by Cynthia McVay
he first time I saw Field Farm it was the dead of winter, snowless and charmless, but even so, something about the soft curves of the land and open space captivated me. As the realtor fumbled for the key to the modest house, with thick plastic tacked to its windows, I turned to look over the short-cropped, amber field, unfazed by the fierce wind that came from all directions at once. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and head, and stuffed my bare hands into my coat pockets. My shoulders lifted to my ears to close out the cold. I could barely hear the realtor’s answer when I announced I was going there. And then the wind swept me out into the land.
I cut a diagonal across the expanse under the large white-grey sky to the field-room behind, around the corner, past the trees. I charged across that frozen smaller field, by the dozen vintage apple trees I came to know individually and for whom I have since provided hospice. I found the opening at the other end of that field that took me through the brush to what seemed an unending grass driveway, which I later learned was the gas line and property border. I crossed it, continuing into an orderly stand of silver-trunked maples, to an old stone wall, with ancient sugar maples at each corner demarcating a two-hundred-year-old cemetery.
How did I know? How did I know—when there was no path, no markers, no trail—where to go? I am not suggesting it was destiny or intuition or a higher power that drew me, unless it is defined as the pull of curiosity, the need to claim, to grasp. But I found it just the same.
Further, how did I know this patch of earth was it? What joy this mildly domesticated piece of the universe would give me over the years, how the land would draw me back, demand my attention, make me long for it when I was away? I was introduced on the least hospitable day of the year that first time many years ago, with no inkling of its full-blown magic, its relentless lures and seductions, and yet I knew I had found what I was looking for. I did not, could not, project onto that barren brown field, with all my imagination, what happens here every spring and summer and fall. And every year, even though I know it’s coming, I am awestruck, somehow forgetting, despite experiencing it fully every year, and trying to sear it into my memory and hundreds of photos. Even at its barren low, I fell hard. It was true love.
As a newly divorced working mom of four-year old Tess, I had been looking for a weekend escape from New York City. I was leaning toward the Hudson Valley. Before the New York Times started featuring Rosendale and Hudson and Rhinebeck every year, I had seen cabins on top of mountains; old summer camps for which the Catskills were famous (Dirty Dancing helped), one with a tree growing in the empty, cracked pool and a suitcase full of vintage bottle-bottom eyewear; small stone schoolhouses; dressed up doublewides with magnificent mountain views; clapboard Victorians on the Hudson River. I’d thought I was looking for a house, a weekend home. There were contenders among them, some I lay awake thinking about at night, but many had unseemly or gun-toting neighbors, roads whipping by too close, or intimidating projects for houses. Given my tight budget, I knew I’d have to compromise on one dimension or another. But none of the dozens of properties I’d seen took my breath away like this one. When I say I don’t make decisions, this is what I mean. There was, I had, no choice. That day I became the steward of this land, taking on a huge responsibility, one I’d take as seriously as everything else I have done in my life.
Weekends and those early summers we came up when we could. We walked daily the path cut through the field and around the property. With Tess’s little legs and the following year puppy Charlotte’s, that seemed enough for us to take on. We walked slowly and breathed in every leaf of grass along the way. We carried back bundles of flowers with Charlotte’s warm, small, exhausted body cradled in my arms.
Every day there were new blooms, or we saw them for the first time. Many will never have names, only descriptions—”the small bluish ones with heart-shaped leaves.” I’m not good with names and don’t feel the need to know what we humans call things that exist for themselves. But I knew when and where to find the sturdy orange milkweed, the no-nonsense grey-white clusters. I learned which flowers don’t like to be picked, and so would be spared next time, next walk, next summer. I transplanted some wild flowers to the garden. They seemed to do well in this difficult clay soil and I wanted to see more of them.
That first year I was excited to see how the seasons would roll across the landscape. A few years earlier, when I lived in tony Bedford, New York, with my then husband, our antique home came with well-established estate gardens and century-old specimen trees. In the perennial borders and in the formal garden, gracious peonies, elegant roses, sturdy hosta, hundreds of tulips, and sweet lilac gave me such pleasure as they revealed themselves that first spring.
