Open to the elements

This photo from an August, 2009 concert at the First Congregational Church in Hillsboro, New Hampshire is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Open. It’s not yet warm enough to open our windows to this weekend’s rain and snowmelt, but that will come in due time.

Repaired stone bridge

Remember the old stone bridge that was damaged in last year’s flood and subsequently covered with a protective tarp? Well, Old Stone’s in the process of receiving a face-lift, and here’s how she looks these days: almost as good as old.


In August, crews erected a wood scaffold under the crumbling portion of the double-arch stone bridge off Route 9 near the Antrim border in Stoddard, New Hampshire. With the help of this scaffold and piles of reinforcing gravel, workers have successfully re-pieced the largest of the tumbled stones, re-assembling a centuries-old structure whose only modern use is as a backdrop for scenic pictures.


It’s nice to think that some of our tax dollars here in tax-free New Hampshire are lending a hand to a fallen friend. With Old Stone standing securely again, the only thing keeping this scene from its pre-flood glory are the piles of gravel re-routing the Contoocook River around the damage. I’d like to think that by the time our fall foliage reaches its peak brilliance around mid-October, Old Stone and the river that runs through her will be in picture-perfect shape for the annual invasion of Leaf Peepers.


New Hampshire has long had many covered bridges, and now it has at least one blanketed bridge. Last night, during another getting-to-know-you drive in Miss Bling, Reggie and I visited the old double-arch stone bridge on Route 9 near the Stoddard-Antrim border, which I’d blogged both before and after last October’s devastating floods.

In the months since I’d last seen Old Fragile, someone has covered her ruined side with a sandbag-weighted tarp, presumably to prevent further erosion.


I don’t know if there are plans to repair this old bridge: she no longer carries vehicular traffic, so she’s not useful to anyone except camera-toting tourists (and an occasional blogger) who pull off Route 9 long enough to snap appreciative photos. Still, it’s comforting to know that someone is keeping the patient comfortable even if she’s suffering from a terminal case of Gravity. Old relics die hard, and they deserve the decency of a respectful passing.

Flood damage

I’m sad to report that at least one of the old stone bridges of Hillsborough County didn’t survive our recent floods unscathed. (Click on any of today’s images for an enlarged version.)

This past Saturday I drove NH Route 9 from Keene to Concord: the first time I’d driven this road since October’s flood. The portion of Route 9 that crosses Otter Brook in Sullivan had been swept away, and I seldom have business in Concord. But by Saturday, Route 9 had been repaired, and a social gathering in Concord beckoned. And so on Saturday I found myself driving the once-familiar road which wends from Keene, where I work and now live, to my old home in Hillsborough: a portion of winding, scenic road I used to drive in all times and temperatures, a portion of highway I once knew like the back of my hand.

You mustn’t think me a raving sentimentalist when I admit that my eyes filled with tears when I saw the chuck of stone and soil that had been ripped by floodwaters from the old double-arch stone bridge that spans the Contoocook River near the Stoddard-Antrim border, leaving a semi-circular ring of keystones jutting from the earth like jagged stone teeth:


This centuries-old structure was fragile to begin with, no longer strong enough to withstand vehicular traffic and thus set aside like an anachronism with an attendant historical marker and parking lot: the object of curious tourists’ photos. When I pulled into that parking lot on Saturday to snap these hurried pictures, another car was parked with nobody near: in the fall around these parts, a sure sign that hunters are afoot.

Unsafe - Keep Off - Bridge Closed

The last time I visited this bridge, Reggie raced over to explore the other side, and I followed more slowly, snapping pictures along the way. Now, this old bridge is closed to even pedestrian traffic, the remaining stones that support one half of its double-arch being of questionable stability while a gaping, dangerously eroding hole nibbles its edge.

Here in the Granite State, we feel strongly about stone, seeing rock as emblematic of our own hardy selves. The last time I visited Stoddard’s old double-arch, Reggie sniffed out two long-dead, road-flatted beavers that had freeze-dried over a long New Hampshire winter. Life in northern New England is rough, and no one (wild or tamed) gets out alive. Even though we solace ourselves with the presumed stability of stone, even granite erodes, cracks, and eventually crumbles, the river of Time always reigning supreme.

