One afternoon in early fall, a couple of years ago, I walked out over a piece of land I had thought about buying. A two-story house had once faced the road, and a barn had sat somewhere behind it, and tobacco fields and pasture and gardens ran most of a mile down to the river. Now it had been ten years since the family had given the place up, and the house had been torn down and the barn too, and back of a brief yard the land had grown up in fresh woods, pines and skinny poplar and sweetgum. All that remained of the house was a well that might yet be hooked to a hand pump. For two hundred yards the woods were — littered would suggest too sparse a treatment of refuse; I could hardly walk a straight line anywhere without stepping over or around a beer bottle or a condom wrapper or a lumpy-full garbage bag or a moldy couch or the rusting hulk of a washing machine. If the human beings of Alamance County could purchase a thing and cast it aside, one or another of its kind surely made it into those woods. How many dumpster loads, I thought, would it take to clean up this mess? And how many months, or years? For how long would I be unearthing the flotsam of present-day consumer culture, like the world’s sorriest archaeologist?
But I had driven forty minutes to get here, and the owners’ agent was meeting me to show me the place, so I waited and tried to imagine what the place had looked like, a decade or a generation or a century ago when it was half a small working farm, and what it might therefore look like again. It required a good deal of imagination. I needed to see what was under those woods, how the land lay, how much was level and how much had been or could be cleared.
The agent arrived, late, in his full-sized pickup with a bumper sticker about how he’d rather be hunting, wearing camo-print cargo shorts and a machete holstered at his side, carrying a plat map and a topo map. His outfitting did not give me hope, but we set off into the woods, he telling me what he knew of the family, I wishing the children who did not want their parents’ land had made up their minds sooner to sell it. There was a way down to the river, he said; he’d found it before, though it was a couple of years ago. We picked our way through the trash, through the first scrim of pines. And then we came to the brambles.