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Part 4: In which a mountain county is described

Mt. Jefferson

Mt. Jefferson

This morning, an incandescent white fog filled the river valley and the ground was covered with frost. The cows that graze on the bottom land exhaled steam, when you could see them at all. Yesterday was much the same; most of the afternoon was ”whited out,” meaning that everything past four or five feet from your eyes was obliterated by the mist.

Weather like this is one of my reasons for loving these mountains in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina. I have never seen so much weather. It is as though the weather were condensed, like a stew cooked down from a soup. Ashe County Holler vert

Even fair weather is magnified, the air clearer, the sun bigger and brighter, the clouds more manic. The air is often so clear that you’d swear you could resolve individual blades of grass on the side of Mount Jefferson, five miles away.

And the weather changes quickly and dramatically. It is all foretold on the face of Mount Jefferson, in the middle of North Carolina’s Ashe County.

We can see the mountain from the house we are staying at, out the kitchen window. It dominates the more populous half of Ashe County, raising its humped peak over the surrounding hills like ”a Charlemagne among his peers.”

Mount Jefferson will glow with sunlight one moment and turn dark and baleful the next, signifying the coming of a storm. He will evaporate before your eyes in portent of snow, growing whiter and whiter as the snow becomes a veil between our window and the peak. Some days he is blue, some days, gray. In early morning, the sunlight sparks the peak into a glowing orange. At other, very clear times, the mountain is green. Blue, Gray, Orange, Green — Union, Rebel, Protestant, Catholic — they all war on the mountainside.

And every day, the mountain has shown me something new in color, tone, shape, shadow, contrast, mist, camouflage.

And all night long, when the winds calm, as they seldom do, I can hear the rush of water over the rocks in the New River.

New River

New River

Ashe County, in the extreme northwest corner of North Carolina, is 427 square miles of wrinkled green mountain irrigated by clear cascading streams. Away from any major highways, and with no high-profile attractions, it is not overrun with tourists, even in the height of summer.

The people who are sprinkled through these hills and hollows are open, friendly and helpful, especially in winter, when cooperation is a necessity.

The whole county, populated by only about 27,000 people, is a haven for outdoor activities, and visitors find plenty of fishing, canoeing, hiking and camping.

West Jefferson

West Jefferson

The New River flows through Ashe County, or rather, both New Rivers, for it is divided into the North Fork and South Fork. Between them, they section off the county by thirds, running from the southwest to northeast.

The river is very old, the oldest in the New World according to some geologists, and it meanders like the Mississippi rather than straightaway seeking its own level and cascading over anything in its path, the way most mountain rivers do. And every other river in the state flows, eventually, southeast. The New River flows north, eventually joining the Kanawha River in West Virginia and then following the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.

The river twists and folds on itself so mazily that you are constantly surprised, on coming to the river by the highway, that it always flows in the opposite direction you would have thought it should.

About half the roads in the county are paved, but a large percentage are only gravel. Some are only Jeep trails. And all along these roads there are random mountain houses and bordering fences. Actually, the county seems divided in character into its southeastern and northwestern halves. Near Meat Camp NC copy

In the southeast, rolling knolls of pastureland at average heights between 2,500 and 3,000 feet above sea level look as if they had been misplaced from England’s Yorkshire. This half of the county is well populated. The county seat is Jefferson, with about 4,700 people; West Jefferson is slightly less populated but is more developed. When people go ”to town,” they mean West Jefferson. It’s where you’ll find Geno’s Pizza.

There are many farms with tobacco patches, cornfields and oceans of wheat. The biggest industry is beef cattle, and nearly every farmer in this half of the county grows his own steers. Dairy cows are common, too, and Ashe County has its own cheese factory, the only one in the state. Tours are popular, and so are samples. Ashe Co. hillside cows

Also in Glendale Springs is the Last Supper fresco painted by artist Ben Long IV in the 1970s at Holy Trinity Church. Long spent years in Italy studying the technique for painting on wet plaster and had searched vainly in the United States for a place to practice his craft. When he came to Ashe County in 1973, he approached Father Faulton Hodge with his proposal to make a fresco in his church and Hodge told him, ”We’ll take it. What’s a fresco?” lastsupper

Actually, Long’s first work for Hodge and the parish was at the smaller and older St. Mary’s Church in Beaver Creek. His first work was a large painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary, holding her swollen belly. Some 75,000 people come each year to see the frescoes. Both churches are open 24 hours a day.

