It’s time to leave the farm in Maryland.
My brother has sold the fields that surround us and the new owner has put “No Trespassing" signs at the end of the lane that goes past our barn to the old tenant house and then down to the stream.
“You and Rock can still walk down there if you ask permission," the new owner told us.
It would be easier to move than to ask permission to walk over fields that I know like the curve of my own hips. I know where the stream turns, where the otter lives.
“We should have left when your mother died," said Rock, my longtime boyfriend, who recently became my husband.
He was the one who asked, 10 years ago, with the clear eyes of a stranger, “How can you walk through this tangle of briers?"
He cut a system of intimate paths around these fields and along the stream to our secret places, where the sycamores rise as tall as a cathedral and the stream bends to form a little sandy beach. And he mowed them faithfully, so friends and family could walk the grassy paths without tearing their legs on thorns or going home covered in poison ivy. I’d never thought of making paths to the stream. We just climbed over the briers, tearing our shirts, scratching the rashes.
For the past decade, seeing the farm through his eyes has been part of the fun.
But now that we’re leaving, we have both begun to see it with new eyes — those of the next owners, whom we try to envision.
Will they be young or energetic retired people who want to grow their own food, raise chickens and run a market garden or CSA on our 6-acre farmette? That sort of person might love the way we have let the grass grow high on the barn bank, so full of wild chicory that the yellow finches perch on its branches to eat the seeds. But most people would surely prefer mowed green grass and orderly trees and shrubs, not a pear tree so full of dead wood it’s a banquet of bugs for woodpeckers.
“Do you think we should cut that tree down and have a clear view of the hayfields?" I ask Rock as we stare out the windows of our loft.
We finished the apartment together 10 years ago — it’s an airy SoHo-like space in the former haymow of the barn — and hung bird feeders from the branches of the pear tree. Song birds come to feed here, and to sing: bluebirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, Carolina wrens, cat birds, indigo buntings. Sometimes the hammering of a great pileated woodpecker will bring us to the window to exclaim over its size and magnificent coloring.
But to the casual observer, this tree is an ugly thing, full of dead sticks.
Which way to go, manicured or natural-looking? Anything but out of control, the way it looks to us now.
We love the cardinals chattering in a forsythia so overgrown it has taken on the shape of a whale, with Virginia creeper and little mimosa trees flourishing in its tangle of arching branches. And we encouraged the sassafras and cedar trees sprouting on the front lawn, and the milkweed flowering with its honeylike scent near the barn.
“Think of the monarchs we’re feeding," I used to say, looking for their little golden eggs on the backs of the smooth leaves.
But now we look at our wildlife preserve differently.
“They’ll just see it as a nightmare," said Rock, who knows what it means to mow for too many hours after work.
Living here wouldn’t have been his first choice. He belongs on a river, rowing with long, steady strokes against the current. Or wandering down city streets, reading history in the shade of a roof, the frame of a door.
But when we met, I was heading out of Manhattan for an old family farm in Maryland, to help my mother.
We had a few good years with her here, laughing and telling stories and driving her to all the specialists who kept her reading and walking and hearing. We went through a long string of helpers, trying to find one or two who had the knack of assisting her without destroying her last threads of independence and self-respect.
Was it worth it? I ask myself, looking out over the lush green hayfields that some new owner may turn into genetically modified corn and soybeans. Or worse, fields of string beans sprayed with pesticides to keep every bean perfect for the market.
Before he died, my father advised us to sell the farm for the highest dollar. My mother, however, let us convince her to put it under a conservation easement. But that doesn’t dictate how the land will be used.
Grasses to go?
Will the new owners of the surrounding fields keep the 16 acres of native grasses — big bluestem and Indian grass, coneflowers and goldenrod — that buffer the stream, absorbing stormwater and pesticides from the hilly fields that roll down to the water’s edge? Or will they turn them back into rows of corn, sprayed with Roundup, to keep down the weeds?
