Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Glowing fireplace rekindles memories of days gone by

By STACEY COLE December 16. 2016 7:56PM
A warm fireplace on a cold winter evening offers a fitting location for some quiet moments of contemplation. (Metro Creative Connection)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally printed in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2009.

ON WINTER evenings, after darkness has settled into our valley and the bustle of the day has ceased, I like to spend some quiet moments sitting before the big kitchen fireplace. How pleasant it is to watch the bluish, whitetipped flames curl upward from under a good-sized rock maple log to join the yellow-orange blaze from the soft wood kindling. The faint wisps of wood smoke that have spilled surreptitiously into the room lend a delicate tang to the evening air.

Mesmerized by the flames and their crackling sounds, my mind frequently wanders to days gone by. And, when Christmas Eve is with us, reminiscences of going to Oak Hill with my Grandfather Cole in search of “a Christmas tree for Grandmother” frequently have come to mind.

I did so enjoy going to the hill when it was just Gramp and me. He was a spare and energetic man, constantly busy, and when we went to Oak Hill he seemed always to be in a particular hurry. He couldn’t wait to begin whatever things that continually needed doing. In spring, it was the pasture fence that needed fixing. In summer, stray cattle had to be looked for — those that had found a weak place in the fence or hadn’t shown up with the others at Sunday morning salting time. In fall, after a heavy wind storm, we hastily perambulated the fence line to make any needed repairs.

Gramp’s attitude was different, though, when we went after Grandmother’s Christmas tree. He wanted to please her and gave no appearance of caring how long it might take.

My mind drifts back into those long-ago days. I remember my grandfather as a most unusual man. He could call by name all of the trees and wild flowers beside our path and the animals that scurried across it. He could tell when it was going to storm and when it would be clear. He could tell what bird was singing and where it might locate its nest. He knew when the hay was ready to make and when silage corn was ready to cut. He could fix broken things and make new things. I used to wonder how he knew so much and, truth to tell, I still do.

It’s hard to beat the oldtimers when it comes to just plain knowing.

Oak Hill begins in the valley beside the river and rises until it becomes the height of land. Open pasture lay at its feet but the rest of the hill was timbered, mostly with white pine, hemlock, maple, ash and red oak. At the summit great oak trees stood. It was from these that the hill had gained its name.

Winter or summer, whenever we visited Oak Hill, Grandfather stopped at the pasture spring. The water, ice-cold even on the hottest summer day, bubbled up and splashed its way through alder thickets on its way to the river.

Near the high ground was a wetland area where balsam and spruce trees grew. Climbing the hill, we’d pass beneath wild apple trees and see where deer had pawed the snow away to get at the frozen fruit. Grandfather used to point to things like where a partridge had roosted the night before. He’d show me the thorn apple trees where the birds had fed on red, dried apples. Now and again a rabbit would start from under a brush heap and pound over frozen ground in search of a safer hide. I especially enjoyed arriving at the railroad bed that bisected the hill. I liked to walk the ties and balance upon the rails. Both were removed years ago.

At the swampy area where the Christmas trees grew, Grandfather always would say: “Pick out the one you think Grandmother would like, boy.”

As I stood and searched with an eager but unacquainted eye, he was ready with a hint or two as to what to look for when selecting Grandmother’s tree. When the tree was finally selected, Grandfather swung the ax. It bit heavily into the tree, and it was soon down. How proud I was to help drag the tree. On the way back to the wagon we’d stop and gather princess pine and hemlock boughs for decorations around window boxes and to drape beside the front door.

A trip with Grandfather for the Christmas tree was an exhilarating adventure and one that has created marvelous memories. Oak Hill is mine now. Today the open pasture is closed mostly by poplars and gray and white birch. Early harvested hardwoods begat sprouts that are now nearly full-grown and ready to be harvested. The spruce and balsam have disappeared from the upper wetlands. There is an occasional trace of a first-growth oak stump now hidden beneath a hardwood canopy. The pasture spring, though, can still be found — its sweet water, still a delight to the taste.

Dying fireplace embers and fading remembrances announce it is time to give the fire one last poke before locking up for the night.

Merry Christmas to all!

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see re-printed, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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