But the northwestern portion of the county is broken up with long, high mountains, and settlers have built tiny wind-weathered shacks in the coves. A few longer valleys are nicked with strings of homes, but there is none of the broad farmland that makes the other half of the county so habitable.

Ashe County was once called ”the Lost County” because it was hidden up behind the Blue Ridge — a virtual escarpment that separates the Appalachian Mountains to the west from the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the east — and there was virtually no way to travel up and down the Ridge to communicate with the rest of the state.

What travel and communication early Ashe County residents had was with Virginia, not North Carolina. Even now, there is only one road — North Carolina 16 — that dares climb the face of the Blue Ridge to enter Ashe County.

One of the results of the isolation was that early settlers felt an alienation from the rest of the state. Because they believed that the Raleigh government was ignoring them, portions of mountain North Carolina — including Ashe County, and parts of what would later become eastern Tennessee — seceded and formed their own state, which they named Franklin. It lasted from 1784 to 1788, eventually fizzling out when no one paid it much attention. Ashe County branch

Historically, the mountains of the South have always been distinct from the rest of the region. Even during the Civil War, when Southern patriotism was supreme, abolitionist sentiment ran high among the poor farmers of the mountains, and the ”Underground Railway” had a regular stop in Ashe County. In fact, before the United States Geological Survey named the central peak after our third president, it was locally called Negro Mountain, or some less polite version of that, after the number of runaway slaves that found shelter in its shadow.

In 1840, there were just under a hundred registered (and legal) distilleries in Ashe County. When North Carolina voted itself dry, the distilleries went underground, or more properly, uphill.

Corn liquor is still being made. It is popular and available, despite the ”revenooers.” Commercial whiskeys are now available again, but many prefer the corn squeezings; it has a reputation for smoothness. ”Goes down like a pussycat; flies through your veins like a wildcat.”

A tax-paid legal and commercial version of the moonshine is available in some portions of the mountains for those who want to find out legally what it’s like to drink their hooch from a Mason jar. Ashe County hillside

The best times of year to visit Ashe County are the spring, when the season works its way up the mountain, trailing clouds of azalea and rhododendron glory behind; and fall, when the season comes back down the mountain, coloring all the trees with orange, yellow and red. Fall colors in the North Carolina mountains have few rivals anywhere.

NEXT: North Carolina Pig Pickin’ 

Part 3: In which a Freethinker goes to Church

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tourists flock to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They come to see old houses, old mills, the wooden tools of the past and the peculiar folkways of the Tennessee mountain people.

The Smokies are among the highest mountains in the East — their tallest peak is Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet — but they aren’t a neatly organized range of peaks like the Tetons. Instead, they are a maze of headlands and coves, forks and ridges. And also unlike most Western mountains, they have been thoroughly lived in. At the bottom of every valley — which are locally called ”coves” — you can find either a farm or the remnant of one. cades cove panorama

Cades Cove is particularly attractive, for it is a broad valley surrounded by darkly treed hills. It is rare to find a valley this wide and flat in the Southern Appalachians. And it was an attractive place for settlers to build and raise families.

So Cades Cove began its existence as a community in 1819, when the first settlers moved in. By midcentury, there were about 685 people living in 137 households.

The 5- by 2-mile cove now seems remote. To get there you have to drive 10 miles from the nearest town, or about 20 miles from the Sugarland Visitors Center down narrow, winding, crowded roads. If it is midsummer, you can expect to average 20 mph at best, although it will be frequent stopping and starting around congested areas where vacationers are tubing down Abrams Creek and the Little River. log cabin

It seems remote, but when it was a thriving community, it was no more remote than most like it in the mountains. It was not considered unusual to take three days for a shopping trip to Tuckaleechee to bring back the salt and sugar that you needed to go along with the produce you grew and the animals you raised.

Cades Cove got telephones and electricity about the same time as other communities in eastern Tennessee. It was not any place special.

But when the national park was created in 1934, Cades Cove was chalked off for abandonment. Most private properties were bought up; the remaining ones were bought up giving their residents lifelong leases. By the 1960s, all the residents were gone.

Cantilevered barn

Cantilevered barn

I feel an odd sensation driving the 11-mile loop trail through the Cove following a caravan of tourists. For most of them, the log cabins and weathered corn cribs must look like something from hillbilly mythology. I’m sure most of them think of the Cove’s late residents as backward and misbegotten. They see the rough-hewn beams and the sorghum mill with its long pole for the mule to pull in a circle. They see the potbellied stoves and the rope beds and think the residents must be something out of a time machine, some forgotten remnant of the 19th century.

