two, I walked into the scrag­gly po­plar woods out­side my par­ents’ raised ranch in Maine, a house they were try­ing to put on the mar­ket. I stood on top of the rock wall, hold­ing the hand of each of my chil­dren, ages four and six, dur­ing a light sum­mer rain. Thirty years had passed since I’d been near the wall, which was slip­pery

Alexandria Peary

with rain and lichen. A few boards from what must have been our tree house leaned against the base of a tree. In­stead of Frost’s chil­dren’s play­things, I found soda cans with im­ages of the 1980s—michael Jack­son and break danc­ing—shot through with rust from tar­get prac­tice. Un­der a rock, a crushed li­cense plate from Rhode Is­land with pom-poms of spi­der co­coons, 1976, off the VW Bug my par­ents drove when we moved to this state.

Over the wet rock wall, I en­coun­tered the same blue sky at the wrong time of day that is pre­cisely the sky in­side the high-school re­union, the Big 25th, the rea­son for my re­turn to cen­tral Maine. Time here is off kil­ter. Time is play­ing tricks like in a Magritte paint­ing. The per­sonal vi­o­lence of twenty-five years hav­ing passed. You push open the doors to the coun­try club to a dis­play of peo­ple, many of whom once rode the school bus with you, but now wear taped-on faces, masks with grooves around the mouth, gray or re­ced­ing hair. The stones of the wall are be­ing re­placed with lines. The or­ga­nizer, a cheer­leader, much smaller than you re­mem­ber her, stands like a Wal-mart greeter. Over the cash bar, the blue sky of morn­ing although it is evening. Coat room for your cardi­gan, suit jacket, clutch. Prom Queen, Desert Storm Vet, Quar­ter­back, Res­tau­ra­teur, Washington Bu­reau­crat, Works at Home De­pot. You Look Ex­actly The Same. You Who Mar­ried Your High School Sweet­heart. Cel­lar holes have re­placed sev­eral homes. Some half-worry about the health of their par­ents; how is Mr. So-and-so, Mrs.?—im­ages of af­ter­school snacks at a counter. One per­son’s fa­ther died last week, ashes scat­tered that very morn­ing. A ta­ble set with forks and spoons around cel­lar holes. Pick up your purse, pay for the wine at the cash bar, re­trieve your cardi­gan, walk with keys in hand to your mini­van. Drive down a road cor­nered by rock walls, past fields pit­ted with holes; there’s no way to en­tirely avoid them.

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