Editor’s Notebook: The structure of time
“Abandoned Vermont and New Hampshire: Forgotten in the Mountains,” by Marie Desrosiers. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Over the past month or so, I’ve spent a big chunk of my leisure time watching documentaries about “free solo” rock climbing and YouTube videos about hiking. I am not, nor will I ever be, a free soloist, but I’m absolutely in awe of what they do. Every move they make is literally a matter of life and death. If they drift from the present, even for a moment, it’s game over. Yet they choose to put themselves in that position because it is when they feel most alive.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the TV screen, one wrong move by me typically means a bruised ego. Couldn’t we all benefit from a little more perspective?
I’m drawn to the hiking videos on YouTube for an entirely different reason. This spring, I intend to become a backpacker – and I’ve made enough of an investment in gear that to abandon the dream at any point in the next decade will result in endless, and entirely deserved, mockery in my own home. And so I’m learning, preparing.
My favorite YouTube channel of late is called “Adventure Archives,” in which brothers Andrew and Bryan Lin, their cousin Robby Huang, and their friend Thomas Sinard hike and camp in one stunning landscape after another. You can have your meditation apps and yoga playlists on Spotify – for me it doesn’t get any more relaxing than watching those guys walk and talk in nature. Even better, Andrew is an expert in identifying trees, plants, and especially mushrooms, and he’s a great teacher. I wouldn’t trust myself to identify and eat a “chicken of the woods” right now, but suddenly the idea of foraging edible mushrooms has become a little more accessible thanks to him.
In one episode, Andrew, Bryan, and Robby are hiking in Tennessee’s Big South Fork when they come upon an abandoned home in the heart of nowhere. Nature’s reclamation of the structure is well underway, but this was somebody’s home not all that long ago, relatively speaking. There is linoleum on the kitchen floor, newspaper doubling as wallpaper, and other signs of 20th-century rural life. I tried to imagine the family that lived there, what a childhood in a place so remote would look like. Robert Frost’s “Birches” probably captures that existence well enough: “I should prefer to have some boy bend them / As he went out and in to fetch the cows – / Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, / Whose only play was what he found himself, / Summer or winter, and could play alone.”
Within days of watching that episode, a package from Arcadia Publishing arrived on my desk. Inside was a soon-to-be-published book by Marie Desrosiers filled with beautiful, poignant photos – of crumbling structures just like the one in Tennessee – titled “Abandoned Vermont and New Hampshire: Forgotten in the Mountains.” We’ve all seen these places, and many of us have tried to imagine the story behind the abandonment. What happened to the people who lived there, played on that swingset, sat in that porch chair? Where did they go in such a hurry, and why did they leave so much stuff behind?
Why did they give up on home?
Human beings have a complicated relationship with decay. When it happens to our bodies, it is tragic. When it happens in the woods, it’s natural. When it happens to what was once a home full of life and hopefully love, it’s both of those things.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat grows ever louder.
I’m heading into the woods come spring because I’ve fallen too far out of step with the natural world. I won’t be doing any free soloing, and I’ll think long and hard about worst-case scenarios before taking risks on the trails. But I will tackle some fears, or at the very least confront a laziness born of comfort and routine.
And when my hike is over, I’ll return to our little house that is holding its own against time and the elements. I will rejoin civilization filled with gratitude, I hope, not only for the wide-open beauty I witness in the New Hampshire hills but for the pleasant way time ticks within the transitory walls of home.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.