Used to be the lawn didn’t grow much in August, but this year is different. There’s so much water in the ground that it still needs mowing every week. The field below it has to be mowed once a year and that requires an industrial-strength mower called a bush hog. Last week, I rented one that you sometimes see advertised on TV. It’s a walk-behind unit, not the kind that is attached to the back of a farm tractor. It’s self-propelled, sort of, but it doesn’t have a steering wheel. Turning the thing around at the end of a pass again and again requires more strength and endurance than is left in my 55-year-old body. It’s a two-acre field on the side of Christian Hill and it’s too steep to go side to side, so I had to walk up and down a hundred times behind the machine and hold on to it as it climbed over and chopped up various plants which had grown as tall as I am. Even with numerous breaks to catch my breath, it took a month off the end of my life to finish.
It’s the field’s second incarnation. A farmer named McDaniels created it a century and a half ago. He cleared it and rolled stones down the hill into a wall. Some were too big, so he drilled and split them into smaller, irregularly-shaped pieces that he maneuvered into place on the wall. He must have run out of energy too because he left two big rocks only partially split. Then he planted apple trees. I don’t know how long he worked the apple orchard but eventually he or someone else abandoned it to the forest. By the time I purchased the property it was all woods again. Among the oaks, ashes maples, and birches a few skeletons of long-dead apple trees remained between the stone walls. It took me about a decade to clear it again, cutting trees and burning brush. Many times I sat on one of the walls McDaniels made and wiped sweat from my face as I looked over my work. I imagined that he must have sat there and done the same generations ago. Eventually I hired someone to stump it with an excavator and replant it into a field.
As it would have for McDaniels, the field provides me a marvelous view to the west and I never tire of watching sunsets over Kearsarge in the spring and Baldface in the summer. On clear days, I can see smoke from the cog railway on Mount Washington. Having trekked up and down those mountains I know how massive they are, but when I’m over there and looking back east toward my property on Christian Hill, I can barely make out the hill, much less my field or my house. It helps me realize that my years of hard work are nearly invisible in the grand scheme of things. The hills and mountains are hundreds of millions of years old and my time on them is not much more than the brief, dim glow from a firefly’s butt. Humility is a good thing and I have much to be humble about. If I should forget, someone or something will usually remind me. It might be my wife. It might be a letter to the editor.
All that remained of McDaniels’ work were a few stone walls hidden by woods. I cleared the trees just as he did and constructed a few smaller walls with the help of a friend. Hopefully, they’ll last as long as his. McDaniels also carved his initials on a granite boundary marker nearby. On the other side of Christian Hill, there may someday be a stone with my name engraved in the Number Four Cemetery and somebody else will probably mow around it, for a while anyway.
Though I can see a long way toward large mountains in New Hampshire, I remind myself that what appears a panorama to me is but a tiny sliver of earth’s surface and earth is a tiny speck in the universe. When George Bailey had similarly insignificant feelings about his place and time here in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an angel visited to convince him otherwise. I haven’t seen any angels lately and I’m mostly glad I have so little influence on events around me. If it were otherwise, I’d have to take more responsibility for what happens on this planet.
Matthew’s gospel says God knows when a sparrow falls. I’m also aware that He created the hawk and house cat which can hasten the sparrow’s demise. The passage goes on to say that God counts the hairs on my head. It’s also true that He’s making His job easier lately by expanding my bald spot.
Then there’s my philosopher friend, Kevin, who tells me: “Always remember Tom, that you’re unique - just like everyone else.”