Prior to living where we currently do, I never gave much consideration to the history of the land and the people who inhabited it before me. But for some reason, I feel deeply connected with the land on which we currently live. Maybe it’s because it’s so rich with history that there’s no escaping the lure of the past and giving it the respect it deserves.
I am reading an old book, Early Days in Eastern Saratoga County by Grace VanDerwerker (originally published as pamphlets dating back to 1928), and am riveted by accounts of incidents that took place in our home, yard, and community long ago.
The Hudson River that flows in front of our house was fundamental to the lives of the Mohicans who once dwelled on these banks and fished in these waters, and to the Mohawks who drove them out. During the 1700s came the French and Indian wars, early pioneers, and the turning point of the Revolutionary War (Battles at Saratoga and Burgoyne’s surrender in 1777). The 1800s saw the building of the Champlain Canal, the blossoming of the canal era and, soon after that, the rise of the railroad. The house next door to ours even served as a Revolutionary War hospital, and I can see the remains of the old field hospital from the room in which I am writing.
Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks diving into genealogical research and was able to trace my family tree back further than I ever would have imagined. After learning that some of my ancestors were involved in the Deerfield Massacre, I researched that event, and all of a sudden it felt very personal, rather than just an account in a history book. I learned that other ancestors were original landowners in Manhattan and Harlem, which connected me with those places, as well. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to pinpoint the exact locations on Google Maps and see what exists there in the present day. It’s fascinating how genealogical research connects us with other places and events.
There are blood ancestors, and there are land ancestors, and I am equally interested in learning about both. There is an intimacy with blood ancestors with whom we share genetic code and cultural and family values that are passed on. It is a connection through time. With land ancestors, the intimacy comes through living our daily lives on the same ground: a spatial connection. Waking up every morning inside the same walls, surrounded by the same trees, looking out at the same view (more or less). Having a relationship with the same land. Even though I am not a native of the town in which I currently live – and might not remain here for the rest of my life – I feel a deep sense of urgency to learn about those who were here before me. Who walked up these stairs and slept in our bedrooms? If there were children, where did they play? Where were their secret places? Were they happy? What were their dreams, joys and hardships? Who died here? If I could learn the names of every person who ever lived in this old house (which possibly was built circa 1850), I would want to write their names on stones arranged in the yard. I want to honor and remember them. I want to learn about their lives.
The VanDerwerker book gives an account of an event that took place in our house in the 1870s and mentions the resident by name. I was able to find his name in the 1880 census, along with the other household members. I had hoped to locate their graves, but it appears they did not remain in town. I also learned that bricks were manufactured in the hill behind our house in the late 1860s, which explains why we’re always finding bricks in the ground! Relating events from long ago relies heavily on descriptions of landmarks. It’s difficult to connect specific places with specific addresses because roads and even town names and boundaries have changed so much over the course of 200 years.
I haven’t yet done much research into 20th century history of this land, although I’m curious about who lived here during the 1940s. A few years ago, we had some perplexing and unexplainable experiences in a certain area of the yard where we had started a small garden, and an intuitive friend of mine saw an image of a woman dressed in clothing of that era.
My husband and I find it fascinating that this land gives us whatever we ask for. Milkweed. Sunflowers. Just wish for it, and all of a sudden it pops up despite never having been there before. We wonder if our reverence for the land and living so harmoniously with its various energies might come into play here. Before creating a new structure or garden, my husband asks permission from the land.
Today I harvested our first ever ear of corn, linking us with an ancient history of corn being grown here as crops.
When my children were little, we listened to a lot of recorded stories. One of them was an Odds Bodkin story called “The Elf of Springtime” in which new residents of a home experienced all kinds of annoyances until they made peace with the elves of the land who they unknowingly had managed to upset. It is a story that has stuck with me all these years, and when we moved into this house on this land so rich with history, I made a point of honoring the energies of the place before we even moved in our first box. I can’t say for sure, but I think it makes a difference.
One evening, I was driving home, and an enormous rainbow stretched across the sky. As I drove past a local cemetery, I noticed that the rainbow was highly visible behind it and pulled over to take some photos. When I got home and looked at the photos, I became intrigued with the names on the tombstones. I think that’s what ignited my interest to learn about the early settlers.
One night last week, I was reading the VanDerwerker book, and a severe thunder and lightning storm blew in, complete with hail beating on the roof. I was home alone reading about how early settlers lived in constant fear of being attacked by Mohawks. I could almost feel their fear. The next day, I brought the book with me to the old cemetery up the hill, where soldiers of five different wars are among the buried, and had the best time looking at the names on old tombstones and looking them up in the index of the book. I’d already read most of the book, and felt excited to stumble upon graves of those whose names and stories I remembered from the book.
The names and stories from the book came alive for me there in the cemetery. I knew the gossip – who was highly respected, who were the doctors, soldiers, and deacons, even who was murdered.
Somehow, I felt at home among all these personalities – as if I, too, am a part of the history of this land. I returned to the cemetery later the same afternoon, and my parents, who were picking blueberries across the street, joined me. It was fun showing them around and “introducing” them to the different personalities memorialized there.
And then I went home and did more cross-referencing of cemetery photos, the VanDerwerker book, and online resources. The photo below shows the grave of someone whose house is pictured in the book.
Whereas I don’t live here during a time of warfare (and am really glad that’s the case), I am witnessing a historical event: the monumental PCB dredging of the Hudson River. I have been photographing all aspects of the undertaking as it unfolds around me, and perhaps someday some of my photographs will be part of local historical records and will help to paint a picture of what life was like here on the river during the early 21st century.
There’s one more piece to this little “ancestors of the land” project of mine: Returning to the land of my own childhood years. Yesterday, I took a drive by my childhood home, where I am an ancestor of the land. Even though it’s not far from where I live now, I haven’t driven by it in years. The first thing I noticed after turning on the street was that “my woods” was for sale – which saddened me. I still recognized the rocks and trees, although the area in which I played and explored seemed much smaller than I remembered.
The house itself looked more weathered than it did when we lived there 35 years ago. When my parents moved in right before I was born, the house was barely 20 years old. Every single window in the photos leads to rooms that I can visualize clearly – probably even more clearly than my parents would be able to because children are so aware of their environment and notice details that adults overlook.
I knew every inch of that yard and every tree in the woods across the street. It was my kingdom 35-40 years ago. I still dream about the house and the yard and can recall details as if it were yesterday. If a highly sensitive person ever wanders to the southwest corner of the yard and sees or hears a little girl playing, it might be me, for that area – and the woods across the street – were my special spots where my imagination ran wild and I could be whoever I wanted to be. Or perhaps one might hear lingering giggles from summer evenings when I would chase after fireflies, barefoot in my nightgown before going to bed.
Who knows what kinds of imprints we make on the land when we connect with it deeply. I can’t help but think that a part of us remains in the places in which we have experienced strong emotions or have let our spirit run free.
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