Essays - Winter 2015


Donald Hall, a former poet laureate of the United States, died on June 23 at age 89. This essay about life on Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire, where Hall lived and worked for more than 40 years, appeared in our Winter 2015 issue.

By Donald Hall | December 10, 2014
AP Images
AP Images

My great-grandfather (born 1826) called our place Eagle Pond Farm because a great bald eagle lived on a hill called Eagle’s Nest and fished the pond every day for its dinner. Yet his youngest child, my grandmother Kate (born 1878), never saw the bird. The land and its creatures have altered. Thirty-five years after my grandmother’s death, I saw a bald eagle fly over the water.

When the 19th century filled New Hampshire with farms, 70 percent of the state was open land. Dairy farms of 40 or 60 acres lined the dirt roads, pastures for cattle behind them. When I am driven in the backcountry now, past dense forests of hardwood or soft, I see remnant stone walls that kept sheep and cattle to their allotted pastures. I see no horses, whose manure used to surface the roads. The farmers’ sons and daughters deserted granite and sandy soil to work in the mills or go west, where the earth was better for farming. New England has become the most forested part of the United States, 80 percent covered by trees.

In summers when I hayed with my grandfather, 1938–1945, fewer than half a million people lived in New Hampshire. Every quarter mile or so on Route 4 (paved 1928), a small farm—a few Holsteins with hayfields, sheep, chickens, one horse to pull or carry—struggled to survive through the labor of a farmer like my grandfather. Much land and no cash. Old backcountry farms had already begun their return to forest. When my grandfather and I walked in the hills, to call the cows or pick blueberries, we were wary to avoid cellar holes and abandoned wells. Sometimes we knew that a cellar hole was near because the dead farmwife’s hollyhocks gave us warning. At 12 I hayed for the first time on two acres of widow hay down the road. (The farmer had died; his widow wanted grass in her fields, not brush.) When my late wife, Jane Kenyon, and I returned to live in central New Hampshire in 1975, the widow’s hayfield looked like virgin forest to city sorts, softwood rising high and dense. In the southern part of the state, tract houses cover the earth of old farms, and New Hampshire has more than a million people now—mainly suburbanites who live an hour or less from Boston, refugees from Taxachusetts to a state without income tax.

Dylan Thomas wrote a villanelle addressed to his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The rhyming line was “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” When I met Dylan, I was 23. I told him I loved that poem, and he told me he didn’t; he said he stole it from Yeats. (Yeats in old age liked to use the word “rage.”) Over the years, I’ve changed my mind about the poem. It showed affection and care for his father, but it asked him to do what he could not do. In real life, a student of mine at Michigan cherished her ferocious father. He was difficult, but she had always adored his explosiveness. When he softened in age, she couldn’t bear it. She spoke in something like anger, as if his weakness were willful.

When Jane and I moved here, we loved a great-aunt of mine—82, younger than I am now—whose temperament was cheerful and affectionate. She and Jane spent mornings together digging bitter dandelions to boil for dinner. My aunt tottered when she walked, and with difficulty climbed six concrete steps, without a railing, to reach her front door. She asked her grandson, a 30-year-old carpenter, to put up something she could hold onto. I heard him grumble, “She could climb them stairs if she was a mind to.”

Everyone who practices an art should love and live with another art. One learns about one’s own work by exposing oneself to a different passion. Mentioning a second art does not imply competence in practicing it. In eighth grade I flunked Art, which was lamentable because I sat beside Mary Beth Burgess in class, and I was sweet on her. Music is totally beyond me. My most notable musical moment took place on Ken Burns’s Baseball. He interviewed me about the game, about loving baseball, not about playing it. I had hung around Major League players, writing books and essays about them, and for Ken I came up with 20 anecdotes. Then he asked me to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” telling me that all his interviewees would sing it. Ken Burns’s charm could persuade a monkey to breed with a daffodil. At his urging I tried singing “Take me out …” and heard my pitch waver capriciously up and down. Tuneless, ashamed, I forgot the lyrics in my disgrace. The highlight of Ken’s Baseball series, I swear, is the image of my mouth hanging open wide and silent. It looked like brain damage. In editing, Ken paid special attention to this image by holding it for two or three beats.

I love painting, sculpture, sketches, and watercolors. I have my own collection, mostly prints and posters—Blake, Arp, Warhol, Marie Laurencin, de Kooning, Man Ray—and my favorite pastime is going to museums. Myself, I can draw one thing only, and I do it when I sign my baseball books. I draw a circle, with half-moon semicircles inside it, with a few short lines cutting into the semicircles. The perpetually lopsided circle (I am not Giotto), decorated by expressionist stitches, leaves space for dedication, autograph, and date.

