in the Twentieth Century
By A. Stanley Thompson
Cabinhill Tree Farm
Stan Thompson and his fiddle from the cover of his book, My Life in the Twentieth
In 1970 Barbara and I looked for a place in the country, preferably near Shenandoah
National Park, which would provide a contrast to and refuge from the noise, dirt,
smog, and confusion of Washington. We had bid, unsuccessfully, on two places, either
of which we would have liked. We wanted a small acreage with some structure in which
we could camp.
On a disagreeably hot September day we set out, with a real estate agent, to find
a 170-acre abandoned mountain farm on the south side of Oventop Mountain, near Sperryville,
Virginia, which she had heard was for sale. Our agent had not seen it but knew its
We drove up the access road, pleasant and shady, to a point near a neighbor's dilapidated
unpainted barn, past which the road became impassable. We then proceeded on foot.
There was evidence of an old road, but it had been badly washed, and had grown up
to crown beard well over our heads, blackberry briars, greenbrier, spicebush, and
Japanese honeysuckle. We found it easier to follow a dry streambed. After perhaps
an eighth of a mile we came to the remnants of a rail fence and a broken-down barway,
which we were told represented the lower boundary of the property for sale. The road
and its surroundings were blocked almost continuously by fallen and falling Virginia
pine trees enmeshed in rampant honeysuckle reinforced by the forbidding rasps of
greenbrier. We made our way up the remains of a rather steep road sometimes crawling
under, sometimes climbing over, obstacles in our path. At the end of perhaps another
fifth of a mile we perceived, through the trees and brush across the brookbed from
us, two log structures in a line. These turned out to be not a house, as we first
supposed, but two connected pole barns, the roof partially collapsed on one and completely
gone from the other.
From the barns, through a rampant growth of ailanthus trees, paper mulberry trees,
and honeysuckle (all imported pests in Virginia), we climbed to the north up the
mountain to the remains of a log house on a stone foundation. The cabin, about fourteen
feet by twenty feet, was surrounded on the downhill side by the collapsed timbers
of a former porch, and on the uphill side by a lean-to about seven feet wide. The
roof of the house, above a loft, and the floor of the lean-to had largely rotted
away. We traversed a floor joist across the lean-to to the living room, which had
a large hole in the floor and an aged cowflop next to it, as if the last cow to visit
had paid her respects to the cabin as she fell through its floor. The front of a
stone fireplace and chimney had collapsed onto the floor. The front of the house
had an open door and a sashless window facing south over the fallen porch down the
steep hollow which we had just ascended. Because of the growth of honeysuckle-covered
ailanthus trees there was no distant view.
About a hundred feet up the hill from the house a magnificent spreading white oak,
whose circumference was later measured at almost sixteen feet, stood above a spring
housed in a small man-made stone cave. The tree was swathed, to a height of some
thirty feet, in poison ivy. The outlet from the spring had been turned by the tramping
feet of cattle into a muddy swamp.
In every direction the clutter of trees, leaning at all angles, were shrouded in
honeysuckle, so that no impression was had of the characteristic appearance of tree
From the house I, alone, followed the remains of the old road up a steep incline
along the streambed, through honeysuckle, greenbrier, and fallen trees for much of
the first part. Finally I came above the honeysuckle to an area of attractive deciduous
trees, oaks and tulip trees. Near the top of a ridge of Oventop Mountain, I passed
a spring from which there was a flow of water despite the general drought conditions.
Although I did not know it, I was walking near and parallel to the boundary of Shenandoah
We returned a few days later with a local guide, Kinsey Atkins, a man in his early
sixties. Along with his wife and thirteen children, he had been the last resident
in the cabin for a twelve year period after the death of Polk Atkins, its owner from
1870 to 1941, completing the destruction of the original beauty of the land, violating
it for a precarious living until there was no living left.
We followed an old road for half a mile along the south boundary of the property
to its western limit. We passed ailanthus and locust trees overgrown with honeysuckle.
At the western boundary was a perennial spring near the remains of a stone "still
house" which we were told had made corn whiskey both during and outside the
era of prohibition. A fallen stone fireplace was all that remained of the old "Pullen"
We returned and walked through an attractive area east of the cabin with Virginia
pines and a few white pines, with an understory of laurel, pink ladyslippers and
beds of pipsissewa.
Our agent remarked that she thought the cabin was restorable. My feeling, as I looked
at the sagging chimney and the logs which projected into space from the front of
the house where the porch had pulled away, was that it was a prospect for a bulldozer
and a fire. We left to consider what we had seen.
THE DECISION TO BUY
The prospect I've described seemed quite dismal. We realized that this property was
one which had been described for us by another agent who said it was too awful for
him even to show it to us.
The largest problem, aside from needing shelter to get out of the weather, would
be that of bringing under control the honeysuckle and ailanthus trees which had become
thoroughly established. A road would have to be built into the place and when built
might be too steep to be negotiated by an automobile.
I had become interested in damage to the environment from over zealous applications
of our energy-based technology to the solution of narrowly defined problems. Consider
for instance the environmental aftermath of modern agribusiness monoculture farming,
or the strip mining of West Virginia. The damage caused by these operations is so
great, that it is not apparent that recovery can be accomplished within periods of
time meaningful to human beings, using reasonable amounts of energy for the purpose.
The damage to this steep mountain farm, which should probably never have been cleared,
had been achieved by human muscle power augmented by that of animals over a peiod
of perhaps one hundred and thirty years. What period of recovery must be considered?
What human help could accelerate the process, using relatively low energy technology?
Because I was not aware of the devastating effects of herbicides on the environment,
and of their failure even to achieve their stated aim of long term control of weeds,
I envisioned use of 2-4-D on the honeysuckle.
We wanted a place in the country. Barbara thought this place too large and too rough,
but she went along with my dream of changing it. We bought the farm on October 30,
1970, and named it Cabinhill Tree Farm.
