In 1907, my great grandfather bought a farm in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. He had lived in the Sequatchie Valley all his life; in fact, his family had farmed in that valley since his own great grandfather settled there long before Tennessee became a state. Grandpa Hamilton had deep roots in farming, and even deeper roots in that part of the world.
The Hamiltons were not wealthy; he bought the land only after he sold another farm which had been given to him when he was married 18 years earlier. I would love to know who gave him a farm as a wedding present, but I don’t. Once he bought his new farm, he built a small house on it for his family to live in. There are three rooms in the house, plus a kitchen and a hallway, and off the side porch, there is another small room. In the back, there is a small building which covers the well and a small room behind it. I am sure there was an outhouse in the vicinity at one time, because there is no way to meet those needs in the house. There is a shed out front and a barn a hundred yards or so to the north of the house. In 1907, he had six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16; two more children were born in that house before his first wife died in 1916. I have no idea how ten people all got along in those four rooms, plus a kitchen.
Although the house is not large, Grandpa Hamilton did not seem to skimp on the details. Every room in the main part of the house has a brick fireplace. The ceilings are high, and there are plenty of windows. There are porches on three sides, a few cabinets and a good-sized sink in the kitchen, and a crawl space underneath. There is asbestos siding on the outside, a hazard now but a quality material then, and a metal roof on the top, although those may have been added later. The house was built to last a long time.
And it has lasted a long time. 107 years later, it is still standing. The porch floors have rotted in places, and one corner of the roof covering the front porch has caved in. The wallpaper is peeling to reveal the lath boards underneath. Some of the faces on the fireplaces are crumbling, most of the windows are broken, some of the doors don’t close all the way, and the floor is a bit uneven. But the house is still there.
Besides building that simple but sturdy house, though, Grandpa Hamilton did a remarkable thing. With roots as deep as his in that valley and in the business of farming, he knew the value of the land he owned. However, he set his house off the road a good bit, and around the house and between there and the road, he preserved several acres of trees. They were large trees of species native to that area: walnut, hickory, oak, cedar, and others. My dad wrote to me a few years ago recalling about his grandfather that “squirrels and birds thrived, and he allowed only very limited hunting when damage could be observed in the barn bins.”
Grandpa Hamilton and his sons mowed the weeds around the woodland, and they planted acres and acres of corn and other crops out back. But they left that land around the trees undisturbed. His grandson and great-grandsons who still farm the land have kept up that practice, and the woodland has remained so thick that it is impossible for a person to penetrate. It is much like I imagine most of the land in that part of the world looked before people came along to cut down the trees, hack out the undergrowth, till the soil, and sow their crops.
For the past 30 years or so, no one has cleared the brush from around the house, either. And while Grandpa Hamilton’s trees and their offspring have almost overtaken the house now, with some of the trunks so close that they seem to climb the exterior walls, I wonder if the trees he preserved are part of what have kept that simple building standing for so long. The unused houses and barns up and down the valley which are not surrounded with trees show their vulnerability to the wind and the rain. They have roofs and walls which are caving in and frames which are leaning. But protected from the wind and all but the heaviest of rains, Grandpa Hamilton’s house still stands in the forest he set aside out of his farmland.
Grandpa Hamilton was no progressive. From what my dad tells me, he called Franklin Roosevelt one of the worst things to happen to this country. I can just imagine my father as a young boy listening as his grandfather repeated that strongly-held opinion to him, loudly, over and over again; he would not have been the first old man who held tightly to his view of the world as the world changed around him. But he was ahead of his time in at least this one regard: he valued nature, and he worked to preserve it, even if that meant giving up some of his precious farmland.
In the suburban community where I live, I recently had a conversation with someone about trees. I have made my feelings about trees and the way they are treated in our suburban community known before. In this conversation, I talked about whether it would be possible to plant some new trees where some ancient but dead specimens of native magnolia, sweetgum, live oak, and hickory nut have recently been removed. The person I was talking with agreed that it would be good to replace the removed trees. But the varieties were another story. “Those trees are all messy,” she said. “They drop leaves, branches, and litter all over the yard. Maybe we can find some modern hybrids of those same kinds of trees. No one is going to want those trees around that they have to clean up after!”
And I was mystified. I wanted to scream: “They are trees; of course they drop leaves and branches. The leaves and branches can be removed, or even better, they can be chopped up and used to enhance the soil under the trees. That is the way those varieties of trees have thrived in our area for millions of years before we came along!” But I let my suburban sensitivities get the better of me, and I just smiled politely.
I think Grandpa Hamilton and I would have at least a few things in common.