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A MOUNTAIN FARM
One on Wildcat Mountain the Highest Ever Cleared in New England
Last night the north wind died of its own cold among the high peaks and black frost bit deep down in the valley meadows, killing all tender herbage. Then morning broke in a sky of crystal clarity, of a blue as pure and cool as the hope of Heaven in the heart of a Puritan, through miles of which all objects showed as if through a lens. From the ledges of Wildcat Mountain I looked over to the summit of Mount Washington, whose details were so plain that the five trains that came up were visible to the naked eye, and with glass I could see the people flow from them in a slow black stream, its tide flecked with the flotsam of fall millinery. So still was the air upon the summit that from each engine as it came in sight over the ridge stood high and straight a cloudy pillar of mingled smoke and steam. The Israelites who of old were thus led through the wilderness to the promised land could have had no more visible guide. Slowly to the mountain rim sank the frosted fragment of the once round and yellow moon, a wan, gray ghost seeking obliteration in the grayer ledges of the summit cone.
On these gray ledges of the cone the scant herbage of the summer clung in flowing, warm, tan-brown streaks drifting down as snow does from the summit, but coloring only perhaps a twentieth part of the surface. All else was the gray of the rock, softened by distance into a cool delight to the eye. Lower the Alpine Garden slants toward the ravines, black in patches with dwarf firs, soft green in others where in moist hollows the grasses and moss still grow, but for the most part showing the olive yellow of autumn-tinted tundra. Only below this, where the garden drops off steeply to the slope between Tuckerman and Huntington ravines, was the rich yellow of the dwarf birches to be seen, here a clear sweep of color, lower still mottled with the black growth of spruce and fir.
There was never a flame of rock maple in sight on all the visible slope of the big mountain, but below, in the middle distance of a slope up to Slide Peak, below the boulder and from there down into Pinkham Notch, they flared, one after another, ending in a blazing group whose conflagration was stabbed by the points of the firs on the near slope of Wildcat.
Such beauties as these the mountains set daily before the eyes of the man who hewed out the highest farm in New England, a century or less ago, on the high shoulder of a westerly spur of Wildcat Mountain. Few New Englanders are farmers now. In the eighteenth century most of them were, and the tide of young men who had the courage and the brawn to build farms in the wilderness rose high in the New Hampshire hills. The river-bottom lands were taken up, then the lower valleys, then the higher slopes, and finally, as the nineteenth century grew, the ultimate pioneers landed on the very shoulders of the White Mountains. Up the valley of the Wildcat River climbed the Fernalds, the Hayeses, the Wilsons, the Merserves, Wentworths, Johnsons and half a dozen other pioneer families, each hewing out of the terrific timber and grubbing out of the grim rocks with infinite labor the fields that to this day smile up to the sun.
"Such beauties as these the mountains set daily before the eyes of the man who hewed out the highest farm in
New England on the high shoulder of a westerly spur of Wildcat Mountain"
Hall, the traditions have it, was the name of the highest-minded pioneer, who set his farm on a spur of Wildcat, 2500 feet above the sea level. He is said to have been an educated man, born far down the State and educated in college. Tradition has it, too, that he was a poor farmer, which is what tradition always says of college men who farm. However that may be, he certainly was a worker. On his farm acre after acre of mighty trees crashed to the ground in the wine-sweet mountain air and went up again in the pungent smoke of the "burns," whereby the first settlers cleared their ground and made ready for their primitive first plantings. Gray ledges and black soil inextricably intermingled drop down his farm from terrace to terrace toward the Wildcat River, and on the highest of these stood his house. Its foundations only remain to-day, showing the vast square occupied by the central chimney. Around the foundations of this the cellar lingers, narrow and apologetic. The rooms above even must have been rather crowded by this leviathan chimney, four-squared to the world and with a big fireplace on each side. We are apt to think of the houses of the early mountaineers as being cold in winter, but this one need never have been. That great bulk of enclosed chimney once warmed through would hold the heat in its stone heart for hours, and the wood for its reheating was so plentiful as to be in the way.
From his door sill to the south the pioneer's family looked forth upon the sweet curves of the Wildcat River valley at their very feet. From the shoaling green of the sea of air beneath them it deepens into a richer and softer blue as mile runs beyond mile to the spot where Thorn and Iron mountains slope toward one another to a broad notch through which the glance runs on down the Saco to the horizon line where the Ossipee Mountains melt and mingle with the blue of the sky. Thorn Mountain blocks the lower end of the Wildcat Valley, in which the pioneer saw from his doorstone more farms than I see to-day. Down the slope of Wildcat beneath him a half-dozen since his time have passed to the slumber of pasture or on to the complete oblivion of returning forest. Over on Black Mountain now unoccupied were as many more. But the view in the main is the same as he saw on clear September days, nor need one think he or any other mountain farmer was or is insensible to the beauty of it. You rarely get one to talk much about it — they all know how poor things words are — but they feel the joy of it for all that.