But it is different for me and my wife. Her folks came from these mountains and we once lived there together. She made corn-husk dolls as a girl, she cooked on a wood stove as an adult — and not all that long ago.

For the Southern mountain life has not disappeared. It is everywhere out there in the hills of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. It is a shame to see the log houses and cantilever barns presented as museum pieces. You can see dozens more like them, with people living in them and using them, all through Buncombe, Ashe, Watauga and Mitchell counties. church

We stopped at the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove, where a wiry, wizened old Southern man stood at the pulpit, reading through the Bible that rested on the lectern. He could have been the lean, sinewed type of farmer that used to work the fields here. But he was a visitor. He’d been here before and seemed proud that the Bible that he’d seen on his last trip was still there, unmolested by the tourists.

”Hit’s been there three years now and none the worse for wear,” he said. He also pointed at a box of a single layer of bricks on the floor in the middle of the room and said, ” ‘At’s where the stove use ter be, you can see the flashin’ for the stovepipe in the ceiling.” He obviously knew the church, or churches like it.

For you still can find them, whitewashed clapboard, warped foundations, unfinished floors and stiff pews, in scores of community churches throughout the region.

And that is the most peculiar part of Cades Cove. It is presented as a kind of museum. But you can attend a service at a church not one board different from its exhibit, an active congregation of the same leather-faced, hard-farming people.

They still grow apples, they still grind corn. They still slaughter hogs and make sausage. They still singe off the pinfeathers of a chicken that they are going to fry for dinner.

"Leather britches" drying

“Leather britches” drying

Honey for saleThey still make apple butter, still put up fruits and vegetables. They still make half-moon pies from biscuit dough and dried fruit. They still make ”leather britches” — the dried green beans threaded together on a string. Many a home still has a springhouse where milk is kept cold in the running water.

They still make hay from the grass in the bottom lands and keep hives of honeybees. These things are not quaint customs of the past, but a way of life.

Sure, the log cabin very well may have a satellite dish on its roof, and the mule has given way to a John Deere.

But what is important is not the remoteness of history, but its continuity.

NEXT: Ashe County, NC

Appalachians Part 2: In which the author eats a persimmon

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On a late October morning, after a solid frost, you can find a bushel of brownish mottled balls scattered on the ground in the rime under the persimmon tree. They look spoiled and perhaps their thin skin has cracked.

You pick one up and tear its skin wide, forcing the orange flesh through, against your teeth. You push the soft, puddinglike flesh against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, separating it from the hard, grasshopper-size pits that you suck on for a few minutes before spitting out.

There are few wild foods sweeter and more delicious than the ‘simmon you find for yourself on an old, deserted farm in the mountains of North Carolina.

The farmhouse has lost most of its paint, there are spider webs on the dusty windows, and a few boards have fallen through on the front porch. The house sits at the bottom of a hill, where hay still is mown in the summer. At the top, there is the edge line of a hardwood forest. At this time of year, along the creek at the bottom of the slope, the red maples are scarlet and the sweet gums are yellow.

And the ubiquitous zigzag rail fence will seem to outlast everything in the decaying farmhouse but its chimney. ashe county back road

It is the Blue Ridge, the first range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It rises as low hills in northern Alabama and continues north, growing higher through Georgia, South and North Carolina and Tennessee, then thinning out and shrinking again in Virginia, only to sink below the soil once more in Maryland.

The Blue Ridge is what we think of first when we consider the Southern mountains. Its people, its wildlife and its landscape are distinct: black bears, porcupines and possums play in thickly forested hills interspersed with valleys, or ”coves,” where leather-skin farmers grow feed corn and burley tobacco and pasture their cattle.

These Eastern mountains are very different from the higher, wilder, but simpler ranges of the West. They are lower for one thing — the highest is Mount Mitchell, at a mere 6,684 feet. They are round, soft, fuzzy with trees. road up Mt. Mitchell copy

And they are inhabited.

There are wildernesses in the Blue Ridge, accessible only by serious hikers, but you can’t really think of the Appalachians without thinking of the people who live there. Every creek-filled crease in the folded rock has its two-story clapboard house, its barn, springhouse and root cellar.

In the cool fall days, you can see the blue smoke rising from stone chimneys and hear the distant sound of chain saws bucking another cord of wood.

