Thursday, May 25, 2017

Spring Unfurled

The peas have pushed through the dirt of the garden box in the side yard – the first vegetable sprouts of the season. For a couple of days, I wondered if the planted seeds had drowned in last week’s thunderous deluge of mid-summer-like rain. But Monday morning, there they were: tiny and green and full of promise.

Last week’s heat also inspired leaves, which had been tucked tight against May’s lingering wet and chill, to unfurl into the sunshine that followed the rain. Suddenly, lilac bushes and maple trees and ferns and innumerable other growing things were full and lush.

In a matter of two days, the blossoms of our unruly apple trees popped into an array of pink and white. On cue, the lilacs have followed, infusing subtly-varied hues of purple into the landscape and permeating the air with their sweet, heady scent. The perennials in the front garden seem an inch or two higher every day, as do the lupine stalks in the fields.

I love this phase of spring, when winter’s chill is faded to memory, the light is long and brightening, and the warmth and color hold the happy promise of impending summer.

It is also a time when I feel, finally, that I am progressing in my gardening endeavors. The soil – at least some of it – has been turned. Weeds – a few, anyway – have been pulled. The vegetable garden – slowly, yes, but surely – is starting to take shape as I decide which favorites will be planted where this year.

I am a distracted gardener, so I often start with one task and get pulled toward another before I’m finished with the first. No matter, there is always plenty to do in the garden.

I tend to start with the perennial bed, where the weeds are consistently plentiful. It dries out before the vegetable garden, and it seems a good place to start as the days begin to warm. Often I start with the intention of spending a few minutes there and stay much longer, both inspired by the progress being made and distressed at how much more there is to do. Sometimes the kids join in the weed eradication efforts, gleefully seeking the long roots of dandelions and other persistent invaders against whom I have no grudge other than where they’ve decided to grow.

But before I get through weeding around the astilbe and lady’s mantle, before I have separated the moonbeam coreopsis from where it has overreached its boundaries and tangled with the Stella D’oro lilies, before I have tried to contain all the patches of black-eyed Susans and split (with an ax, because a shovel simply won’t do it) the spreading masses of flag iris – the vegetable plot has dried out, and I leave the high-maintenance flowers for the useful seeds of carrots and cucumbers, leafy greens and bush beans, potato eyes and squash mounds.

Bit by bit, I’ve been preparing the big garden out back, repairing the fence to keep the overgrown puppy out of the compost (she loves broccoli stumps, no matter how far decayed they are), pulling out the long-rooted grass that creeps in around the edges, picking rocks from the soil, tilling it all by hand – one row at a time.

No matter how many seeds I plant, it always seems like magic to me – that a tiny seed can sprout and push through dirt to grow, flower, and become food – or simply a thing of beauty. No matter how many times I watch spring emerge from winter and evolve toward summer, that process, too, holds wonder.

Everywhere now – in the vegetable gardens and flower beds, in the fields and along the roadsides, on treetops and up mountain trails – new sprouts emerge each day, small promises unfurled to spring sunshine, ready to grow.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May , 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Spring

Lately we have been collecting our drinking water from a popular roadside spring a few miles from home. For years, I’ve seen cars pulled over along Old Franconia Road, as people collect the water that flows from the spring through a simple plastic pipe and into a steel catch basin below.

We have our own spring at home, and until a few months ago it provided perfectly good water. When we had to replace our old, rusting out water line last fall, the digging around the springhouse disrupted the natural filtration system somehow, and now our water, while likely safe to drink, tastes – and smells – awful.

Not so at the Old Franconia Road spring, from which flows “the best tasting water around,” according to several folks I’ve met while refilling water jugs there.

The spring is owned by Wilman Gadwah, who lives just up the road. If you’ve ever traveled the Old Franconia Road – also called Gilmanton Hill Road – you’ve likely seen Wilman out on his John Deere tractor, working at sugaring or maintaining the meandering stone walls he’s built there over the last four decades or so.

When I called to ask Wilman about the spring, I got a brief history of the neighborhood and how he came to own this local watering hole.

He recalled that one winter, in the mid-1980s, one of the main lines for Bethlehem’s municipal water system froze, affecting the flow of town water. More people started coming to the spring, and the water was tested. Though it was, even then, declared to be fine-tasting water, testing indicated it was contaminated.

At that time, an elderly woman named Mrs. Hatt owned the spring. Her parents, the Becks, had established the Seven Springs Estate, where the White Mountain School is now, and she lived just down the road from the spring. She hired a couple of local men to replace the old tank in the spring in an attempt to clear the water, but it still tested poorly.

Wilman happened to be out building a stone wall when Mrs. Hatt walked down the road one day. She voiced her disappointment at the state of the spring – at least the state of the tests showing the water was contaminated. Wilman suggested the water was just fine, and the spring simply needed to be properly cleaned out and covered. She told him if he could figure out how to fix the problem, she’d deed the spring and about an acre of property surrounding it to him. He did, and a few weeks later, the deed arrived in his mailbox.

He’s been taking care of the spring ever since, mainly for the benefit of the innumerable folks who stop by to fill up – some 200-300 each day by one neighbor’s count.

“I don’t get anything out of it, other than cleaning the trash that people throw out constantly,” he told me. “It’s just one of those things that should be there for people to enjoy it. I don’t think you can have any cleaner water than what you have right there.”

He figures people have been drinking from the spring for well over 100 years. Back in the days when stagecoaches transported passengers from remote stations to their ultimate destinations, there was a barn near the spring, and coach drivers would stop to change and water their horses there.

Robert Peckett, the proprietor of the grand inn Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill, used to water his horses there en route to and from the train station in Littleton, where he collected hotel guests. Mr. Peckett was friendly with the Becks, and he provided a large cast iron basin – from the old Franconia Iron Works – to place under the spring and serve as a drinking trough.

Wilman remembers having to reinstall that basin a few times, after presumably drunken pranksters upended it into the road late at night. Eventually, someone blew it up with a pipe bomb, apparently just for kicks. Wilman still has the pieces of the original basin, and he’s thought about building a stone foundation and fitting them back under the outlet pipe of the spring. For now, though, the steel catch basin works just fine.

And the water tastes fine, too.

When I posted on social media about the spring, before I spoke with Wilman or knew he owned the spring, several people responded. They’ve been visiting that spring for decades, or remember the joy of stopping there as children to fill bottles on hot summer days, or they use it as a welcome watering hole on bike rides or runs along Old Franconia Road.

People stop at the spring with small water bottles or larger jugs, even 5-gallon buckets to fill and bring home. I’ve heard a local brewery uses the water from the spring, presumably to make its beer as tasty as possible.

Wilman figures the spring has been running here since the last Ice Age. People – and their horses – have likely been drinking from it for a couple of centuries. He’s maintained the spring for more than 30 years and will pass it on to his son for future safekeeping. Why?

On this road lined with stone walls and paved in history, the spring is a pleasant marker of consistency in an ever-changing world. As Wilman says, “It’s just a thing that shouldn’t disappear.”

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 12, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.