A Tramp in the Woods
This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter from his archive. Read the previous post here.
My friend, Van, invited me to go for a tramp through his woods last weekend. It’s something that gives me a lot of pleasure, to take a good reconnoiter of another man’s land to see what he’s been up to while the rest of the world wasn’t looking.
Van’s land is one of those good-sized chunks of the local countryside whose acreage is casually written up as “more or less” in the old deeds. I like that “more or less” business. It allows the land to breathe, its boundaries to follow the wandering brook and old stone walls and the vagaries of shoreline.
Just as vague, perhaps, was the purpose of our tramp, which initially was to scare out the truth of the rumored discovery of a woozle house somewhere on Van’s land by an old hermit who used to snare rabbits down where a creek snaked its way through a big alder patch. Van said he’d never seen it, but then he’d never really looked before. There were parts of his land he hadn’t walked over in ages, he told me.
I’ve somehow acquired a real interest in woozles over the years, mythical or not, and I pressed him. I still haven’t actually laid eyes on a living, breathing woozle myself yet, but I’ve chanced upon enough evidence in my own wanderings to believe they do indeed exist. So, last Saturday morning I went down to Van’s place and convinced him he could use a break from his chores in the barn. It didn’t take much; I think he was in a tramping mood.
It turned out to be a very long walk. Our search for the old hermit’s reported woozle house was in ernest, but the old geezer could very well have been on a binge the day he saw it, for all we knew. In any event, we never found it. A couple of times, we thought we had, until it just turned out to be a stump inhabited by mice – no doors or windows or anything like that.
What we did find, though, were a lot of stories, about old cellar holes, about a section of old field pines that had been a pretty good pasture once, and about a handsome spruce stand that used to be so thick with fir you couldn’t fit between the tree trunks until Van had gone in there and thinned it out. They weren’t my stories; they were his. Of course, they could have been a lot of people’s stories, because every piece of land has witnessed its share of comings and goings and private labors over the generations. An old well. A forgotten bunch of pine logs left to rot on a collapsed brow built into a bank, all covered with moss. Trails that seemed to go nowhere. A pile of stones cleared from an ancient field. Even the man who owns the land can never know all its stories. We walked for two or three hours. Van talked. I listened.
And then, “I’ve got to show you something,” he said. He took off through a thicket of spruce, snapping off branches as he went. We climbed at an angle up a ridge, over fallen logs and ledges. The shore was near – mussel shells lay here and there on the snow-dusted moss under our feet, and I could see water down through the trees on the other side of the ridge. Presently, Van stopped. “There. What do you think of that?”
It was one of the biggest white pines I have ever seen – absolutely gigantic. Both of us, stretching our arms around its girth, couldn’t touch fingertips – not even close. Its branches alone were bigger than most trees. Perched up on that ridge the way it was, I was amazed it hadn’t blown down ages ago. It had the appearance of having survived the last hundred years by dint of its sheer size and weight alone. I calculated it to be about 4 1/2 feet in diameter. That’s a damned big pine tree!
The things that old pine must have witnessed, things that are now only local history: the clearing of the land all around for pasture; the boats slipping in and out of the cove down below; the people we see in old photographs, wearing funny hats and clothes. That tree itself was a story.
There was just one huge branch that had snapped off sometime in the last few years, probably under its own weight, but there were no other signs of decay. It was a wonderful tree, superior in every way. “Good genes,” I thought.
“I want to tell you,” Van said, “there’s some lumber in that monster.” And I quickly figured there was enough in the first log or two to frame up a house.
I could tell Van felt a certain kinship with that old pine. He, in his lifetime, has been its guardian in a way, holding title to the land it grows on, but more importantly I guessed, they have shared quiet visits over a long period of time, many of them, and have seen days together I will never know about.
That’s what I like about tramping another man’s woods. I get glimpses of things I never knew existed, labors of love, sweat and tears, and secrets, a fox’s trail on the new snow, and every once in a while, a big old tree that’s lived through it all.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.