It was always poetry and not much else. To avoid math and science I took a classical diploma at Exeter—Latin and Greek, Virgil and Homer. At Harvard I majored in English but concentrated on poetry courses, avoiding prose when I could. One day, I don’t know why, I wandered into the Fogg Museum and found an exhibition of Edvard Munch. I was stunned by the power of this literary painter, and I went back and back to The Scream and its siblings. Two years later, the same show turned up in Paris at the Petit Palais, and during a long vacation from Oxford, I walked every afternoon to see it again. It began my museum life, which lasted and extended. Years later, I wrote a New Yorker profile of Henry Moore, and interviewed other English artists from Barbara Hepworth to Francis Bacon. I learned lots about painting and sculpture, but maybe I learned most about poetry—for instance, by hearing Moore quote Rodin, who quoted a stonemason: “Never think of a surface except as the
extension of a volume.”

Old houses are full of holes. Creatures sneak into the living room. A summer ago, a garter snake entered and slithered across my living room. I stepped on its head and threw it outside. The same year, I discovered a visitor who became my favorite for persistence. A chipmunk took up residence and remained on the first floor for two or three months. Every day I would hear chirping, at first sounding like an electronic signal. Then the chipmunk came into sight, pausing with its paws tucked or folded before it, I suppose sustained by my cat’s kibble and water. As for my cat, she stared at it intently, fascinated. My housekeeper, Carole, bought a tiny Havahart trap and baited it with whatever we imagined was a chipmunk treat. Every morning the bait was gone, but so was the chipmunk. One morning the creature skittered from the kitchen into the toolshed, where the door showed a wide space at its bottom, and never appeared again. I felt abandoned. When autumn descended into winter, I walked into the cluttered dining room, never used in old age, and smelled something rotten in a box of unsorted snapshots. Under a layer of pictures I found the small body of our chipmunk. It had not escaped after all. With a paper towel I picked it up, rigid and almost weightless, and threw it from the door as far as I could. Next morning when I opened the door to pick up the newspaper, half of his small mummified corpse lay beside the door.

At this New Hampshire house, woodchucks are annoying and commonplace. Sixty years ago, my cousin Freeman grew vegetables by his shack up on New Canada Road, and his shotgun took care of many such thieves. Each summer he ate one. “If they eat my peas, I’ll eat them! ” Freeman would dress the woodchuck and carry it downhill to my grandmother’s wood stove. Kate held her nose as she baked it, and Freeman in his hut ate woodchuck.

Across the road from the house, my grandparents raised their year’s bounty of beans, peas, onions, potatoes, and corn. The farthest part of the garden was sweet corn, which phantom raccoons ate every night. Nearer the house were the peas and beans, and it was maddening to find pole beans devoured by woodchucks. When I was a boy, I’d sit on a concrete watering trough with my .22 Mossberg and wait for an hour to assassinate a predator. When Jane and I returned, we grew another garden. I was too impatient, nearly 50, to sit so long with my gun. I bought a Havahart trap. From the porch I could see when the trap was sprung. I walked across Route 4 with the same Mossberg and killed the woodchuck trembling in my Havahart. Once every summer I thought of what Freeman did. In the kitchen I picked up the Joy of Cooking, where Irma Rombauer gives a recipe for woodchuck. When I got to the part about looking for mites when you skinned it, I closed the book and buried the corpse.

My Havahart came from an Agway, which sold farm equipment after most farmers had left. Traps were not the only solution for woodchucks. If you found a likely hole you could try poison, but nothing worked for me except a long rifle slug from my .22. An Agway clerk told me of a customer who was especially enraged. He bought sticks of dynamite, fed them down a woodchuck hole, and blew up his whole garden.

After Jane died, and I traveled with my friend Linda Kunhardt to read my poems, we went to museums in city after city. At Yale we gazed into Stuart Davis’s paintings, and stood in front of a Schwitters collage six inches deep. In Kansas City we found large, powerful Thomas Hart Bentons. We loved Matisse everywhere. Cézanne was the better painter, but Matisse’s colors overwhelmed us. We stared entranced by paintings in Paris, Rome with its ruins and the Vatican, bounteous New York, London’s National Gallery and Tate, Washington, St. Petersburg and the Hermitage, Chicago with its Institute. In Chile we saw pre-Columbian sculpture. Pushed by Linda through museums in a wheelchair, I developed a new perspective on painting. I looked up. Sometimes the reflected dazzle obscured the picture, but most of the time I enjoyed my disabled angle.