As a temporary expedient, we repaired the cabin enough to live in it until we could
build a new house on some different site. A temporary roof kept out the rain. The
old porch was replaced by a wider one. The lean-to became became a room with a dining
area and kitchen, surrounded by glass walls. The more we built on it the better we
began to like it. We came to realize that whoever built the cabin, perhaps one hundred
and fifty years before, had picked a good site, a southern slope with good air drainage
and a view over the valley.
At Cabinhill, we became involved with many people. A former student of mine at Howard
University, a Turkish immigrant named Basri Chabuk, and his American wife, Carol,
visited us, and Basri made kitchen cabinets. Our lives became thoroughly entwined
with those of our family at Cabinhill. We had much loving help from our sons and
daughters-in-law, both in labor and ideas. We began to know our sons and daughters-in-law,
and our grandchildren from the time they were born.
Jonathan, born in Corvalis, Oregon in June of 1973, was our first grandchild, and
for almost six years our only one. When he was about four months old, Jon came with
Steve and Mary to stay for a while at Cabinhill. Jon liked active games. A swing
was fastened to the living room ceiling, in which he delighted to cross the whole
width of the room, almost reaching the ceiling. He liked to jump on the living room
couch, which was pushed against a table and surrounded by cushions for his protection.
Once he jumped so hard he completely left the couch, doing a somersault in the air,
landing right-side-up on the cushions. We all dashed to get to him. For a moment
Jon looked surprised and confused. In another game, Steve and Mary, standing a short
distance apart, tossed Jon back and forth between them, accompanied by his chortles
of laughter. Jon, from an early age, had definite ideas of the right way to do things.
When we went on walks through the woods, he refused to ride in his back pack, insisting
instead on riding in Steve's arms, facing forward to see where he was going. We were
pleased to have their company. When we were away from the farm, we'd return to a
house heated by the fire they maintained. In the morning when Steve put him in our
bed with us, Jon entertained us with happy sounds until he became hungry and insisted
on being fed.
Steve and Mary dug the space to the west of the house for a new addition, which we
later added. It was during their visit that we started planting thousands of white
Later Mike and Bobbie stayed at Cabinhill for some time. They made important additions
to the house which began to give it form. The logs were chinked with mortar, electric
wiring and plumbing were installed, and a complete new roof was added. With cherry
wood from logs brought down from the mountain, sawed at Charlie Hitt's country saw
mill and finished by hand, the kitchen cabinets were paneled in cherry. Mike and
Bobbie also planted trees.
Bruce helped me install twelve foot long sections of sheetrock in the ceilings.
Gradually our surroundings on the farm became pleasant. On November 2, 1975, I wrote
in my notes, "More and more I love this place, the clean air and wholesome water,
bird sounds instead of garbage trucks and fire sirens. I think though that most of
all I feel involved with it, having studied its problems and worked with them. I
feel one with the house, the spring, the woods, the vistas, the gardens."
Mary and Steven invited Barbara and me to come to Corvalis in April of 1979 to participate
in the planned at-home birthof their second child, and to be useful, particularly
to six-year-old Jonathan. Nature ruled out the at-home birth. Mary began developing
high blood pressure and other signs of beginning toxemia. She delivered the baby
at the hospital with Steven, under medical supervision. Later they returned to us
at their student housing, Mary carring the new, and so far unnamed, baby girl. The
baby appeared to be studying her surroundings with great interest. I wondered whether
some of the voices might sound familiar to her, and whether Barbara and I might sound
strange. Later on, when Jonathan came in, slamming the door, we jumped but the baby
didn't. Mary said, "Of course. she's been hearing Jonathan slamming doors for
Everyone suggested names. When Lynn was chosen, we arranged magnetic letters on the
door of the refrigerator to say, "We love Lynn," and we did immediately
love Lynn. Lynn was hungry, and Jonathan found that when he came close he got "kisses."
The next morning Steven brought Lynn into our room while we were still in bed, and
put her down on my chest. I felt small knees and elbows working themselves into her
most comfortable position as she snuggled down into place. Lynn seemed already to
have decided that she liked people, and was glad to be with us.
Barbara and I returned home to Virginia, pleased to have Lynn as a granddaughter,
as well as Jonathan as a grandson.
We next saw Jonathan and Lynn in Kodiak, Alaska, where their family had moved. Steve
was a statistician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Lynn was then fifteen
months old. Because our plane was several hours late in Kodiak, Lynn had tired of
the wait, and Mary had taken her home. We were met at the airport by Steven and Jonathan.
When we saw Lynn she confirmed her belief about the essential goodness of people.
She knew where everyone's possessions were in the apartment. She soon added a detailed
knowledge of our belongings. In answer to the suggestion, "Lynn, get Stan's
shoes,"she appeared not only with them, but with her own. In Kodiak, in order
to avoid tracking into the house the omnipresent grey volcanic dust, one left shoes
at the door when entering. Lynn knew that when shoes were put on it was for a trip
somewhere outside the house. She had no intention of missing the excitement because
of a lack of her shoes or a failure to show her interest.
Lynn would sit on the floor pulling at her shoes, trying to put them on her feet.
When finally she had one hanging backwards from her toes, she clapped her hands in
triumph. We were all expected also to clap and exclaim, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"
Lynn orchestrated her audience, pointing her index finger at laggards and exclaiming,
"Um, Um, Um," until she obtained compliance.
Lynn got what she needed with no further language beyond her "Um, Um, Um,"
and pointing. She imitated the sounds of animals of which she was fond, particularly
cats and dogs. On a walk it was difficult to pass either animal without a long visit.
Like Jonathan when he was small, Lynn had a definite mind of her own. She would ride
in a pack quite contentedly, but when she was being carried without a pack she needed
to be put down for all sorts of investigations, to play in the dirt, gleefully to
run away, to make the rounds of all the boxes in the post office trying to open them
with her key.
