Monday, June 13, 2011

Metes and Bounds

Back where the hayfield ends and the dense greenery around the creek grows-- skunk cabbage and scrub and saplings-- the neon orange ribbons tied around trees or stakes struck in the ground are fading to a dull autumnal hue. Some of them have decayed into scraps, now attached to the tree only by the new bark that has grown up around them. Others are entirely gone.

Once you could walk down through the darkest part, where the creek used to cut before the big oak came down and, for a long winter, collected branches and wet leaves and the occasional cardboard box or plywood scrap, and by spring had redirected the flood into a new channel. If you concentrated, if you knew what you were looking for, you could find a point where the orange flashes lined up to set the boundary between our land and the Feather Farm.
It wasn't till the second fall, after the winds down from the ridge had stripped the trees and the first light snow lay on the ground, that we discovered the remnants of the stone wall above which marched that irregularly spaced row of ribbons.

In the old parts of America, the land is divided and possession defined by a system known as metes and bounds. This wall once marked a mete-- a straight line, set if not by surveyor at least by some systematic agreement between landholders, and demarcated by the authority of a stone wall. Back then, the wall served other purposes as well. Its construction provided a place for the stones taken from the tilled fields, the ones that weren't regular enough to serve in the construction of stone houses and outbuildings. The stone wall set the line where the tilled land ended and the woodlot began. Over two and a half centuries, successive generations of farmers on this land yielded up some of the fields to the trees, for if the soil is too wet or the granite substratum comes too close, it's a more valuable use of land to let it go to woods, for woods provide fuel and even, if one is lucky enough, and patient enough, a stand of sugar maples that will offer a cash crop.

The shift in function was rarely as planned as it might seem. Among other things, even a woodlot might require thirty years or more to develop a sustainable yield, especially if the choice is oak. Sugar maples may take a half-century to fully mature. But backing away from a boundary line generally encouraged irregular growth, and the line between the hayfield and the woodlot today is thirty feet or more from the tumbled-down stone wall, a series of peninsulas and bays in the ocean of grass that is rising today, a month before the first cutting.

The other three sides of the farm are defined by bounds-- by a verbal description of the landmarks that set the corners or the reaches. Two of them are roads that date back before American independence-- one, Rest Plaus, is an artifact of the era when the Dutch had settled here; the other, Old King's Highway, dates to the time when the British colony of New York had its capitol in Kingston. It was the principal road between the city of New York and the King's Town.

Down at the end of the farm, there's a county bridge over the Kripplebush Creek, and beyond that, a triangle of land defined on one side by the creek and on the other by another stone wall and, along that wall, a long row of tall trees, some of them very old, that stretches back to the far corner, where the woodlot and the creek meet. The tree that came down and redirected the flood stream two years ago was a victim of the meandering of the creek, which had moved away from the woodlot, and was now eating up the soil that rooted that march of old trees. In places, the old stone wall has been breached, and in the flood of spring, it floods deep into Harry's hayfield. If you stand on the bridge, leaning over the utilitarian steel guardrail, the land between creek and treestand makes little sense. It's only when you walk further, past the creek, that you can see how the water flow once cut more clearly, rendering the bound that gave this now-orphaned piece of land to our small farm and not to Harry's.

The county's decision to replace the old bridge with a new one a few decades ago is a legendary anecdote, often repeated. Only some of the villains and dupes change names, depending on the teller. Up the hill, two excavators have their houses, and they tend to drive their big diesel dumptrucks to and from the house most days. Wayne even drives his back home for lunch-- every day, at noon. Over decades, the weight of those heavy trucks, and the general shift of the creek closer to the house, weakened the original bridge. It helped that one of the excavators was working for the county department of roads at the time; it helped that the other came from a family dating well into the 19th century or before, and had the weight of authority that comes with that, around here. It also helped that the town had decided it was a good idea to have a second means of getting the school buses to and from the school a few miles further, off 209, in case of a washout where the river crosses the highway. County engineers designed a new bridge, to specs more fitting to an interstate, with guardrails and wide concrete abutments, all to cross a creek perhaps 15 feet in width: a dwarf dressed in a dinner jacket, smoking a Cuban cigar.

When they built the bridge, though, the cement forms went in at the wrong angle; just who did the misreading is one of the variations in the telling of the story. The result was a bridge that requires a quick turn to enter, and another to leave. Shortly after the bridge was completed, one of the excavators took the second turn a little too fast, and dropped the backhoe he was trailing behind the dump truck, onto what was then the front porch of the house. Now that porch is gone, and the old line of the original house is revealed, with its stone corner and its eyebrow windows; only the concrete pad is left, disintegrating as the water seepage leaves cracks, and weeds grow in the cracks and push it aside.

The bridge rendered permanent what had, over centuries, been fluid, though at a pace only visible to those whose sense of time was marked by the growth, from sapling to full grown, of a sugar maple or an oak.

