To get to the lower pasture, you have to descend through a tunnel of trees, a darkened archway that takes some faith to enter. Shadows deepen as you leave the world of fields, barns, and sunlight, and enter this shadowy crescent of land between the creek and the wooded ridge.
Down here you can no longer see the house or the cottage. The only signs of civilization are a couple of plastic Adirondack chairs overturned near a circle of rocks where we sometimes have bonfires, and a metal target my dad uses for shooting practice.
I usually only go down here to get to the creek, where I used to play when I was little, making names for sandbars like Cuttlefish Land, and finding odd bits of someone else’s life along the banks — an iron, a chandelier frame, a boot.
We have returned to this place in the Ohio countryside because — with 38 states off-limits due to rising coronavirus cases, and every vacation rental booked within a 4-state radius — we knew the cottage was empty, and even though we visited last month, my parents said, Come!
I walk down the path my dad has mowed along the creek. The creek is still now, its sloping banks dry and silent. It’s dusk, almost dark, and mosquitoes whine around my neck. Flying things keep getting caught in my hair. The trees are so loud with the razz of cicadas it seems that they are made of cymbals instead of leaves.
It’s our first night in the country, having driven 7 hours from D.C. to get here, to this house which has been in my family since 1862. After a welcome dinner of grilled hamburgers, my mom’s baked beans and potato salad, and Dairy Hut ice cream with peaches and blueberries, I have taken a walk, and since my daughter took the upper path around the soybean fields, I took the lower one.
Here in the lower pasture, it’s nothing like the land above with its brick terraces, bedspreads, and wi-fi. Where redbuds are groomed and swings are tied around oaks. The only purposeful trees down here are a few deformed walnuts getting strangled by vines. Spider silks break across my torso, and I get the feeling I’m trespassing.
I walk beside the band of walnut and tulip trees that separates upper from lower pasture. They lurch out, as if wanting to take back the land that was cleared for cows and corn. I peer into the thicket. It’s not deep but so dark, and I see why the first European settlers to North America, arriving in a place where trees took the sun, suffered from a depression called ‘green gloom.’
I mustn’t wander from my father’s mowed path of clover and wild violet. An army of young poison ivy plants has marched right up to the edge. They glow a florescent green in the falling light, and rising above the dull grasses with their forked leaves of three, they look like vampires ready to attack.
Nature is always just about to win in the country. You can repair a fence, patch a leak, trim a hedge, but the wild always returns. You can get the flying ants out, and then swarms of ladybugs will infiltrate. You can shore up the creek bank with boulders, but the water will take your land farther down. Seal up snake holes in the foundation, and bats get in through the chimney.
I pick up a bit of brown lace on the ground. A poplar leaf whose flesh has been completely devoured by caterpillars who don’t care for the veins, leaving behind an intricate skeleton, a tragedy so beautiful it might be found on the cutting room floors of a Parisian fashion house. The earth caves in as I walk and I imagine the elaborate tunnel works that moles and groundhogs have made under my feet.
Beyond the creosote post-and-rail fence at the end of the pasture, pickup trucks sail over Route 50. Their tires spin over the pavement at 55 miles per hour, barely slowing through the no-stop-light town that sits at the edge of our farm.
Where the creek goes under the highway, it joins up with the bigger one where my grandmother’s brother drowned when he was only 10 years old. A strange odor rises from the banks, and it smells sweet and rotten like boiled milk and decomposing crawdads.
It’s time to get back, and tuck in the kids. Clumps of ironweed chirp as I walk by. My grandfather used to bushhog the thistles and ironweed when there were cows in this pasture. Now there are no cows, and my parents are the grandparents.
I have to walk through the tunnel of trees up the hill once more to get home. Lightning bugs, harbingers of summer magic in the world above, blink an eerie green down here, as if signaling a witches spell.
When I emerge onto the smooth flat plain, the sky opens big over me and I feel washed with an ocean of dove-blue light. The land is an outstretched palm holding me up to the heavens. In the distance, there is Comfer’s barn where it always has been, and a band of the day’s last light hangs over the distant blue hills. The houses pour yellow light from every window, calling me home.