Thursday, February 24, 2011

About Land

When I moved to this ridge, most of our land had not been used for any agricultural purpose for a long time. There were some sandstone rocks here and there scorched red, a sign we learned later, that the land had at one time been "burned off" for crops.

There were cairns of rocks in the woods too, and I thought they must have had some Native American explanation. The real explanation was at the same time mundane and intriguing: about 40 years before we found them, the rocks had been piled by our neighbor and his brothers when that part of our land was plowed to plant wheat. Wheat! There were 60-foot pine trees growing there! But that was indeed the truth of the rock piles, and proof that on this land, things grow fast. Looking at the lay of that area, I can see that it was one of the more level places, if it could be graced with that name. A 40% slope only looks level when compared with an 80% slope, and the area we call the "flat" is probably also a 40% slope. Such is hill land.

There were lots of things growing here--blackberries, horse nettle, scrub pines, tough hickory saplings, elderberries, wild grapes, honeysuckle, pennyroyal, broomsedge, ground cherry--all indicators of highly acidic and not very rich soil. Back then I didn't know the difference and enthusiastically planted all kinds of stuff: apple trees, currants, raspberries, flowers and vegetables, grapes. Some hardy ones survived; our pear tree was one of the first things we planted, and so are my grape vines. But a lot didn't make it, victims of the acidity and the fast-draining sandy soil.

I have been here 35 years now, and over that time the soil has shown much improvement. Most of it came after Larry and I were married in 1986. He has a natural hand with gardening, likes to keep the grass mowed which returns nutrients to the soil, and listens to me about planting. We make a good pair when it comes to gardens (and most other things).

This land has always fed us, sometimes better than other times. We've harvested wild foods and our planted gardens have been sometimes good, sometimes sparse, but always we have had enough. One thing this land has always done is warm us. Trees grow fast here, and we have acres and acres of forest. We selectively cut trees to provide firewood and then after the ice storm of 2003 we have burned nothing but the trees damaged, toppled or killed by that storm. Now the natural gas from our gas well is providing heat and cooking fuel.

At first it seemed like this land hated us. Everything was difficult, from access to clearing to trying to grow a garden. The land fought back against us, the invaders. Gradually, as we continued to care for it and learned to understand its needs and its ways, it accepted us and finally to return richly for our efforts. It is still an effort, believe me--droughts and floods and bitter winters all play their role in making us work for our rewards. But rewards do come, and that is worth all the work.

Now as I plan for the gardens this year and look at the bulbs bursting from the ground, I can see clearly what we have wrought, with a lot of help from nature. It has not been easy and a lot of money and sweat has been lost to poor decisions, bad weather and errant wildlife and livestock, but this place has become what I could see in my mind's eye when it was rough, uncared-for and grown-up pasture land.

Moving to wild West Virginia land might have seemed like an irresponsible thing to do with 4 little boys and absolutely no idea of what hardship could be ahead or what I was doing. But somewhere there was a voice calling me home, calling me to this hilly piece of land that some called worthless, and holding me here to grow roots. Unless you have owned land and worked it, raising your house and your children on it, you may not understand the magnetic power of a small piece of dirt. But those who have trod this path know the power, and know why I am so deeply attached to this patch of ground. It is home, and more than that, it is the place that owns me. That's the real definition of land ownership--being owned by your land.


  1. Being a good steward of the land that we call home rests in our very bones.

  2. I know what you mean - we only have a house and a small garden - quarter of an acre (wich in the UK is actually a decent sized garden). I have worked in this garden for exactly the same length of time as you have been working your land and it is part of me now. Lovely post.

  3. It is difficult to explain to people who ask, "Why do you stay there, when you work so far away?" Economically it makes no sense and hasn't for the 20+years I have been commuting over 100 miles a day. Unless a person has experienced the pull of land and home, they cannot understand the drive to stay. Rowan, Witch and Brighid, all three of you know it too.

  4. This is what the homeplace means to me, and recovering it this year was like... well... coming home.

    I tried to substitute another place one time and nearly pulled it off, then lost that place, too. The depression over losing home was as severe as losing a loved one. I can not thrive without contact with the land.

    Our place had piled up stones on it, too, from where my great uncle cleared the place in the early 1900's and planted sweet potatoes and peanuts.

  5. When you love the land, the land loves you back. You and your husband are doing a wonderful job, Sue.


  6. Wow! good post! Love the lushness in the photo, the bent of the land, your "raised" house and buildings. Can't wait to see that new log room, once it is raised up again. I don't have as much land as you but feel pretty much the same way about my gardens and yard after 20+ years in this one spot.

  7. As someone who lives on a very small bit of land in a housing development in the Southern California suburbs--I do not have these kinds of strong ties binding me to the land. So this window into your thoughts is amazing and precious. We do have a lime tree, a lemon tree and an avocado tree (which has yet to give us an avocado), but it's not the same.

  8. Thank you, Jai--honestly, I feel like I should be thanking my land for letting me stay :)

  9. Nance, you remind me of my mother in that way--she loved her gardens so much. I don't think there was anything that gave her as much pleasure as walking around her gardens with one of her children, poking about in the beds and seeing how things were doing.Doing that with her is one of my best memories.

  10. I remember when my son moved back to Virginia from Caifornia, Marilyn. He bought a place with what looked like a small year to me, but to him it was expansive after where he had been living. I envy you the lemon, lime and avocadas :) It just amazes me to think of actually picking those from your own tree.


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