I had no idea what would come from the property I just bought. On our final walkthrough, Bill pointed to a couple of heirloom, aromatic, faded-pink rose bushes, still next to the house, which had been his grandmother’s. Two full-grown Crimson King maples and blue spruce had been planted near the house and, although beautiful, seemed suburban in the rural setting. Bill noted that taking down the stand of trees at the base of the field would reveal a sliver of Hudson River view, which was only a couple thousand feet away. It never seemed necessary or worth the sacrifice.
Spring came with an innocent confidence. Dogwoods embraced the field. The eager, bright green and red buds of the maples and poplars brimmed with excitement in April. The apple, pear and peach trees flowered, fleetingly.
As the first summer pulled in, I found that the fields were one part grass and one part poison ivy. What? Bill had not told me that the fields were impenetrable, untouchable, that we would have to stick to the trail on our daily walks. I was so disappointed—angry— and thought Bill should have told me. These were not fields to run through or for hosting picnics! I came to realize that this information would not have discouraged me from purchasing the property, nor was Bill dishonest, only how naïve I had been, how poison ivy and bramble were the norm for an under-kept meadow. My city friends would be aghast if they could identify the poison ivy and were aware of just how much there is. Enthusiastic and shiny red in the spring, with a matte finish in the fall, poison ivy helps paint the Hudson Valley foliage visitors adore. Instead, I lend my guests boots, long socks and work pants to avoid the topic altogether. I rarely hear of any of them falling victim to the three-leafed predator, and I really am only infected by the venom when I proactively yank it from the garden or trees. Despite what the literature says about the longevity and transference of the oil, I never caught a rash from Charlotte, our Labrador, or my clothes, nor when I casually brushed up against the leaves.
Once though, early on, I was clearing an apple tree of a poison ivy vine that was as thick as the tree itself, some six inches in diameter of furry centipede. I cut through the vine with my handsaw, separated its infinite grabbing feet from the bark, tugged, and the entire poison ivy canopy fell on top of me. The following week, the skin all over my body was raised an inch with red bumps rendering my face and hands unrecognizable. The faint brush of my clothes on my back was unbearable. I took hot showers to scorch it, to bring momentary relief, then suffered as the heat made the rash itch even more. Eventually I was given steroids. I had been hazed by Field Farm.
Every January I get used to the meadow in winter-mode, which has its own austere beauty, sculpted by its history and topography, and the shadows thrown by the empty trees which surround it. But it’s hard to believe—impossible—what will happen in a few months’ time. But it does. Each year, spring unfolds with predictability and regularity. Without fail, nature delivers boldly and with nuance. The field wakes and stretches, and from a dry, brown, dead mass, emerges a five-foot-high maze of grass by July. Every day, every hour of the day, holds light and beauty uniquely. I never tire of watching the grass grow and the morning light hitting the back field sometimes through fog, the stand of trees beyond, the shadows, the spring foliage, the horizontal flowers of the dogwood, the turning leaf of the poplar in the wind, the white bending lines of the birch. In mid-spring, I will jog my memory:
Do the apple trees bloom before or after the dogwood?
About the author:
Cynthia McVay lives on a defunct farm in the Hudson Valley, where she is writing, foraging and making art. She holds a BA from Harvard in biology and studio arts, MBA from Wharton, and MA from University of Pennsylvania. She was a strategy and management consultant for 25-years, starting with McKinsey and ending as Director of Innovation at the Peace Corps.
In 2016, she dedicated herself to writing. She attended Bread Loaf Orion and BL Sicily, TMI at Omega Institute in 2017, Slice Writer’s Conference in 2017. She is a regular audience member of Sari Botton’s conversations. Her work has been published in Ravens Perch; winner, Editors’ Choice, daCunha‘s 2017 Flash Nonfiction Competition; finalist, Bridging the Gap Awards, Slice Writer’s Conference 2017; finalist, New Millennium Writings Muse; shortlist, freeze frame fiction.