From the northern edge of Hall's topmost terrace I look forth across a wide gulf of crystalline air to the rough slopes and ridges of Wildcat and Carter mountains. The middle of September is past and autumn is setting the seal of her colors deeper and deeper on the high hills. Both mountains have a saddle blanket, so to speak, of green-black dwarf firs, but each of these is decorated with a misty featherstitching of yellow birch leaves. Below each blanket is a ridge up and down which fire swept some years ago. On these ridges great birches, all dead, stand so close together that their trunks line it with perpendicular, parallel scratches of gray, all cross-hatched with a netting of limbs that soften the whole into a wonderful warm tone. In the greatest distance these scratches blend into a fur that is softer and more beautiful than any ever brought into the markets of civilization by the Hudson Bay Company. Other winter pelts that the mountains wear may be warmer, but none can vie with this in the delight of its coloration.
Down the ridge again the birches thin out and, all among them and below, the bird cherry trees paint the slope a soft cerise, a color that in the distance is but a neutral one, a background for the rich hues of the rock maples that climb into it from the ravines. Not all these have felt the flare of autumn in their blood. Many seem to ride toward the summit in Lincoln green. The outcry of beagles should be just ahead of them. But more have added a scarlet facing to their hunting coats, and some others are fairly aflame with the richest tint that any autumn leaf can get, the flaming crimson of the rock-maple foliage ripened under a full sun where mountain brooks soak a primal vigor from the granite and send it upward into white cambium layers all summer long. The twenty-fifth of September finds the hillsides displaying the autumn hunting colors for all who follow the hounds. The very sight of them sets the blood a-gallop and brings the view-halloo to the lips of the most sedate.
All along the horizon to the east of this highest farm stretches the green wall of Black Mountain. In the pioneer's day no doubt it deserved its descriptive title for the spruce growth which clothed it, but on the easy slopes this did not last so long as the pioneer, and the green of deciduous trees which has replaced it belies the mountain's name. So high is this wall of green hill that only Doublehead peers over it, and that by way of a gap in the ridge, a little of the purple haze of distance setting it apart lest one take it for a part of the same mountain. But I fancy the gaze of the pioneer passing oftenest a little to the west of south, passing the smiling beauty of the valley and the stately cone of Kearsarge, to the summit of Iron Mountain, where to this day one may see the broad cultivated fields of what I believe to be the next highest farm in New England, and one still occupied by descendants of the pioneers that hewed it out on a broad terrace not far below the summit. This is the Hayes farm, and it is a singular fact that while, according to the surveys, the Hayes farm is many hundred feet below this site of the ancient Hall homestead, and looks it, on the contrary one looking across from the Hayes farm thinks himself several hundred feet above it. In the same way Hall could look across to the Gerrish farm on Thorn Mountain and would surely know that it was far below him. Yet on the Gerrish place, looking across to Hall's fields, I always feel sure that the Gerrish place is much the higher. As a matter of fact, a contour map places Hall's house six hundred feet higher in the air than that of Hayes and eight hundred higher than Gerrish. In so much at least was the college-bred farmer superior to his good neighbors of other mountain tops.
Farther westward the highest farmer looked in his day as one does now upon an unbroken wilderness where the Giant Stairs break the long .levels of the Montalban Range and stand blue-black against the gold of the sunset. Only on the north and northwest was his view broken by the highest points of Wildcat Mountain, which sheltered him completely from the sweep of the winter winds. It is now, as it was then, a wood-lot, and from it the forest steadily moves down into the open spaces of this highest New England farm. The firs and spruces sit about in it now in groups, reminding one of dark-plumed aborigines that seem to have come back and to be holding councils once more in this clearing of the paleface. The unmown grass stands deep all about these encroaching forest trees and, lacking the care of the farmer, has cured itself and waits in vain to be harvested, while all through it the sunlight silvers the dry white panicles of the everlasting, the only flower of the season on these terraced fields which so steadily and surely drift back to be again the forest from which the college-bred pioneer with such labor reclaimed them. There is a pungent aroma of old herb gardens about this silvery everlasting, though it is essentially a wild flower, that seems to bear dreams of the pioneer grandmothers of the lovely Wildcat Valley. It is as if in the bright September sun they came back with silvery hair and white kerchiefs and caps, for one more stroll in the pleasant fields and one more look at the beautiful valley below, a landscape than which none in New England is more beautiful.