When things like this happen, a land sale requires a new survey, and that survey is a result not just of bringing the crew with transit, theodolite, compass and chain, but of research in the old records at the town hall or even the historical society. It's a delicate matter, especially when the property abuts an old family.

The land changes, the landscape, too; whole stands of trees may be cut for wood, or a low treeline may over generations rise tall enough to hide the surrounding countryside. A hayfield became a cornfield in the '30s and '40s, when tractors replaced horses and when the big dairy farms out in the Midwest made the small dairy farms obsolete. The metes and bounds may change as well-- the bridge, which has now moved some thirty feet from where Old King's Highway once crossed Kripplebush Creek, the far end of the creek which now swerves and has turned an island into a peninsula. But the legal limits cannot adapt as the land adapts. Medenbach and Eggers, Surveyors, hammered steel stakes, some of them five and six feet long, into the ground, and hung the neon orange ribbon from those stakes. The stakes may last a century, or they may soon be buried under dirt or fallen trees or the shifted hurry of the stream. Surveys aren't cheap in the land of metes and bounds.

Out in western Michigan, the big production dairy farms of the '40s and '50s that doomed the farms around here are themselves giving way, as the factory farms in California and other production agriculture states have shrunk what was once an economy of scale down into a losing proposition. In Eaton Township, the town of Vermontville houses the Village of Vermontville, where East and West Main Streets intersect North and South Main Streets. The Village is unusual for the area, established as Union Colony, a religious community transplanted from East Poultney, Vermont, whose stony land, never a paradise, was by 1835 largely exhausted.

The Village may have been named in memory of an older site, but its boundaries bore no relation to the metes and bounds of East Poultney. The Village itself was exactly a square mile in area; its limits had been defined at a great distance, as part of the reorganization of what was then the Great West into a rigid grid, each square or section one mile by one mile. By the time Vermontville was legally incorporated, in 1867, in a mass incorporation frenzy that saw the Michigan legislature defining hundreds of otherwise informally organized communities, the Homestead Act had been in place for more than five years, granting 160-acre quarter-sections free to those who laid claim, improved the property, and lived continuously upon it for five years. Residents of the original Colony sprawled outward in neatly defined boxes of land: Church's Addition and Squier's Addition in 1869, and then Davis and Parmenter's Additions in 1877.

Go east on Main Street today, it it will turn into Vermontville Highway. Soon thereafter, it will veer southward on a diagonal for a half mile or so, and then reorient itself onto the grid, marching eastward, as relentless as the metal edge on a child's school ruler, till it ends abruptly, just south of Lansing. Along that twenty mile stretch, it gives no acknowledgment of the changes in topography: of the point at which the flatlands, still marked out in geometric subsets of those original quarter-sections, criss-crossed by other roads at exactly one-mile intervals, give way to broken terrain carved by the Brumm River.

Just to the east of the Brumm River bridge, the Vermontville Highway intersects Bradley Road, and the farmer there on the southeast corner has had to adapt his fields to the wet and fertile realities of bottomland, where a river has been meandering, flooding and receding, dumping new soil or taking it away, for many centuries. There's a retention pond, reeking with effluent from the livestock factory, and many of the fields are farmed in narrow strips.

Bradley Road stops its northward thrust at the Vermontville Highway. The road once was to have continued north by a section or two, but sometime in the last two centuries, the clear separation of the land into its orderly quarter-sections had failed its occupants, and the road, unused and unnecessary, was abandoned. In its place is an equally strict demarcation of ours from theirs: a windbreak of tall trees, beneath which there was once a stone wall.

Or, at least, the plan for one. Land in that part of Michigan was never as rocky as was Vermont, or the middle of New York, where Old King's Highway intersects Rest Plaus Road. The land was mainly flat, windswept, and a line of trees was more imperative.

The Land Ordinance of 1785, which demarcated the Great Western Lands in their neat mile-square sections, was a brilliant way to encourage development; one could purchase public land from a thousand miles away, pack up and travel to it, settle into its rigorous parameters, sure of where it began and ended.

All over Michigan, though, the rigid grid of roads is losing its logic. As the state has teetered toward bankruptcy, as counties have lost their tax bases to more efficient agribusinesses elsewhere and more desperate and productive industrial workers far across the globe, the road crews are tearing up the pavement, leaving it to gravel or to fade into weeds. Driving at night, not quite sure where you are, you used to have the comfort of knowing you could head along that county road until eventually you came upon a village or town. Now you can find yourself in darkness, confronting an intersection that has no outlets, leaving you to turn around and head back where you came from. Perhaps the next intersection will allow you to turn left or right; perhaps you should turn one way or the other, but you are not sure which way is best. You have no metes and bounds to follow, no roads that hug the creek or the ridgeline, linking your journey to the journeys of generations moving from one clear place to another. You are caught within the dolorous geometry of a land without place.

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