The bottom corner

I am trying in secret to set the field on fire. It’s going to rain. I crouch down with an old book of matches I found among my grandmother’s things. The head of the first match I try crumbles into white sand against the strike pad. The second, drier, pops and flares into life. I hold the flame against the wiry blond curls of dried grass and it catches, races up one blade and down another. A thin pencil of smoke. My brother spots it and comes running over. “What are you doing?” I tear another match from the book, and another. The first fat drops begin to fall.


That was a dream, but it got me reminiscing all the same. There were wild dogs on the mountain back then. The one we called the Red Dog whelped a litter in an old woodchuck den down in that same corner of the field, and then abandoned them when they were half-grown. She never seemed quite right in the head, and some of her pups didn’t, either. We tamed them one by one, running them down in the long grass and when we caught them, petting them for hours and crooning words of endearment. I remember the beagle-looking one I frightened so badly he pissed himself, so that forever after he would urinate wildly whenever he was excited, until the family that adopted him finally took him to the pound. The one my brother Mark befriended developed a taste for chickens and had to be shot. That’s a hard thing for a 4-year-old kid to take, especially one with two domineering older brothers and no close neighbors. He said later it bothered him for years.


Early on, my parents wanted to have a pond down in that corner of the field, but the contractor decided it wasn’t clayey enough to hold water and left us with just the test holes. One of them quickly silted in, but the other was next to a spring and remained filled for much of the year — the pond, we called it, though it was barely more than a puddle. A few times we brought a microscope down and spent hours peering at algae and microorganisms. And every March during wood frog mating season we’d sit motionless beside the pond for hours, listening to the strange chorus of quacking calls and watching the orgiastic pile-ons whenever a female showed up. It was an education.


Once when we were teenagers, Mark and I went down into that part of the field with every book about wildflowers, weeds, grasses and sedges that we could lay our hands on, trying to attach a name to everything we found. We almost succeeded.

You must understand: we didn’t have television.

That section of the field hasn’t been plowed now in probably 40 years, and it hasn’t been mowed in over 30. Some catalpa trees have seeded in, and a few black locust, but other than that, the over-abundant deer have prevented trees and brush from taking over. We planted some white pine seedlings about ten years ago, but the deer got those, too.

Down under the grass and goldenrod, a thick carpet of moss has built up over the years, dotted with clumps of ebony spleenwort and cutleaf grape ferns; you sink in with every step. It’s nothing like walking in a pasture or a plowed field. This is the kind of spot that can haunt your dreams.

5 Replies to “The bottom corner”

  1. Great reflections, Dave. Reminded me of my brother and me in the Arkansas Ozarks when we were kids. We also seemed to spend a lot of time trying to overlap our lives with the lives of frogs–sometimes to the extreme prejudice of the frogs.

  2. Dave, thank you for these rememberances. I grew up in a small city so the one that resonated the most with me was the one about wild dogs. There were dogs all over the place. No leash laws back then.

  3. I’d like to see your spot with the ebony spleenwort and cutleaf grape ferns – both rather rare and local around central NY, but the spots where I’ve seen them rank right up there in my special places index.

    How I wish more kids had grown up this way.

  4. Brett – I can honestly say we never did any bodily harm to frogs. We had pigs and chickens to mess with.

    Fred – I don’t know whty there were so many dogs running loose back then. Hunters shot them all the time. In fact, we lost a couple of our own dogs that way. So how they managed to survive on their own for any length of time is a mystery to me.

    beth – Those are both fairly common ferns here. But of course we are farther south.

    Richard – Well, it had its downside, too. For one, we found it very hard to fit in at school. I missed out on a lot of that early socialization stuff that you can only really learn from growing up in a neighborhood or village.

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