“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…“ My apologies…I’m no Walt Whitman. He was writing about the death of Abraham Lincoln almost 150 years ago. One hundred fifty years is a long time but some of those lilacs or roses or daffodils are still out there long after the dooryard fell into decay. The folks who lived behind the door and planted the roses were laid to rest many years ago…generations ago. They were pioneers. They moved into a new land and tried to put down roots. Some survived and prospered…or at least made a go of it. Others tried and failed.
If you are a rambler out in the world you sometimes come across what remains of an old homestead. Maybe there will be a stone foundation. Maybe there will only be telltale corner stone blocks. The wood is gone. It might have fallen into decay or carried away by fire or storms or by people who needed an extra couple of of boards because that new baby or grandma needed a room. Maybe there is a chimney. Often the garden remains.
I am fascinated by these old places. I once stumbled upon a relic of an old homestead totally overgrown in the Missouri woods. What caught my eye was the large patch of daffodils blooming out where they don’t belong. On further inspection there was an ancient scrubby lilac budding out nearby. The daffodils had gone back to nature and spread well beyond their original allotted space. The old Lilac was struggling in the shade but this was spring and it was doing its best. Most of it was dead but it had good roots. It was obediently standing guard where it was planted. There was a rough stone foundation nearby. A few yards away there was a small pile of logs and boards and rusted parts of a wagon wheel. The wagon was inside the barn when it collapsed. I always wonder what the story was. Maybe it’s a simple tale of boom and bust. People pick up and move to better places. But why leave the wagon in the barn? Maybe it was disease…like the Spanish Flu or cholera or something else. I wonder how long ago the place was deserted. The nails were square…hand made. That puts it back a long way. Maybe someone lived here during the Civil War era. Maybe he didn’t come home and she moved away. It is an unknown story.
I’ve hiked a few trails in the Missouri Ozarks and come across other lone chimneys standing out in the forest. Sometimes there are rose bushes overgrown into large thickets nearby. I wonder about the farm wife who took the trouble to plant the roses. Did she bring them with her? My mom would have done that. Whenever she moved she would take cuttings and have the same roses at her new place. It brought a sense of continuity. Some of those old fireplaces are roughly made but others are made of cut stone and are nicely constructed. Somewhere there was a stone cutter and a stone mason close by.
In Big Bend National Park there is a ruined house sitting in a slope over the Rio Grande River. This was the home of a cotton farmer who chopped out a living in the heat and sand, blessed by the river water. This family had one of the southern-most homes in the country. Mexico literally loomed over them from the cliffs across the river. They made a living there for a while but eventually they moved away. lt was a long way to market. Only the ruined walls and some broken glass shards remain.
I’ve seen some others out here in the desert where I live now. Some of these are old tumble down adobe structures. Here they are not overgrown…they just melt away. There are ruins of buildings made of stone. I’m not talking about the Pueblo ruins that are scattered across the southwest. They have their own stories and mysteries. Sometimes you will find something, maybe an old shepherd’s shelter or an abandoned farmstead. I recall seeing stagecoach stations sitting roofless and with gaping windows and doors. Somebody made a life out of those places.
Sometimes you might find something you don’t understand. Some of those people of past generations left a message behind for someone to find. Maybe we can figure it out, like this one: a religious sign left by a Spanish shepherd.
The Indian stone markings are harder to fathom. The ancient Pueblo people kept Macaws that they obtained through trade with people in Mexico. Sometimes you will see an engraved image of an odd looking bird. Other images are not so easily identifiable.
On my most recent ramble, out among the volcanoes just west of Albuquerque, I came across an unusual man-made assembly of stones. These were purposefully collected and laid out in a certain way. It looked like a grave, except it was too small, only about thirty inches long. Maybe it was a grave for a small child or infant. I didn’t disturb it – I didn’t want to know if that was what it was. But it seemed more like a marker for something else: An attempt to mark the spot for some reason. This place is so remote that people don’t often come this way and I was way off the usual trail. This is part of Petroglyph National Monument, a place where local Indians left hundreds of engraved drawings on the volcanic blocks of basalt. There is a long tradition of leaving messages at this place. The stone marker was not recently made; these stones have been here for a long while, maybe centuries. I took a couple pictures and sent them to the local National Park office that has jurisdiction over the volcanoes. They responded that they were unaware of it or what it could be and would have a resource person go out and investigate. I haven’t heard back. I’m still wondering and maybe they won’t have an answer. I’m really hoping it’s not a child’s grave.