Contoocook River

It seems senseless to cry because here Nature finally reclaimed one of her own, there being nothing more unnatural than the sight of stones arranged to arch over air. Now in November, nothing is more apparent than the passage of time as birds head south, leaves fall from trees, and bears and other mammals disappear for a long seasonal sleep. And yet, here in New Hampshire, we like to think that we’re like stones, solid and unmoving, planted for centuries while weaker souls flourish and then flounder around us like water-tossed weeds.

Ultimately, though, the force of water is like the pull of gravity and the tug of time: slow and inexorable, it always (inevitably) has the last word.


Luna moth

I had to dig deep into my photo archives to find this contribution to today’s Photo Friday challenge, Silky. This is a luna moth that clung for several days on a living room window screen at my old home in Hillsborough, NH. Never having seen a luna moth up close, I couldn’t believe how intricately detailed–simultaneously furry and silky!–its body scales and antennae were: a winged miracle. (Click on image for an enlarged view.)

Orchard fence

Robert Frost once wrote “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Although good fences might not make good neighbors, I certainly love the look of an old stone wall, like this one surrounding an orchard in Hillsborough, NH. I once saw a moose effortlessly leap over this wall, so it’s not keeping any of Nature’s neighbors out. But it looks picturesque nevertheless.

While I’m on campus beginning my action-packed final week of spring semester classes, I’ll leave you to do some wandering (if not wall-hopping) of your own. Hank from Wild Thoughts magazine has recycled an old post of mine titled “Stone Girl Dancing,” which questions the stability of stone. And elsewhere in cyberspace, Marcia from The Heart of New England is featuring a revised version of my vintage posts on the Minute Men of Concord and Keene. I hope you won’t mind savoring leftovers while I’m off teaching classes, grading papers, and administering end-of-term evaluations. Something there is, after all, that loves golden oldies.

Stone wall

During Friday’s walk at Fox State Forest in Hillsborough, NH, I marveled at how bright green moss had gathered on nearly every non-rolling surface, stumps and stones alike.

Stone bridge

When people think of New England, they often envision pristinely painted covered bridges spanning peaceful streams, and we certainly have a pleasing assortment of those structures here in southern New Hampshire. But the real architectural pride of New Hampshire is her remnant of old granite bridges, erected in the early 19th century by Scottish stone masons who eschewed mortar. That these structures have lasted over a century of New Hampshire weather with the annual cycle of freeze and thaw that sent the iconic Old Man of the Mountain tumbling from his perch is testament to the enduring strength of a well-constructed arch.

Rooted in the chinks

The double-arch stone bridge that spans the Contoocook River off Route 9 near the Stoddard-Antrim border is no longer open to vehicular traffic. Instead, a small parking area and historical marker encourage tourists to pull off the busy road linking Hillsborough and Keene in order to admire and take pictures. Although I wasn’t born in New Hampshire, I quickly began acting like a local when I moved here some six years ago, which is another way of saying I’d never pulled off Route 9 to admire the Stoddard bridge even though I passed it several times a week in all weathers while driving to and from work.

During the four years I lived in Hillsborough, NH, I often drove over several old stone bridges that are still in use, including the double arch that spans Beard Brook at Jones Road.

Beard Brook bridge

Although those 19th century Scottish stone masons built these bridges without mortar, modern engineers have determined that that some of them can withstand the weight of motorized vehicular traffic and blacktop, a fact to which I can personally attest after having driven my pickup truck over this one-lane bridge many times during my Hillsborough days.

Weight limit 6 tons

One claim that puts Hillsborough on the historical map is the fact that it is the birthplace of Franklin Pierce, fourteenth President of the United States. Pierce’s stint in Washington was so unremarkable that he was the only incumbent President who failed to be renominated by his own party.

Hillsborough’s real claim to fame, I think, is her handful of still-usable stone bridges, edifices which have stood strong for much longer than Franklin Pierce’s feeble four-year tenure and still work.

