A Wistful Walk through the Neighbor's Property

April 11, 2009

I’m proprietary about some tracts of land I don’t even own: the White Mountain National Forest, Kearsarge, Sunapee, Monadnock. What is worse, I lay claim to private property belonging to absentee landlords whose sprawling tracts surround my farm. If sheer time spent aimlessly wandering in all seasons without regard to property boundaries over many years, and if intimate familiarity were claim enough, I’d hold title of all of my neighbors’ empty acres.

I hadn’t intended a hike. I’d gone out to toss hay to the sheep on the eve of the Red Sox home opener. Weak rays of evening sun were the last sunshine forecast for the next several days. On impulse, I thought to check a likely place from which to dig sugar maple saplings to transplant to a pasture edge, a springtime beautification project concocted over the long, dark winter.

I found the maple saplings. But then the sound of running water lured me between parallel stonewalls, an old cow lane leading into the pines. I found clumps of matted hair and the fresh bones of a winter-killed deer. Timber and terrain beckoned me deeper into the woods. I followed the siren song of April evening’s falling light.

I cross the stonewall boundary onto my silver-haired neighbor’s woodlot without hesitation. He visited me in autumn, drawn by the sound of my chainsaw when we’re both out cutting cordwood. He always eyes me suspiciously. “You’re developing this woodlot now are you?” he asks with intentional irony. I ask him the same question. He enjoys sparring, telling me how worthless my woodlot is and how much better situated his woodlot is. I tell him to sell me his land dirt cheap so it’ll remain a woodlot long after he’s gone.

“You couldn’t afford it” he snaps with blue eyes twinkling. He’s got a point.

Now at dusk on the other side of the year, my older neighbor is nowhere in sight. I haunt his woods to revisit a favorite hidden landmark: a rusty Chevy. The forlorn sedan is rusted beyond restoration. Its broken windows, smashed headlights and bullet-riddled fenders are reminiscent of a 1940’s gangster movie. Rusty springs poke-through once elegant upholstery. The louvered hood cowlings lie like a rib cage scattered around a carcass and its smiling grille is missing teeth.

In times past, the Chevy’s trunk housed a hidden stash of empty whiskey bottles. Raccoons and skunks made dens beneath the floorboards. It rusts in peace, mired to its wheel hubs in thick fallen leaves along a creepy wooded lane where I’d never wanted to linger.

A skid trail leads uphill from the wreck, alternately fading and reappearing as it traces the contours of my neighbor’s lot. The last timber harvest took place a decade ago. A faint trail coils around a wooded swamp. I’d now committed unconsciously to follow the trail beyond all previous explorations, to boldly go wherever it might lead or end.

Rotting dirty snow banks bleed into the carpet of hemlock needles. Unfamiliar tree silhouettes loom amid granite boulders and outcrops. Side trails all dead-end at clustered stumps. The orange sun, setting beyond Sunapee and King Hill, filters weakly into the shade at a thundering waterfall. I’d never seen this particular backyard natural wonder before. You’d never guess the April torrent of melting snow is bone dry by July.

I know where I am now. A missing jig-saw puzzle piece clicks audibly into my mental map. I now lay claim to even more of my neighbor’s woods.

The faded trail ends on a high, flat plateau. Beyond bare oak limbs and green pine boughs, I recognize the meadows along the Lane River and the familiar horizon profile of the Dresser and Mink Hills. There’d be a great view if more trees were cleared. It’d be an astronomical expense to improve that boulder-choked trail I followed. It’s too far from the town road and almost too rugged for a skidder.

I’d wandered away from my farm at four o’clock without telling anyone. Now at six-thirty, I bee-line for home, hiking northeast up the brook that falls from my own woodlot. Soon, familiar terrain appears. It’s getting dark.

Imagine if I could afford the neighbor’s woods. I’d link our roads in a loop. Hey, it could happen if I won the lottery. “And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride” I mutter.

Unbroken woods obscure the stonewall aspirations of long-dead farmers who originally cleared thee rocky slopes. Gnarled yellow birches, sugar maples, beeches and hemlocks guard the secret history of vanished farms. It’s wild country up there; perfect just as it is.

What would I do to it? Likely only spoil it – a sacrilege. Coveting my neighbor’s woods is a minor sin. I’ll walk there again and feel the same desire.

I convince myself that I already own it by virtue of being the only one lately to fully appreciate its charms.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.