In the backwoods of Guilford, Vermont, where I grew up, the past still has a presence. Old falling-down barns and weather-worn cemeteries line the dirt roads that we used to walk down in the spring, our boots squelching in the muddy potholes. On the edges of fields and scattered over the hills, dozens of old sugar houses buckle on their foundations, and lone arches and rusty sap tanks slowly disintegrate into the forest floor. Cellar holes and stone walls, both made from the same slate and granite field stones, are hidden in every corner of the woods.
The woods themselves are relatively new. A little more than 100 years ago the hills were bare and grassy, and sheep and cows ranged over them, grazing under the boundary-line sugar maples that stood at intervals along the stone walls and fences. Many of these maples still stand today, old and gnarled, no longer alone, but instead surrounded by their progeny, deep in the new-growth forests.
As a kid whose days were spent climbing the wooded hills and walking up and down the dirt roads, these old markers were always a source of both curiosity and foreboding for me. A rusted truck that loomed suddenly out from between the dark hemlock trees, its tires long ago rotted away, its windshield tarnished and opaque, startled me every time I came across it, though I knew just where to expect it. I stopped near the dark foundation of a house high on a hill, its chimney stump-like and stark, and stood, listening for the spirit who cooked at this hearth. I peeked in the dark windows of churches and schoolhouses, timid that someone might be home.
These were the landmarks of my childhood – the source of a thousand dreams and stories in my head. As William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” I walked in history as a child, and its influence has followed me throughout my life.