Still standing

Not only are many of the bridges of Hillsborough County still functional, they all are scenic, being built of the same granite stuff that undergrids the entire state and blending beautifully into their surrounding landscape. The stony jewel in Hillsborough’s crown is the single-arch bridge at Gleason Falls, a structure which transports cars over Beard Brook year-round while the tranquil shallows below the falls serve as a popular local swimming hole in the summertime. Wouldn’t you like to cool your heels within sight of this bridging beauty?

Stone bridge at Gleason Falls

With arch-stones as meticulously crafted and set as granite vertebrae, the stone bridges of New Hampshire’s Contoocook Valley are among her hidden treasures. Made out of Mother Nature’s own bone, these old edifices seem destined to last as long as the boulders and trees that surround them, safely spanning as they do the very waters of Time.

Above Gleason Falls

After seeing how 19th century Scottish stone masons spanned the rivers running through southern New Hampshire, you look with a more critical eye toward the modern structures that cross these same watercourses. Skirted with a tumble of granite rubble, the modern-day Route 9 bridge over the Contoocook River looks stable enough, but will it pass the test of time? In 150 years, will this bridge with its modern materials and construction be as strong and beautiful to look at as the arching remnants that dot this corner of New England like stony jewels?

Route 9 bridge

Ridge Trail, Fox State Forest, Hillsboro, NH

Yesterday I drove back to Hillsboro, NH to pick up our taxes. Figuring I’d take a walk at Fox State Forest, I took the dog with me. When we lived in Hillsboro, Reggie and I frequently walked at Fox State Forest. We lived right across from the forest on its eastern edge, so Chris and I often joked that living next to Fox was like having a huge front yard without the burden of property taxes.

I’d forgotten to wear hiking boots, so although I had my snow-shoes and gaiters in the trunk, I had nothing to strap them to. As it turned out, though, the trail had been broken by one or two other souls: an encouraging sign. Even in summer, Fox never sees many hikers, most folks being too busy or too bored to head to the woods. On the eastern edge of the forest are several old logging roads that are popular with snow-mobilers, but the trails on the western side near the forest headquarters are narrow and under-used. I can’t count the number of times that mine has been the only car in the HQ parking lot. Reggie somehow always recognizes the parking lot whenever we pull in–actually, I think he recognizes the expansive horse pasture right before the forest–and he’s always ecstatic at the promise of running trails unleashed.

Gearry Cemetery, Fox State Forest, Hillsboro, NH

There are countless trails through Fox Forest, but there’s one particular loop that the dog and I have taken time and again: Ridge Trail to Spring Valley Road to Concord End Road back to the parking lot. Spring Valley Road isn’t much of a “road” these days: it might once have been a cart path. Concord End Road in theory (and on maps) still connects Center Street with Gould Pond Road, which then connects with Bog Road (our old address), but in actuality Concord End Road dwindles to an unmaintained pair of rocky ruts halfway along the way. There are houses on the eastern edge of Concord End Road, and occasionally teenagers with trunkloads of beer drive as far as their cars will take them into the forest on Concord End Road. But for the most part Concord End Road exists solely for the handful of residents on its populated western end and those hikers who use it as a connector to or from the HQ parking lot.

At the juncture of Spring Valley Road and Concord End Road–at the halfway point of our usual loop–sits a tiny cemetery. New Hampshire is filled with scattered graves, remnants from a hundred years ago when most of the forests had been cleared and rock-cellared homesteads dotted the landscape. Hiking the woods of New Hampshire, you often see old stone walls, proof that today’s forest was once pasture. And quite often in the middle of seemingly untouched woods you’ll come to a cluster of graves, most if not all of them bearing the same last name: a family burial ground. Life was rough in 19th century New Hampshire, and so were the roads, so families were just as likely to bury their kin out back on their own land than in the churchyards of town.

