Fifty summers ago: For years I had a recurring dream of returning to my childhood home in the outskirts of Goffstown, New Hampshire, a small town in southern New Hampshire. We had a house with rose-covered trellises, a fireplace, a full attic and cellar and two barns. When you looked out the kitchen window, you saw the Uncanoonuc Mountains, two wooded hills whose name translates Breasts of a Beautiful Maiden. That’s where the sun came up. Over the breasts.
I live in Southern California now. It was dry here even before the drought. Forget falling into the sea when the big one hits. These days it’s more likely we’ll just dry up and blow away. New Hampshire wasn’t like that. Snow fell in the winter and snowmelt gushed everywhere in the spring. During the summer things just grew. We had apple, peach and pear trees, Concord grapes growing along the stone wall at the edge, and a patch of rhubarb that took us by surprise us our first spring. Sour cherry trees grew outside my bedroom and there were elderberries, blackberries and raspberries.
Wild plants were everywhere. I’m sorry I never knew that fiddlehead ferns were edible, but we took full advantage of the blueberries. Then I discovered wild strawberries. They grew completely untended in the fields around our house. I used to go out in the morning and make my way through the dewy grass, with barn swallows perched on the telephone wires and a blue sky overhead, and pick the tiny berries for my breakfast cereal.
I looked forward to leaving New Hampshire on great adventures when I was old enough, but with all the thoughtless trust of youth, I expected that my parents would always live there and it would always be home. It was a great shock that in a sudden downturn of fortune our whole family turned our backs and drove away forever, just days after I turned eighteen.
How do I explain this? My current suburb is a created place. Practically terraformed. Water doesn’t come from our own well — most people have no idea where it comes from. Everything is owned, governed, regulated, managed, and quite probably off limits. One year in New Hampshire my brother walked out the back door with an ax, crunched through the snowy fields and into the woods, and came home dragging our Christmas tree. Try that around here. The Uncanoonuc Mountains today look pretty much the same as they did when the Indians named them. When you stood on the ground outside my house in New Hampshire, you were touching earth. No, make that Earth. My first reaction to coming to California was that everything, everything, was crusted with human debris. I felt very connected to the land in New Hampshire. That, more than family and friends or legal definitions of residency, is what home meant in the privacy and freedom of my selfish nighttime imaginings.
Last summer: I went back to Goffstown for the first time after having left roughly half a century earlier. My high school had been turned into senior housing. The library looked the same on the outside but was completely different on the inside. The Piscataquog River was perhaps cleaner (no floating chicken heads), but there’s only so long you can marvel at water going over low falls. I headed for my old house.
I knew it had burned down, but I wasn’t prepared for the inroads nature had made. One of the barns was demolished without a trace. New pine trees were green amid the decay of old fruit trees in the orchard. The pine with the rope we used to swing from was rotting on the edge of collapse. The fields were unmown, shrinking as the forests spread toward the sun, and grass was giving way to impenetrable shrubs. It was difficult to walk across what had been the lawn, and small trees were growing in what had been the inside of my house.
The very land that had defined home for me was mercilessly devouring every trace I’d ever lived there.