Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Newer Waters

I am someone who is most at rest when I’m moving.

I prefer the beaten path, and this week I have been walking “The Street” in HistoricDeerfield, Massachusetts where Mars and I took part in a Road Scholar Program on “Stimulating Beverages: The History of Tea, Coffee and Chocolate in Early America”.

“Historic Deerfield Inc., founded in 1952, is an outdoor history museum that focuses on the history and culture of the Connecticut River Valley and early New England.  It has a dual mission of educating the public about the lifestyles of the diverse people who lived here long ago and of preserving antique buildings and collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. First settled in 1669, Deerfield is one of the few towns settled by English colonists along the eastern seaboard that retains its original scale and town plan. Visitors are offered guided and self-guided tours of 12 antique houses ranging in age from 1730 to 1850. Eleven of these houses are on their original sites.”

The antique houses, along with an equal number of private residences from the same era, the Deerfield Inn (where we stayed), and Deerfield Academy Prep School (founded in 1799) are arrayed on a one-mile long roadway called “The Street”.  It would be the quintessential place to walk on a crisp, autumn day – wearing a warm sweater while passing by brown and white 18th century New England houses surrounded by white wooden fences, with tall Hydrangeas drying on the vine, and the red and orange leaves suspended overhead and crunching under your feet.   But that would be a few weeks from now.  This week, while prematurely cool, featured lighter weight clothing and green foliage.  Nonetheless…

The Deerfield Inn is located at the midpoint of “The Street”.  In our three days there Mars and I walked twice to each end.  North to visit two homes of former residents  – one a wealthy farmer and entrepreneur, the other an ultimately unhappy British Sympathizing Congregational Minister – and again to see the museum’s collection of American silverware, including communion metalware from various churches in the area.  The southerly route took us to the Flynt Museum for a material culture discussion about how tea addiction and the lack of Colonial self-sufficiency led to revolution; and a reconstruction of a parlor conversation, with tea, on women’s fashions of the day.  Other classes on the respective histories and making of tea, coffee, and chocolate – with tastings – were held in the visitor center across from the Inn.

(click to enlarge)

The sidewalks were largely deserted except for occasional students heading to or from Deerfield Academy – boys in blue blazers, button downs, ties, chinos slacks (or, in two cases, shorts), and all manner of foot ware – girls dressed in the various non-uniform uniforms of teenage girls, or field hockey gear. 

Mars and I also took a side trip along the Channing Blake Footpath to the Deerfield River.  The dirt pathway led through a small working farm where two large pigs, totally uninterested in their visitors, snorted and wallowed in their mud-filled pen and Holstein cows lay on the sun warmed grass – curious enough to tilt an ear and raise their heads, but no more. 

The river itself was at this point in time not much more than a slow moving brook.  Its waters however, along with those of the Connecticut River on the other side of town, rise enough to totally irrigate the land in between making it one of the most fertile farming areas in the northeast.  Colonial farmers fortunate to happen upon this self-sustaining land needed to go no further to make their wealth.  There is however a down side to waterways’ largesse.  In 2011 Hurricane Irene caused flooding into the village itself that put over half of the Deerfield Inn under water and rendered it inoperable for eighteen months.

On our way back we looked to the north where a clear blue sky tried to meet the green land below but our view of their union was blocked by an intervening shock of row on row-on-row corn rising from the fruitful earth.

I took advantage of our early wake-up habits to also walk “The Street” during the pre-dawn hour.  The temperature was in the fifties and the fog, which had accumulated during the overnight, was beginning to disperse.  As I walked by the Academy one of blazer-and-backpack clad teachers bicycled onto the campus balancing on his left leg as his vehicle coasted to a halt.  While from across the street a male prep, identically clad, and a leggy plaid-skirted clad girl entered the grounds from opposite ends, striding determinedly like a haze-bound Alberto Giacometti walking sculpture.

Further on a startlingly white small dog urged its leash-bound walker to slow down.  And up the road a piece a swarthy, wrinkle-faced man in equally wrinkled black clothes stood motionless at the start of the Channing Bake Footpath exhaling his cigarette smoke into the surrounding mist.  Unlike “Field of Dreams” there were, alas, however no ghosts emerging from the haze – unless, that is, they themselves were the vapor returning to the familiar shelter of their homes for another day of reminiscing.

On our drive up to this session Mars and I stopped at the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory& Gardens in nearby South Deerfield to visit their 8,000-square foot glass conservatory filled with hundreds of butterflies, moths and tropical vegetation.  We spent about an hour strolling through the glass house as the brightly colored insects flapped and floated around us – all of them, the attendant explained, intent on maximizing their five day lifespan on earth by feeding and mating to the max.

The population of the Conservatory is largely self-sustaining with butterfly eggs transferred from the in-house tropical plants to their “nursery” for pupation and birth.  Others are however brought in throughout the year from other parts of the world to add variety and improve the population.  Two sets of entry and exit doors plus a bank of mirrors for self-scanning are intended to ensure that no residents inadvertently leave their protective dome

Historic Deerfield while dedicated to preserving and presenting a particular point in time in a particular place, likewise adapts.  Between the Academy and the Inn is “The Brick Church”, the fifth meetinghouse of a congregation dating back to 1673 – the year that the Deerfield settlement was incorporated.  Originally Congregational, it was the literal, and the figurative center of town.  Today it is used by both Unitarians and Congregationalists – a sign, along with the female and non-Caucasian preppies, that even in this bastion of historical preservation, things do change.

And, like all good historians, the Textile Curator eagerly accepted information that I gave him on Sophia Woodhouse – a 19th century bonnet maker and entrepreneur from our town of Wethersfield, Connecticut – someone unknown in Historic Deerfield.

The Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, "Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers."  I would add – and to those who walk the established road with a good guide and a curious eye.

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