When Lynn saw Barbara or me entering the house after a trip, she abandoned whatever
she was doing, even her bottle, to dash madly over, arms flying, all smiles and laughter,
to be caught up and held and hugged.
Later, Steve and Mary, with Jonathan and Lynn, visited us at Cabinhill Tree Farm.
Nan Reddick had bought a seven acre piece of land from us on which she had built
a small house. While she was gone on a vacation we were keeping her wood fire going
and caring for her house. Nan's cat followed Jonathan and Lynn back to our cabin,
then proceeded to have kittens. The whole process was observed scientifically and
reported to us in detail by Jonathan and Lynn.
Megan was born in Eugene, Oregon on September 22, 1979. Barbara flew to Eugene to
help with household tasks when Bobbie returned from the hospital, and to visit with
our new granddaughter. Here is Barbara's poem about Megan:
That small person
Who lives with us
Three brief weeks-
Transports us all
Whose grief dismays us
Whose needs rule us
Who conquers all she meets.
Her power lies in her smile,
Her first new-minted smile,
Her eagerness, her buoyancy -
So fair, so small, so dear -
When Megan was two-and-one-half years old, Mike and Bobbie brought her to the farm
for a visit. I found her a delightful companion as she sat on my lap helping me drive
the truck, in low-low gear, up the hill to our cabin after trips to the post office.
When Megan left, we missed her. We hated to continue missing her.
THE CLIVUS MULTRUM
One of the first constructions at the farm was an outdoor toilet, without a door.
Sitting there on a pleasant moonlit night one could hear animals moving about. Going
there on a cold, rainy, winter night wasn't quite so comforting. We rejected the
thought of a standard toilet with a septic tank and drainage field because we didn't
want to pollute our brook.
I read in Organic Gardening an article about a composting toilet, called Clivus Multrum,
invented by a Swede named Lindstrom for non-polluting use at his country home on
a Swedish lake. I wrote Lindstrom asking how I could get one. Later I received notice
that Abby Rockefeller had acquired a license to market the device, and had brought
Lindstrom's son, Carl, to the United States to develop it. I worked out arrangements
with Carl for purchasing an experimental unit for our cabin.
Barbara and I drove our International Harvester truck to Boston. There Carl Lindstrom
joined us for the drive to Abby's country home in New Hampshire, where Abby had prepared
a delicious dinner. Carl explained that the name, Clivus Multrum, meant "nclined
composter. A large fiberglass container was designed with a sloping bottom down which
moved at a glacial pace the mixture of human waste and other organic materials, continuously
composted by contact with circulating air The pleasant-smelling final product provided
fertilizer for growing plants.
After dinner we had an absorbing conversation during which Abby expounded on the
evils of the profit motive. We spent the night at her house and, in the morning,
were invited to accompany Abby to a neighboring farm for milk. I was impressed when
several times on the trip she stopped her battered Corvair to collect roadside trash.
Abby showed us her neat garden. When some unfamiliar plants turned out to be Jerusalem
artichokes, Abby gave Barbara some starts for her garden.
After breakfast we loaded an experimental model of the new Clivus Multrum onto our
truck. Because it was too large to settle into the four by eight foot truck bed,
it appeared a strange shape strapped on top When we stopped for gas on the way to
the farm people stopped asked whether it was some kind of boat.
With Carl Lindstrom's help, I installed the Clivus Multrum in our basement, with
pipes connected to toilets on each of the two upper floors. Human waste, mixed with
garbage and the sawdust which we added, self processed into pleasant compost which
we spread around our fruit trees, leaving no waste to be disposed of, and no pollution
of our brook.
On a visit to the farm in 1993, we found that the Clivus Multrum was still operating
satisfactorily. It is still illegal in Virginia under obsolete laws established under
the tutelage of conventional plumbers, but no one has ever entered a complaint. The
stream past the cabin is free of pollution. Jerusalem artichokes still raised their
heads in the garden.
Kinsey Atkins had moved from the cabin several years ago, and now lived in a house
on the road through Sperryville, near the Park border. Because he liked to tell stories,
and we were willing listeners, Kinsey came often to visit us. His stories involved
the hard life living in the mountains in the old days, working for Polk Atkins for
25 cents an hour. "We was so poor we couldn't afford to buy coffee, so we made
coffee out of beans." "Did it taste like coffee, Kinsey?" After a
pause, he said, "No, as a matter of fact, it tasted like beans."
Kinsey's health became so bad he was a pathetic figure, which reflected in his squeaky
voice. Then his multitudinous family turned against him, and his wife left. He no
longer visited, and we only occasionally glimpsed him, looking forlorn.
Charlie Hitt operated, with the aid of his son, Jimmy, a country sawmill just off
the road to Culpeper. Before our road was easily passable, Charlie delivered loads
of his rough-sawn lumber to our cabin. He said Jimmy had told him to deliver it to
us because "They pay us." "You'd be surprised at the rich people around
here who owe me money." When Charlie remarked that he had seen barns built with
his lumber, but not houses, I suggested to him that the original cabin had been built
with even more primitive materials.
The sawdust which we used for an organic base for our Clivus Multrum came from Charlie
Hitt's sawmill. Not only did he give it to us, but he voluntarily appeared to help
us load our truck. In answer to Barbara's comment that his generosity overwhelmed
us, Charlie responded, "My wife says I help people so they have to listen to
Charlie's source of lumber depended on what was immediately available, including
tulip, oak, maple, and even locust, so hard it was necessary to drill holes for nailing.