Times have changed some: You also might find a satellite dish in the yard. Because these old houses — some a century and a half old — are so hard to heat, the descendants of their builders sometimes have moved into a mobile home parked right next to the noble old house.

However, you will always find the woodpile, the kitchen garden and the pickup truck on the dirt driveway.

The people of the mountains, however, are not mere stereotypes.

By and large, they are comfortably in the 21st century. There are fast foods, hardware stores and Kia dealerships. High-school kids wear Nikes and everyone waiting for the schoolbus seems to have an iPhone.

However, there is something different about them, their clipped dialect, wary sense of humor, flat-pitch singing, white-clapboard religion and, above all else, an unbreakable attachment to the land. Those who leave spend the rest of their lives pining for it, dreaming of going back.

”I lied to my God when I left the mountains and kem to these devilish cotton mills,” said one old mountaineer, quoted by Appalachian historian Horace Kephart. ”Ef only he’d turn me into a varmint I’d run back tonight. Boys, I dream I’m in torment; and when I wake up, I lay thar an’ think o’ the spring branch runnin’ over the root o’ that thar poplar; and I say, could I git me one drink o’ that water I’d be content to lay me down and die.” snow

For nature is so insistent, both for the brutality of its winter and the beauty of its summer, that the mountain population grows right into the rocks and soil of the hillsides. Pull one out and his roots remain in the ground.

I know. I have become one of them.

Everything about the Southern Appalachians sticks in one’s innards.

So that when the midwinter snows close the schools for weeks at a time and the white tufts gather in the pine needles, deadening all the sound of the landscape, you might hear in the distance the county plow scraping the pavement and the clatter of tire chains. catawba rhododendron

The hillsides are scratchy with gray branches and beech trees with smooth aluminum bark, and last year’s dry papery copper leaves rattle in the breeze.

Then the spring: It is spring when the Appalachians are most themselves.

The cool humid air hangs as fog in the river bottoms and the dew hangs on the stamens of the rhododendron, which snake out of the flowers like a lizard tongue.

Witch hazels spread over the ice-water stream.

The area’s waterfalls are at their peak, spreading water like a coat of varnish over the gray, lichened and mossy granite. Trilium

There is color under your feet and over your head. The redbud tree spatters the forest with a spray of reddish purple; the wake-robin grows pinker by the day. There are buttercups, columbine, maypops, geraniums, trilliums, mayflowers, fire pinks and yellow lady’s slipper.

Everywhere, low under your ankle, there are the leaf-whorl and drooping antenna-flower of the common humble violet.

The mountain winters are frozen solid, so when the spring thaw comes, the whole landscape pops open.

And no matter where I was living, when spring came, I thought of it in these mountains.

Next: Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

View from Craggy Gardens

The East Coast of North America varies more widely than any other region of the continent. Westerners are Westerners, but no one could confuse a Manhattanite with a Cajun, a Down Easter with Virginia gentry.

There are drawls in the South, missing R’s in New England, even French in Quebec.

But there is one thing that ties the East together, a kind of central nervous system that defines both its history and emotional core: the Appalachian Mountains.

Running from southwest to northeast for 2,000 miles from Alabama to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Appalachians are a true cordillera, not a single mountain range of peaks but a chain of ranges that span a continent.

There are the Unakas, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, the Green, White, Black, Blue and Brown mountains, the Berkshires and Catskills, the Notre Dames and Shickshocks.

They were this nation’s first frontier, a physical barrier to continental expansion in the 18th century that helped define the original 13 colonies.

It took an unusual sort of pioneer to settle the green stony hills, and their inhabitants to this day maintain much of their independent nature. It is one of the strengths of the Appalachians.

They are among the oldest mountains — parts are more than a billion years old — and they are also structurally complex. Appalachian map

They can be divided into three very different sections from east to west. This structure is clearest in Virginia.

There in the front range of the Appalachians are the old, volcanic Blue Ridge, rising abruptly from the Piedmont. Behind it lies the broad, fertile Great Valley — a kind of cordillera of valleys — best-known in northern Virginia as the Shenandoah Valley. The Ridge and Valley Province comes next, fronted by the Alleghenies. It is a long series of low sedimentary ridges, like a line of breakers at the shore. In these loaf mountains are some of the nation’s early iron and copper mines.

Behind that is the Appalachian, or Cumberland Plateau, the wide belt of rocky bumps of almost equal height extending through most of West Virginia and into Kentucky. In these hills, miners still dig out the soft, bituminous coal that is the nation’s greatest single natural resource.

