Friday, February 1, 2008

Reading the Land

Walking the land in winter I’m intrigued by the marks that humans have made over the decades. Being able to go off trail and bushwhack without the fear of ticks and poison ivy make exploring a bit easier this time of year. It’s possible to really read the land and see what’s hidden when all the undergrowth is down. The other day I walked downstream, something I’ve always wanted to do, went all the way to highway 54. It was about 3 miles each way- I was tired when I got home.

The thing that precipitated this adventure was a talk given on the grist mills of Morgan and Bolin Creeks at the Chapel Hill Historical Society on Sunday. One of the guest speakers was Mark Chilton, who happens to be the mayor of Carrboro and has been doing research and writing a book on the history of the Haw River watershed including the mills in the area. Mark talked about how the mills were built at places along the creeks and rivers where there was a drop in the land. He said in the 1800’s people didn’t use the word rapid but rather described those places as “powers”, they recognized the energy waiting to be harnessed in those places of rushing water. There were at least six mills on Morgan Creek and one of them was close to our place, so I went down stream to try and find it, and I did.


All that’s really left is the remains of a rock and earth dam that formed the mill pond back in the 1880’s. It was clear to me from pictures of other mills that this is what I was looking at, and that the dry stream bed above the dam was the mill’s head race where water was diverted from the creek to fill the mill pond. Now an electric power easement crosses the creek just below the place where the mill once stood and I could see no evidence of any building or mill parts, probably all removed in floods over the last century or by the power company when they cleared the power line.
(All thats left of the mill dam)

Further upstream I noticed the evidence of either an earlier oxbow of the creek or perhaps an old road or both. In the winter landscape these things pop out like they never would amidst the greenery of summer. Our land is criss-crossed with old roads from days of logging and farming, no telling how old these roads are but I think some may date as far back as the 18th century. There are also lots of washes that are now fern lined, I can only imagine what they looked like 100 years ago after all the trees were cut down and the gullies would fill with red muddy water every time it rained, eroding soil from the fields and carving trenches deeper and deeper into the earth.


There is an old cabin chimney off another edge of the property that has always intrigued me. I’m guessing it was destroyed by fire, the base of the main fireplace is massive, made of native stone, the very top was extended with brick, and there is a tiny fireplace where the second floor would have been. I am eager to do some archaeology of this site, poking around the other day I found some broken pieces from a porcelain dish, I could still make out a green and violet floral design, the edges grey from burn or perhaps from age I don’t know. Did some pioneer woman pack them in her trunk and carry them in a wagon from the North- or even across the ocean from England or Ireland? Pine needles pile several feet deep in the fireplace and over the base of what was once the cabin floor, but I think of taking some tools up there and burrowing down into those needles to see what I might find below.
(Old road or old creek bed or both?)

There are old dumps in the forest too; I worry sometimes, how many bottles of chemicals and farm fertilizers were piled in these old dumps and left to seep slowly down into the water table, possibly contaminating our wells in the next 100 years. What is the speed of hydrology in our area, how long does it take for surface water to reach the aquifers underground?

On the rare occasion that it snows, there are areas where I can still see the furrows from 20 or 30 years ago rolling across the land like swells on the ocean, tall trees now growing up out of them, they were never pushed smooth after the last crop was harvested. I wonder- who harvested that last crop? How many years ago was that? Who traveled the old roads that are worn deep into the landscape, did cars ride those roads or are they from earlier horse and buggy, or covered wagon times?


I’m doing some research when I have time and mostly just walking for hours around the land to see what I can see before spring covers everything again in her green cloak. I sent in a seed order today, will plant peas this weekend and onion sets are coming in a couple of weeks- it won’t be long now before I’m absorbed in gardening again and woodland walks will be about wildflowers and migrating birds. Until then, I hope to do some more backwoods exploration and see what I might discover that I haven’t seen or noticed before.
(Dry wash gully that crosses our yard)

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Oooh. OK, I'll plant my peas this weekend too. I can't believe it's time already!