The truck thermometer said 98 degrees in town – the hazy air thick enough you could chew it. By the time we turned off Route 7 onto a dirt road it said 93. Twenty minutes later, surrounded by green at the cul-de-sac at the end of the hollow road, it said 89. We took a jeep trail further into the hollow, and by the time we’d parked beside the stream it said 83.
My brother, his wife and kids and I, followed the small stream as it meandered through a hardwood glen full of ash and yellow birch and maple; the occasional red oak. The stream bank was, in places, lined with stacked stones; at one point there was evidence of a dam and base for a water wheel. We wondered how old it was. The 100-plus-year-old trees and lack of any cement put us back in the 1800s. The stones showed no quarry marks. Our best guess, based on the pre-industrial boom cycle in this area, was pre-Civil War. 1840s, maybe.
Can you picture it? A rudimentary structure perched on the edge of the stream bank amidst a hacked clearing; the stumps that were too large to pull, some of them wide enough to lay down on, still rising irregularly from the bony earth. A man in a wide-brimmed straw hat, and an ox pulling a sawlog, picking a path through the clearing toward the mill. Outside the structure water passing over a flutter wheel. Inside the structure a sawyer in a linen shirt and light wool pants. A vertical, six-foot steel sawblade with coarse teeth on one side suspended in a wooden sash frame sliding up and down between two grooved fender posts. A log on a crude carriage being gigged forward by a rack-and-pinion gear with every downstroke of the saw. It’s moderately loud, but perhaps slower than you’re imagining. Hum Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” – “Re, re, re, re, re, re, re, re, spect (Just a little bit).” That’s the rhythm of the machine. It’s slow enough that on big logs the sawyer walks out to escape the noise and stickers a modest lumber pile.
See him visiting now with his wife who’s come by. She wears a bell-shaped wool skirt despite the heat, and a brimless bonnet, the ribbons untied at the nape of her neck. She has their two children with her – a little boy and a little girl. Five and seven. The man who’d been working the ox joins them, and the group walks together upstream to a worn spot on the bank where there’s lunch and cider. The stream here curls around and falls through a limestone rock formation, the walls green with moss, the streambed a macadam of whorled bedrock and marble-flecked loose stone. We sit on the worn spot and talk about time passing. The father and his kids and his brother walk in the stream through the limestone tunnel; phoebe nests amidst layer cake stones that, were they sentient, could tell stories of prehistoric oceans and continental collisions. Here the temperature drops further – it might be upper 60s in the shade and damp air. The kids wear swimsuits made out of nylon and spandex. Polyester sun hats. Water shoes made out of rubber and neoprene. They take turns sitting in a plunge pool, the stream falling on their shoulders and heads, the rush of water in their ears, cooled, and exhilarated, and unsettled by the power in that water, the relentlessness that drives it to the sea.