The peepers disappeared from this farm years ago, killed by some pesticide, I’m sure. But now they’re back, with the hayfields and the native grasses. And so are the bluebirds and quail, the foxes and red-tailed hawks.
But all that may change, because we will have no say over what is planted on this land.
We never really did — only the reluctant agreement of my brother, who wanted to keep the peace.
And now we stand, like migrant workers, forced to move on.
“We’ve wanted to leave here for years," one of us will remind the other about our remote location, too far from the city.
But still, we hate to leave the land. We hate to think of it reverting back to a virtual wasteland for wildlife.
And we will probably never again live in such a beautiful house, with windows that open to rolling fields. We have watched the moon travel across the sky through our bedroom window.
“I wish we could airlift the barn to a place where we both belong," Rock said.
Only in our dreams. So now we are getting our home ready for some future changing of the guard that neither of us can quite imagine.
We interview people who scrape and paint barns and interior walls spotted with old water damage, or just faded and grimy with years of use. We talk to landscaping companies, trying to find a knowledgeable one that won’t butcher the old trees.
“Those shrubs are too old and overgrown to prune," one landscape architect told us, gazing at the hollies and andromeda towering over the front porch. “We’ll have to just pull them out."
I tried to imagine the front of the big white house my great-grandfather built, without those neglected bushes obscuring the stone wall he made from rocks pulled out of the fields. I remembered how we would sit on the porch swing as children, gazing straight out to the yard.
“Why didn’t we prune these years ago? How could this have happened?" I said.
“Because we were working," Rock said. “We can’t afford a full-time gardener."
The boxwoods framing the stone walkway are now so big there is hardly room to pass through. But we would kill them if we cut them back to size.
“I’d just trim them up a bit," the landscape architect advised. “They’re part of the character of the place."
View of the fields
On one of the hottest days of the summer, I was digging compost behind the hay barrack when a breeze stirred the Chinese chestnut trees and the old black cherry tree that towers over the roof.
I leaned on my spade for a moment, enjoying the cool air. And as I looked over the fields, I realized that this view was as gorgeous as the one Rock and I have appreciated every day from the windows of our loft.
He had suggested, only days before, that we try to open the great doors of the barrack — a big shed, as tall as a barn, with doors that roll open on tracks, to air-dry the hay. They had been closed for so long, I couldn’t remember their ever being open.
“I’d like to look straight through to the fields," he said as we stood in the closed barrack, surrounded by the accumulated junk of generations. “The tractor would look great with nothing else around it."
The 1949 Farmall had lost its front wheel, but it still stood proudly, like some fading mechanical horse, a relic of days past, when this was a real farm and it pulled my grandfather’s plow and combine.
Rock spent a day clearing out the rusted mowers, the piles of wood and metal saved by farmers who knew they might need a scrap of something to fix something else. Then he opened up the doors, throwing his rower’s muscles against the wheels on the rusted track until they began to move, a few inches at first, then clear to the end, to let the air and light through.
The breeze I had noticed picked up, making this spot behind the barrack even more glorious.
And just as Rock had known it would, the tractor looked magnificent — our objet d’art of the farm world — in the big open space.
“I’ll have to take down that compost pile," I said, as we saw how it marred the view south.
I had built it out of concrete blocks, in a three-bin design that served its purpose for years, and I kind of liked the self-seeded squash vines and wild blackberry growing over its walls.
But now I saw it with new eyes. It was a ruin.
“Why did I put the compost pile in one of the prettiest spots on the farm?" I asked Rock. “And I never noticed how cool it could be back here on a hot day."
That’s what my mother had told him long ago, Rock said.
“She never liked the barrack doors closed," he said. “And she said it was one of the nicest places on the farm."
I looked at Rock, slightly irked. Mom never told me that. But they had been friends, with their own relationship, and I liked that.
“Let’s put some chairs out there," I said, wondering if we would like the people who might sit in them.