Monday, August 18, 2014

Feudal Society Vol. 1: The Growth of the Ties of Dependence

Dictionaries define feudal as pertaining to the feudal system of holding land in a fief. To some degree it is a circular definition, but it does imply a certain attachment to the land, though usually through an economic relationship with the owner.  For our purposes we will suppose that this relationship is also an emotional one, pertaining both to the individual plot and to the pays in which it is located. This examination is based on records for one small holding and, before we continue, let us acknowledge that this history is a privileged one, based on limited primary sources, and cannot necessarily be expanded to include any other inhabited areas.

Part 1 The Environment: The Last Invasions
Some Consequences and Some Lessons of the Invasions

From such a close range it is not always easy to notice the most important details and it is true also that a certain precision has been lost. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some assumptions based on a physical examination of the land.

The area itself a rough rectangle about 6 hectares in total, bisected by a road that divides the property into two distinct halves.  To the east of the road the land climbs upwards toward a glacial ridge, and to the west slopes down toward the highway and, further away, a small valley cradling a series of long, shallow lakes. 

The first record we have of this farmstead is from the latter part of the last century and is somewhat fragmented.  These new arrivals did not attempt to reclaim much of the original clearance but were content to work the infield and garden plots that were near the house.  As horses were introduced it became possible to explore what remained of the outlying pastures and even venture into the forest proper, but even earlier explorations on foot revealed that the eastern portion of the land was second growth forest, mostly sloping gently up from the road but also containing some steep hills.  The forest was lined with stone walls, plainly evident in the undergrowth, dividing the land into rectangular plots.

From these sources we also know that the farm originally consisted of the house (an older portion plus addition), two large chicken coops, three barns and a corn crib.  The largest of the barns and the corn crib provide the most striking discontinuity between the land in its current state and how it must once have appeared.  The large barn (since collapsed) was a hay barn.  It had a large central driveway, two hay lofts and, beneath them, two sets of stalls.  There is a record of the central driveway containing an ancient hay baling device which was later removed, while the lofts continued to be used as storage for hay and the stalls, much later, for horses.  Not enough is known of the its operation to say if it functioned also as a byre – our sources are silent on the early uses of all three of the barn structures and it is not possible to say at this date if they accommodated cows and pigs as well as the horses that were later in residence.

A large hay barn and corn crib are, in themselves, enough to suggest that the original arable was of a considerable size.  The other two barns were not as large.  One was a garage, and the other was full of tools and had a long weathered work bench.

It is hard now to imagine the woods yielding any corn or hay – the little bits of meadow are shot through with rock ridges.  Yet the stone walls climb the hills.  There is one area of flat ground near enough to the barnyard – evidently sold off long ago – but even that is two hectares at the most. 

Some of this is still evident on the road even now. There are more houses - several have popped up where trails used to be and an abandoned property now has a gated drive. The hay barn is gone. The new houses haven't settled into the landscape yet and look raw and out of place.

Part 2 The Environment: Conditions of Life and Mental Climate
Material Conditions and Economic Characteristics

This all seems like rather a lot of change yet stays within the scope of one lifetime, accelerating and retrenching. The earliest direct evidence of settlement on the property is a photograph of a family standing by an old Ford in the driveway. It could be any time from the 20's to the 40's. A black family, said to be that of Rockefeller's chauffeur. That is the story of the land at the beginning of our current documentation. Rockefeller's chauffeur owned the land, did not farm but kept some livestock. It was called The Wagon Wheel then and a sign at the gate was actually a large wagon wheel until it decayed and was used for kindling. The chauffeur is said to have accidentally gashed his foot with an axe while chopping wood, which led to blood poisoning and an early death.

It should be possible to tell how long ago this was more precisely - by the state of the house and property. As it was renovated, traces of earlier work appeared and disappeared. At some point the chicken coops were made into bungalows, and one was further enlarged later on.

Thousands of years before, the glaciers arrived, noisily scraping the earth raw and grinding down the hills where they could.  Re-aligning other hills as a powerful magnet straightens out iron filings.  Then they left, and the land was open to other visitors and travelers who would change the landscape on the small scale as the glaciers had on the large.  The trees grew up where the glaciers had left any soil, and grasses spread from boggy ponds.  Deer made paths through the woods and streams made paths through the fields.

There is no longer much trace left of the previous inhabitants, the ones providing much of what history we have.  The new languages and new modes of the last invaders become the most visible signs in the landscape. Perhaps they will settle in to the land and become themselves the last traces of a previous existence.  More likely, using up all the land, they will leave not stone walls but houses and plots whose lawns will fade into new forest.

It seems that we pay the most attention to those things that will certainly change. It is true that when living near the mountains or the ocean the sense of change will always be either immediate or ever so gradual, but in the woods the markers are trees and meadows and isolated buildings that decay at a human pace.

Modes of Feeling and Thought

The old maple is gone. The one that had a swing hanging from one giant branch. Whose branches were too high to climb. And the white picket fence, not very elegant at the best of times - the barn, as mentioned. Some things seem to speed up as time goes by, but always measured against the oldest trees and structures. It is still possible to see the scene as it was. After school in the late spring and early summer the bus would drop off children into a sleepy haze of quiet that grew as the bus grunted off down the road.  The cat would wander down the path to the road and curl itself round the mailbox pole.

The family arrived, having left from somewhere else.  That would seem to be trivial, that having arrived one must have left.  Not worth mentioning, certainly not worth emphasizing in this way.  Yet it is worth repeating for a second time now.  Places are come to – no one is there before the place – and arriving is always ceremonial even when it doesn't seem to be.  It is the arrival that sets in motion the tender clock that governs our impressions, responses and emotions.  Time is not the powerful force it is without a place.  The beginning of time, in this case, was the arrival on this land. There was no history, no chauffeur, no Rockefellers, just a big white house with three red barns. 

The move itself is a marker of course, but it eventually becomes a secondary event to the changes set in motion by the process of having arrived.  A map, an image, is created in the brain to function as an ideal form, and an emotional time is measured off it.  In one case, children arriving at the old farm begin the process of grieving for the changes that will occur by fixing a reference point.  To leave is to end as well as to begin anew.  To arrive is also both.

Perhaps this is why it can be shocking sometimes to see photographs of ourselves as children, looking not at all the way our projected memories have led us to believe we felt.

Although the move was only a matter of 15 miles or so, it had some of the markers of an emigration.  There were no new languages or even dialects to master, but still new ways of being, starting with a new house.  The landscape was more open too and less claimed.  Mental space opened up as the new territory unfurled itself along the road a little at a time.  Even now it is a delightful little road to wander down, and then it had as well the small thrills of discoveries.  As the road became more familiar, explorations off it began.  One curve on a small hill yielded a small, nearly hidden path that climbed a ridge into the forest, winding through the trees to another farm over a mile away by the road.  Just along from that was an old driveway that led to a deserted something.  An old hut in an overgrown gravel lot.  Another mile and there was a small, working farm that kept peacocks that could sometimes be heard at night as they yelled “help, help.”

 - C. Hoyt 2014

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