Art museums in Paris, you might not expect, are generous to the handicapped. When I limped with a cane toward a long line entering the Pompidou, we were gestured to the front and admitted without charge. The last time we went there, the traveling show was Edvard Munch, of all people. Once, at the Louvre, we approached the Mona Lisa, which was encircled by a velvet cord to hold back the crowd. An attendant unfastened the cord and beckoned us inside.

Long ago I witnessed a motion from youth to age. In 1903 John Singer Sargent painted the portrait of Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel. When I was 20, at an occasion in Boston, I met Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter. I saw an old, old lady wearing a velvet choker with a cameo, her middle-aged daughter standing beside her. In Sargent’s portrait from 40-odd years earlier, the mother was handsome and Bostonian, her 12-year-old daughter leaning against her, loose-limbed and pretty and eager for the moment. The two women before me were the same and utterly altered. The daughter was plain, and looked slack or disappointed. Her mother was wrinkled and smaller, still upright in decorum and dignity, but when she spoke her voice trembled.

Dorian Gray’s portrait aged while his body stayed young.

Gray squirrels dig in the driveway. Red squirrels are sneaky and rip into insulation on the second floor, poking pink fuzzy fragments through the cracks in the toolshed’s ceiling. Always there have been multitudes of mice, though not so many as when my grandfather kept a shed full of grain. Back then, a mother cat had three litters a year, and the kittens who ate mice followed my grandfather as he milked. In the tie-up he swirled a teat and sprayed Holstein milk into gaping mouths. Eventually each kitten strayed away to take a look at Route 4, and it was my chore to bury them deep enough so that something would not dig up a snack. Meanwhile the old mother dragged her teats on the barn floor and never approached the road. If mice in the house became a nuisance, my grandmother invited a cat inside for a predatory visit. Otherwise no mouse-catching cats or beloved cow-herding dogs were allowed inside. People lived in houses.

In 1975 Jane and I brought three cats with us from Michigan. In Ann Arbor, a town of a hundred thousand, Catto and Mia and Arabella roamed outside. New Hampshire’s Route 4 turned them into housecats. They didn’t seem to mind, maybe because the mouse supply was exemplary. Jane went barefoot most of the year as she walked around the house and wrote poems. She screamed a special small scream whenever her bare foot squished the ripped body of a mouse, placed in her way by a cat showing off.

The small animals of 1940 remain in 2014. We see foxes, red and silver. They are handsome and seldom show themselves, but they used to be the terror of the chicken yard. Every night my grandfather shut up the hens to keep them safe. Still, there are opossums playing dead or scooting around. Skunks abound. There are minks. There are fisher cats, which are not cats, but which flip porcupines over and rip open their defenseless stomachs. Undead porcupines roost high in a tree looking like birds’ nests. Our dog Gus found one in a bush and came home with his muzzle sprouting quills. The vet helped out. Beavers thrive everywhere chewing down trees, and not long ago they were almost extinct. We hear of bobcats but would rather not encounter them.

There are new animals, now that the trees are back. Migrating from the west, coyotes howl all night and remain invisible. I never saw a wild turkey when I was young, walking with my grandfather. I saw my first in the 1980s. I was walking Gus when we saw a gray-feathered gobbler cross New Canada Road. Gus stood stock still in amazement—so did I—as the turkey passed in front of us with its head bobbing. Within a year I saw in a patch of grass a gathering of 25 or 30.

Deer have declined in number, although they ate my petunias last summer. Thirty-five years ago, an old orchard bloomed down the road across from a burned-out farm. Deer ate the small, wizened apples, which made the orchard handy for hunters. My uncle Everett shot a buck every year and stocked our freezer with deer meat. (Never confuse deer meat, which is delicious and gamy, with a restaurant’s tasteless venison.) By this time the Whittemores’ orchard has disappeared under softwood. A state trooper bought the land to raise Christmas trees but never got around to it. Fewer deer, fewer hunters. My grandfather’s cow pasture has grown into woods, and bear have replaced deer. Carole once gave me bear stew. Sometimes I see an actual bear, but more often I see their scat, and when I kept a birdfeeder in the maple out front, I found a smashed birdfeeder each spring. After we had been here 15 years, the forest increasing around us, Jane walked Gus up New Canada Road, where he treed a bear cub. If its dam had been nearby, it might have been the end of Gus, if not of Jane. Twenty years later, I sometimes see a moose, which no one saw when the land was farmed. One summer a big moose and a smaller one—I assumed a familial relationship—crossed Route 4 every morning at 6 A.M., walking east from Ragged Mountain to drink from Eagle Pond. They walked with dignity under their elegant antlers, as new and as old as the returning eagle.

Donald Hall’s most recent book, Essays After Eighty, in which this piece appears, was published in November 2014.

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