We lined our bathrooms with locust which Mike had polished to a beautiful yellow
gleam with a prominent dark grain pattern. We had him saw up some of our rotting
cherry trees for making kitchen cabinets. Occasionally we got from him left-over
walnut slabs from a neighbors order. One day Charlie came over to me holding a slab
of wood. He said, "You're a city slicker; I bet you don't know what kind of
wood this is. If you can tell me, I'll give it to you." This happened at a time
when I was making a study of wood grains, and I answered, "I think it's white
walnut, also called butternut." He handed me the slab without a word, and walked
THE FARM BECOMES HOME
Six years after we bought Cabinhill Tree Farm, we sold our apartment in Washington,
and moved full time into the cabin. By that time it had four bedrooms and an office,
along with electric heat (already an economic and environmental anachronism), a telephone
and bathrooms. Bruce commented, now you have all the forms of pollution. There was
a road which, if steep, was generally manageable. We had a garden. We had not used
any chemical sprays or commercial fertilizers. The honeysuckle and ailanthus trees
in the vicinity of the house had been brought under control (not eradicated) by mechanical
means and by natural biological processes. We had planted fourteen thousand tree
seedlings, mostly white pines, and some walnuts. We had a passable road out the western
side of the property, as well as our direct exit. Our water came, fresh and sweet,
from a spring several hundred feet up the hollow.
As we experienced wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, pileated woodpeckers. cardinals, wood
thrushes, foxes, deer, bears, and racoons, and walked through the woods inspecting
pipsissewa, pink ladyslippers and laurels, and the trees we had planted, I felt we
had become true and faithful mountain people.
Cabinhill Tree Farm consisted of one hundred and seventy acres of mostly rough and
steep mountain land, facing south, between 700 feet and 2000 feet altitude. The cabin
was set at about 1200 feet. Access was by three fourths of a mile of private road,
the last quarter mile of which was quite steep. The property had on its northern
border a three fourths mile common boundary with Shenandoah National Park. Friends
and service people who had just arrived at the renovated house in its attractive
surroundings were apt to ask some equivalent to the question, "How in the world
did you find this place?" After several years, I suddenly realized that the
true answer was, "We didn't find it. We invented it."
In George Orwell's Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are
more equal than others." We thought we were the owners of our farm, but some
of the animal population, which had been there before we came were convinced that
they were more equal than we were. It has been stated that a survey of property is
an invitation for a lawsuit. We had the records of a very old survey of the farm,
but the animals seemed for a while to be saying that we'd have to fight them for
posession on the basis of some common law of their own. We made a truce with them.
I grew up on a farm in northern New Jersey. There a war of attrition against the
non-human animals had been waged by human beings who considered themselves the most
equal of all the animals. This war had been concluded against whole classes of animals
who, being dead, were obviously not equal. There were no longer any bears, bobcats,
wild turkeys, or ruffed grouse. The only fox I had seen had just been hounded into
a pile of rocks, and killed. I myself trapped out the last of the muskrats in our
swamp to sell their furs, as I remember for about a dollar apiece. I can remember
wondering why they had all disappeared, as if I thought the population of muskrats
on which I was working was inexhaustible. There were pheasants which had been stocked
by the State for hunting. There were left, of course, some other, undesired, animals:
rats, mice, groundhogs, and rabbits.
At Cabinhill, by contrast, we were continuously accompanied by a rich assortment
of wildlife, including birds, mammals and snakes. The mammals included squirrels,
skunks, foxes, and bears. Occasionally we heard wildcats howling in the woods, and
once, when Barbara was showing a visitor around, two cougars crossed the path ahead
The bird population included hummingbirds, cardinals, chicadees, goldfinches and
purple finches, grossbeaks, pine siskins, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, wood pewees,
quail, ruffed grouse, and whippoorwills. A pair of piliated woodpeckers built their
nest in a different, laboriously pecked-out hole each year. We'd see flocks of wild
turkeys. Once we counted forty of them in a flock. Because we were in the woods we
did not have the starlings and house sparrows which were in the valley below us.
When the cherries were ripe on our big tree by the house, whole flocks of robins
showed up in a chattering mob. Ordinarily we didn't see them at all. Barbara's bird
feeder was under siege by squirrels until we found ways to prevent their climbing
When we first saw the cabin, there was a phoebe nest on one of the ceiling beams
in the living room. When the pair came back the next year, they couldn't get into
the house. After inspecting the whole premises, they decided on our outdoor toilet.
The year after that an addition was being built onto the house. They built their
nest in the open rafters, recycling mud and horsehair from the old chinking from
the logs in the cabin, and raised their brood, flying in and out, apparently ignoring
our presence and the noise of hammers and the electric saw. Once I chased away a
large blacksnake climbing on the rafters searching for a way to reach their nest.
Later we saw a blacksnake, perhaps the same one, stretched out along a limb of the
large oak, apparently digesting the squirrel family whose nest it had just cleaned
Occasionaly we'd find a nest on the ground, containing ten or so ruffed grouse eggs.
Later the nest would be destroyed, probably by a fox. We wondered how any nests survived.
One day we found several cardinals dead or dying around our feeder, and we wondered
whether we had fed them poisoned food. An autopsy on one of the birds showed that
it had been killed by endrin, which had been applied in the apple orchard a mile
or so away to kill mice. From that time on, we had fewer cardinals. I wondered how
long the owner of the orchard could survive his multitude of poisons. We'd see him
on his tractor, enveloped in the mist from his sprayer, as he made one of his twenty-per-year
applications of insecticides and fungicides to his ripening apple crop.
When Barbara and I started to garden on our farm we found that sharing with the animals
would be according to their rules, namely, "the devil take the hin'most."
Sweet corn would have arrived at that succulent point of almost ripe. During the
night we would hear the raccoons systematically knocking down the stalks, and in
the morning we'd find that every ear which was close to being ripe had at least been
tried for its taste. We then rescued what we could, cut out the chewed parts, and
ate the rest. We had to admit that the raccoons indeed had good taste.
