Folks familiar with the Appalachian Trail may know that the two hundred twenty odd mile section from Maryland to New Jersey is affectionately referred to as “Rocksylvania”. We now live in the Cumberland Valley within a few miles of the actual midpoint of The AT. The ribbon of trail nearest us runs about twenty thousand yards through as fertile a plain as you’ll find anywhere. And, because that stretch is pretty flat, it’s a welcomed break for hikers who have to navigate the steep, rough ridges bordering us South and North.
Of the thousands of lush acres which surround us there are only a handful you can’t farm. We live on 1.7 of those. On our little plot, the topsoil is mostly a cheap toupee over bald, dense clay. Rocks poke up everywhere among the walnuts and maples which have negotiated truces with – and root systems around – the Cambrian dolomites and limestone. There’s no easy digging anywhere on our property which I first confirmed three years ago when I snapped a shovel handle clean off replacing the mailbox post. And when I finally had to bury a cat last winter, it took me an hour and a half.
It was easier to dig graves in Connecticut. Everybody thinks the ground is rocky in New England and it is. But at our house there we had a sweet spot behind the old chicken coop where the soil was deep and loamy and full of worms. With an Ace Hardware spade (and a shoebox) you could put a cat in the ground forever in ten minutes. I planted three there.
Thirty years ago, when we moved into our little bungalow in Collinsville, CT, I was sure I would live in that house for the rest of my life. I imagined my own tomb in the basement as a memorial of my faithfulness to that little quarter acre and wondered simultaneously who’d be crazy enough to buy a house with a body buried under it. But, of course, we moved. And when I made my last sweep through that empty house I choked on a morsel of regret that I hadn’t been faithful to that place after all. It was the only moment, then or since, that I had any misgivings about leaving. But, for a few bitter seconds, I was as a bewildered Israelite: were there no more graves at home that I’m dragged away to die in a strange land? Exodus, 14:11.
It’s relaxing and contemplative to dig when the soil is soft and welcoming and you have rational dreams of a crop yield. But all the zen vanishes when you’re hacking through prehistoric sediment. My patient wife lost her appetite for a cut flower garden here after a season battling the unforgiving earth beside the house. Watching her sweat and scratch around I was reminded of the patience, grit and mulish persistence of nineteenth century farmers pulling stumps with oxen and dragging plowed boulders from fields on sledges. Or of the stunning wattage that same strain of farmers purged with the thousands of graves they dug down the road at Gettysburg: the armies suddenly gone, the bewildered residents of that town crawling out of basements to find their smoking July fields littered with the dead and dying. Men. Horses. Cattle. I try to imagine how long it would take to bury a three quarter ton ox with a shovel from the hardware store.
A year after the battle at Gettysburg, the staggering body counts were overwhelming available burial sites. So it fell to Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs to select a suitable site for an expansive new military cemetery to accommodate the endless demand. In an act of historic spite, Meigs chose a sprawling Virginia estate across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. – the appropriated home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Meigs, like Lee, was both a southerner by birth and a distinguished graduate of West Point. But Meigs was also staunchly anti-secessionist and despised Lee for a traitor. His choice of Lee’s estate as a place of final repose for Union war dead was intentionally provocative and entirely consistent with the scorched-earth extremism with which the Union ultimately prosecuted the war to its bitter conclusion. It was even Meigs’ intention to have the first grave dug in Mary Lee’s rose garden. Lee never returned to that Virginia homestead which we now know as Arlington National cemetery.
Not long after moving to Pennsylvania we visited an Amish farm with a strange out building next to the dairy barn: a concrete rectangle foundation about five feet high, open at one end with a pitched roof canopy, no walls and a dirt interior. Like a small outdoor ice-rink with the Zamboni doors missing. It was a composter. Rather than bury old dairy cows when they die, these Amish simply toss them in the rink and cover them with a little manure and silage. Hard to believe but after a few months there’s barely any trace left. Simple. Relatively dignified. Eco-friendly. A reverse grave.
Two months ago, after a suitable Winter of mourning, we replaced our dead cat. The two of us drove over to a farm in Carlisle and kidnapped a couple of barn kittens from different litters. Cousins, probably. One was a runt small enough to fit in a teacup and he was so impossibly helpless that his earnest efforts at survival were a marvel of persistence. He reminded me of our early Republic. And like our fragile democratic experiment, the kittens didn’t quit; they now seem almost invincible in their gymnastic self confidence.
It’s anybody’s guess where we’ll be when the time comes again for a spade and a shoebox. Canada maybe, depending on the outcome of the next civil war and how Reconstruction goes. At least the farmers in Gettysburg have backhoes now so the digging will be easier. Maybe congress will take a page from the Amish and convert Mar-a-Lago into a composting site for dead fascists. Anyway, I bought a new shovel at the hardware store. It has a steel handle.