Parcel C, Thoreau, and the Nature of Mysteries

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

“I [am] reminded of the advantage of the poet, and philosopher, and naturalist, and whomsoever, of pursuing from time to time some other business than his chosen one, —seeing with the side of the eye. The poet will so get visions which no deliberate abandonment can secure. The philosopher is so forced to recognize principles which long study might not detect. And the naturalist even will stumble upon some new and unexpected flower or animal.”[1]

When first I met the land that would claim me, I rebuked its every advance. It was feral, uncivilized in its disposition, and in utter disrepair. One week after the visit, a friend sent me its dimensions in the form of a rough-shod map she had found online. I remember staring at its odd shape and thinking: that will be nothing but work. We had been displaced by the rental market in a college town, and this country place sported none of the comforts or conveniences of that life. My husband, however, fell head-over-heels with the aging yellow house, intrigued by all of its possibility and unconcerned with the triviality of leaking roofs and copperhead beds. Without any real options, and as salty as a wet hen, I conceded to a rental agreement. One year later, and due to the incomprehensible generosity of a dear friend, we began the paperwork that would make us the stewards of that map. It just made good sense, after all, to stay put.

And so, we trudged through the process of legalities. Our land surveyor was quite familiar with the area, walking the borders with pink ribbon and waxing on a bit upon its history. Apparently, his father had done the original survey that led to the parceling out of a larger farm. I nodded and smiled, distracted by the briars tearing at my bare legs as he pointed out dogwoods and original foundations in ruins along the edges of the woods. He was relentless; I was exhausted and had papers to grade. Weeks later, a properly-rolled land survey arrived in the mail for us with a note from him that simply stated: call me if you have questions

I certainly did have them: why did our line run so far down on only one side of the driveway? What is a “perpetual easement” and why are we “Parcel C?” (None of these, I know now, were the right questions.) Nowhere on the map was there any note of the surrounding woods, nor the pond that adjoined the property. There was some contention as to the boundaries, as well—nothing worth fighting over and marked only by a rusty, half-barbed fence. Yet, it was affordable, we were already settled in, and that was that.

I remember wanting to leave.

But then, we suffered so much. The next year, I lost my job at a local university and an unforeseen pregnancy. I grieved as a foreigner, begging for sanctuary on a land under contract. Quite unexpectedly, and without much pomp or circumstance, “Parcel C” began to take me in and grow around my feet. It knew more than I about loss and grief, and I had precious little energy to fight the vines that had tethered themselves to my frame. And so, I fell far past the visible blueprint of that map and into a mystery. 

Mysteries, I’ve learned, take an awfully long time. 

Last week was Blackberry Winter, a mythical season that no longer surprises me when it lands. I was settled around a fire, surrounded by friends and family, the night that it occurred to me that I had come upon a great mystery. As it usually goes with such experiences, I found myself swallowing my words before they could leave my mouth. It is within a mystery’s nature to only permit a peripheral glimpse, as they slide much too close to your heart to allow capture. And so, I let my words trail into the embers and sipped my wine.

Yesterday, I tried again. Our micro farm was to be the subject of a video that focused on encouraging beginning farmers. Before my interview, I walked the property, trailing my hand along cascades of roses and tried to find the language that would imprint upon someone else the mystery of it all. And yet again, as I spun tales of healthy ecosystems and living pathways…the mystery would not translate.  I found myself frustrated, standing in the sun and struggling with a foreign tongue that only the fae would recognize.

And so, I gave up the ghost of it. Today, I planted beans and dill and sat down on my porch to read something, anything really, from Henry David Thoreau. After all, he was the thematic focus of the next Farmer-ish journal and, to my sincere shame, I had no true memory of his work. I searched out poems, essays, and scholarly articles…but nothing spoke to me. The weight of Thoreau’s work evaded me at every turn–that is, until I found his maps. His work (if we can call it that) as a land surveyor had left irrefutable evidence of a man deep in the clutches of a great mystery.

There it was in his own penmanship: the poetic resistance to clarified boundaries, or the usual disregard of preexisting ecosystems. There he was, translating through that resistance the underbelly and the heart of a land. He had tediously sketched trees, as well as the peculiar ways that water flowed in shimmering veins from a river. These moments were underscored by his journaling records, denoting the seasons and the slant of the sun, relentlessly explicated against the location of a random harbor, or an apparently-notable willow tree. More, and perhaps the quirk that made me fall helplessly in love with Thoreau, was his treatment of the edges and borders of a land, as: “The boundaries of the actual are no more fixed and rigid than the elasticity of our imaginations” [2] His scribblings on land surveys outlined the primacy of a living place, rather than a property to be owned. Here were not maps, but rather manuscripts of something more profound, something that resonates within me like a language long forgotten. 

Here was a true map, etched by the life that had occurred upon it. If only I had asked my own land surveyor the right questions…perhaps he could have warned me.