We became particularly aware of groundhogs. A growing row of lettuce, or beans, or
peas would be nicely started before it was observed by a groundhog, then disappear
in one night as if removed by a mower. One tribe of maurading groundhogs maintained
a den under the cabin with two entrances, both dug under the foundation walls. From
this strategically located citadel they sallied forth to sample the latest delicacies
of the garden, ignoring us unless we threatened immediate attack. We had no gun,
but decided to try setting steel traps for them under the house. After I caught and
disposed of one of them, the rest of the family became smart, consistently springing
the traps without being caught. How they did, I don't know. Then one night I caught
a spotted skunk in the trap. Because I couldn't figure any way to release it without
paying a higher price than I was willing, I killed it. Three years later, in damp
weather, its smell was still evident in the basement. Soon after the skunk, I caught
a grey fox. By use of a piece of plywood between it and me, I was able to release
the trap, freeing the fox. Now I felt that I had mistreated a friend, and that ended
Mike and Bobbie, while they were staying with us at the farm, found a cherry tree
up the mountain above the house, loaded with not-yet-ripe cherries. They pruned it
and kept a faithful watch each day on the ripening of the cherries. There came the
day when they planned to collect their prize, but they arrived to find that the tree
had been torn apart during the night by bears. Branches had been broken off, thrown
to the ground, and the cherries plucked.
The bears were "Park" bears. They had gained experience from campers in
Shenandoah National Park with the containers in which people kept food. When we first
started going to Cabinhill, we had an outdoor toilet, with no door, but with an excellent
view. We kept toilet paper in a metal can with a plastic lid. One day we found holes
made by teeth in the can and the plastic lid, and the toilet paper scattered around
the area. On the porch was a roll of roofing, with a shiny can of roofing cement
in it. The roofing had been turned over and chewed, and the can had holes through
it into the tarry cement. That bear must have been disappointed that he found no
fruit in either of the cans. A neighbor's refrigerator which was kept on the porch
was being regularly robbed of stored food. When a sheriff's deputy staked out their
house, he observed a bear which opened the refrigerator door, took what it wanted,
let the door close, and walked off with its plunder.
One of the bears stopped for a while at a distance from Barbara's garden fence, peering
around a tree through the shrubbery to watch her at work. After Barbara died I found
among her papers two stories she had written about her bear, which I suspect really
were partly about me. I have included these stories with her poetry in a separate
We wanted to protect the garden without declaring a general war on the animals. A
fellow gardener suggested a particular design of fence based on a five foot high
section of two inch mesh chicken wire. Below it a one foot section of one inch mesh
chicken wire extended underground, curving outward. When the groundhogs tried to
dig under the fence they came to the chicken wire, and didn't know how to get around
it. A one foot section of chicken wire at the top of the fence was fastened only
along its bottom line. This frustrated the raccoons. When they tried to climb over,
they found that this top wire would not support their weight, but they couldn't get
through it either. Later we extended the one inch mesh wire a foot above ground to
foil one particular groundhog. He had found that he could break one wire of the two
inch mesh and force his way through the resulting enlarged hole. Also later, when
the fence became older and weaker, the raccoons again breached it. At this point
we gave up growing corn, delicious as it was. Some damage to the garden was done
by an immense population of voles. They tunneled under the soft garden soil, eating
off the roots of lettuce plants. We found no remedy for their predations.
Particularly when there was snow on the ground, we found fox tracks crossing the
woods in all directions, apparently in an endless search for food. The area around
the house was checked on a regular basis. In July of one year, a family of grey foxes
consisting of a mother and four pups made their home temporarily in a groundhog hole
about thirty feet up the slope from the house. For a while we thought the mother
must be demented to expose her whole family to humans. She probably hadn't heard
about guns. Then we concluded that she was probably driven by hunger to be bold.
One day Mike put out a large bone, then watched the mother come out to get it and
take it to her babies. They came running and tumbling down the slope to meet her.
Mike, a professional photographer, walked slowly toward the mother, taking pictures
as he went. Finally, when he was about ten feet away from her she became uneasy and
moved slowly away.
Our foxes, along with their love of dead smelly skunks and snakes, also had what
even we could recognize as gourmet tastes. A fox showed up in our garden, below the
front porch. After some initial sniffing and general exploration, it came to the
strawberry bed. There it proceeded to gulp down strawberries, one after another,
and rapidly. We decided to let our anticipation of eating some of the crop ourselves
outweigh our interest in further observation of the fox's activities. We made ourselves
evident. The fox wandered off, giving off several yapping sounds which were answered
by a second fox which came into view. They left together, with our friend describing
in glowing terms the feast he had just had from our garden.
We have also seen foxes eating our blueberries. At least they were neat and discriminating
about it. By contrast the chipmunks jumped and swatted at the blueberries, knocking
them down, ripe and unripe as well. The foxes stood up to reach for ripe peaches
and plums. One night when our plum tree had ripened its crop to its delicious best,
the plums all disappeared, leaving not even pits as evidence. Based upon circumstantial
evidence, we convicted the foxes, who are good climbers, but we never carried out
their punitive sentence.
We have seen a groundhog in a tree, eating grapes.
Our first season we collected quite a large batch of black walnuts, which we stored
temporarily, in their hulls, in the loft where we slept. The loft then was the only
part of the house we could keep dry. Because the squirrels, along with many other
animals, had ready access to the house, we placed the walnuts in ten-quart pails,
which we suspended by wires from the rafters. While we were away for a few days the
nuts disappeared. The hulls and resulting walnut stains were scattered abundantly
over the house. It seemed that the squirrels must have traversed the undersides of
the rafters out to the pails, climbed down the suspending wires, climbed back up
the wires carrying the nuts, retraced their steps upside down across the rafters,
and repeated the process until all the nuts had been removed. Or, did one of them,
a particularly good climber, make the trip and throw the walnuts down to the others?
Before the house was made tight we had no choice but to share it with the animals.
At night, pack rats played acrobatic games, making long leaps through space from
one wall to another, completely ignoring the flashlight beams we shone on them. They
carried away to their nests under the floor any shiny items we carelessly left out,
including toothbrushes and paring knives. Roger A. Caras, in his book, North American
Mammals, states that pack rats (or wood rats, or trade rats, as they are also called)
"are probably just about the nicest rats in the world." It seemed to us
that their primary fault was their gnawing, a trait they share with the other rodents.
