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Young Ghosts


There was an episode of the Brady Bunch called Young Ghosts. The Brady’s legendary split-level was under threat of being sold and all the children conspired to sabotage any potential buyer’s viewing.  With moans and chains they protested the sale.  They would dress as ghosts in linen, drifting through rooms to prove the house unlivable.  In the end, the evocative spirit was the family’s attachment and Mike and Carol decided to stay in the decidedly imperfect home.  Quite often my mind returns to that episode, imagining how I could employ the young Bradys’ tactics to vanquish any prospective buyers pursuing a million dollar farm atop a Vermont mountain.  It was a year ago my family decided to sell. 

At the risk of this becoming an advertisement, I’ve redacted identifying information.

My Grandfather purchased “the farm” in 1978.  It was his dream as a boy to be a forest ranger, though a discerning father and his own resolve led him to become a Naval Officer and later a Wall St. banker, traveling between New York and London on the Concord jet for UK based Schroders Bank.  My grandparents were well to do.  They lived on five old growth acres in Weston, CT, kept a pied-à-terre in Manhattan and raised four children.  In his fifties, nearing retirement, my grandfather sought to realize his dreams cast forth as a boy in Michigan and Algonquin Saskatchewan, to spend his time in the forest, building trails and bridges, studying nature and absorbing it. 

My Uncle was studying agriculture at the University of Vermont and it’s there they took up the search for property, surveying available land in Chittenden, Washington and Addison county.  My grandfather wished for contour, vastness and variety.  My uncle, hoping to trade the stink of whey in the dairy industry for the sweet musty vapor of maple, sought healthy stands of broad based sugar maples. 

What they found was beyond imagination.  Over the years, granddad had taken me on tours of several of the parcels which were in the running those years ago--I wonder if only to enforce how remarkable such a discovery was.  Compared to “the farm”, these properties lacked character and evoked the mundane aspects of a farm life: moving hay and feeding animals.  The farm though, the farm is quite rather an adventure park.  A farm is to provide the necessities of the person who works it.  In addition to soil for crops, grass for beasts and timber for shelter, a person’s farm should offer ample nourishment for his or her soul with trails and rivers for recreation, beauty to observe and a peace to the land where feral neighbors can roam naturally.  What they found was beyond imagination. 

The property, nearly three hundred acres of farm frontier, abandoned since the since the turn of the century was a jungle of hardwoods, an electrified green bursting with tangled energy.  Only the steep river, rushing over precipitous boulders into jugs of pebble lined trout pools permeated the maze of unfettered life.  The road which led uphill to the old farm was choked with raspberry and ferns and years of storms were eroding it back to its natural fall line down the mountain.  As the road climbed, it crossed the river on an old stone bridge, took a turn and climbed steeper yet.  At 1000’ the road reached a crest.  Spread along the left hand side of the road, which led over the mountain into the adjacent town, was a long corridor of pasture. To the right, the road bee lined, splitting the jewel of the property, a vast clearing of around fifteen acres cut into the mountain, a vernal amphitheater looking out along a curtain wall of ridged bastions containing the Mad River Valley.  The meadow was densely overgrown with raspberry, goldenrod and nettle.  There was a skeleton of a barn, hunched in the yard like a daddy long legs spider and an ancient house caving and splintering into its foundation.  There were stone walls and fences, rusted plows and harrowing discs and archeological records of our hearty predecessors.  There was an utter calm to the land, a stillness made more apparent by the evidence of abandon.  In the absence of farmers, the presence of the land was undeniable. 

When the deed was signed, camp was erected in the upper meadow.  Two green canvas tent cabins, more M*A*S*H* than Hemingway, sat submerged in the thicket along the fringe of the upper woods, the highest point in the meadow.  My whole family, grandparents, parents, aunt and uncles worked that first summer to tame the hairy, rewilded creature.  Over weeks and weekends, they worked together at the ancient cause, hewing the raw land into use.

My parents were the first to try their hand at homesteading.  The family purchased a single wide mobile home and parked it in the riverside lot at the base of the property.  This was to be a temporary fix until a proper home could be built on a landing by the stone bridge just up the road.  My mother, father, brother and sister (I’d be born four years later) spent nearly an exact calendar year on the land, marked by the desolate winter which shudders the land from existence, Burlington but 30 minutes away.

