A Yankee Notebook

January 9, 2017


SOUTH BERWICK, ME – It’s been a gray day – gray clouds and low ceiling, gray snow, and gray ice underfoot. With a wintry walk in prospect, I regarded my hiking spikes with particular affection. I’m not quite sure where we are; we took a myriad of routes, turns, and shortcuts to get here from Durham. This part of Maine, settled long before the place was a state, is pretty well chopped up into towns small enough, I’m guessing, to facilitate a modicum of government and attendance at town meeting by buggy- and wagon-driving citizens.

The camera crew and I have just finished a couple of miles of hiking through a conservation area named for one of its distinctive features, Orris Falls. Only 171 acres, it seems much larger, mainly because it’s somehow insulated from traffic noise and views of anything more civilized than a long-abandoned cellar hole or an active beaver dam.

Our companion and guide today is Dianne Fallon, a professor of English and Creative Writing at nearby York County Community College. A peppy, inveterate hiker and biker, and mother of a 16-year-old son, she’s taken a particular interest in this patch of woods largely because of the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, a popular 19th-century writer and one of Dianne’s favorites.

Jewett was born and lived here in South Berwick. Her family had been here for generations; her father, an obstetrician and pediatrician, sometimes took her with him when he made his rounds of the hardscrabble farms of the coastal bush. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, even as a girl, and was prescribed walks through the woods as a palliative. A bit of a Charming Chatty, with a writer’s eye even then, she visited regularly with the families she met along the way, who often included Civil War veterans, some of them toughing it out despite their wounds to make it as subsistence farmers in this rough, glacial erratic-strewn wilderness.

Before I came here today, I looked it up on Google and GoogleEarthed it, besides. The satellite view of the Orris Falls protected area shows sprawling development and industrial-size roofs and parking lots everywhere. But here’s this little jewel of woods, streams, and beaver dams right in the middle of all that. Along with thirteen other similar areas, it’s the creation of the Great Works Regional Land Trust, based in Kittery. The Trust identifies natural places especially worth protecting, seeks partners, and then pastes together easements and purchases devoted to recreation by hikers, runners, skiers, and snowshoers. The shining result of this kind of effort is Baxter State Park, many miles north, which was purchased in then-worthless chunks of logged-over land by Maine’s governor Percival Baxter, using his personal fortune when the legislature turned down his requests, was assembled into a wilderness quilt, and then protected by an ironclad deed of gift.

The whole area around Orris Falls, including even the sprawl and parking lots, lies within an ancient volcanic caldera that grew and collapsed a little over 400 million years ago. As such, it’s poorly drained, and teems with vernal pools and bogs, beaver dams, and brooks. I suspect it’s pretty lively here in black fly and mosquito season. I commiserated, as I hiked, with those long-ago old-timers who, without DEET and with both hands busy at plow handles, ax helves, and crowbars, had nothing left to wave at the swarming bugs. Many of their sons and daughters sought their fortunes elsewhere; those who stayed were quintessential Yankee tough cookies.

Our road today, dating from the colonial era, took us from the town road through the woods to the Littlefield farm, now only a pair of granite house and barn foundations. Daniel Littlefield purchased the land around 1860 and built his fairly large house on the foundation of an older one, by then gone. The size of the granite stones, particularly the cut slabs used to finish and level the top of the foundation, made me wonder how in the world they did it. But they managed somehow, way off by themselves and far from any neighbors.

They lost three kids at various ages; a fourth stayed on – Orris, for whom the falls, a few hundred yards from their dooryard, were named. A fifth, Phebe, married a local farmer. There was apparently a byre under the barn, open to the cattle, and just down the road a bit, the lonely family cemetery, with six of them in it. Daniel’s wife, Mercy, seems to have suffered from severe arthritis, as well, and reportedly spent the last few years of her life practically immobile in her rocking chair, unable even to raise her hands to her mouth to eat. Sarah Jewett visited in 1889, after Mercy’s death, and found Daniel, at 68, sitting in Mercy’s rocking chair, too played out from war wounds, sadness, and a life of “undiverted toil,” to work the land anymore.

You can see they got their water from the brook in front of the house that in a few rods became Orris Falls, The beavers are busy there now – fresh slides lead to the water, where they’ve dragged saplings down under the ice for winter groceries.  The pond spreads out for acres, emphasizing the depression of the land.

We hiked on over the colonial road, now a trail, over a hill, and down to a phenomenon known as Balancing Rock, a mighty erratic perched firmly on a surprisingly small base. The crew shot the obligatory photos of Dianne and me holding up the rock, and I even gave it a bit of a push, as if I expected it to move. I’m not sure a hydraulic jack could budge it. Then it was on again, through a lightly falling rain promising more ice, back to unprotected land again. It’s been one of those places that, though I may never return to it, will remain in my memory, a part of my consciousness of what New England has been, and what kind of people settled it so long ago.

Photo by Willem lange