My brother Stephen and I, walking awkwardly on snowshoes, tramp across a large snow-covered field. At the end of the expanse of white are woods of snow-laden pine trees and, above it, the sky is turning pink, yellow and violet as the sun sets. Animal tracks interrupt the smooth surface of snow and we stop to study the many prints – deer, coyote, raccoons, rabbits, minks, porcupines – we are not sure.
At the bottom of the field we turn back and look at Dad’s Maine Farmhouse. At one end the large red barn, regal despite its sagging structure, dominates the smaller white and grey farmhouse extending towards the country road, an aging Queen with her loyal courtiers beside her.
We are saying goodbye to this beautiful, old farmhouse, a place where for years we have escaped from the chaos of the modern world and felt a sense of peace and tranquility amidst the woods and the wildlife on this hilltop in Bridgton, Maine.
The farmhouse was built in 1925 and was used as a small dairy farm. Rows of stone walls on the edge of the woods delineate a cattle run where the cows were once herded from the field towards the barn. The walls are disappearing into the overgrowth of the woods.
As children we came here to visit friends who had a similar farm on the mountains around Moose Pond – not actually a pond, but a very long lake with a 33-mile (53 kilometer) perimeter running down a valley between the low mountains.
Over the years we grew to love the woods, the field, the snow, swimming in the lakes in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
The old red barn stands with its chipping paint, cracked windows covered with spiderwebs, proudly challenging anyone to enter and explore. It takes a full body shove to get the heavy wooden doors to slide back, opening to the central area, a space large enough for cows or tractors to pass through. Inside it is a large wooden cathedral – its geometrical wooden beams reaching up to form a perfect triangular top. Strands of hay dangle off the edge of the lofts, although no one has used it for farming in decades.
The stalls are still there and turn of the century farming tools are tucked into wooden cubby holes. Above hangs a red contraption for lifting bales of hay, but there are no longer domestic animals. Instead, an occasional porcupine sets up home inside and birds make nests in the rafters.
In addition to the north and south fields, Dad bought the woods all around his farmhouse, up the hillside on the other side of the road, and the woods below his home stretching down towards Moose Pond, a total of about 50 acres (20 hectares) of land. He purposely surrounded his farmhouse with an expanse of forest to enjoy the Maine landscape and to protect it from loggers and hunters. But he always hoped to observe wildlife sharing their habitat with him. He kept a pair of binoculars on the front porch where he loved nothing better than observing birds, deer and other creatures.
When we arrived at dusk, we spotted a group of deer making their way in the snow at the top of the north field. I could barely make out a white tail flash as, startled by something, they bobbed across the field and into the woods.
The farmhouse is near the village of Bridgton, part of the Lakes Region of Maine, a mountainous region with long lakes and piney forests. The area is the essence of New England with yellow, red, and orange maple leaves in the fall turning the area into a fiery display of color, piles of snow in the winter, covering fields and forests and decorating pine trees with a white icing. The lakes freeze up and fisherman go out and cut holes in the ices. I did not spend time there in Maine’s cold spring with mud and black flies but would not miss the summers.
My brother, sister and I have spent summers swimming in the lakes as kids and later enjoyed Moose Pond with our children. We plucked plump blueberries growing in Dad’s north field for blueberry pancakes, muffins or pies and explored trails into the woods.
My Dad is fascinated by wildlife and there was always a presence there for better or worse. One summer an enormous pair of porcupines set up shop under the back porch and Dad was worried one of his grandchildren or his dog might have a dangerous encounter with some quills. He discovered that one would appear at dawn waddling in the area around the house and, with the help of my courageous sister Gwen, managed to capture the critter in a garbage can and release him in the woods.
Once, Dad had a rare run-in with an owl while snowshoeing with my step-mother Jane in the woods. The angry bird swooped down, claws extended, and snatched off his hat deeply clawing his scalp. He covered his head with his mittens and ran as fast as he could on his snowshoes to the house, blood running down his face. Bird experts later told him that such an attack was almost unheard of, but perhaps he had passed near to a nest with owlets. Moral of the story: don’t mess with Mama Owls!! We later joked that the owlets were likely enjoying a snuggly, warm, woolen-lined nest.
On one summer visit, my son Nico – probably about eight – and his cousin Zander decided they were going to set up a tent out in the field near the barn and spend the night there. In the middle of the night, they awoke to hear a pack of coyotes yipping nearby. The boys made a barefoot sprint into the farmhouse. So much for the Millennials and the great outdoors. My sister, Gwen, also an animal lover, decided to spend the next night in the tent alone so she could enjoy the sounds of the coyotes, leaving me with the human yippers inside.
As Gwen, Stephen and I worked with my Dad to clear out the house this week, there were small animal reminders…a mouse-chewed quilt in the closet, a hornet escaping from the winter cold in Dad’s bedroom, a lady-bug on the bathroom sink, and a chickadee outside the kitchen window. I think they were stopping by to say goodbye to my father.