“Look Mommy, people!” my brother exclaimed one wintery day along the dirt road wandering out to the main road.  It was an announcement which piqued my mother, frightened she’d raise maladjusted children.  No one in the entire family has lived at the farm full-time since. 

Over the course of the years though, the farm grew and gave.  The timber spider was sheathed and filled, outfitted with a bunkhouse, comically spacious, that used every square foot so well it emptied after gatherings like a clown car.  The fields were free with green ripple and a pond was dug in the center of the meadow; lined with perenials and white fence and a boat house with a small row boat tethered to its cleats.  The barnyard was filled with gardens for vegetables and flowers.  There were carriage sheds built for the amassing equipment and workshops to do the building. 

My grandfather purchased Scotch Highland Cattle which traipsed across the fields resembling the Outer Hebrides, raising them for breeding and meat.  My grandmother filled the roadside flank of pasture with Christmas trees.  She’d spend all summer pruning each Scotch Pine, Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir and during Thanksgiving snowstorms the family would celebrate together cutting, baling and loading flatbeds bound for New York and Connecticut.

In the 80’s my uncle built a small outbuilding by the mobile home and started boiling sap in a small used evaporator, the start of his company.  The farm contained two impressive maple groves and over twenty years he tapped 9000 maples, built a massive sugarhouse with a 35,000 gallon holding tank and produced over 100 barrels of Extra Fancy each season, selling the syrup worldwide.

Another pond was dug where the new house was to go.  Trails were built with bridges and benches marking areas of interest.  Horses, pigs, goats and chicken came and went.  Everyone worked, everyone enjoyed.  My other uncle lived in Connecticut but was a ubiquitous presence on the farm.  He, without a doubt logged more work hours there than anyone else in the family; a machine.

In my life, the farm is a sanctuary.  There’s is an obvious attraction for all, like a woman at the beach, but there is an intimacy we share, the farm and I, cultivated by mornings with my tired face against its chest, by gilded freeze frames of valued life, by suffering and gratitude.  The farm has been my constant.  By the time I was fifteen years old I had lived in fifteen different homes.  I had two step parents and five step siblings.  We’d left Vermont when I was five for Maine but the farm remained the nucleus of my life.  With little money for vacations, my family would spend nearly all of our free time with my grandparents.  My siblings and I would live a child’s dream, splashing through the river, getting lost in the woods with a couple of dogs for companions, building lean-tos and being wild.  As I got older, I’d go there when my parents fought, escaping with my mother and siblings.  Later, I was dropped there for a summer while they separated, another when they reconciled and a third summer when my mother remarried.  No matter what house I lived in or who lived in it, my bed at the farm was the same.  As I write this I can smell the linen, mixed with fresh hay and the air that rises from cold moving water.

After high school I returned promptly to Vermont, enrolling at Saint Michael’s College.  My first night on campus, the temperature was driving well below zero and a blizzard stacked dry snow.  Being the spring semester there was no orientation, no mingling of unfamiliar faces and a loneliness lit the cement room.  It took ninety minutes through the drifts and wind to reach the farm and I spent the night watching a worn our Bridge on the River Kwai VHS by a warm wood stove.

There was rarely a moment I didn’t spend at the farm when I could.  Being so close on my own accord, the cathartic experience of going off to college wasn’t partying, it was having this companion in my life, able to watch it live and change with each day with little interruption.  Through that winter my uncle would often come out to work in the woods and we’d talk about skiing and sugaring.  In the spring, my grandfather came up from their home in Florida (they had sold the Connecticut house ten years earlier) and he’s put me to work, spring chores, like collecting fallen tree limbs and repairing wash outs on the road. 

On the last day of the semester, I drove out the farm before heading back to Maine for the summer.  I had to drop off some things to store there for the summer and see about helping granddad before I left the area.  There was plenty to do and I volunteered for the most interesting and quickest task on the list: There was a downed birch by the upper pond and I chain sawed it into lengths, loaded the John Deere Gator with salvageable firewood, stacked it on the woodpile at the top of the barnyard and, and took the rot to the ravine where we dumped.  