Gearry Cemetery, Fox State Forest, Hillsboro, NH

Gearry Cemetery is an unusual example of such a familial burial ground. It’s relatively large (10 graves), and it’s bounded by a stone wall with a white wood gate. The Gearry family lived in Hillsboro long enough to have various permutations of their name (Geary, Gerry) memorialized as the names of local roads; there probably still are Gearry descendents living in and around Hillsboro. The stone wall was erected, I’m sure, to keep cows and horses from grazing graves; the white wood gate, presumably, is a more recent addition, probably maintained by the State.

For all the times I’ve walked past Gearry Cemetery with its cluster of weathered gravestones, I’ve never walked through that white gate. I’ve always walked past with the dog and haven’t wanted to disturb the cemetery and its sleepers with his sniffing and peeing: as Robert Frost once quoted in a different context, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Judging from the rest of his poem, though, Frost didn’t agree with this sentiment; there was something in him (elves?) that didn’t like a wall, something that wanted to get to know who- or whatever it was he was walling in or walling out. Having laid dead for so long, would the sleepy inhabitants of Gearry Cemetery, or any cemetery, care if a lone hiker and her dog poked around their untaxed property?

Concord End Road, Fox State Forest, Hillsboro, NH

Somewhere I have a photo of me from last winter standing at the gate to Gearry Cemetery, the snow nearly covering its stones. Then unlike now I had long hair, my form nearly unrecognizable under countless layers of cotton, fleece, and a huge puffy coat I no longer own. In the photo, I’m wearing snow-shoes: the last time, I think, those snow-shoes have been used. Chris and I are over-achievers, so ours is a marriage of workaholics: it was a momentous occasion that we both went snow-shoeing, together. Momentous occasion or not, I’m not sure why I posed by that gate, nor do I know why Chris snapped that photo. I guess cemeteries and the gates that cap them are signs of remembrance, markers of memory, and Chris and I were subsumed in that spirit. Photos, in a sense, are but paper tombstones, memorializing names and faces that themselves will someday pass into the oblivion of forgetfulness.

After Reggie and I returned to the car, I drove to the accountant’s office to pick up those taxes. In the parking lot were two cars, presumably one belonging to our accountant and the other belonging to his secretary. One of them bore a wry bumpersticker: “Unlike taxes, death doesn’t get worse every year.”

Concord End Road, Fox State Forest, Hillsboro, NH

I can’t, of course, be sure about that, having never been dead myself. If I could ask one thing of the inhabitants of Gearry Cemetery, it wouldn’t be whether or not they’d mind the dog sniffing their stones; it would be, “How is it? What’s it like to lie under earth, stones, and snow while walkers, dogs, carousing teenagers and the occasional snow-mobiler pass: does it get lonely without visitors? And does it get easier over time or more difficult to lie dead and forgotten: do you notice that you’re forgotten, and do you care?” Something there is that doesn’t like a wall, or a gate, or the forgetfulness that that walls, gates, and cemeteries themselves try to fend off; something there is that doesn’t like being forgotten. Death and taxes, they say, are inevitable, but is too forgetting? Is there any power, elvish or other, that has the power to keep oblivion at bay?

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp, Antrim, NH

In true New Hampshire form, this morning we awoke to find a half foot of fresh snow on the ground. March in New Hampshire is, of course, unpredictable. Although we have the usual signs of spring (newly returned turkey vultures, yellowing willow buds, mud, and, yes, frost heaves), we also know that spring won’t really arrive until May when the black flies emerge. Our recent stint of warm and sunny weather has lightened our spirits, given respite to snow-shoveling muscles, and melted most of the remaining snowpack. But none of us really expected that winter was gone for good, and we were right.

Yesterday morning, though, brought the calm before the snowstorm. I was itching to get out of the house; Chris was working, the car sat unused in the driveway, and a stack of tax forms was waiting to be delivered to our accountant in Hillsboro. A perfect excuse for a trip back to the old stomping grounds.