The nasal twittering of red-breasted nuthatches led me up the hill above the highest cleared terrace into the forest that from its multiplicity of fascinating wood roads gives evidence of having always been the farm woodlot. The pioneer should certainly have loved this hill. It sheltered him on all parts of his farm from the bite of winter winds out of the northwest. Out of its deep heart it gave him water that he had but to allow to run to his buildings, and from its top the wood which he cut would coast down grade to his fireplace. An hour before it had been a silent forest filled with a yellow underglow of sunlight, doubly distilled from the ripening leaves of white and yellow birch. Now, in a moment it was filled with quaint twittering and snatches of eerie song. With the nuthatches came chickadees, and the red-breasted ones sang in part their song, at least an eerie imitation of it such as only nuthatches could make. The nuthatches are the goblin acrobats of the deep wood. Gravity may exist where they perform, but it does not trouble them. They walk with utter disregard to it, and in their evolutions I expect any day to see one fly upside down, and, if I were mean enough to shoot one, I would as soon expect him to fall up into the sky as to fall down to the ground. Nor would I be much surprised if he hung like Mahomet's coffin, suspended between heaven and earth. If brownies ever try to blow the notes of the chickadee's song on tiny tin trumpets, ranged in Palmer Cox rows on mossy tree trunks, they no doubt get the same result that the red-breasted nuthatches did that day in the woodlot of the highest farm in New England.
Beside this they sang little twittering ditties that were quite musical and altogether uncanny as well, and seemed to fill the golden woodland aisles with all sorts of suggestions of goblin adventures to be found there. Between me and the deep heart of the Carter-Moriah range was unbroken wilderness out of which might well come any of the phantoms the Pequawkets were wont to declare they saw there. Climbing steadily toward the top of the long ridge which swings round from the old farm to the summit of Wildcat I thought I heard the footsteps of that great white moose that breathed fire from his nostrils and turned back all arrows before they reached him. Nearing the top I knew I heard him — or something just as good — an irregular stamping which I stealthily approached from behind the screen of gray tree trunks and golden forest leaves.
Almost at the top I could see the shaking of boughs from which the creature was browsing, and to me, approaching from below and with the elfin incantations of the nuthatches still in my ears, these seemed very high in air. Some creature of prodigious size was just beyond and in a moment more a turn of a rock corner revealed part of him. A long, lean, white neck I saw, and a head stretching high up to a maple limb whence prehensile lips plucked pink-cheeked leaves. Its mouth full the creature turned a long face toward me and neighed, and the forest aisles echoed the spluttering whinny in tones full as uncanny in their laughter as had been those" of the nuthatches; also vastly louder. Somebody's old white horse looked at me with a mild curiosity as I tramped up to him on this ridge of the Wildcat wilderness, and at sight of him the spectral moose vanished into the past century, there to remain with the Indians who claimed to have seen him.
Spectral enough the old horse looked here in the deep shadows of the wood. He had "yarded" on the hilltop much as deer do in winter. I found well-worn trails of his, leading hither and thither on the ridge, but none going away from it, and, under the shade of a beech, in what had tried to be a thick bed of spinulose wood ferns, was evidently his nightly bed. He had worn the earth bare in his clumsy getting up and lying down. Far down the terraces of the old farm in sunny glades were pastured other horses and cattle. There they stayed, for the feed was good and water near, and they loved the sight of the lower pasture bars that will later let them out to the road to stalls of which they dream. But here was a finer soul than these, a hermit that preferred the cool fragrance of wood fern and the unmolested quiet of his wooded hilltop, from the loopholes of whose retreat he might look upon the world. I fancy him the best horse of the herd.
Now and then you find a man like that, and I dare say such an one was the maker of the old farm. As I came down again into his .highest field the sun was sinking behind Boott's Spur and cool blue shadows stretched out across the low, sweet curves of the Wildcat River valley. Against them the pale smoke of supper fires rose lazily and far over from the gorge below Carter Notch floated the hush of falling waters. The blue of the mountains to southward deepened and only on their summits sat the rose of sunset fire. Behind me in the wood was now no sound of nuthatches, but a single robin sat in a treetop and sang softly, as if to himself. On such a scene of peace and unsurpassed beauty it is easy to fancy the college-bred pioneer looking at nightfall and finding it good. If his descendants descended through the pasture bars to be stall-fed in cities, so much the worse for them.