It was already evening and granddad naturally assigned my next task.  I told him it was time I got going, with a drive back to Maine ahead of me.  He thought it odd I leave with so much to do but wished me luck and I left.  That was the last time I saw him.  He was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter and underwent treatment back in Florida.  With his future understood, he went back to Vermont, where my mother cared for him in his final months.  Toward his final days he was hospitalized but demanded he be returned to the farm.  This was allowed, under strict rules he remain in bed.  The following day, my mother woke to him already up, in the rocking chair putting on his boots for the day.  They spoke briefly but there was no protest and he went outside to his ATV, throttling it uphill toward his day’s work.

In the evening he returned home, explaining to my mother the work he’d accomplished and in a candid moment of vulnerability, revealed his body would not let him do all he had wished.  He had slipped and fallen working on a water line which fed ponds and troughs from the river, losing a tool and knocking out his breath.  His mind had so much more life in it but his body did not, he confessed.  They ate dinner, said goodnight and he went to bed for the last time, with a day well spent and much left to do.

After his passing, little about the farm changed, even less in fact than when he was alive.  My uncle was still sugaring, my other uncle still made regular trips to hammer out chores in 36 hour stints.  The houses and workshops became museums immortalizing the patriarch.  My grandmother continued to summer there, I returned to Saint Michael’s College.  My brother lived nearby.  My aunt and cousins too, though less frequent visitors, and we’d all commune for holidays and birthdays and celebrations throughout the warmer months.  The farm was never to be sold and my grandfather assured this by dividing ownership among his children.  My grandmother was still the owner until her death but was a silent partner, unable to rule on the future.  The boys each received 35% and the girls got 15% and would share their Florida home as well.    

My uncle’s sugaring operation had been the chief industry on the farm for years.  My grandmother stopped raising Christmas trees and the cattle, after a generation went unregistered, became costly pets.  So it was he that filled the shoes, became the patriarch and steadied the farm’s course.  He had fancied the land his for years and like a greying prince accepted the throne with gusto.  The farm marched on.  That was 2005.

In 2011 I got a job in California.  I’d been living in Vermont since graduating.  My then fiancé and I had just spent nine months living on the farm at the top of the mountain witnessing the land go from drab spring to vibrant summer, burning autumn and white winter.  On a spring day with a few friends, we went up to the farm with some mushrooms to say goodbye to for a time.  It ended up being a dreary day and we had an uneventful trip walking through the wet fields, watching rings ripple on the water from rain and trout rises and settling into the bunkhouse for the night.  It was melancholy and I told the farm I’d be home soon. 

Six months later I received a phone call from my mother.  My uncle had been killed.  As the story goes, he had come to the farm on a November morning to fell some trees in the woods.  He allegedly arrived at the farm with arrangements to work with a neighbor who lived on the road leading to the farm. He had helped the family for years on projects and watched over the cows in the winter.  Around noon, when the neighbor didn’t hear from my uncle, he went up to the sugarhouse to look for him.  The lights were on and his car was in the lot so the neighbor presumed my uncle was working in the woods alone.  As evening fell, my uncle, who would often overnight at the farm, had not driven out down the road by the neighbor’s house and therefore, the neighbor suspected harm.  He went to the sugarhouse.  My uncle wasn’t there.  He went up the road, a mile and a half, guessing where to stop, miraculously discovering my uncle out of sight, down a ravine laying across a boulder, his chainsaw and helmet yards away and his ATV parked on a logging trail a bit further.  According to the neighbor, my uncle was still breathing, gurgling.  He’d been struck by a tree limb he’d been trying to top.  Unable to carry my uncle and his cell phone on the fritz, the neighbor wrapped the chain from the winch of my uncle’s ATV around him, dragging him uphill out of the woods like a log.  At the road, the neighbor hoisted him onto the ATV and rode him down to the sugarhouse where he called his wife to perform CPR, call the 9-1-1 and my uncle’s girlfriend.  The neighbor has changed his story since but as it went that night, my uncle died on the cement floor of the sugarhouse, fifty yards from where his father died six years earlier.  The state troopers who responded to the call that night presumed the neighbors account of events and declared it an accident.  Neither detective actually set foot where my uncle was discovered but instead asked the neighbor to return to the scene the next day to take photos for them.