Chris and I lived in Hillsboro for four years: the longest we’ve ever lived in one place. We moved to New Hampshire from the suburbs around Boston in search of affordable housing. Chris was making enough money that buying a house was financially astute even though I was ambivalent about home-ownership. We both wanted to live in the country–at least in theory–and agreed that New Hampshire is about as pretty as it gets. The home we bought was nestled in the woods directly across from a state forest, which meant we had miles of hiking trails within walking distance of our door. During the years we lived in Hillsboro, we had deer in our backyard, phoebes in the eaves, and barred owls and bears in the bushes.

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp, Antrim, NH

Our Hillsboro years were a time of massive gas consumption. For a while, Chris was commuting between New Hampshire and various parts of Massachusetts, driving over an hour one way to either North Quincy or Burlington. Right before the dot-com crash, Chris consciously downsized himself out of the IT business, first as a part-time software consultant then ultimately as a full-time musician. During this time, I was teaching at a handful of local colleges and online. I had my routine as a freeway flyer down pat: three days a week I’d drive 45 minutes one way to teach in Keene; two days a week I’d drive 45 minutes the other way to teach in Manchester. On nights and weekends, I taught adult ed classes online or in nearby Bow, NH. At one point I was teaching 9 courses at 4 different institutions, a surefire recipe for a nervous breakdown or worse.

While we were living in Hillsboro and I was teaching here in Keene, my commute regularly took me past the turn-off for Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp, a nature preserve located at an old mill-site on the North Branch of the Contoocook River in Antrim, NH. The Contoocook River is lovely in any season, and my commute snaked along it in all weathers: summer’s still water tranquility, the riot of color fringing its edges in autumn, the crystal oblivion of winter, and now, in spring, the raging torrent of snowmelt. Every day I passed the turn-off for Loverens Mill, I itched to stop and explore the trails there; in all those years we lived in Hillsboro, though, I walked at Loverens Mill only once, sneaking with the dog down to the abandoned mill-site and daring to venture a couple hundred yards down the cedar bog boardwalk before venturing back to the car.

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp, Antrim, NH

Had I known we’d be leaving Hillsboro so soon, I’d have walked at Loverens Mill more often and more thoroughly, exploring every last inch of that wild, forgotten place. As it was, though, I was always too busy–I had places to go, classes to teach, papers to grade. The dog perpetually needed walking; Loverens Mill doesn’t allow dogs (as if that ever stopped me). Thinking my time in Hillsboro stretched out infinitely, I was wasteful with it, walking too often on neighborhood streets and not enough on woodland trails. Our Hillsboro years were our busy years, so whenever my feet itched to be walking, I settled them with excuses culled from Robert Frost: “miles to go before I sleep.”

Yesterday after delivering the tax forms and taking the requisite drive past the old house, I stopped for a stroll at Loverens Mill. The trails were still snowy, being shaded by trees and trapped in the cold embrace of that frigid, flowing river. I didn’t venture onto the bog boardwalk, for the snow there was deep and I, again, was short on time (“miles to go before I sleep”). But it was good to visit briefly with an old acquaintance, a place who might have been a dear friend had I spent more time getting to know her.

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp, Antrim, NH

After a short stroll and handfuls of pictures, I returned to the car and headed back to Keene. The decision to sell the house in Hillsboro and move to Keene was a sound one. Since we downsized in July, I’m no longer a freeway flyer, teaching only at Keene State (a five-minute walk from our door) and online. We own one car outright and walk nearly everywhere; we rent the first floor of a house and are debt-free. When and if I get an academic job offer across the country or the world, we’re in a place where we can take it: our lives are busy but nearly free of impediment, aimed toward the future.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss Loverens Mill, a place that reminds me of what my life in Hillsboro might have been. Part of me is still haunting this place I never truly explored, my own personal version of Frost’s road not taken. I’m old enough to know it’s impossible to explore every path that beckons: there always will be classes to teach and papers to grade, and we all ultimately come to those quaint and curious moments where our roads diverge in a yellow wood. Having taken one path, though, I’ll always wonder about the other: half of me will find joy where my feet find themselves; the other half will silently ponder what might have been. Although my feet can take only one path, my heart takes both, finding joy and sorrow intermingled, indistinguishable, two convergent heart-melts that empty into the same stream.