Emotional Geography-Looking back at 50 years on Sennebec Hill Farm.

John Clark remembering some of the visual and emotional memories I have from growing up on East Sennebec Road. As a cataloger, I’ve come to be intrigued by some of the more esoteric subject headings used in bibliographic records.

One that intrigues me, particularly in relation to this piece, is Homes and haunts. It’s one of a very few things I’ve Googled and came up empty, but the Library of Congress describes it thusly: “Use as a topical subdivision under names of individual persons, families, and performing groups, classes of persons, and ethnic groups for works on the homes of individual persons, families, or members of the group from an architectural or historical point of view. Also use for works about the favorite places of individual persons or group members or places they habitually frequent or with which they are associated. For works on residential buildings for the group from the standpoint of architecture, construction, ethnology, etc., use the subdivision [Dwellings.] For works on social or economic aspects of the provision of housing for the group, use the subdivision [Housing.]”

I have a simpler definition. It describes a place that sticks with you and has a strong emotional quality. We’ve all read books with settings that have stayed with us. I can’t, for instance, look at a map of the Southwest without thinking of Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee.

My parents bought the 189 acre farm from Jacob Bootsman in 1949. Dad wanted to use the place as a nursery, but my grandfather Clark, who I guess was pretty authoritarian and had kicked in part of the $4900 purchase price said to Dad. “you bought a poultry farm and therefore you’re going to be a poultry farmer.” Pop did put in a small apple orchard, several of which produce apples to this day, but for most of my growing up years, we had laying hens—one hell of a lot of laying hens, especially after we built a new two story henhouse that was a hundred feet long by thirty or so wide.

Mom's well-composted garden in full bloom.

Mom’s well-composted garden in full bloom.

There were gardens as well, rhubarb across the road, asparagus and a big vegetable garden on the flat area halfway to the lake and Mom’s uber-rich one behind the house. In addition to the apple orchard, we had several acres of blueberries, two sour cherry trees (I used to park our Farmall Cub tractor under them, stand on the seat and eat them until my mouth was sore), three different varieties of pears, a Macintosh tree and a Wolf River. This last one, when it was bearing, produced apples bigger than softballs that made great pies.

I have memories of events as well as specific parts of the property. I think I was six when we were hit with a huge blizzard. Snow piled up so high the plows couldn’t break through. When we ran out of milk, my father skied the five mile round trip to the Union Common and bought some. Growing up, we experienced hard times because the poultry business was a money suck. Grain prices rose while egg and meat prices dropped, so we spent a scary stretch as kids knowing the farm might be in jeopardy, but not feeling like we could bring up our fears.

Sennebec Hill Farm from across the lake

Sennebec Hill Farm from across the lake

The house overlooks Sennebec Lake which the Georges River runs through before going through Round and Seven Tree Ponds on its way to the ocean near Thomaston. When we were first in school, Kate and I rode to school in a 1947 Woodie station wagon driven by Wilbur Abbott. After picking us, the ‘bus’ crossed the remains of a canal built in part by General Henry Knox in the 1700’s, and the Hills Mills Bridge before picking up kids on the opposite side of the lake. I got kicked off the ‘bus’ early on for using the word pregnant. Censorship was stricter and more prevalent in the 1950s.

I discovered real early in life that I didn’t fit in and living on a big farm with plenty of places to hide was a lifesaver. Over time, I pretty much memorized every bit of our property as well as everything to the top of the ridge and north into Appleton. Dad started taking me hunting when I was nine and I remember looking up into what seemed like monster trees to locate porcupines.

My favorite part of the farm was and probably still is the small hill opposite the house. There was a huge hollow tree on its back side, probably the biggest beech tree I’ve ever seen. Over the years, that tree was home to hundreds of porcupines. One of the more interesting aspects of the hill is the absolute impossibility of getting to the top and surprising the deer who call it home. Even when the wind is blowing steadily at chilling speeds from a particular direction, the topography is such that swirling currents move your scent around so they know you’re there. It’s also a grand place for partridge and rabbits. Even when hunting season isn’t open, it’s a neat place to explore because you never know what you’ll discover. During hunting season of my freshman year in high school, I was walking the woods road on the back side and two mountain lions walked across my path. I was so surprised, the thought of shooting them never entered my mind. Later that winter, one of them returned and spent some time early one morning leaping through the orchard. I attempted to make a plaster cast of its track, but failed. In hindsight, I should have cut it free and kept it frozen. I did measure the track span and the distance between leaps was 16 feet. While the local game warden downplayed the possibility it was a mountain lion, they have been seen over the years by several other hunters along the stretch between Appleton and Union.

When we were involved with youth groups, it was an annual tradition to do treasure hunts on the hill. Three trails, red, white and blue, were blazed through the forest with cans of candy buried near the last mark on each one. For all I know, there may be one still buried that was never found.

Perhaps the most magical time to be on that hill is during a heavy snowfall. Despite my familiarity with it, the moment big flakes descend, my sense of direction vanishes, leaving me bemused and delighted. There’s a unique magic to the hissing silence of snow filtering through thick evergreens.

The apple orchard in winter.

The apple orchard in winter.