Because a rat's teeth grow continuously, he must gnaw to keep the length of his teeth
under control. Many of the old boards in the cabin had been substantially chewed.
One morning Barbara picked up the leather handles to her purse which she had left
by the side of the mattress on which we were sleeping. The purse didn't follow. During
the night the handles had been neatly severed, as if by a knife, at the point of
attachment to the purse. Once, during the night I shone the flashlight on a rat playing
on the floor. Barbara picked up a block of two-by- four and threw it, making a direct
hit, killing the rat outright. I was never able to determine with certainty whether
her feat was the result entirely of skill, or whether perhaps some luck was involved.
There are two kinds of skunk in Virginia, the striped and the spotted. The striped
skunk has a conspicuous white stripe which runs lengthwise over its back, starting
at the nose and extending to the tail where it splits into two stripes with an island
of black between. The spotted skunk is predominantly black with some white spots.
The spotted skunk is much smaller, its weight being perhaps a third to a fifth that
of the striped. Both varieties have the ability to spray accurately a nauseous musk
from jets located at the anus. This ability constitutes almost the ultimate weapon,
which fortunately skunks are reluctant to use. Caras states that skunks "find
it so hard to believe that anything will really challenge their right of way that
they fall victim to automobiles by the tens of thousands every year." He also
says, "although no one has ever died of it, a great many people have thought
they were about to. As with seasickness, most victims regret the news that they will
Our most extensive acquaintance with a striped skunk was with Josie, six months old,
who had been deprived of her smell by an operation. Josie was a pet, belonging to
our son, Bruce. The word, belonging, should probably be questioned. Josie appeared
to consider herself a free and independent spirit, who just happened to have an outsize
servant who fed her and played with her, and occasionally tried to limit the free
exercise of her impulses.
Josie graced us with her visit for ten days during the Christmas holidays. After
an initial period of shyness in the new surroundings she proceeded to make herself
at home. She made a thorough search of all the house to which she could gain access.
Despite her companionship with people, and her lack of any contact with others of
her kind, Josie maintained a nocturnal habit. During the day she slept in a cabinet,
upstairs in the dark room, which she found for herself during her search. She opened
the cabinet door, lying on her back, working her claws behind the edge of the door,
and pulling. She took in with her any pieces of paper and cloth which could be used
for a nest and pulled the door shut behind her. Some comfrey leaves stored in the
cabinet were tried and found palatable. What she did not eat she thoroughly shredded.
During the night, when Josie was active, soft noises came from inside her cabinet
as she had a snack on her puppy food or tore up more newspapers to improve her nest.
In the evening Josie awakened and came downstairs to visit with us and to explore
the living area, sniffing in all the corners of the rooms. As she walked she waddled
with the jerky motion of a mechanical toy. But when she ran she became grace itself,
and speed all stretched out into a line, her sharp nose extended to the front, and
her long tail stretched out behind like a regal train. Occasionally she took a notion
to go back upstairs to her private den in the cabinet, and before anyone realized
her intent, she had streaked out of the living room, through the dining room at high
speed, and was humping her way up the stairs, apparently enjoying the chase, with
Bruce in pursuit.
Josie appeared to enjoy war games, played on her terms. Bruce, on hands and knees,
dashed at her slapping his hands loudly on the floor and hissing. Josie's elongated
stance shortened, so that she looked square, with her tail up in the air like a plume.
She stamped her front feet and hissed back. Whether, if she still had her ultimate
weapon, she would have used it in the game we don't know. Finding out would appear
to involve an undue devotion to the spirit of science. When this game was over, Bruce
and Josie played a different kind, in which Josie explored his pockets and sleeves,
nibbled on his ears, or bit his hands gently while she was on her back having her
stomach tickled. Finally, while Bruce read, Josie went to sleep in his lap. Wild
skunks, in games among themselves, give off small blasts of their powerful perfume,
as a man with a gun might shoot over the head of a potential adversary, in warning.
On Cabinhill Tree Farm we have seen a female striped skunk, like Josie, walking along,
looking very queenly with her tail extended to its full length to cover her three
babies moving along beneath its spread. I should explain that the gender of the adult
skunk in the procession was surmised, not verified by direct observation.
Mostly, on the farm, we saw spotted skunks, lots of them. We became aware of spotted
skunks right after we had acquired the farm. Barbara was sitting in the doorway of
the cabin lean-to. I saw behind her a spotted skunk, about three feet away, where
the floor had once been. It was going unconcernedly about its business, digging in
the dirt for food.
Because, at first, the roof of the cabin was gone we lived weekends in the lean-to,
whose roof we had patched temporarily, but sufficiently to keep out the rain. The
animals continued in residence, largely disdaining to notice our presence. We slept
on a mattress on boards with which we spanned the rafters to which we climbed with
an aluminum stepladder, our "silver staircase."
Spotted skunks are accomplished climbers. Because of their small size they can squeeze
through quite small holes to get to where they want to be. We awoke one night in
our loft to the sound of scratching within the wall by our bed. The flashlight showed
the black nose of a spotted skunk appearing through a hole in the flooring. Because
we had not yet met Josie we weren't aware what fine pets skunks made, and weren't
as welcoming as we were later to Josie. I pushed down on the black nose while Barbara
got a board with which to cover the hole.
One night we were awakened by the sounds of scraping and fussing. The flashlight
showed a spotted skunk struggling with a piece of cheese weighing somewhat more than
a pound which we had left on the table. The cheese, still in its store wrapper, had
been dragged to a hole in the floor, perhaps two inches square. The skunk tried valiantly
to pull the cheese through the hole, then gave up and disappeared.
Later Mike was sleeping in the main cabin, which now had a roof to keep out the weather.
