When we’re in the woods, the landscape can seem unchanging. Trees spread out in a grid around the trail to the horizon. It’s hard to notice the subtle differences or believe that anything but nature has taken root on this land before. But there are signs of life we miss on our hikes and walkabouts.
We can learn to recognize the markers of past civilizations on our walks. Perhaps not empires, but the remnants of a family or two. You may even be able to stand in their metaphorical shoes and think about the view in their day. Similar trees, creeks, and ridgelines, but very different perspectives.
Parade of Lost Homes
There are the remains of old settlements right under our feet that we can overlook as we sip turgid pumpkin brews and bag up the latest deposits from our dogs.
My father taught me to spot little changes in the terrain. Like when you come upon a patch of grass in the middle of the forest.
Perhaps a few out-of-place small trees and shrubbery, almost decorative. Some rocks strangely freed from the dirt. Are squirrels practicing Feng Shui or Vastu?
More likely, you’ve found a home site lost to time. These little out-of-place clearings of weeds and stone may be old homesteads. You may be standing in someone’s yard. The home is no longer there, but perhaps 200 years ago settlers hacked out some real estate among the oak and hickory. The green carpet below, an attempt at a suburban-like yard by someone forgotten to time.
You might even find a trash pile under some brush, revealing rusted pails and tools.
Always wondered about this little clearing in a state park only minutes from my home. Where did they go to school, attend church, buy flour?
In the American Southeast, one sure sign of a former homesite is revealed with the spring arrival of yellow and white daffodils. You’ll see them in rectangular alignments as if they used to be in a flower bed. Perhaps they were only to emerge one March day to find the family they flowered for each spring had left for more fertile ground.
Most tracts of land have seen people crawl over their hillsides and hollers over the centuries. They’ve hoisted timber and secured shingles or tin to escape the downpours life releases.
These bygone homesites have mostly returned to the dirt, but you can see the outlines they’ve left in forestland and state parks. It’s amazing to think we can nearly drive up to these sites today, and yet in olden days, they were likely five, ten, twenty miles from the nearest neighbor. That’s quite a long drive for early minivans.
Meditating on Holidays in Collapsed Homesteads
So far from anything, and yet a family slept under the roof that once stood here. Shared a warm, cooked bird in November. Went to bed on Christmas Eve here. Talked about life. Watched snow cover the leaves.
If you concentrate you can imagine a girl dropping a marble through a hole in the floor. A prized possession. She goes crying to her mother, but the colorful orb is never recovered.
Here’s the secret you can take with you as you drive home. That marble is still there. Mashed into the dirt. Perhaps four inches down by now.
The glass once warmed in the hand of a child you can never meet, in a time you can never visit. But the spirit of the home and the marble persist, even if we go looking for inspiration in the forest and tread over it without ever noticing.