But the Appalachians are also partitioned from north to south. It is traditionally divided into the southern, central and northern sections: The first, from Alabama to Maryland, includes the highest peaks in the East. The second, running through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, are mostly long ridges. And in the north, encompassing New England and Atlantic Canada, the mountains grow once more in height and ruggedness.

For the several blog entries, we will look at the Appalachians and the people who live in them, taking them section by section.

NEXT: The Southern Appalachians

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If you could be anywhere at all on the planet at this moment, where would you choose? As for me, I have no hesitation: the Blue Ridge. 

If there is an Eden on this Earth, it must be among the Appalachian Mountains. More specifically, the section in North Carolina and Virginia. When I am away from it, I pine. 

This time of year, the black-eyed Susans and the ironweed play their orange and blue against each other, and the asters line the road cuts with yellow irises in their violet eyes. At the higher elevations, the bite of autumn is already on the dry grasses. blackeyedsusan1 copy

The smaller waterfalls have slowed with the drought of summer, and the green oak leaves have begun turning leathery. In my mind’s ear, I can hear the cicadas and redwings, the caw of a crow in the cornfield and the buzz of the distant chain saw cutting through the corpse of a tree downed in the last thunderstorm. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Appalachians run more than 1,500 miles, from the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec southwest to northern Alabama. The range is seldom more than 100 miles wide, and it is made up of a whole series of smaller ranges: among them the White Mountains, the Taconics, the Adirondacks, the Kittatinnies, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, the Black and the Nantahala mountains. road up Mt. Mitchell

Each range is a pearl with its own colors and beauties, and the string that ties them all together is the Appalachian Trail, which wanders for 2,034 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

The wilderness trail crosses 14 states, eight national forests and two national parks. It varies from just above sea level at the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York to 6,634 feet at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies. 

Each year, hundreds of eager hikers attempt to walk the whole thing or large sections of it. It can take three to six months to do, depending on your speed and fitness. 

Some years ago, I was one of those eager hikers. I had saved my earnings for a year so I could afford to take six months off from work and hike from southern Virginia to Maine. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Large sums went into buying a lightweight backpack, tent and down sleeping bag. I learned to weigh the quarter-ounces when deciding which things were necessities and which I could do without. Even so, my pack weighed in at about 65 pounds, including the complete Milton I took with me. Necessities are necessities. 

It was early spring when I took off, and the spongy forest floor was covered in trilliums and geraniums. 

My goal each day was to make the seven or eight miles between the simple wooden shelters that were provided for sleeping. When I woke in the morning, the dew would drop from the trees like rain. 

In April and May, the trail was laced with rhododendron and azalea. Maypops were in flower down at my feet, and tulip-tree blossoms showed their rosy green over my head. flower - Catawba Rhododendron pistils

Early in the morning, the redheaded woodpecker rattled in the oaks and the phoebe tweeted his name 20 or 30 times a minute. 

But hiking does something to you. Physical exertion propels your appetite and lowers your standards: At lunch, a Slim Jim and a chunk of Velveeta tastes like ambrosia. And at an icy mountain spring, I would mix Tang in a tin cup and slurp it down like the finest German beer. dec016

I had little time to read Milton. 

And after a few weeks, I recognized that goal-oriented hiking was qualitatively different from a weekend hike or a day in the woods. Because I had to make a certain distance each day, the hike soon ceased being a celebration of nature and wilderness and became a dutiful trudge, watching for the paint blazes on trees or rocks that marked the trail, plopping one waffle-stomper down in front of the other, watching out for roots or stones that might twist an ankle. It became work. flower - fiddleheads2005

I took a day off here or there to enjoy the woods, but it didn’t blot out the need to make up miles. 

So I — in the greatest physical condition of my life — quit the trail before I even left Virginia and spent the rest of my six months traveling by other means. 

Many years later, I met and married my wife in the Blue Ridge and continued hiking smaller sections of the trail, among the magnolias and witch hazels, beech trees and hickories. 

And I’m there again as I write this.Blue Ridge horizon2 copy

Linville falls from upper look

I first saw Linville Falls 40 years ago. Getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over onto.

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us, and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.

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It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those 40 years in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

Linville trillium

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge toward North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farm along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the ”Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.

It had been 14 years since we visited that farmhouse, and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill toward it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nail heads showing.

In the 14 years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In 14 years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 14 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

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