It also had a door between the cabin and the lean-to, but so far no latch on the
door. While he slept inside, Mike blocked the door in the closed position by setting
a two-gallon ceramic crock against it. One night we were awakened by the sound of
scratching and hissing, and what sounded like cussing in skunk language. My light
from the loft showed a spotted skunk trying to open the door into Mike's room, without
success. Later Mike got up and went outside to take care of a physiological need,
leaving the door open. He returned, closed the door, set the crock against it, and
got back into bed. The noise and cussing started again. This time my light showed
nothing. Mike's, to his consternation, showed the skunk now in the room with him,
and wanting to get out. What could Mike do to rescue himself from his plight? For
want of a better idea he stayed in bed, watching the skunk work out its own solution,
wedging its nose and claws into the space behind the door and forcing it open against
the weight of the sliding crock.
Finally it appeared we had plugged all the holes through which skunks could enter
the house. They were now confined to the crawl space under the house, where they
contented themselves with pulling out the glass wool insulation we had stapled under
the floor, and carrying it off to make nests. One skunk even made a nest within the
layers of the glass wool blanket suspended below the floor. From there he scolded
me when I came too close for his feeling of security. We wondered about the itching
powder effects of this terrible material in their nests, but the skunks never asked
us for our opinions.
Bruce called from Philadelphia to say that he would like me to accompany him on an
overnight hike from the farm. We would climb the fire trail across Oventop Mountain,
spending the night at Pass Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail, and return
the next day by a route over Mary's Rock and then down the old Hazel Road. The April
day, when we started, was blustery and cold, with sleet whipping across the mountain
When we arrived at Pass Mountain Shelter a group of young men were already camped
there, with a campfire. The shelter, called a "Byrd's Nest," after Senator
Harry Byrd, was open on one side. The three closed sides were lined with primitive
bunks, stacked one atop another. We ate, picked out two bunks, spread out sleeping
bags, and gratefully settled into them against the cold, I with my leather helmet
on, with earmuffs over my ears. The young men spent some time arranging their food
along the high timbers of the shelter, where "it will be safe from animals."
Everyone then quickly settled in for the night.
Sometime later I woke, conscious of weight on my head, which moved. I became aware
that an animal was standing on my head, trying to gain entry into my Kelty pack,
which contained food, and which I had set by the head of my bunk for safekeeping.
I stayed quiet until the animal moved away. My flashlight picked up a spotted skunk
climbing the ladder to Bruce's bed, leaning its back against the wall to negotiate
the rungs with its feet.
I woke the others and warned them to make no sudden moves. The skunk climbed to the
high timbers where the young men had stored their food and proceeded to open and
explore all the packages. Now several flashlights were following every move.
"There goes Aunt Grace's cake."
"Yes, but don't try to do anything about it."
"I'm sure not going to do anything."
All open packs were explored, a head disappearing into the pack followed by the tail,
then appearing again from the opposite side of the pack in the same order. Finally
our visitor disappeared outside the shelter. We could hear at least two skunks hissing
and scolding as they apparently fought over some scraps of food. Occasional whiffs
of essence of skunk were wafted to us inside the shelter.
Next morning Bruce and I left the shelter early, taking the trail down to the South
Fork of the Thornton River. Beaver dams blocked our passage across the river. We
took a long detour along the river, past the discarded products of our technological
age: refrigerators, washing machines, bed springs, automobile parts and tires, gracing
the river as it left Shenandoah Park.
I have had to conclude that skunks are very polite. They warn that they have reached
the limits of their patience by hissing and snarling, by elevating their tails, and
by stamping their front feet. In all our experience with them they never used their
awesome weapon against us. On one occasion I caught a spotted skunk in a Havahart
trap which I had set in the barn for mice. How to get it out? Using a long pole through
the handle, I lifted the trap, carried it out of the barn, and released the skunk.
When it left the open trap, it waddled slowly back into the barn, paying me no heed,
as if it knew I had learned my lesson, and would never again do anything so silly.
Our esteemed elderly country neighbor, Dolan Jenkins, was bitten on his hand by a
copperhead as he reached over a bale of hay to pick it up. He spent some time in
the hospital, during which time he was very ill. He lost part of the use of his hand,
which remained painful for a long time.
When President Hoover was working so assiduously to put "a chicken in every
pot and a car in every garage" he needed a place away from Washington to relax.
A location was chosen in the Appalachians perhaps fifteen miles south of Sperryville,
later known as the Hoover Camp. During the investigations leading to the choice of
the site many questions were asked of the local mountain people to assure that there
were no hidden dangers to the President. They asked about rattlesnakes, and were
told that there weren't many. Apparently the question of copperheads wasn't asked.
After acceptance of the site it became obvious that copperheads were everywhere.
Pigs were turned loose to eat the snakes and reduce their number. It is claimed that
their fatty layer absorbs snake venom without damage, so that pigs are able to consider
rattlesnakes and copperheads as food. There are still feral pigs in the mountains
which are said to be left over from the Hoover camp. There are also still rattlesnakes,
and especially there are still copperheads.
Many of our country neighbors had a completely unreasoning fear and hatred of all
snakes. One day we saw our neighbor, Mutt Atkins, beating to death a large blacksnake
in the middle of the road. We tried to tell him that they were not poisonous, and
that they performed the useful function of eating mice. He informed us that you couldn't
depend on their not being poisonous - they interbred with the copperheads and rattlesnakes,
and that some of the hybrids were poisonous. That statement raises some interesting
evolutionary questions about interbreeding. Among other differences between the species,
all non-poisonous snakes in Virginia lay eggs in a pile of sawdust or compost, or
in soft dirt, where the eggs are left to be hatched out by the sun's warmth. The
poisonous rattlesnakes and copperheads are called pit vipers because of a heat sensing
device just below the eye by which they are enabled to strike more or less accurately
at the warm blooded animals which are their food. They are viviparous, which means
that they bear their young live, and "armed to the teeth" with the poison
in their hinged fangs.
