A century ago, the hilly rims of the Hudson Valley held farmlands and pastures spread far up their slopes, a history easily forgotten but for the stone walls still running through the woods. Born in 1865, William Weaver Christman inherited his family farm just west of Albany County and led the farmer’s life until his fifty ninth year, when he started planting pine trees to convert his property into a nature preserve and began writing poetry. He published four books in his remaining years. The final title, The Untillable Hills, tells us what he thought of farming. Two Christman enthusiasts, Alan Casline and Walt Franklin, have now published a portion of that collection in a chapbook, Sonnets From Stove Pipe Street, most of which are character sketches of the sort that poets rarely write anymore.
What have you heard from folk on Stove Pipe Street,
Old John and Barb’ra Anne and Sarah Jane?
(They fought a losing fight, they met defeat,
The crop is weeds on land John cleared for grain.
Hank Westfall too, they say has long been dead,
Poor harmless soul, that never did an ill;
“I know enough to serve the Lord,” Hank said,
When the boys called him fool and imbecile.)
And there was Peter Westfall—is he gone?
These workingmen, they were salt of the earth.
(The night that he went mad we watched till dawn
And saw him pick at crickets on the hearth.
They have no sorrows, neither do they wake,
Why should your heart be troubled for their sake?)
The subsequent poems tell us more about these scrapers-by in the untillable hills. There’s corn whiskey and hard cider, church revivals and farm auctions, undertakers, suicides, and jobs to be had breaking stones for railroad beds. Not until he turns from the social to the natural does Christman shed his wry bittersweetness for a more glorious song.
Slow, shuttle-wise, the green-gold caterpillar
Weaves out and in and so prepares for cleaving
The airy way, a butterfly or miller,
But he shall not win heaven for all his weaving;
Only a night of fireflies, stars and shadows,
A moon-bright night in June-time’s golden weather,
Or one brief day over the daisy meadows
On wings as buoyant as a flicker’s feather.
No miracle these lives of twofold birth:
The maggot born in dung, awaiting wings,
The locust springing winged from chambered earth,
The dappled dragon fly from sedgy springs;
But man, under a stone and trod in clay,
Relies on God to roll the stone away.
Today the old farm is a Nature Conservancy Sanctuary. After parking in the lot at the edge of an overgrown field, Alan Casline leads us into the full grown forest dappled with sunlight under the blue summer sky. We pause by a boulder with two brass plaques weathered green marking the spot where Christman and his wife had their ashes scattered amid the tress that they planted. His reads:
When you went we grieved
we felt the bitterness, the lack
then softly fell
the evening of content—
the world had changed
we would not wish you back.
New life springs phoenix-like
upon the ashes of the old
and life is forever born.
The trail slopes down to the Bozenkill, a shallow shady hemlock stream that glides and percolates over loaf smooth stones and bedrock slate flat at patios. In several spots the stream drops off a bedrock shelf in three or four foot waterfalls that look as perfect as dams. We wend our way up the trail to the property’s main attraction: the thirty foot tall falls filling a swimming hole below cliffs like a stone outfield wall. Seated on on shore rocks we watch a boy splash about, impervious to the cold water. Behind us, there’s a lean-to built by a hiking club in the 1930s and still in good repair. Up above, there’s a spot in the hemlocks overlooking the falls where Alan hosts a reading of Christman’s poems on June 1st each year. Alan has written half a dozen poems of his own about Christman and the preserve. His tribute to the man concludes:
The poet and the farmer has a worthy task
to make the bountiful earth last.
Each of your thousand seedling trees
comes with a price, the settler’s fee.
Visit with footsteps the best fertilizer they say
is the quiet attention a visitor might pay.
There’s one tree that Alan hasn’t yet identified on the property, the subject of one of his Christman favorites. Though the farmer had seven sons and two daughters by his loyal wife, he also had a reputation for “loving the women” as it might have been said in his day. Upstream lived a paramour who collected butterflies that she pinned to her window curtains.
I Will Chant the Oak
Friends have forsaken,
My love has forgotten
The oak remains steadfast;
it stretches out its arms in benediction over me,
I will make a psalm for the oak.
My love is old and has no heart for loving,
Her hair is white as silver;
The oak grows green with the returning May;
Scarlet, bronze and copper in the autumn,
I will chant the oak.
In the Indian summer like a gallant knight
It would doff its coat for my lightfoot love,
Spread it like a carpet in her path
to our trysting tree.
When it shook its last leaves down,
Like a fowl its feathers.
I have laid my head on its instep,
Stretched my length there for an hour of dreams
‘Till she came.
She has forgotten,
Gray and sick and speechless,
Too far away from life to know despair,
Her throat wrinkled,
Her once round breasts shriveled and shrunken,
Forever done with loving,
Waiting her tryst with death.
Would that she remembered that one long-ago Indian summer
in the naked oak, challenging winter,
knee deep in its own leaves.
Sonnets from Stove Pipe Street is available for $6, including postage, from Alan Casline at Box 522, Delmar, NY 12054. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.