Instead, I spent years grappling with Parcel C, pushing and shoveling my own dreams into neat rows. After all, when we arrived upon the property, we were met with clear-cut trees, a burn pile of electrical bones and innards, and a worn well house. I set forth to carve a concise, efficient garden. I planted azaleas and landscaped bulbs in symmetrical half-moons. My husband scattered grass seed and hacked down vines, sweating for a civilized vision of a property that could host garden parties and family cookouts. It’s my fault, really, that the plan fell apart. In the end, it was all for a toad.

We had named him in that silly way that you attempt to own wild things. Mr. Sebastian was fond of the space under an aging pear tree, often enjoying a good float on the wine caddy atop our makeshift pool in the evening. His croak was masterful, yet every attempt at recording it was met with instant and aloof silence. And so, we settled for what we could, happy to accommodate Mr. Sebastian in trade for his late-night songs. After all, it was fall and we had no use of a pool. I remember wondering if he would over-winter there, but life got hectic, the winds blew cold, and we left our yard for the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

And then, spring came again.

We were promised a scorcher of a season. Central Alabama pushes through you, boiling upon your skin and earning its subtropical status without so much as a never mind to your yearning for dinner under the stars. Our above-ground pool had not yet been shocked for the year, and so I poured the requisite chemicals into the green water and moved on with my day. 

The next morning, I found him splayed, arms out and belly up, poisoned in the water that would cool our skin. I sat and wept, not that anyone heard. His little friends floated beside him, creating a tenuous membrane that buoyed Mr. Sebastian up as the centerpiece of my sin. 

He had trusted this place, and I had failed horribly in my stewardship of it. The grief sank into me, greener and more alive than the algae that I had endeavored to kill. Somewhere in that moment, something shifted in me. No longer could I ignore the etchings upon the map, as my own life had become one of them. My footprints were drawn upon it now, my feet dyed by its red clay hue. It was quite untranslatable, of course, but a mystery had invited me for a walk. And that, it turned out, was only the beginning of a very long road. 

It’s taken a decade to get this far. We’ve forgone the perfect placement of trees, gardens and flowers and leaned into the curve and sinew of the land. We’ve tilled, slashing through the soil structure and all the little creepy-crawling life that was part of it—and we’ve retired that machinery in favor of allowing the soil to give us more for less work. Parcel C, now named Little Halawakee Farm, has grown its own heartbeat. There is an almost markable boundary against the surrounding geography. When you look at us on a map, it is only a strange and slanted rectangle of parceled-out land—broken from an original farm sold during unfathomable hardship.

But the map is incomplete in its interpretation of this little farm. A balance has been struck between us and it, the nearby asphalt road be damned. And still, words are not adequate—a dilemma that Thoreau might have understood, as he scribbled tree tops across a map to make his point. As a professor and a writer, I find myself humbled and wholly without hope in that language. It’s one that resounds in my feet when I walk among the trees. It’s the moment when a hummingbird lands upon my hair, now turning white from my time here on this land. It cannot communicated through the seminal terminology of my profession, those words that fall so succinctly onto paper: sustainability, permaculture, diversity, ecology.

But, it might have something to do with the toad that I met yesterday under a tree.  I’ve named him Henry, in that silly way that we name the mysteries that find us.

That night, the one where I sat by a fire and fought to voice a mystery with words, I waved goodbye to the last friend and walked back to my house in bare feet. Everyone else had gone to bed, but the porch light waited for me.  And yet, I stopped and stood there, breathing it in, listening, falling into it until I couldn’t find the boundaries anymore… of my skin, or the land’s supposed edges. In the end, my farm claimed me. 

Thoreau, I want to believe, would approve.

Parcel C is drawn upon a tiny slice of a map from a land survey. That map is stationed in a file folder within our local county courthouse. It’s exacting: a neighboring fence encroaches a bit here, a sliver runs to the road, the borders are all angles and dotted lines. And none of it is real. 

Tulip poplars and pines, redbuds and cedar welcome you into the winding drive. To the left of the property, pear, mulberry and peach trees circle souls gathered around a fire on cold evenings. The natural well feeds the old country house, the lettuces and peppers and pumpkins, and is replenished by deep fall rains. Owls swing across the path in the dark, oblivious—or in spite of—the evening strolls of farmers. The chickens roost on fallen-wood perches that face the sunset, snuggled against patches of oregano and shaded by magnolia trees. To the south, a dog with the heart of a king lies under the clover. Down to the west, a family of buzzards enter roost-bound every evening at twilight. Under the giant cedar, my husband’s sweat is stacked neatly in the form of firewood—leftovers from a winter long gone. Just before the property gives way to the field, lemon balm blankets the ground in utter abandon. 

And sometimes, an older lady walks through the mushroom beds in a patch of woods, deep in the throes of a great mystery.

[1] Thoreau, The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 2:1009

[2] Thoreau, The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 1:579.

Header photo credit: Image of original pencil drawing of Walden by Thoreau, Library of Congress, public domain image

In-text photo credit: Katharyn Privett-Duren