The Thinking 

New England Meadows

August 4, 2010



IN A FEW DAYS, the midsummer meadows of New England will outlive their prime. The milkweed and the goldenrod, the Queen Anne’s lace and the thistle are already beginning to flag and fade. The scent of grass and mineral that rises from the hidden, exhaling earth is not as forceful as it was weeks ago. There is not much time to spare.

I am not from New England and do not live in New England. I have no vested interest in making the assertion that the New England meadow is unsurpassed in splendor. It’s the simple truth and you don’t have to be the owner of a New England meadow or an investor in meadows to believe it. The angle of northern light, the meterological conditions, the legacy of spare Puritan and agricultural architecture, the lassitude of rural economies, the supporting role of lake and mountain, and, last but not least, the character of rural New Englanders who allow meadows the requisite freedom to do their thing – all these add to the immediate impact of the New England weed-strewn, unmowed meadow.

I do not drink a bottle of wine all at once and I prefer not to look at a meadow “in the face,” so to speak. I like to see it from the corner of the eye, to avoid the full-blown arresting encounter and disabling intoxication. This was not always the case. When I was young and stupid, I gazed at meadows without shame. Did I ever lie in a meadow? That is something I will never reveal. If I said yes, I’d be open to the charge of hedonism. If I said no, you would say, “You see, she is joyless.”

“Waste is of the essence of the scheme,” Robert Frost said. Meadows elicit thoughts of wastefulness and of the arguable decadence of beauty. What use is the experience of the summer meadow? Will we retain it in winter? What will these glorious snapshots of hay and weed do for us in the long run? Why must the butterflies flit the way they do, the same way they did last year and the year before? Couldn’t they spare those of us who live in the world of earnest toil, the world of non-flitting, the suggestion that all is essentially good, that the nectar can indeed be drunk again and again?

The meadow is a philosophical problem waiting to be solved. Only the insensible, the weak-minded and the grief-stricken watch the New England meadow fade without an answer.

                                                                                          — Comments —

Gail Aggen writes:

My mother was a true Yankee. She was born in Connecticut and raised in Vermont. Her favorite season was summer, and she died at its height, on July 30, one year. I believe this suited her, like an athlete who retires at the height of his prowess, in order to be remembered that way. I recall leaving the hospital and taking stock of each weed and leaf along the way home. I noticed them change every day after that until it was summer no more, just as my mother was no more. As if I could have held onto them both forever. The meadows and trees taught me that year.

I spent much time in Vermont growing up and always, always felt like I was in some kind of dream. Something akin to C.S. Lewis’ intoxication with “Northerness.” The air is different, the sounds which travel through it are different, and you almost feel a kind of otherworldly music going through you. The light is there, mostly muted but in summer’s height, it shines down as if it passes through sapphire, emeralds and diamonds. The meadows exist for God to visit when He needs to tune out the rest of the ranting world. It defies description really, but you have felt it too, because the words you wrote here have the whole sense of the place. The wild abundance in tension with simplicity and restraint.

You are right that you cannot stare at it full in the face. It would be gluttonous to do so, and your heart might explode with fullness. I am kind of laughing at what I’ve written, but there is something in me that is compelled to try to express the subject. At any rate, though I live in the south, I get absolutely soul-sick if I stay away too long from my northern homeland. And then I must go back. Just this morning, before I read this, I made up my mind that we will make the trip next week, because I absolutely must.

Laura writes:

Speaking of dying in New England, I was in an emergency room in a Vermont hospital a few years ago after my husband had cut his head. There was an old woman in the curtained stall next to us. She was clearly of ancient Vermont stock. Her daughter was there, extremely gentle and loving to her old mother. The doctor came in and said that she needed to have tests for her heart and he wanted to keep her in the hospital for a day or two. He rattled on and on about the dangers.

She said very firmly, “Now, stop this. I will have none of these tests and I’m not going to hear any of this. I am going home.” There was no arguing with her. What I will always remember was the absence of fear and self-pity in her words. Let’s just say it seemed the psychological counterpart of all those granite ledges. It expressed the quintessential New England stoicism and directness that still lives here and there. These traits survive despite modernization and gentrification, perhaps aided by the decline of industry, logging and farming. How could a place so rich in splendor produce such a stoical people? This phenomenon, I presume, is attributable in part to meadow and mountain, to field and forest, to harsh winters and lush summers. Perhaps one learns to hold oneself always in restraint amidst all this.

Jenny writes:

Gail and Laura, what you have both said is beautiful. I’m a Kentuckian born and raised who currently lives in the West and will admit that the Rockies are a sight to behold. I still maintain in my heart, though, that Kentucky is the heavenliest place in the U.S., but after reading what the two of you have written about New England summers, I’m beginning to wonder. I’ve always wanted to visit New England in the fall, but summer sounds quite lovely.

What a lovely post and comment amid the heavy stuff of the day. Thank you both.


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