His death was caustic.  My uncle had been married once before and had a son.  In his will, his estate went entirely to my cousin.  The document was two paragraphs long.  After my uncle’s death, a new will was procured which gave everything to his girlfriend.  They had a daughter together and she took his last name, though they never technically wed.  She owned his company, his homes, his life insurance policy and my cousin’s inheritance.  With this went the sugaring operation.  The miles of tubing which snaked between the 9000 maples were torn down and left on the forest floor.  She sold the farm’s tractor.  The sugaring equipment was auctioned off and the sugarhouse was torn down in order to sell the salvaged lumber.  My family fought her in court, hired a forgery expert to condemn the mystery will which over several pages divulged in technical language that all was to go to her.  She won and skipped away to Hawaii with my uncle’s daughter and her son from a previous marriage that ended when her husband dropped dead of poisoning on a golf course. 

Only by virtue of my uncle’s first divorce, did his girlfriend did not receive his share of the farm.  They had been traded to my aunt who lent him a large sum to buy his first wife out of the sugaring company they started together. 

His death and the subsequent fallout hung a cloud over the farm.  My grandmother, who’d relished the country life of Vermont, her gardens and time with loved ones on the deck, was already favoring her home in Florida to the rigor required by a Vermont farm.  She was devastated and exhausted by legal quarrel.  My aunt, who now owned a disproportionate stake in the farm held the least amount of interest in it of anyone in the family.  She wanted nothing to do with it, considering the inheritance a burden of taxes and upkeep.  Still, my uncle plugged along as always, driving up late at night to exhaust himself over days, cloaked in sweat and flecks organic confetti.  My mother’s pro-farm stance is narrow for she only possesses 15% of the pie.

The following autumn I got married.  We had the rehearsal party at the farm.  It was the first and last party at the farm since my uncle’s death.  With all my family and friends together in the barnyard I spoke with my living uncle about our family and the farm.  We discussed our history on the land, how his father and brother’s lives are woven into it, how fortunate our family was to share something so tangible and the moments we remembered spending together, moments that defined his and my relationship.  We spoke of a plan to work together to move the farm forward.  The night was warm and we lit off fireworks.  The optimism of my wife and I’s imminent nuptial elevated the moment to one of triumph after such a difficult year.  The wedding was a success but the lofty sentiments ended that night.

For the next few months I lobbied my grandmother, my aunt and uncle to keep the farm in the family.  I urged them, as well as my siblings and cousins, to recall the value of the farm as a home and a resource, not its monetary worth.  I volunteered to pay the taxes and insurance in exchange for shares.  I professed my desire to work the land for myself and future family.  I reminded them how a new generation was growing in our ranks who, in toddler years, already fancied agriculture and nature.  Two months later it was put on the market. 

Throughout this historical dissertation, I’ve neglected to invoke my family’s dynamic.  Between all I’ve introduced so far, everyone has at some point been disowned by one another, underwent psychiatric treatment and in summation, are as dysfunctional and crazy as they come.  I myself have been banned from the farm several times throughout my life for no reason but the opinion of one family member or another.  This family dynamic makes the lovely commune concept of the farm impossible and today it’s clear we cannot work together to resolve or rebuild. 

This month, I’m moving back to Vermont.  The farm has been on the market for over a year now and has only grazed the interest of buyers.  But, in my mind I have to conclude it’s gone.  The houses and outbuildings are empty, the contents auctioned at pennies on the dollar.  The vehicles too and the land sits, growing.

When I dream about being back in my home state, whether snorkeling in the swimming holes, climbing the mountains, or skiing in the winter drifts, my mind invariably returns home down the dirt road to the farm.

Each night I think of the Young Ghosts and what clever strategy I can employ to win the farm back, to guarantee its safety.  I wonder how I can convince those who won’t speak to me how much it means, convince them to let me live there and work the land without the threat of being ousted on a whim.   I wonder how I could convince a rich philanthropist or crowd sourcing site to give a middle class kid a million dollars to buy out his rich family.  I wonder how I could sue the State Police for botching my uncle’s investigation.  I wonder how I’ll react when it actually sells and denial can no longer temper my fears.  I wonder if I’ll be able to amass enough wealth to buy it back and if the new owners would ever sell it to me.

I know it’s my own attachment to this sacred place that causes me to suffer.  I know all is impermanent.  I know this has been the fate of Vermonters for centuries, farms stripped from them by death, creditors or apathy.  Instead it’s my own family walking away and kids in white cloth won’t do anything to stop them.