One year, Kate and I became fascinated with the clay deposits along the banks of a small rivulet that starts below an old well behind an abandoned pump house in the orchard. Swampy woodland soon turns into a trench which gradually widens and deepens as it follows a small gully behind mixed oak, fir and beech trees bordering the back edge of the orchard. Years of snow melt and rainstorms have further eroded the banks, leaving large expanses of blue and gray clay, perfect for firing the imaginations of kids as well as making crude pottery. We got it into our heads that there might be gold or some exotic metal in the rust colored bands striping the deposits. Mom, a former lab person at Hoffman LaRoche, sent a sample to Dr. Rudolf Koster, her boss at the drug company and a couple weeks later, we got a genuine chemical analysis. It was a perfect way to fuel already curious minds.

berry bowl

Finished product

After our father got out of the poultry business, he went to work at Merry Gardens in Camden. It was, I’m sure, a more satisfying work experience than cussing chickens all day. One of the projects he took on and liked a lot was the making of partridge berry bowls at Christmas, These miniature terrariums sat in a glass bowl and contained moss, partridge berries and downy rattlesnake plantain. We used to hike across the swamp behind the orchard and collect them while hunting, the berries by the swamp, the plantain halfway up the hill under tall evergreens.

Safest snake in the woods

Safest snake in the woods

One of my defining moments happened along the edge of the swamp one October evening just before dusk. I had been on the hill hunting partridge and kept hearing whistling overhead. Ducks in flocks from two to twenty were passing above me before wheeling and dropping toward the small stream flowing through the swamp area. I hadn’t been down there for quite some time and was amazed to find the area was completely flooded thanks to a new beaver dam. The water was several feet deep and duckweed floated in large rafts. It was this green carpet that attracted the Teal, Mallards, Wood Ducks and Black Ducks, along with an occasional Canvasback. The best way to describe it is to liken it to an auditory fireworks display. Birds were swooping in for a landing so rapidly I couldn’t keep up. That evening I caught duck hunting fever, a passion I shared with my friend Jon Marks for the next twenty or so years.

We had a hunter’s double delight when the beavers moved upstream and built another pond bordering the field leading to an abandoned house we called the Teal Place. It became an annual ritual for the two of us to start before sunrise in Jon’s duck boat on Merrymeeting Bay and after a mid morning break for breakfast, we’d hit the beaver ponds as well as a couple spots in Appleton.

The Teal place is memorable for a couple other reasons. Another boyhood friend, Sandy Smith and I were exploring the area one September Saturday when I spotted something shiny in a tree by the old cellar hole. It turned out to be a radiosonde from a weather balloon launched in Illinois several weeks earlier. Instructions in an attached plastic bag identified it and included an address label to use when sending back the transmitter. I got to keep the rest and it made for a neat show and tell item at school. That old cellar hole also had Concord grape vines growing around it that in good years, were loaded with ripe fruit. They sparked an interest I still have, culminating in six vines on trellises down back of our house.

There are enough memories connected to Sennebec Hill Farm to fill ten more pages, but they can wait for another time. I’m curious about YOUR emotional geography.

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9 Responses to Emotional Geography-Looking back at 50 years on Sennebec Hill Farm.

  1. Bruce Robert Coffin says:

    Great visuals and memories, John. Conjured up a few of my own childhood experiences while reading. Thanks for sharing.

  2. John, I love your memories, so many happy and emotional experiences. It’s a joy seeing your mother’s garden, which she used to brag about. I remember her bringing to school her purple green beans. She grew them because they were easy to see among the foliage. My family moved several times, so I don’t have all those memories of one place. You’ve given me an idea for my own trip down memory lane though. Thank you.

    • Sennebec says:

      Glad you liked it. Mom had so much fun gardening. Some day, I’ll write about how family dogs were an integral part of her garden life.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful (geographic) memories, John! Ones many would envy. My own memories include hurricanes. Being evacuated from Hurricane Carol on Cape Cod, where my family had rented a cottage before our Maine days. Watching out the front window of our home in New Jersey during another storm and watching one enormous tree after another fall in the vacant lot where I looked for bugs and butterflies across the street.
    Catching my breath on Pratt’s Island (West Southport, Maine) as enormous waves crashed on rocks I loved to climb — but on that day, the waves and their spray reached to the woods above the cliffs. And, of course, other moments … Thanks for sharing!

    • Sennebec says:

      Ah, scary moments…An important, but not fun part of growing up. Dallying on the dock where we swam while a major thunder shower swept down the valley darn near got me cooked one Saturday when lightning blew up four big pines half a mile north of our house and fire rolled along the power line all the way to our house. I still cringe when it hits anywhere near by.

  4. Kate Collier says:

    I haven’t heard that use of “haunts” in years, John, and I loved being reminded of it! Also enjoyed hearing about and seeing some of your favorite haunts. smiling –kate

    • Sennebec says:

      Haunts is such a neat word. Some subject headings are totally funky, even enough for a stand alone column in the future. Glad you liked this one.

  5. Joyce Lovelace says:

    The description of the big tree on the hill across from the house reminds me of My Side of the Mountain, one of my favorite books.
    I’m glad I got the chance to visit and stay at the cabin. I can appreciate this so well.
    So many books could, and should be cataloged under homes and haunts. All of Wendell Berry’s work. Both of the Harper Lee novels. And of course the above mentioned My Side of the Mountain. I’d frequent the shelves of books labeled that way.

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