My parents decided to build at the top of a sawn-off mountain (all Appalachians were decapitated by glaciers). Since Dad is a geologist, you’d think that the name alone would have been an indicator of the fertility of the soil at the tippy-top. Not good. Glacial dandruff, anyone?
At one time, there had been a Manganese mine in the hill. The adults all seemed to know where the ancient shafts were. To all children who grew up in Markhamville, however, that’s still classified. Apparently there were thriving communities in Lissonville Settlement and in Markhamville when the mine was productive, over a hundred years ago. Today, Lissonville is empty. Its houses listed in a sloping, twisting, descent into the toothy, open mouths of dark foundations. Blueberry barrens now smooth their bright foliage over the fields that once were…englobing mounds and mounds of rocks picked from soils that bred baby rocks in the night. And grandmother rocks. With plenty of cousins.
At the top of mine hill, my parents geared up for their back-to-the land endeavours. A garden plot was tilled in an old hayfield above the house. I can’t recall whether the roto-tilling broke any blades, but I do know that every subsequent spring roto-tilling yielded enough rocks to sink a large ocean-going vessel. And every spring, we picked rocks. A rock wall grew taller and taller. The rocks were nubbly, pinky-red and irregular. The rock wall was not a beautifully arranged thing. It was a higgledy-piggledy wall of glacial rubble. Manure was generously applied to the soil. Clouds of lime. Bags and bags of peat were crumbled and dispersed in the hopes that the “soil” would one day hold moisture. If you’ve ever poured a bucket of water on a pile of gravel…well, you get the idea. And every spring, the frost heave would vomit forth another crop of rocks.
Somehow, the garden did become viable. In the years that followed, we added a second garden above the first for potatoes, and then rotated the crops so that the “soil” didn’t get depleted. We had corn, beans, radishes, potatoes, chard, beets, cabbages, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes that barely managed to get green before the first frost hit. A chicken coop helped for ensuring a steady and short-haul supply of fertilizer. Raising Meat Kings meant we had organic protein, too. Since the telephone and electric lines screeched to a halt at the bottom of the almost 45 degree angle of Mine Hill itself, a little hut was built at the bottom of a (wait for it) gravel pit. In this hut we stored a freezer and a telephone, which were shared with our across-the-road neighbour, who was running a pottery before we moved in. So we had a place to freeze meat, veggies, and a party-line telephone. This was the ultimate convenience. Now we only had to drag the protein and veggies by sled up the sometimes-plowed road in the wintertime. And it was a quick toboggan-ride down – luge style, if there was a lot of snow and the plow had somehow managed to climb the hill with its tire chains ringing and motor groaning. Nobody lingered on the long-distance calls, since it was freezing in the winter and cooking in the summer.
Idyllic, right? Utopian. Heavenly. I haven’t even mentioned the swarms of mosquitos and blackflies that attended the weeding festivities. Black flies have a talent for flying in one’s eyes, up your nose as you breathe in, in your mouth if you dare to speak, and they feast on your scalp and the backs of your ears, leaving crusty dried blood deposits that would make a shark go absolutely berserk if it had the pleasure of scenting you on a swish of saltwater current. Good thing we were half an hour from the Bay of Fundy. Oh yes, and as if these delights weren’t plentiful enough, did I mention the red ants? Ants go absolutely gaga for acidic glacial soil. They were so giddy, they established a veritable metropolis of high-rise ant condominiums in the upper field. If you stepped on one by accident, they would swarm your legs and bite you en masse. My youngest sister once made the unfortunate choice of sitting on what she imagined to be a nice tussock of spruce needles during a hide-and-seek game. The shrieks echoed in the valley.
Acidic soil is also great for wild raspberries…and then later in the summer, blueberries. I always had scabby legs and arms from the raspberry brambles. We filled empty yogurt containers with sweet wild gems, and filled our bellies, too.
Our neighbours at the bottom of the hill lived in a lush, fertile paradise, by comparison. The soil was loamy. Brooks gurgled past. They had a pond fed by springs – and they rigged up a diving board with an old tire for a spring. On hot summer days, we would change into our bathing suits, clamber with our towels slung over our shoulders into the back of dad’s half-ton, and bounce in the clouds of dust kicked up by the dirt road all the way down to the pond. In the pond, there were tadpoles. Frogs sang their froggy song from the long grasses at the edges. If it was really hot, you swam till you found the cool spots where the springs sprang. There were little leeches in the silty areas – we would pick them of, stretching until they popped in release – and leave them to a dry death on the diving board dock. My mother made tents with old mosquito netting from our years in Australia. She packed picnics. Between swims, we would take refuge beneath the netting. Horseflies and deer flies compounded the swarms of black flies with their persistent drone. Horsefly drone would leave you at the water’s surface and be waiting when you came up for air. The frogs were well nourished. And so were the flies. Circle of life, people.
In the evening, the air cooled and the stars came out. The milky way spread its veil, and we’d thread constellations. Adjustable screens propped the windows open, and the house breathed in the dewy night air. From our blankets, we watched the moon rise until sleep winked it out. Maybe Utopia wasn’t so far off, after all.