There Are Some Elm Trees Left After All

by Will Baker


The other day I found myself, quite unexpectedly, traipsing through a small section of the Green Mountain National Forest near Rochester Vermont. I have a good friend whom I have known for many years that I don't get to visit with nearly as much as I would like to. I stopped in to see him at the soap factory that he owns, thinking that I could tempt him to go out for a beer, and instead he asked me to accompany him on a trip over Middlebury Gap. It seemed that there was a piece of land that he was thinking of buying and he wanted my opinion on it. It also gave us an excuse to enjoy a beautiful late spring day.

Middlebury Gap is one of only a few roadways that traverse the spine of the Green Mountains, the mountain range that bisects the state by running north to south. The road from East Middlebury to the gap is a winding affair, and one of the more scenic drives in the state. And as Vermont is a state known for the beauty of its landscape, that is saying much about the beauty of the drive. We drove up through the little village of Ripton, and eventually passed near Robert Frost's old stomping grounds. The road leveled, and then continued to climb. We past the Middlebury Snow Bowl, where last year’s snow still lingered, and crested the Gap, crossing the Long Trail in the process and headed down onto the eastern slope of the Green Mountains.  We drove on for a while and then stopped at Texas Falls, a spectacular scenic area, to have some beer that we brought with us, and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.

Texas Falls is an unbelievable little place. However it is typical of what Vermont has to offer. There are falls there, but to me the real attraction is the gorge, cut out of sheer rock by the force of moving water over the course of many, many years. In the sixties a work crew constructed a network of stone steps, railings and a bridge, all in keeping with the natural aesthetic of the area, which allows visitors to interact with the site on a very personal level. As we drank our beer my senses were flooded. I felt the chill in the air caused by the rocky gorge, heard the thunder of the water as it roared over the falls, smelled the loamy earth, and saw the natural beauty that surrounded us. We could have lingered, but we had other business that day, so we finished our beer, got back in my friend’s truck, and went on our way.  The terrain was steep and rugged, and the villages that we passed through were quaint. My friend pointed out the commune where he lived years ago, and he waved to some children as we trundled past. It was clear that he kept in contact with these folks.

We ended up in Rochester driving down a dirt road.  With the exception of the Champlain Valley to the west, and the Connecticut River Valley to the east, Vermont is mostly hilly, with narrow valleys in between. The town of Rochester is situated in one of these narrow valleys, with steep mountains rising on every side. We had directions, but as they were rather cryptic, it took some doing to actually find the parcel that we were looking for. We stopped to ask for assistance and had a nice chat with an interesting fellow that engraved Colt firearms for a living. The locals referred to this area as the Hollow. Since the sixties a quirky mix of artistic folks has moved in. You never know whom you will meet.

We parked the truck near the beginning of an old logging road that led up onto the subject property. It was an eighty-acre parcel, so I knew we were in for a hike. The ground rose rather steeply at first. We found animal sign all around us, but we were not surprised. The engraver told us that this piece of land was part of a wildlife corridor. He said that he often saw bear, moose and coyote in the area. The casual reader might wonder if this is something out of the ordinary here, but it is not. I have lived in this state for thirteen years, in three locations. In that time I have had all kinds of wild life walk through my yard, including bears and coyote. A few years back we even had a moose in our garden. Not to mention the abundance of deer, turkey, eagles, hawks, hedgehogs, grouse, foxes etc.

We slowly walked the property, getting a feel for it. A good portion of it was rocky side-hill, however it did eventually level off at the top. There the ground was flat, with a thin layer of topsoil through which rock ledge protruded here and there. My friend’s partner grows herbs commercially, and it was important to him that the parcel be favorable for gardening. Although the land was lovely, he was skeptical as to whether there was enough arable ground for the herb garden. That fact ultimately tipped the scales against purchasing the land.

We lingered for a while longer, reluctant to leave a spot that we would probably never visit again, and then we began our hike back to the truck. It was clear that, although not in the recent past, sometime during the past twenty or thirty years this land had been logged. This was apparent because, with the exception on one single stand, there were no old growth trees visible anywhere. However, this single stand of large trees caught our eyes, and we were compelled to investigate it. As we drew near I could tell that they were elm trees. How they had managed to avoid the disease that, during the last century had wiped out nearly all of their brethren, escaped me, but there they were. I silently congratulated the loggers who spared them. They were big. I guessed that those trees had to be two hundred years old. There was a sturdily built, low stone wall nearby that ended close to the trees. And then the give away: lilac bushes. People had lived here long ago! But who were these people and what were they doing way up here? By now it was late afternoon, but even though we had to be on our way, we could not resist looking around for the remains of their dwelling place. My friend called to me, "here it is." I went over to where he stood, and sure enough, he had found what appeared to be the cellar hole of their house. There was another logging road on the other side of the remains of the old homestead, which we used for our descent back to the truck. On the way down It occurred to me that, initially, it might not have been a logging road, but rather maybe the lane that led up to the house under the elm trees... long ago. Our ride back was a quiet one. Neither of us spoke much. But we enjoyed each other’s company.

I have thought about the elm trees and that cellar hole a few times since we visited it. I wonder about the people that lived there. Who were they, what were their names and what did they look like? I wonder about their hopes and dreams. I wonder if their lives were all that they had hoped they would be. The rock wall near the trees was well built. That gave me two clues. The first being that these folks were probably farmers. The material for the rock wall might have come from the process of clearing and maintaining a field for planting. The second clue was that these folks seemed to take pride in their home. The rock wall adjacent to the trees was well built, and had stood the test of time. However I walked the wall for a little bit, and noticed that, after a couple hundred yards it appeared to peter out, and was eventually swallowed up by the forest altogether. I concluded that, near their house, these folks had taken pains to make the wall sturdy and attractive. But there wasn’t much good farmland up there. But there was some, maybe just enough to provide food for themselves, and to construct a few hundred feet of sturdy stone wall.

But why did they choose to make a stand in such a location? And what had become of their home and the outbuildings necessary for life there on that lonely spot? There are many houses in Vermont that are two hundred years old and still standing. But all that remains of that place is a cellar hole, the beautiful old trees and some lilac bushes. Perhaps a tragedy occurred there. I can imagine a quiet winter night being shattered by the flames of destruction. Were they killed? There were no graves near by that we could locate. It was all very puzzling. I also found my sense of connectedness to them to be interesting. I believe that this feeling came from having walked their land. Their children may very well have climbed those elm trees. I can see the farmer’s wife planting a lilac cutting, given to her by a friend, that she had rooted herself. She must have lovingly tending that little cutting, now grown hoary on that mountainside.

 What ever had happen to those folks, one thing is clear: things probably did not work out as they had expected, or more of their house would be standing. A good lesson for us all. I expect that two hundred years ago much of the Rochester Hollow had been cleared for farmland. But given the side-hill location, and all the ledge, probably not much of that eighty-acre parcel had been cleared. So there they were, up in the woods on a small patch of level ground on a mountainside, doing the best that they could do. But now nothing remains of their adventure? Hardly, for unless they were total hermits they must have touched the lives of other people. There must have been lessons learned by their adventure, and hopefully past on. At the very least I now know that there are some elm trees left, after all.


(Essay Collection)