I knew that there were poisonous snakes in Virginia, as there were reported to be
in New Jersey. Growing up in New Jersey I had never seen a poisonous snake, but my
mother would say when I went out into the woods, "Watch out for snakes."
In Virginia I didn't think much about snakes until I acquired first-hand knowledge.
One hot day during our first summer at Cabinhill I had been clearing an area of the
nearest meadow to the west of the cabin. I found an apple tree, with apples not yet
ripe, which I wanted to show to Barbara. By this time it was beginning to be dark,
so we were hurrying, I ahead and she following. Suddenly I was aware of a motion
in the grass, and for some reason knew immediately what it was. I jumped, swearing
as I went, and felt the head of the snake strike a glancing blow on my pant leg.
The snake coiled and struck again, but by this time I was out of its range. Barbara
brought a stick, with which I killed the snake. It was a copperhead, about thirty
inches long, an average size for an adult, with hinged fangs about three eighths
of an inch long.
Later Bruce sent me a clipping which reported some tests of the efficacy of pit vipers
in hunting their prey. It was reported that in about seventy percent of their strikes
they missed their moving targets. I felt fortunate to be among the seventy percent,
and resolved to be more careful about putting hands or feet into places I couldn't
An adult person, if healthy, is generally not killed by a bite from either a timber
rattler or a copperhead, but it is a painful experience. A young friend, Chris Bird,
was bitten on a finger by a copperhead, and had lost the ability to control the affected
joint of the finger. Chris had been loath to kill any of God's creatures with which
he shared the earth, a sentiment with which I generally agree. When he found a poisonous
snake near his house he would take it to a more remote area and release it unharmed.
This particular copperhead he had "milked" of its venom the night before.
In the morning he caught it in the approved fashion with a forked stick, grabbed
it in his hand behind the head, and picked it up. Somehow the snake wriggled around
enough to get one fang into his finger. Later, when I asked Chris whether the experience
had changed his attitude toward poisonous snakes as fellow residents on his farm,
he replied, "Yes indeed. I've been down that road now," and pointed out
that he now carried a revolver in a holster whenever he went out on his farm during
Later Chris' father, Lee Bird, was bitten on the hand by a copperhead while he was
weeding his garden. He had a severe reaction to the antivenin which was administered,
and then heart palpitations from the antidote to the antivenin.
During our stay at Cabinhill we killed three or four rattlers and quite a few copperheads
in areas we considered "too close to home" for our safety and that of our
grandchildren. One day Barbara pointed out a copperhead just off our porch. I went
to kill it, and was surprised when Barbara asked me where I was going. I replied,
"to kill the copperhead." "But that isn't the one I saw." So
next I killed that one. Now I saw another. Barbara saw one against the stone wall
below the porch. Then I saw one in a niche in the stone wall under the porch, about
head high. That one, as a safety precaution, I dispatched with the old shotgun which
we had inherited from Barbara's father. We were feeling glad that at least the house
was now animal proof. But later Barbara watched in horror as a copperhead crawled
into one of my boots standing in the laundry room. It had found a hole under the
screen door. That day we killed altogether eight copperheads in the immediate vicinity
of the house. We felt under siege.
Copperheads are generally lethargic. They will not attack unless they feel threatened.
The danger is that a surprised copperhead thinks it has been threatened. There is
a saying, "More people are killed by dead snakes that by live ones." It
is claimed that a severed head will bite at a warm object brought into its vicinity
soon after the snake has been killed.
An elderly woman acquaintance found a copperhead under her porch. Being alone, she
killed the snake with a shovel rather than let it go. She remarked after her experience,
"If you see the snake first, it is completely helpless. The danger is that the
next time you might not see it first."
I leave the subject of animals here with the thought that the reader is free to decide
which animals on our "animal farm" were "more equal" than the
OUR NEIGHBOR, John Dodson
John and Pearl Dodson were our country neighbors on the farm next to ours. They were
mountain people who had owned their farm before the time Shenandoah National Park
was formed in 1935. The upper part of their farm had been acquired by the Park by
condemnation, for $0.50 an acre, the Dodsons told us. They were so mad about it that
they never went to collect the money. Mrs. Dodson told us, "It's still sitting
there somewhere, I guess." Unlike our farm which had been abandoned and had
become overgrown, theirs was still largely cleared, except for a strip at the top,
next to the Park. The signs of neglect were accumulating, with patches of ailanthus
trees covered with honeysuckle. Their orchard had been abandoned, though they talked
of renewing it. Above their farm buildings was a collection of old cars and trucks
which, having become too tired and decrepit to leave the farm, were now part of the
panoramic view available from various strategic points in the Park.
The Dodsons were elderly, meaning that they were older than we were. I thought they
appeared worn down, Pearl with hard work and raising a large family, and having a
hard husband, John with hard work, hard drinking, and a hard attitude toward life.
Pearl Dodson seemed to us a sweet person, always friendly and hospitable. She was
a great gardener, raising a good part of all the food they ate, canning and freezing
it for use in winter.
The Dodsons had several children, of whom all but Netus had left home and had their
own families. Netus was the unmarried son who had stayed home. One day Netus told
me that he would like to inherit his dad's farm, on which he had done a great amount
of unpaid labor. His father, however, thought it would be unfair to the family for
him to take special care of Netus, so he never made a will. Netus moved out, got
married, and settled down to family life on his own farm.
An old road, abandoned until we cleared it out, went about six-tenths of a mile from
our house west to the Dodson's boundary. Occasionally we would see children, who
were visiting "Grandma". They'd come riding their motor scooters across
the old road to our house. Because our road was private, they didn't need driver's
licenses, for which they were still too young. Pearl Dodson had wanted a telephone,
but her neighbors to the south were unwilling to grant the telephone company a right-of-